I remember the moment I opened the email that held within its deceptively simple pixilated words the phrase “contract offer.” I squealed like a little girl who just won the biggest, fluffiest, pinkest stuffed pony at the circus midway. Moments of suspense passed heavily for my boyfriend, who could not understand the meaning behind my squealing. “Is everyone okay? Is it bad news? Are you all right? Do you need the Heimlich? How many fingers am I holding up?” He tried everything until I calmed down enough to explain I’d just been offered a contract to publish my first novel.
On the heels of his warm congratulatory hug came a recommendation to have a lawyer review the contract itself. I thought he was nuts. It seemed written in clear enough English, and besides, an “emerging author” like me held no clout for negotiations. Thrilled to pieces that anyone in the business found enough confidence in my work to publish it, I wanted to sign and start planning the release party.
Much as it pains me to write it, my boyfriend was… well, let’s just state it plainly. He was… um, you know, that word that means the opposite of “wrong.”
There. I said it. For the record. He wasn’t exactly wrong.
In the two plus years since that email arrived, I’ve learned a lot about the celebrations and pitfalls of being published by a small press. Mostly, I’m grateful to have landed with a small publisher who is savvy, tenacious, fair, and has a terrific sense of humor. The editors at this house are dedicated and skilled, and the owner takes tremendous pride in publishing high-quality works. As the world of publishing morphs not only day to day, but moment to moment, I wanted to share a few of these lessons learned with those of you who might find yourselves on a similar path. There are no maps out here, but I’ll share a few milestones and route markers to help keep you from veering off a cliff.
Three Things to Love About a Small Press
Accessibility.I can email the owner of my publishing house – and I did, just last month. My local paper wanted to run an article on e-publishing, featuring me and my books. As the reporter put the finishing touches on the piece, her editor asked her to interview someone “from the business side” of the endeavor. I emailed the owner, she responded that day, and her contribution meant the article ran the same week my book was released.
Community.The authors of this small publishing house involve themselves in an online community that serves as a sounding board, advice purveyor, and collaboration framework. Because we connect with one another, more experienced authors reach out to newbies and offer helping hands. Problems with promotion and marketing can be hashed out with help. The folks who’ve been around for a while make opportunities for newer authors to guest blog or participate in blog hops. Worthy advice comes from this sense of community, along with sanity-saving moments of “thank goodness I’m not the only one.”
Hands-on Editing. I can’t compare this to a large publisher. I only know that my editor made herself available whenever I had a question or needed a poke in the you-know-what. She didn’t only direct revisions to my manuscript – she helped me understand why she recommended them, and how the story would improve as a result. And, when I stood firm on something for a good reason, she listened. She communicated a sense of being on the side of making my storytelling better, not fitting it to a pre-determined formula. I think she succeeded.
Three Cautionary Notes
Name Recognition. If the name of your publisher carries any weight in the realm of commerce, it’ll be lighter with a small house. Be prepared to offset this with your own marketing and promotion efforts. Which leads me to…
Promotion and Marketing. Authors who have experiences with larger houses say it’s the same anywhere, unless you’re a proven bestseller. But keep in mind that with a small house, you shoulder a lot of responsibility to market and promote your work. The press will do what it can, getting your book in front of reviewers, promoting it on its own website and store. Very likely, though, it won’t have a large budget to spend. You’ll have to be a full partner in promotion, and often you’ll wind up driving the process.
Read Your Contract, Then Have a Lawyer Read It, Then Read It Again
This is also true whether your offer comes from a large, small, or medium house. Read that contract and then have a lawyer read it. Good houses generally offer good contracts, but there might be clauses that aren’t so good for your situation. Look for these things, at minimum: your rights revert to you at a defined point in time, unless the contract is renegotiated and extended; you keep the rights to your characters and worlds/settings (probably with first right of refusal to the publisher for any sequels or series); and any non-compete clauses are reasonable (you can release other works with other houses, or by yourself, as long as they don’t compete unduly with your work published by that house). The contracts I signed had all this good stuff, but these were questions I did not think to ask until the lawyer read it and pointed the clauses out to me. I could easily have signed away my rights in perpetuity, or something equally dire, without that extra level of review and advice.
One Final Thought
If you want your work to find an audience, you’re also looking for the right publishing path. A small press might be the best fit for you. The only way you’ll know for sure, though, is to be clear about your personal goal for your writing. Do you want to share a story that expresses your passion? Are you dying to ignite the imagination of readers? Is your tale one that will be cherished by family, friends, your intimate community? Do you aspire to make a living from your writing? Are you ready to create the next great American novel?
Whatever your answer, know your own mind and heart. Then, when the time comes to decide whether to sign the contract, wait for another offer, self-publish, or use one of the new ‘hybrid’ services, you’ll have your own map to follow.
Elizabeth Fountain left a demanding job as a university administrator in Seattle to move to the small town of Ellensburg, Washington, and pursue her dream of writing novels. Liz started writing in grade school; fortunately, most of her tortured high school poetry and song lyrics are lost to posterity. Her first book, An Alien’s Guide to World Domination, is a tale of people, aliens, and dogs who face the impossible, and do it anyway. Her second novel released in June 2014; You, Jane is a once upon a time story with a twist. Liz has three more novels in progress, along with a smattering of short stories. She takes breaks from writing to teach university courses, spend time with family and friends, and take long walks while leaning into the diabolical Kittitas Valley wind. Liz strives to live according to a line from British singer-songwriter Chris Rea: “Every day, good luck comes in the strangest of ways.” Read more of her work at http://lizfountain.wordpress.com
Jane Margaret Blake’s problem isn’t her drinking. Sure, she’s missing work, and forgetting she’s already fed her cat, who’s getting a little fat. But Jane’s real problem is the reason she drinks: she writes stories that come true and wreak havoc in her life. In her “fables” animals, people, angels, and the Universe itself conspire to destroy Jane’s last chance to be with her old love, or, just maybe, to bring her into the arms of a new love. Years ago, a fable pushed Jane’s best friend Charlie into marrying another woman. Now another fable shoves Charlie’s little boy in front of an angry dog – or worse, a wicked spirit bent on getting Jane and Charlie to face the truths they’ve spent a lifetime avoiding. As her drinking and writing spiral out of control, Jane must finally discover how to write her own happy ending.
You, Jane is available from BURST! Books or on Amazon.