A Guest Blog Post by JoeAnn Hart
In 2004, while still writing my first book, Addled, a novel that pits animal rights against a country club, I won the PEN New England Discovery Award in Fiction. That led to an agent, which led to Addled’s sale to a New York publishing house in 2005. The book business has changed so much since then, it might as well be a different geologic era instead of just a few years, so making comparisons between my experience with a Big House then and at a Small Press now isn’t quite fair. But I’m going to do it anyway.
A Big House has prestige, pull, and distribution – fantastic attributes – but it can be as impersonal as factory farming. Except for some general editorial notes from the editor who bought my book, I was so distanced from Addled’s production that I showed up at the Big House office with my revised manuscript in hand, only to find out it had been delayed a year. No one had told me. During the ensuing wait, my Big House was bought out by a Foreign Big House, so that the week Addled finally launched in 2007, the reorganized company was moving to new offices a few blocks away. Cases of my book held the doors open for them.
Bad timing, but the Big House had already done its due diligence when it came to sending out review copies, including to the few online reviewers operating at the time. Addled had many lovely words said about it, but the best thing they did for Addled, (which has a great cover), was put it on the front of their spring catalog, which might have been the last of their paper catalogs. Unfortunately, a pretty face couldn’t help sales. It was in and out of bookstores in a matter of weeks and it was all over in three months. Addled didn’t do well enough for the Big House to justify buying my next book, a story collection based on real estate ads, even though the editor said she wanted it. Oh well. I had another novel in me and I wrote it. My agent loved Float, which confronts the dangers of plastics in the ocean while still managing to be a comedy, and sent it out. And she sent it out again, and again, then threw in the towel. There was interest, but no one would touch it because of Addled’s sales history. It was over, once again.
I asked my agent if I could send it out to contests, and she said sure (or more precisely, her associate did, into whose care I had been transferred). In the same breath, I also did a regular submission to Ashland Creek, a small press in Oregon that specializes in environmental literature, and they took it. Unlike the Big House, there was no advance, which is usually the case with small presses, but writers get a bigger share of royalties. And more attention. If a Big House is a factory farm, a small press is a petting zoo. The editing was specific and went right to the point, making me think deeply about the interaction between detail and theme. There’s no money to speak of for marketing at a small press, but there wasn’t at the Big House either. I supplied my own jacket photo for both. I wasn’t expecting, nor did I get, a book tour at the Big House, but it was a surprise to find out that the sales reps had to clear readings (they don’t want a lesser author to compete with their best-selling authors), and the answer was either “no” or too late in coming. I’ve been told that Big Houses don’t have sales reps anymore, but readings are still controlled. With Float, I am free to book as many readings or events that will have me. The philosophy about the lifespan of a book is also different at Ashland Creek, and I suspect at other small presses. They expect to sell Float over a period of years, not a single season, and not dismiss it if it doesn’t catch fire right away (read: does not get a NYTBR, which can only happen within three months after release).
As for social media circa 2007, everyone knew potential readers existed out in cyber-land, but no one knew yet quite how to reach them. Now every author, whether with a big house, small press, or self-published, is expected to be fluent in Facebook, Twitter, and Mail Chimp, as well as WordPress for blogging. I have my own website blog which is issues-based, where I write about plastics in the ocean. I also do a more meditative blog for Newfound Journal, an Inquiry of Place, where once a month I ponder on my place here on the coast. Then there is guest blogging, as I am doing right now, and these blogs usually concern the writing life.
Would I have sought out a small press if a Big House had taken me? No. Haven’t I just mentioned prestige, pull, and distribution? Having said that, the lesson I’ve learned is that those fine credentials mean little if there is no enthusiasm behind the book, and enthusiasm is such a delicate thing. Without a hard-core marketing campaign, it could not stay alive during Addled’s long publication delay. Now that I’m with a small press, I know what it’s like to feel that enthusiasm. It does not seem like a lesser option, just a different one. I feel as if we are in it together, and that Ashland Creek loves my book as much as I do. What else but love of the written word could make someone start a book press in this day and age? It’s like taking up falconry. But they, and all the other amazing small presses of the world, might just keep the book industry afloat in these stormy times.
About the Author
JoeAnn Hart is the author of the novels Float and Addled, and her short fiction and essays have been widely published. She lives in Gloucester, Massachusetts, but she can be easily found on Facebook, Twitter and joeannhart.com.