I struck out. I had written a terrific novel. I got a dynamite agent, and … she couldn’t sell my book.

I wasn’t really surprised. The Admirer is a thriller about a serial killer with an amputee fetish. It also contains a lot of lesbian sex. I understood why mainstream publishing did not bite.

“Why don’t you self-publish?” people suggested.

Even my agent suggested it.

“It’s a good book,” she said. “It will make money. It just won’t get in at Random House.”

Self-publishing is a very reasonable option for a lot of writers. Some self-publish and then move to a press. Others, like John Locke, just make millions of dollars as self-published authors.

Nonetheless, self-publishing wasn’t right for me. I am an English professor early in my career (it’s really more like midway through, but I’m optimistic about how long I’ll live). In my profession, you don’t get a line on your resume if you self-publish.

I still believed in the book. I wanted readers to follow beautiful, tormented Helen Ivers into the abandoned asylum pursued by the killer. I wanted readers, so I started exploring small presses.

The asylum

The asylum that inspired The Admirer

Joke: What does a lesbian bring on a first date?

Answer: A U-haul.

That wasn’t true for me and my wife, but it was true for The Admirer. The book was acquired by three small presses, one after the other, in the course of a year. The first two were rather like the relationships I had in college. These weren’t bad people, but we were fundamentally incompatible.

Sapphire Books—the press I finally published with—was, not by coincidence, the first one I submitted to. I had done my research, and I really liked them. However, Press A offered me a contract before Sapphire Books could respond, and I jumped on it. Then, too embarrassed to admit my mistake, I dated Press B until they went out of business.

I probably would not have been bold enough to approach Sapphire Books again, but one of my friends, author Linda Kay Silva, did the groundwork for me, and Sapphire signed me on.

It’s been great. Sapphire is a small press, but it’s growing. They provide marketing and publicity support. They encourage their authors to get to know each other. I hope to make a lot of money on The Admirer, but regardless of that, working with Sapphire is just plain fun.

The same is true for Ooligan Press. I don’t think of them as a small press in the same way. They are small in terms of books acquired but large in organizational terms. But they have some of the same small-press traits, including a willingness to consider non-mainstream content and a wonderful, hands-on approach to working with their authors.

Karelia's writing desk

My writing desk

When I first looked into the publishing industry in the late 1990s, I read that the cost of getting a book on the shelves was no less than $50,000. Now with e-books and print-on-demand, anyone with a computer and wifi can start a press. However, starting a press and running a press are two different things. It still takes a hell of a lot of time, energy, savvy, and some capital to run a successful press.

What does this mean for the author?

It means that publishing with a small press is a lot more like dating than one might think.

Many small presses are run by one dedicated person. That personality drives the press more than any one person at Norton ever will. That is not necessarily a bad thing. One person can be more open-minded than a large institution. Small presses are often willing to consider unusual content.

I told the publisher of Sapphire Books that my sequel was about conjoined twins and S&M.

She nodded. “We won’t have a problem with that,” she said.

Even a larger small press may open this door. My novel, Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before, tells the story of Triinu, the daughter of an Estonian immigrant, who comes out during the violent anti-gay politicking in Oregon in the 1990s. Ooligan seeks “. . . regionally significant works of literary, historical, and social value . . . [and] . . . traditionally underrepresented voices.” Could I have found a better match? I doubt it.

Finding the right small press can challenging, but the rewards are personal. I was looking for a line on my resume; I got supporters, mentors, editors, and friends.

So if I may offer a bit of advice to the writer interested in small press publishing:

  • Look for a love match. As tempting as it may be to accept any offer that comes your way, don’t. You would not do that if you were looking for a spouse (I hope!). Don’t do that with your literary career.
  • Ask questions. Don’t be shy. If it’s important to you, ask the publisher before you sign a contract.
  • Avoid publishers who offer no help with marketing and promotions. That is, indeed, the author’s job, but the publisher should want to help out, and they should have connections that aid in this regard.
  • Avoid first right of refusal contracts (contracts that guarantee the publisher first dibs on all future work) unless you feel really confident in the press. None of the presses I worked with asked for first right of refusal.
  • Avoid contracts that bind your work for life. Somewhere between two and ten years is reasonable.

Finally—and I am serious about this—look for a publisher you like. Unless you write the next Harry Potter, you probably won’t become a millionaire, so why not reap the intangible benefits: opportunities for self improvement, coffee shop dates with interesting people, and a whole army of new Facebook friends?

Palm Springs

Hanging out with Sapphire Books at a conference in Palm Springs

For more about Karelia Stetz-Waters, visit her website. Karelia is dedicated to helping aspiring writers find their way in the world of publishing, so feel free to contact her via email.

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