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Small Presses & Single Author Longevity

Matt Bell and I were discussing this recently:

Can small indie presses (smaller than Akashic, Coffee House, Dzanc) sustain the career of a single author? In other words, can a single author find a small press willing (and able) to stick with his or her work for the duration of a career? And is that best for the author? Or is it better to shift the work between two different presses, or spread them to a bunch of different presses, or what?

These are my questions.

75 thoughts on “Small Presses & Single Author Longevity

  1. i was talking about this very issue with a big other contributor recently. as an author, the idea of a small press that would be willing to work together over a span of books sounds like a dream. but i feel like there are two possible blocks:

    1. small presses put out a limited number of books per year. if a small press were committed to releasing a book by an author every year or two, would the press be able to sustain an identity (or to put it cynically, a brand) apart from “publisher of author?”

    2. a single book by an author might fit with a press’s identity (or brand), but could you expect the press to publish things by the author that fall outside of its vision for itself?

    a fascinating question. it looks like dzanc, for example, is working in this direction, and i’m interested in seeing how it turns out.

  2. yes, and Dzanc specifically, has a nice A / B rhythm of novel / Short Story Collection that I think help keeps it fresh (even with the same authors).

    re: 1. – that is what i think about the most, is the small press / indie press world too limited-edition, small run, sprase titles-per-yer to sustain a single author over the course of several books.

    and certainly re: 2. if that author’s aesthetic changed, the press would have no recourse but to move on (and the author likewise).

    christian, you have four books with four presses – was that planned, or simply how it worked out? I mean, did you want to spread the wealth of your books, or was that just how they happened to be contracted / published?

    1. The limited run thing was the first thing I thought about… does one want to publish 500 copies forever?

      This maybe raises much broader and challenging questions about whether we do or should write to be read, or how significant numbers ought to or ought not to be to us.

      1. yes – and though I’m not sure mlp could ever keep up with all the mini-chapbooks titles in unending runs, we certainly plan on keeping all the book-length projects in print for as long as is humanly possible…

  3. haha, it’s been more luck than any conscious decision. when i started shopping my first book (way back in 2003, when authors had to walk to readings barestumped in lava uphill both ways), POD books didn’t look pretty and small batch printing wasn’t economically feasible. when i got offered a contract for the second book, i jumped, because i didn’t think i’d ever get another chance. i got with the third press before they even published a book (and would have kept going with them, but they went under due to distributor difficulties before i ever got my royalty check, dammit). i’m doing a book with featherproof because jonathan reviewed my first book for time out chicago and liked what i was doing.

    for me it boils down to time. the featherproof guys are awesome, and the coolest thing for me is that they seem to believe fully in the book and expect it to be a success (on our scale). but i wouldn’t feel uncomfortable pitching my next novel to them because i know they’re booked for a while and i want them to be able to do what they’re trying to do, too.

    am i making sense?

  4. So for your next project, you will be looking for a new publisher entirely, or hooking up with one of the three you’ve already worked with (who are still in business)?

    and did the impetus collapse kill WE GO LIQUID absolutely, or is there a press looking into a reprint / re-release?

  5. i’d bet the next book will be published by someone else. the only good things about having a few out are that i feel pretty confident that i could find one to do it, and i don’t feel as desperate as i might have in the past.

    we go liquid, yes, dead. impetus was nice enough to send me the remaining stock. i got it last week. maybe 20 copies. on the plus side, that means a lot of people have it.

  6. I am no publisher, but I would imagine that the chances are slim. Small publishers have finite resources; have a finite number of books a year. To consistently offer one of those spots to one author, that would be tough. Not only to consistently creatively agree; but to have continued financial success.

    That being said, one of my favorites did it. Bukowski and Black Sparrow made each other.

    1. That would be something of a great case study; Buk and Black Sparrow are almost synonymous. At the same time, Buk’s aesthetic never really changed throughout the course of his career, so it doesn’t really present any solid answer to at least one of the questions posed. Would definitely be an interesting relationship to research.

    1. i’m happy to send off copies to anyone interested, but i’d rather trade than do money.

      speaking of which, don’t you have a bunch of books out/coming out with a number of different presses? congrats, by the way.

      1. awesome. would be happy to send you a copy of INCONCEIVABLE WILSON in trade (releases at the end of dec. from scrambler books). let me know.

        and yes (thanks) I have this scrambler novella, then one with ghost road press and one with willows wept press (both in 2010), one with fugue state in 2011, and one with dzanc in 2013.

  7. Yes the money too is tight already for small presses, and would be made tighter still by a constant spot per year / every other year for an author.

    maybe though, if that author only produced a work every 2-3 years though, maybe doable then?

  8. I think it’s interesting you posted this question considering what Molly says abt it, and abt working w/ you & publishing on MLP, in the interview that posted today in the Pank blog…. I think she raises some cool points abt why the experience of sticking with the same press might be enriching:

    “I just read Barney Rosset’s “Remembering Samuel Beckett,” a personal essay that includes the letters exchanged between the two men. This essay appears in the “Not Even Past: Hybrid Histories” issue of Conjunctions (Issue 53), which also features a story by Matt Bell (go Matt!). Anyway, Rosset was Beckett’s publisher at Grove Press. When Rosset sold Grove, the buyers, Peter Getty and Lord Weidenfeld, promised to keep him on as CEO. But the next year, they booted him. Beckett, in response, “told another suppliant from Grove, ‘You will get no more blood out of this stone,’ and he never allowed them to publish anything new of his again.” He later said, “’There is only one thing an author can do for his publisher and that is write something for him.’” Beckett wrote Stirrings Still and dedicated it to Rosset.

    How can any young writer not love that part of their story? I can tell you this: I am intensely loyal to Mud Luscious Press, and if J. A. Tyler were interested, I’d have no problem giving him first crack at all my future writing. He did a bang-up job with WTMA, and I’ll always be nostalgic about my first book and the man who made it real. I’m nostalgic already, and I don’t even have copies yet. But what I’m nostalgic for is the communication, the level of care J. A. brought to my manuscript. Absolutely, there are other presses I’d love to be published by—Rose Metal Press, Essay Press, FC2—but, at the same time, I’m in love with the idea of having a lifelong relationship with one editor, one publisher. And all of this (I’m trying, I really am!) brings me to my point:

    When I see the phrase “writing traditions of the past,” I think not of great literary movements but great literary partnerships (between writer, who dared, and publisher, who believed in that daring). This is the only tradition that matters. It is the one—not manifesting, but—being kept alive today, on an awesome and inspiring scale. And it is exciting.”

      1. yes. the publishing industry is failing from top to bottom because it doesn’t understand this one simple concept.

        1. funny though, if we extend the Cars metaphor, it is actually lightning mcqueen (the author) who decides to stick with rust-eze (the publisher) in the end – rust-eze (the publisher) always wanted to be with him especially when he found his fame, but mcqueen (the author) was too tempted by the glitz and glam of dinoco (the big house publishers)…right?

          1. exactly. unfortunately all of the micro presses are run by writers, writers who also think like mcqueen, glitzy-eyed–so there is no option or even the expectation to stick with rust-eze–the motivation is probably not as drastic as mcqueen’s, but it is the same if only because that is the only option–it is the way things work.

            1. I think though that part of the problem may be the inability of most small presses to stick long-term with an author – for instance, I would (quite frankly) feel bad soliciting Jeremy Spencer at Scrambler Books with my next book-length because I know he only does 2 titles per year and most likely couldn’t afford to publish another book by me in 2011 / 2012 – so is the option really there for writers working with micro-presses?

              1. most of these presses shouldn’t exist anyway. If my job is just laying out your book and printing it, then sticking it on my website and hoping someone will find it and then when they find it buy it, then what you have is a hobby. which is fine, but the press shouldn’t be expected to go anywhere and probably should expect it to not exist just as soon as the dude running it gets bored or a big book deal himself.

                and no, the option isn’t there for writers working with micro-presses and it’s everyone’s fault. and I kind of doubt anyone cares to change it.

    1. so pc, I am interested to know, will you have first right of refusal for the next works of aaron burch, matt bell, et al?

      would love to see more small presses trying this model.

      you already have two of walsh right?

      1. the right to first refusal concept should be deleted.

        the problem is that change is necessary and people hate change and for the most part don’t have the capacity to see how to make it or to even grasp it, or, worse, see a need for it at all.

        I’ve spent a long long time thinking about this and have plans to write something, so I don’t want to say too much in a comment on a blog. though I’m not a writer so I’ll probably not ever say anything anywhere else anyway, but still.

        but yes.

        1. what is wrong with the right to first refusal in your opinion pc? I see it as a press saying we can’t accept something sight unseen, but we would love to be the first to have a crack at it…isn’t that a good thing for both the press and the author?

  9. yes – molly’s discussion of it in her interview with pank was a welcome surprise to the discussion matt and I were having – and though I’m not sure it can be done, mlp will be the first to check out molly’s next project and if it fits with us, we will happily (nay, ecstatically) publish it.

      1. Not that I ever heard. At least not when Buk was alive. Maybe after and the assets went to Linda; B Sparrow was sold as Ecco; etc.

        1. that was my question mark above sean – b sparrow tracked (hunted) down buk and took him to full-time writing, paid his way right – are you saying perhaps he didn’t get the best deal by staying with b sparrow over so many books?

  10. How are you defining “career”? Do you mean can a single small press provide enough sales for one author to live off the proceeds and have that be his/her full-time job for x years? Is that the goal? Is that most people’s goal?

  11. I think ‘live off the proceeds’ / ‘full-time job’ is unrealistic even if an author has five books with five small presses (I will in a few years and certainly don’t think I will make near enough money to live off).

    However, I believe an author (very often) just wants a press that supports / loves his or her work enough to keep publishing it – so they don’t have to worry about shopping the work and can just focus on the writing

    1. Ah, that makes sense, thank you.

      One of the complications is that there seem to be more and more small presses, new ones each month, and it’s hard to tell which will still be around in 5 years. And if you look at the small presses today, you could even subdivide them into Large Small Presses and Small Small Presses.

      I could see sticking with one, but I’m not sure you’d want to, unless that small press was continually growing and expanding its reach. Otherwise, it would be fun (and important?) to try different presses just to see what it does to your readership.

  12. I completely agree that readership (unless the press is also growing) would be stunted by a single press option, but the single press option would certainly give more reliability for the author’s next work, maybe a feeling that you could simply write, knowing that if it was good, you had a press already backing you.

      1. i generally agree, but i don’t think it has to be that way. that’s why i’m so ambivalent about the publishing process. if i have to make a choice between submitting a new manuscript and figuring out new ways to get to people who might not otherwise hear about my current book, the latter is always going to win. and i’ve seen it work. not always on a large scale and not even always for the best (it’s not for everyone). for sure, though, the number of people who are going to make a living off it is so slim it’s hardly worth talking about.

        1. This is good. Most of the time I feel like I’m as good at getting my book in front of people as any small press would be. I have access to most of the same tools. Why not save the energy of sending out manuscripts and just do it myself. It’s the quickest way to get the book out there, get feedback from the readers, and be working on the next project.

              1. I’m saying it’s definitely *a* way to go, and I’m surprised more authors don’t pursue it. I’m not opposed to small press publishing in any way. One of my books is still available from So New.

                  1. All my books have been self-published. Twelve Times Lost caught the eye of Stegall, so he asked to publish the 2nd round and I thought that was awesome, and he’s kept it in print ever since.

          1. For me, one of the reasons not to self-publish is that I WANT to work with editors. I want to have a person who is pushing me and making me better, but who is also outside my normal day-to-day circle of writers groups and peers. I’m not sure what the self-publishing replacement for that is.

            1. right, working w/ pub genius and adam was a collaboration i would have been sore to miss. i love collaboration and that one was, and is, a great one. not to mention that adding in another person or persons activates a whole other brain with its own talents/skills.

      2. Peter,

        I agree that’s who reads small presses, but I’m not entirely convinced that’s a bad thing. I think the quality of readership is often preferable to quantity readership. I have two friends who I would consider mediocre writers published by Harper with fairly large readerships. Problem is that those readers are not close readers at all, and are instead interested in a distraction, not a fulfilling aesthetic experience. I would far rather have 500-1000 writers who appreciate the things I’m trying to do in my book instead of 5,000 who read most of it during TV commercials. So, hell, I really thing it’s a different way of seeking success, and frankly since big house midlist has practically vanished, small press really is the only place for a certain kind of book. If he was a young man today, I can pretty much guarantee you that Cormac McCarthy would be publishing his stuff with a small press.

          1. I completely agree with this. I think about that a lot, actually, even when submitting to magazines. I want my stories to go to magazines (and also presses) that are cultivating the kind of readers I think would enjoy my word. I mean, Cosmo has a big subscription base, but they don’t want to read my story about a baby with teeth that eats its brother on the way out the womb, right?

            (I suppose saying that means that I think Wigleaf does have the kind of readership that would, since that’s where I published it…)

  13. I’d say the answers to these questions are dependent on how the author defines success. What’s best for the author depends on what the author wants. Does she want the biggest readership? Does she want individual attention? Does she want a deep and familiar relationship with her editor? Does she want complete control over the book-object? Does she want nothing to do with the book promotion? Does she work in a variety of different modes? Different presses offer different attitudes, philosophies, aesthetics and budgets. I don’t think the issue is between small press vs. big press. I think the issue is which press is best suited for the author’s own particular goals and personality.

    1. I think the biggest issue for small presses is promotion. Promotion has traditionally been the strength of publishing with a big press — they have the budget and infrastructure in place to promote a book, from ad placement to press agents whose entire job it is to reach out to bookstores and reading groups and other media outlets to promote the book, the author’s book tour, line up interviews, etc.

      It’s one thing to lay a book out and get it printed. But I think an equal amount of work comes after the book is in hand, and I’m not sure how micro presses handle this. Clearly, many expect their authors to do the bulk of this leg work on their own. And that works for authors who know how to do it, or have the energy or time to do it. But what of the rest?

      The Internet is making promotion easier in some ways, but the problem is it’s easy for everyone, so you’re faced with how to rise above the din. Basically, it’s a big and complex enough task to merit the involvement of “experts,” and some folks like Lauren Cerand and ex-Soft Skuller Richard Nash are positioning themselves as freelance literary publicists. Which is great, but they’re expensive.

      I think it’s the single most significant limitation of publishing at a micro press, but like I said above, the author has to decide if they’re even concerned about reaching readers outside their existing literary community. Or rather, where that concern stands in the context of all the other things she has to consider. For those who really want to reach “outside” readers, I think micro presses represent a fine stop-gap measure on the road toward publication by a press with more resources.

      1. I completely agree about publicity being the biggest hurdle for small presses – shya, can you talk about where you feel fmc / FORECAST fits into this conversation?

        1. Well, I brought my own promotional engine to FMC, with the Forecast 42 Project. Whereas the 42 project began as a straight-forward attempt to serialize the work, it became pretty clear early on that people were going to have a difficult time actually keeping up with the updates, and one thing I kept hearing was that people were excited by the writing, and were looking forward to the book coming out. So I kind of changed my tack, and began encouraging people to look at the 42 project as a snapshot of an advance draft of what would eventually come out. Anyway, the point is, I think the project became essentially a promotional effort–making me one of those people, I suppose, who feels comfortable doing their own leg work.

          That said, I think FMC has shown themselves to be really smart and rather indefatigable promoters in their own right. They’ve caught onto the fact that an author can gain audience by participating in something that itself is buzz-worthy. So they’re always thinking about ways to get some attention for their authors, whether that’s by selling “shares” of Emma Straub’s novella Fly-over State, printing a cover in seeds and then biking across the states to promote Kaelen Smith’s We’re Getting On, or risking some quasi-copyright infringement by printing an illustration showing popular TV personalities on their cover for a forthcoming anthology. They believe in their authors, but they also embrace a kind of entrepreneurial spirit (business being America’s true art form) that sets them apart from a lot of other small presses.

          We’ve spoken about a few promotional ideas for Forecast, but as we’re still in the editorial phase, we haven’t locked anything down yet. But based on what they’ve done so far, I’m expecting it to be equally compelling.

          1. yes, they have done some amazing work so far, and the zero emissions project is pretty fantastic too – thanks for a little more backstory on the FORECAST project – great to hear,

  14. gonna do some thinking out loud here:

    a lot of the small presses popping up these days seem so specific in their mission that i wonder if it might be impossible to cultivate a long relationship with their authors–referring specifically to style here, or authors evolving their styles, moving into different modes, genres, practices.

    in my case, i have two books coming out this winter with different presses, and a third manuscript that i literally can’t place with either of them–or seemingly anywhere else for that matter. i’ve also got a fourth that’s coming together that also looks like it will be difficult to place.

    the problem is that nearly all of my projects are different from one another. i rarely write in the same styles or stick to one certain method. i like blending genre with literary with “experimental” (sorry) so i no idea what to do with half my stuff.

    is this a problem for anyone else? who, if anyone, is out there writing wildly different texts and placing it all within one house?

      1. I think this happens even at big presses:

        FSG published Andrew Sean Greer’s The Story of a Marriage, which was radically different than The Confessions of Max Tivoli.

        Harper published David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, which was even more of a departure from Cloud Atlas

  15. After speaking a bit with Matt Bell about this issue (that is a rule here right?), he was kind enough to clear up a couple of my own points for me:

    A) The press should have an editor you enjoy working with, who pushes you to do your best work.
    B) The press should be able to help you find more readers, which means they have to have good distribution, publicity, etc.

    I’ve interviewed a fair amount of authors over the years and what might be considered cliches do seem to be close to true stories – bigger publishing houses have greater resources, but authors sometimes feel as if they’re left behind in what should be their own process; smaller houses allow the writer more hands-on experience in aspects like covers, but then need the writer to help out more with the publicity, etc.

    Actually, I don’t think it matters these days if you’re publishing with a major or indie, you’re going to be counted on to be a part of the publicity. In dealing with publicists for the EWN, it’s amazing to me how many of them get books dumped on them at the last second because of downsizing, or somebody finally crashing and burning at the job and bailing on the publisher.

    I think if you can find an editor you truly enjoy working with, and believe that that editor is pushing you to do your absolute best work, and that editor is capable of doing that pushing no matter what style and/or story you’re bringing to the plate, that it makes absolute sense to stay with that publisher for as long as you can. Again, providing that they get your books into stores, that they have a website pushing your books, that they have some other means of publicity, relationships with stores to get you in and doing readings, etc.

    One example I can think of is Marc Estrin at Unbridled Books. He’s published, I think, five with them now and while they all sneak politics into the storyline, they are pretty varied in their approaches to storytelling. He works with Fred Ramey there though, and I know from talking to both that they WORK through the manuscripts – Fred pushes Marc to write his best work and Marc writes to make Fred do his best editing.

    And I’m not so sure that a publisher has a limited readership for an author. I think to date, Dzanc has been developing a few different audiences. We had that initial group of EWN members that the ones that agreed with my past reviewing might have given us a chance. I think we have some sort of a small foothold in this Big Other/HTMLGiant world of indie publishers and readers. I also think that we’re grabbing some of those that are looking for the type of books that Lish was publishing at Knopf 20 years ago with our books from Markus, Murphy, Lopez and in the future Raffel, Ryder, Svoboda, etc. But I don’t necessarily think that those readers were also grabbing books by Czyzniejewski, Kesey, Burns, Kestin, Minor, etc. But we’re slowly getting them to do just that (at least from what I can see from website orders). And hopefully we’ll continue to do just that, and by the time the second Lopez book comes out, or Peter Markus’ next collection, we’ll have built some credibility with those readers from various groups and they’ll be interested in everything we publish and not just a specific segment.

    1. smart words dw. very nice.

      I think what also goes in dzanc’s favor (beyond all discussed above) is that you are releasing a great number of titles each year with, as you said, a fairly diverse range of aesthetics.

      does a small press releasing 2-3 books a year stand the same chance of continuing readership, growing readers, and sticking with a single author?

      also, to further the conversation – how easy or difficult is it for you to read (for dzanc consideration) a new mss by an author you have previously published? in other words, will peter markus be welcomed open arms with all his new projects (of course right?) or roy kesey or ropert lopez?

      1. I do think by publishing 6-8 books per year vs. 2-3 puts a publisher in a better position to have the room to continue publishing books by the same authors.

        And based on what was just discussed about our own particular (hopefully) ability to develop larger readerships for our writers – I do think the additional titles, especially if they are aestetically varied, will eventually help.

        As to your last question, that will be interesting to see – I know Peter is getting close to having a new project wrapped up and yes, we’d love to be the ones looking at it first. So far, it’s varied for us for the circumstances with our multiple book authors – with Lopez and Henning Koch, our initial dealing with them was a 2 book contract. With Kesey, Markus and Markus, we approached them shortly after publishing their first books – in both cases we already had a 2nd manuscript in hand that we knew what we were looking at when we offered them another contract. Roy being an even more varied case as he also had his previously published novella that had sold out and seen the publisher close up shop that we were able to bring back out into print. With Hesh Kestin, he submitted his incredible novel after we had accepted his collection of novellas.

            1. It’s in italics because I’m a tech idiot.

              I had written in what were supposed to parenthesis, but were something else altogether, after the words “incredible novel”, Seriously, I truly believe every Big Other reader will enjoy this novel, or something to that nature.

              Obviously instead of plugging the hell out of his novel, I triggered an italics incident instead.

              Though a very good friend did respond to our interest in the novellas with the statement, That’s a great way to shut down your press, start with a short story collection and follow it up with a trio of novellas.

              Those novellas however, were named by the KC Star as the best collection of short fiction published in 2008, and Kestin’s novel pulled our first ever starred review from Publishers Weekly – the man can flat out write and has a wicked sense of humor about him.

        1. did the kestin novel then, already having a trio of novellas with dzanc, go through the same editorial review process (readers, etc.) or did it skip some due to your previous work with the author?

          1. It did indeed skip the full process. It was read by myself and Steve Gillis and just us. It took us longer to get to than we intended, but once we started to read, it didn’t make much sense to pass it by anybody else, we knew we wanted to publish it.

            We do have a reading process, though it varies a bit from time to time. Both Steve and I tend to open up every file as it arrives – there are a great many that our readers never see because they are so obviously not Dzanc Books books.

        1. Oh, hell yes, I meant his third book – I actually did mean his 2nd book with us, but would absolutely hope that nobody read it the wrong way – if it wasn’t for your incredible press, I might never have met Peter Markus, which led to my reading Robert Lopez, etc. Not to mention the fact that I know I’ll get to read more David Ohle because of Calamari.

  16. Just wanted to jump in to say following this discussion has been awesome. I’m not a publisher, nor am I in a position yet as a writer to have any experience with the subject, but reading the insights here give me a lot to chew on for the future when I have an MS to shop out, and especially post-first book.

    Great topic/discussion.

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