Small press. No, not THAT small.
November 11, 2009 11:47 AM   Subscribe

As a writer trying to press into the next stage of my career, how can I emphasize in my publishing history that "small press" isn't always a euphemism for "vanity press"?

Having recently completed the first draft of the manuscript for my debut full-length novel as well as a query package for a non-fiction book, I find myself about to embark on the quest for a literary agent. There is no shortage of general advice, guidance and hearsay on this subject available online, but I have a more specific problem.

It comes in the form of my publication history. I have had a couple of semi-regular paid freelance gigs writing for print lifestyle magazines. I've also made a few fiction sales to minor magazines, both print and online. No problem.

The problem is that I also wrote a novella. I thought it was pretty good, good enough to see print, but I also knew that novellas are a really hard sell. In fact, from an unknown writer, they're an impossible sell.

I lamented this fact (with no ulterior motive; I can be quite dense when it comes to business sense) to a friend of mine who was the proprietor of a successful local independent record label and events promotion company. He asked if he could read the manuscript.

Long story short, his label offered to publish the book, provided that I would come on board without charging a fee to help them make it happen. We signed a contract (which involved no financial risk or obligation on my part) and the label basically dumped some money in my lap and said "bring us a print run."

I then did all the things that someone self publishing with money from their own pocket would do and, in the end arranged for a small perfect bound print run of 500 copies. We had a launch event and I promoted the book online. The label sent me on a reading tour of Canada and the northeastern USA. The books were sold at these events, online, and were on the shelves in a few dozen, mostly independent, bookstores in the USA and Canada.

We ended up selling out completely and having to do a supplementary print run of 250 to meet demand. Eventually, that sold out in entirety as well. Both the label and myself ended up with a decent amount of money in our pockets. It was the first and last book they ever published and the label has since closed down shop.

Anyway, the problem is that there doesn't seem to be any elegant way to compress this nonstandard publication experience into a query letter. On the other hand, I think this is my most significant publishing experience and, when properly framed, reflects quite well on me as both a writer and as someone who is willing to work to promote my own work.

My goal is to:

1. Make it clear that this was not an instance of self-publishing or vanity press.

2. Maintain professionalism by not shoehorning too much autobiography into the query package (as I have done in this post).

3. Most importantly, not misrepresent (or look like I'm trying to misrepresent) this publication as something more than it was.

I fear that if I just list it as "Title of Work," Label, Year as though the label were a conventional publisher the agent or publisher may simply not have heard of, then I'm violating #3. On the other hand, if I do something like "Title of Work," Label (Small Press), Year then I'll be violation #1 unless I violate #2.

Am I overthinking this plate of beans?
posted by 256 to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Am I overthinking this plate of beans?

Oh, yeah.

You're worrying about this way too much. Even if had been self-published, that wouldn't hurt you. There's nothing bad about self-publishing anymore.

Title of work, label and year is just fine. If you feel you need to add "small press" in parentheses after it, do that and don't worry about it. You're still not violating (1), because (1) is a crazy objection to worry about, really. If anyone cares, they'll ask.

And then, if and when anyone asks, tell the story you just told us. No harm, no foul, no misrepresentation.

Say less.
posted by rokusan at 11:53 AM on November 11, 2009


At worst, they'll assume it was a vanity publication and completely ignore it.
posted by Electrius at 11:56 AM on November 11, 2009


Yeah, you're freaking out over nothing. Though I wouldn't agree that there's nothing bad about self publishing - I think it can be ablack mark in fiction, less so in nonfiction - your small press experience actually helps, I think. No one's going to blackball you.

Why not put Foo Press (subsidary of Foo Label) or something similar, since the label has a verifiable history.

Good luck!
posted by sugarfish at 12:01 PM on November 11, 2009


Wow, did you overthink this! The query is fine if you put "Title of Work", [blah blah] Record Label & Press, Year." Just [blah blah] Record Label is fine too, and gets across the point that you did not self-publish.

And congratulations on the book deal!
posted by zoomorphic at 12:07 PM on November 11, 2009


Even if had been self-published, that wouldn't hurt you. There's nothing bad about self-publishing anymore.

This is not true with literary agents in the US. In general, people who have self-published seem to literary agents like people who Don't Get It.

But you didn't self-publish. You published, as sugarfish says, with Foo Press, a subsidiary of the well-known record label Foo Records. That's cool! That's indie publishing!

And the thing is that publishing a novella in a limited edition shows that you Do Get It. Because only small presses publish novellas, and novellas are only publishable in limited editions, and this is exactly what great big superstar writers (Tim Powers, Connie Willis, Neil Gaiman, etc.) do with their novellas.

Do not worry. You are Doing It Right. Literary agents will get this. Kudos to you!
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:16 PM on November 11, 2009 [4 favorites]


Oh, but say "limited edition" in your description of the book. If you sold out a limited edition, that's awesome. If you sold 700 copies of a regular edition, that's dismal.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:17 PM on November 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


1. As Sidhedevil notes, this wasn't a matter of vanity press-- this was indie press.
2. You had two print runs... you did the promotional leg work... and you sold out.

To recap: You worked with an independent press, you had two print runs, and every copy of your book got bought.

What's not to like?
posted by darth_tedious at 12:58 PM on November 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


You're thinking wayyyyyyyyy too much about this. This doesn't even merit two sentences. Your query letter should be

Paragraph One: BOOK I WANT TO SELL YOU

Paragraph Two: Previously published in X magazine, with novella published by Y Label in YEAR.

Paragraph Three: Closing pleasantries.


Sincerely,


You.
posted by headspace at 1:04 PM on November 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Even if had been self-published, that wouldn't hurt you. There's nothing bad about self-publishing anymore.

It's not really the question, but that's the reading I get from my ex-agent. He sees it as a "tried that, didn't work" sort of experience that gives the writer perspective. But I suppose that's a case by case thing.
posted by rokusan at 1:24 PM on November 11, 2009


Did you get an ISBN? If so, you should include it (they will be looking for your book on Bookscan). If not, Title, Label, Year is fine. Say less in the query so you'll end up explaining in person, and you should do so exactly how you did here.

Selling out of a print run, whether published by an indie press or self-published or whatever, is nothing to be ashamed of. Some books published by big name houses don't sell 700 copies in a year.

But don't get hung up on what people call it. I work at a major trade house, and we'd consider what you did to be self-publishing regardless of what you call it. But that wouldn't mean we wouldn't be interested. In the age of direct-to-Kindle publishing, Scribd, and the Espresso machine, a lot of the stigma of self-publishing is gone, especially when the author can demonstrate that several hundred strangers were willing to pay money for their book.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 1:29 PM on November 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Don't say "small press." Just about all publishers are smaller now, in terms of print runs if not titles, and the good ones know size is no indication of quality. Say they sent you on tour, there were two printings, and they sold out. That's awesome.
posted by shetterly at 1:45 PM on November 11, 2009


You're underestimating agents. They know the difference already. Say Whatever Press published the book, you sold however many copies and did a tour.
posted by Nattie at 2:16 PM on November 11, 2009


It's not really the question, but that's the reading I get from my ex-agent. He sees it as a "tried that, didn't work" sort of experience that gives the writer perspective. But I suppose that's a case by case thing.

He's an outlier, then, at least among the agents I know and among the agents who blog.

Too often, people self-publish something because they believe all the crazy conspiracy-theory nonsense out there about the US publishing industry, not because it actually makes sense as a choice for that particular book.

Especially with fiction--self-publishing non-fiction makes sense in many more circumstances (local history, niche interest, a book you sell at your lectures or workshops).

But, as we've both said, that's not relevant to the question.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:32 PM on November 11, 2009


Seriously, "sold out two printings of limited edition" is much better than "sold 700 copies" just for the wow! factor.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:33 PM on November 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


What Nattie said. Also:

Having recently completed the first draft of the manuscript for my debut full-length novel as well as a query package for a non-fiction book, I find myself about to embark on the quest for a literary agent.

If you're querying your novel, it should probably be a little better edited than just a first draft. The internetz (querkshark and others) suggest that you should be ready to show fairly clean pages at the same time that you're sending out your queries.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:09 PM on November 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Comments should be better edited, too. I meant queryshark, of course.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:11 PM on November 11, 2009


Thanks everyone. I may have been worrying about nothing, but I feel much better equipped after this discussion nonetheless.
posted by 256 at 6:31 AM on November 13, 2009


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