Publishing Paths

Recently I attended the Mendocino Coast Writer’s Conference.  It was a learning experience and inspiring three days.  I had my doubts that this was something I’d benefit from, but in the end it proved to be worth the effort for this introvert.

This conference had master classes, seminars, workshops, evening readings, speakers and was focused on the art and craft of writing.  There were also activities for those interested in the publishing end of writing.  Each day had a pitch panel so writers could pitch their works to agents, a query letter writing workshop, and if you wanted you could get a one-on-one conference with a conference staff member to discuss your project.

Since I was there mostly to improve my poetry skills, I focused my attention on the poetry workshop I was in.  Still I managed to attend a couple of publishing sessions.  The one I like the best was, “Paths to Publishing.” 

In this panel discussion, four writers talked about how their books were published and the challenges they faced.  First there was a little discussion of self-publishing or how to promote through social media.  There were a few reasons for this – often came down to an admission that they weren’t really good at promoting themselves.

This isn’t to say it can’t be done, but understand who your are and what skills you have in that area before trying to be a self-publisher.  If you just want to publish for family and friends, the process is easy and you can get a few hundred copies out without too much trouble.  If your goal is to publish thousands of copies and make a profit, consider your business knowledge and marketing skills first.

If you’re not self-publishing, you need to attract the attention of a publisher and convince one to take on your book.  The big statistic that caught my attention was that there are nearly a million books published each year in this country with only a third of those being published by traditional publishers and that number is falling. The rest of the books are a combination of small press publishers and self-publishing. 

Getting published by a traditional press is a bit like winning the lottery.  You’ll need an agent to sell your work to the big publishers and getting an agent is no easy task.  One writer reported contacting 60 agents and not getting any to represent her book.  This was a typical report I heard.  The big publishers are in it to make a profit and they look at your book with the question of, “Will this sell enough to be profitable?”  Sadly, most first time writers don’t write books that will hit the best seller list.

The most common path to a published book was through the small press.  Often run by universities, non-profit groups, or dedicated individuals, these publishers are willing to take risks on books that the big publishers won’t.  Their reasons are many,  including – providing an outlet for literary writers, advancing a cause, or because they just believe that certain kinds of books and writing should be made available.  One example I know of is the Torrey House Press.  This publisher recently converted from a for-profit to a non-profit business model.  Their mission is to promote stories and books about the American West and the conservation movement.  They publish works on natural history, environment, or natural landscape themes.  If you’re writing a story about the American West, well, here is a possible market for you.

Oh, and you don’t need an agent to submit to them.

Most of the published writers I spoke with had their books published through small presses like this, or ones associated with education institutions or foundations.  Several had submitted works to various contests which included publication as one of the prizes.  It should be noted that many contests ask for a submission fee to cover costs.  Some are free, and some ask that you subscribe to their publication to be able to submit.

There are many good things to say about the small press and if you’ve got a book, story, or poem you want to get out there, here are a few positives:

There are thousands of small presses.

  • You don’t need an agent to submit (even for novels).
  • They believe in your work.
  • Most will get your book on Amazon.
  • They cover the costs of publication (be wary of those who ask you for money).
  • They generally don’t buy as many rights to your work – often only asking for first publishing rights or have a clause where rights revert to you after a specified period of time.  With the big publishing houses you often lose rights to your book.

But there are a few negatives:

  • They don’t pay much, if at all – sometimes contest winners get a small cash prize.
  • Most are run on shoe string budgets.
  • They don’t have promotion budgets, so don’t pack for the publicity tour.
  • They are often staffed by volunteers so don’t expect rapid replies.
  • Likely you’ll end up promoting the book yourself.

Some of the panelists did report that their press did arrange for some book store signings, or other book readings, but for the most part their promotion is adding the book to their catalog, putting out a press release, maybe an invitation to an awards dinner, and a few free copies.

So why go through the work?

Well a number of reasons:

  • It builds your writing resume (gets the line on an agent query letter, “I am the winner of …”)
  • It builds your contact list in the publishing world – networking is good.
  • Validation – many writers feel the need to be published because having a story published validates the writer’s work as being worthy.  Many of us writers suffer from low self-esteem and often question if we’re good enough.  Publication is a stamp of approval.
  • We feel the story is important and needs to be in the world.
  • Publishers can be a great source of editing input and can help hone your writing.

It’s really up to you and what you want to accomplish.  All of my current writing goes into my blog and I’ve sent very little of it out.  Part of me has always wanted to have a book published.  If I am brutally honest, mostly because I want that stamp that says, “You’re a published writer.”

And my ego would like a bigger audience.

If you have work that you’d like to get into the hands of a small press here are three resources where you can find these publishers:

Poets & Writers magazine: (http://pw.org)
Great magazine and website for poets and writers.

The Review Review: http://www.thereviewreview.net/
A website that reviews literary magazines and has a database of them.  Great place to find a magazine that speaks to you and your writing style.  Mainly for poetry, essays and short stories although some publish a book once in a while.

Winning Writers: https://winningwriters.com
Website that has a list of writing contests and lists free contests plus has a list of contests and services to avoid (be careful, lots of scammers out there). 

A couple of months ago I decided to cut back on the amount of writing I do for my blog so I can build up a better body of work that can be submitted.  It’s a major change in my writing discipline and I am still feeling my way through the change in writing rhythm.  I am hopeful that the changes I am making will lead to an improvement in my writing.

I certainly found attending the conference to be a wise choice and it’s helping me to push to that next goal.

Keep writing!

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17 thoughts on “Publishing Paths

  1. This is a great article. Good for both beginners and us. We can always learn more.

  2. Good review. It makes me want to attend next year. Interesting insights into the small presses.

  3. This is great information, thanks for sharing it. Sounds like it was a worthwhile conference!

  4. Great article, Andrew. Lots of wonderful information. Small presses are indeed a great alternative to when you just don’t want to go it alone.

  5. Thank you for a comprehensive review of the conference. For those of us not in a position to attend these kinds of events, this is crucial guidance through territory becoming less and less well marked. You gave me some ideas I hadn’t considered. The resource list at the end is a great bonus. You’ve done a service for us other bashful writers, Andrew – thank you.

  6. Andrew, I also have been thinking that a small press company is the way to go for publishing. I cringe at the thought of self-publishing because of all the mistakes I could and probably would make in such an ordeal. I am also quite skeptical about a publishing house accepting my work as a new author of a novel. The small press company is in between these two. I feel I have a decent chance with one as long as I am willing to spend the money and time on professional editing. Plus there is the bonus of a physical book, which self-publishing is most often without.

  7. This is a great article full of vital information, Andrew. I’ve self-published two poetry books, which worked out better than I anticipated, and now I’m thinking of a third and final to dedicate to my Dad. But, like you, I would love that stamp of approval; it would do my ego good. However, I know I’m not up there with the fine poets, so a smaller press might be the better choice. I appreciate the links and will move forward with this goal. I wish you the best, too, in all your writing endeavors. Thanks again!
    ~Lauren

    • The other reality it that the major publishing houses rarely print poetry. Small presses are much more likely to take on a book of poetry. You should also consider send individual poems from the collection out first. Most literary presses only ask for one time print rights and then when sending the book out you can say, “This includes poems published in mag-x.” Strengthens your pitch for the whole collection.

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