Jane Friedman

Better Than Fall Back: The Small Press Option

Photo by Marco Abis / Flickr

Today’s guest post is by Shirley Hershey Showalter (@shirleyhs), author of the memoir, Blushto be released in September 2013.


“Publishers have not yet grasped the sea change in the world of authors. Authors in this giddy time have not yet grasped the true cost of going it alone.”

—Donald Maass, literary agent

In the 1950s, few women enrolled in college. When they did, their parents sometimes explained to the neighbors that education for girls was like an insurance policy. “Nancy will always have something to fall back on.”

Likewise, college students who apply to the Ivy League schools also apply to a B list of “fall back colleges.”

That’s the way many writers view the small press: something you swallow your pride to accept and then make the best of. For some of us, however, small presses actually serve as our first, or even best, option.

Here are three case studies that show why.

Richard Gilbert & Michigan State University Press 

Richard Gilbert worked as a book publicist at Indiana University Press, and then as a publicist and marketing manager at Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, so he has an appreciation for the advantages of small presses. His memoir, Shepherd, releases in May 2014.

Was a university press your first choice? Why or why not?

During the seven years of working on Shepherd, I pitched trade presses and agents. I ended up getting rejected in all categories, including university presses, but accepted by two university presses—making for a hard choice—and had close passes from some trade publishers and agents.

Unfortunately, I blew my best chances with two or three small trade presses fairly early in the process when my book wasn’t ready, but I couldn’t see that. There are so many manuscripts clamoring for attention, it’s basically one strike and you’re out, anywhere. If you just think your book is ready, it isn’t—you have to know it’s ready.

Beyond that, it’s harder to get an agent than to get a publisher; they are in business, a hard one, to find and to sell books to publishers on the promise that every man, woman, and child in America will want to read it. I exaggerate, but not by much.

What benefits do you see in publishing with a small press?

University presses usually have excellent copy editors, high production values, and tend to keep their books in print a long time. The latter benefit is a real biggie for me, since a big trade house may give a book a year and then it’s gone. Like any publisher, university presses are looking for books that “fit their list,” which means their subject categories and often their geographical region.

It astounds me how many writers give up rather than try a university press. I knew a writer who had a great 9/11 story to tell, wrote a great proposal, and had it rejected in New York and gave up. “Why didn’t you try a university press, maybe Rutgers?” I asked. “Because,” she said, “I want to make my living as a writer.” I think my mouth fell open.

My saying all this makes university presses seem like pushovers and they’re not. For one thing, they are under tremendous financial stress as universities support them less and as the bookselling landscape changes so rapidly. But they’re still publishing books and looking for books.

What do you enjoy specifically about the press you are working with?

I appreciate the way the folks at Michigan State are a team. And I love my book’s cover and the way they involved me when they deadlocked between it and another cover; I got to break the tie.

The editor who acquired my book, Julie Loehr, responded to my proposal, read the manuscript and liked it, and then sent it to three outside readers. Such readers are a difference at university presses, stemming from their practice of publishing scholarly books. I loved who Julie picked. One person was supportive but taciturn, while the other two said all kinds of ecstatic things and identified one shared concern. The epilogue was tripping them up, and though they couldn’t say why, I knew that a technique I had tried wasn’t working. Julie was really low key. She said, “Do you want to take a look at it? It’s your book.” I did, and am grateful for that process. 

Any downside? What kinds of books and authors do not fit university presses?

University presses don’t have big advertising budgets. One of the reasons they like and look for niche books is because they can find and market to niches. They have been credited with keeping short stories alive, not to mention providing crucial life support for poetry. It takes a ton of money to market bestsellers, but thankfully that’s not the only book market. A trade publisher might turn away from a book that’s not going to sell tens of thousands copies, whereas a university press may publish one that has prospects of selling 3,000 or fewer.

A rule of thumb is that you need an agent for trade houses, whereas generally speaking university presses don’t like dealing with agents. They will do it, and an agent can help improve your contract—university presses’ boilerplate contracts can be too one-sided, excessively favoring the publisher—but university presses are used to working directly with authors. I joined the Authors Guild for help with my contract, and I recommend the organization.   

Eleanor Vincent & Dream of Things

In July 2013, during a special promotion, Eleanor Vincent’s memoir Swimming with Maya became an Amazon bestseller, edging out Sheryl Sandberg and Tina Fey.

Did you consider the Big Five? Did you try them before deciding on a small publisher?

I went through the traditional publishing process initially. My former agent, Laurie Harper, sold my book on the basis of a proposal and sample chapters. We tried all of the Big 5, and I have a file full of beautiful rejections—editors loved the writing but sales and marketing could not see a market. Ultimately, Swimming with Maya was published in 2004 by Capital Books, an imprint of International Publishers Marketing. IPM provides distribution and marketing services for a number of smaller presses.

It was a beautiful hardcover book priced at $28. Despite garnering favorable reviews and quite a lot of publicity (I was interviewed on CNN and several local TV shows, and featured in many articles), Swimming with Maya sold tepidly and slowly. In all, I think we sold about 2,000 books before Capital closed its doors in 2010.

They kept the book on their backlist, but did no active promotion after the first half of 2004. Because it never went into paperback, it was not available to book clubs. I see that as a huge factor in the trajectory I am describing. Book clubs are the ideal forum for Swimming, which I discovered as I began speaking to the few that would read a hardback and invite the author for tea!

When I heard that Capital was closing and would be pulping the remaining copies, I looked into self-publishing. Laurie Harper was no longer my agent, but she advised me to consider a print-on-demand version of the book. I also talked with the Authors Guild about their “Back in Print” program, which provides a way for authors to keep their books available on a print-on-demand basis, but with very limited formatting. I balked when I realized that I could not keep the book’s beautiful cover using their program, and that if I went with AG, that would limit my options going forward.

Meanwhile, the whole publishing landscape had changed. Social media was becoming the way to build an author platform and lots of new options for publishing, including very small companies like Dream of Things were springing up. As luck would have it, a friend, Madeline Sharples, had a memoir out, Leaving the Hall Light On, which was suddenly dropped when her very small publisher also closed. She found Mike O’Mary, publisher at Dream of Things, and he brought out a paperback and e-book version of her book. Madeline offered to e-introduce me to Mike. He read Swimming and loved it, and agreed to reissue it in formats that are much less expensive to produce and sell than a hardcover edition. 

Did you consider self-publishing?

Frankly, self-publishing never appealed to me. I am a writer with a corporate day job. Any time or energy I have must go into my writing. I lack the skills and interest to deal with gnarly things like technology glitches and distribution.

What I instantly loved and recognized in Mike was someone who was passionate about books and my genre—narrative nonfiction, including memoir and personal essays. That’s what I love, read, and write. I read some of Mike’s essays and found a kindred spirit who happened to have the skills and interests in the mechanics of publishing that I lacked. I observed what he was doing to promote Madeline’s book and knew he would do a great job with mine.

I wanted someone to help spearhead the marketing effort as well. Mike has been terrific in that department. He’s found the right virtual venues for promotion, and the latest BookBub promotion shows how well his approach works. In one weekend, we’ve sold more e-books than Capital sold in hardcover over 6 years! And this is not to mention the 12,000 downloads that occurred before this latest promotion.

Meanwhile, I’ve built a Facebook following and a better platform to display my blogs. (I use other social media as well like Linkedin, Twitter, and Tumblr, but Facebook has been the best forum, and the easiest to use.)

I think this story illustrates the immense changes in publishing over the last decade, and the opportunities for writers with good books to sell them through smaller, boutique presses. Had I given up in 2010, Swimming with Maya would have disappeared.

How and why have you focused on boosting Kindle sales? [answered by Mike at Dream of Things]

Mike: I believe that a good book will generate its own momentum if you can get it into the hands of readers and get some word-of-mouth going. My solution is to release the e-book early (simultaneous with or shortly after the print edition), price the e-book aggressively, and then promote the heck out of it.

One of the ways I promote it is via websites and e-newsletters that target e-book readers. In a recent promotion that I advertised via BookBub, I sold 3,000 copies of Swimming with Maya in three days. Granted, it was at a promotional price of 99 cents (versus a regular price of $2.99), but the ad more than paid for itself, and there were many other benefits. The book moved way up in the rankings for several days, to the No. 1 memoir in the Kindle store, and to No. 12 out of all e-books in the NOOK store. Based on past promotions, I expect to see higher-than-average sales levels for the next several weeks at the e-book’s regular price of $2.99. I also expect to see more reader reviews, and because of all the paid downloads, Swimming with Maya will now be featured on the pages of other e-books under the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” heading—which amounts to free advertising. So lots of good things happen when you get the e-book out there.

BookBub is selective. You essentially apply to be able to advertise with them. Quality matters. Swimming with Maya has quality blurbs from many reviewers, writers, and subject matter experts, plus about 50 reader reviews on Amazon with an average rating of 4+ stars.

My Story With Herald Press 

Like Richard and Eleanor, I chose a small press for my memoir, Blush—a publisher for the Mennonite Church USA and Canada. Why?

I was a rookie without previous book publishing experience in 2007 when I attended the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. I first heard the word “platform” there. I learned that finding an agent and then a publisher can take years and that the odds are stacked against the writer. That was before the tsunami of self-publishing, and also before e-books took off.

I might have given up the dream after that conference, but I kept on writing short personal essays and winning literary awards that included publication in the Kalamazoo Gazette. I was a fairly early adopter of social media also.  

If I hadn’t known Amy Gingerich at Herald Press, I might have looked elsewhere. Amy inspires confidence in everyone she meets and has the kind of smarts you want in an editor. We inked a book deal in August 2011 on the basis of a proposal, not a manuscript (another advantage).

Here’s an incomplete list of what Herald Press has done for me:

There’s another major advantage: I’m a life-long Mennonite, my story centers on the meaning of being Mennonite, I was the president of a Mennonite college for eight years, and most of the people who know me best and care about me most are Mennonite.

Every author starts with a core of most likely readers. Mine is Mennonite, literary, and academic. I want to reach far beyond that core, but the best way to do so, I believe, is to excite my first readers. If buzz doesn’t happen there, it’s not likely to happen anywhere.

You might be amazed at all the small presses still going strong. Here’s one place to search for them, and here’s another. You can also research them in Writer’s Market.

When asked the difference between a small press and a large one, Margaret Benefiel, author of three books, including The Soul of a Leader (Crossroad Publishing Company), quoted one of her friends: “With a big press you get visibility; with a small press you get love.”

And as with love in real life, we are not searching for a fall back. We want the real thing.