I've been putting off and putting off this post, even though I need to write it, if only to shed some light on the risks of publishing with small presses. So, let me preface this rather epic post by saying that I'm not publishing this as "payback" or out of malice or spite. In fact, the only feelings I have now are bewilderment, a vague sense of loss, gratitude, and plain old sadness. Does that qualify as "ambivalence"? Read, and you'll understand.
This is the journey of Song of the Orange Moons, my debut novel from November of 2010.
If you've done any research online about the publishing industry (and I'm sure most writers have), you know that publishing with the traditional big houses is almost impossible without an agent, and far from guaranteed with one. Many years ago, circa 2005, I had an agent for my manuscript of Orange Moons. No contract, just several lunches over which he encouraged me to write two more chapters (I did), and we chatted about his family, his own manuscript-in-progress, and where he'd send my novel. He eventually sent it to three or four of the big presses, who in general liked the manuscript, but thought it wouldn't move (sell) in the bookstores. He suggested that I "turn it into a Young Adult novel." At that time, I knew nothing about Young Adult novels and said I didn't think that would be possible. Not with this book. That was our last lunch. Dead end. Amicable parting of ways.
I made a meager attempt at finding another agent, but the process seemed so long and exhausting that I wondered if sending it directly to the publishers would be more efficient. (And I felt jaded by my first relationship with an agent.) I researched the small and large presses that received submissions (not many, folks!) and carefully packed and stamped 20 envelopes with the personalized query letters and partials or full ms, according to the publisher’s policies.
This. Was. Exhausting.
Six months later, after a few requests for full manuscripts and a few letters telling me that the press had gone out of business, I had responses from all 20 places. One press had seriously considered the book, but eventually declined, sending me detailed, multi-page, single-space rejection letters from their three readers. Heartbroken, I literally shelved my manuscript in the living room bookshelf on the tip-top shelf. Out of sight.
When my devoted partner figured out that I’d given up on writing, he insisted that I slap some postage on my manuscript and send it out to 20 more publishers. Ugh. I did it, this time ignoring the SASE for return, and scouring the Internet and books for publishers who were actively and currently accepting unsolicited manuscripts. I barely found 20 and sent my submission envelopes out in the world again. My partner was right: I did feel a little better. I felt the glimmer of hope that my manuscript would find a home.
A few months later, I had 20 more rejection letters in my binder. At least, I thought I did. While I was on campus one morning, my phone rang, and there was this woman named M who was telling me how much she loved my beautiful book and asking me if she could publish it. I was ecstatic. All I could think of was, “I’m in heaven! And heaven is a place called BTP!”
I’ve told this story before, way back in the early days of this blog. What I didn’t tell is the experience after I sent my signed contract for the novel. It has been, in a word, frustrating. Sometimes maddening. BTP was an established publisher of Children’s and YA books. My novel was to be the debut of their Adult line of books. M had big dreams: she said she wanted to publicize this book as though it weren’t from a small press, but from one of the big ones. Except, of course, I would need to cover all my travel expenses. I got that. I understand that even authors with big presses must often create and finance their own book tours. But after two years of waiting for the book to finally go to press, and another year of the book being “in press,” I was so utterly in the dark about everything—what I was supposed to be doing and when and where—that I was lost and nervous and growing positively irked. I did what I thought I needed to do: create an author website, join Facebook, create an author page on Facebook. Tweet.
How well a debut novel sells is vital to the success of a novelist. My second novel might never get a glance from a publisher based on the sales record of my first novel. Some writers are completely shut out from all the publishers. Such are the tales I heard from other authors. So I knew that this novel needed reviews, and lots of them, and sales, and lots of them, if I were to ever hope to publish the second novel I was working on.
I called and emailed BTP, trying to figure out some solid dates about the Advanced Reader Copies, about the official publication date, about how to get reviewed by Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus and the others. M was busy, no doubt, with other authors, and what I thought was a small publishing firm became startlingly clear that M was it. M was the only one doing everything. That was why I so rarely could get hold of her.
It was clear though our few conversations that her original plans to make a big splash with the book were no longer possible. It was too expensive for her to advertise the book in the NY Review of Books and other outlets, and she didn’t have the time. So I did it. All.
I hired an outside publicist to help organize a blog tour. One month of publicity cost half my monthly paycheck. I sent copies of my ARCs to 25 different reviewers and a few contests. I wrote emails to book reviewers and asked if they’d be interested in reviewing my debut novel. I looked up the submission policies to Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus, and pretended I was some lackey at BTP suggesting that they review book. Because my ARCs were mailed to me about two weeks before the release date of the book, three months too late according to the big reviewers’ policies, I was up a creek called shit.
All of this took lots and lots of postage. That was only a small part of the investment. I set up a tour to Chicago, paid my ticket and arranged a few readings and stayed with a dear friend, only to find out the ARCs had not even been printed (although they were “being printed as we speak” weeks before). I set up my big book launch, only to find out that the hardbacks wouldn’t make it to Barnes & Noble for the party because they were still being printed (another snafu by the publisher). The book distributors had to overnight the boxes to the store, and they arrived on the afternoon of the party. I was a nervous wreck.
Amid all the hubbub during the month prior to publication, I had very little contact with M. I had almost none after the publication. I emailed her the link to my Publisher’s Weekly review, something I was astounded by. And she emailed me her congratulations, but didn’t answer any of my questions, like how did she like my second novel manuscript I sent her. (She had exclusive first rights to my second novel.) To be honest, I hoped she didn’t want it. I was so frustrated with the lack of communication that I was truly ready to move on to another publisher. With an agent this time.
Over the past year and a half, I went through a range of emotions. Anger at her lack of commitment to this book, gratefulness that she published it when no one else would, hysteria when my huge investments to publicize the book were slammed by the reality that the book wasn’t really “in press” yet or anywhere near it. I stored this bubble of resentment at being deceived, until I’d run into someone who’d congratulate me on getting published, considering how very difficult traditional publishing is these days, at which point I’m weakly smile and feel humbled.
During the six months post-pub date, I left messages and emails about some important details, one of which was my payment, which was to be sent upon the publication of my novel, but that I never received. She responded only two or three times, making promises to look into matters.
And then, this summer, M finally called me back. I had emailed her to ask about digital rights and film rights to the book—to see if she was doing anything, anything, had any plans with this book. She finally, finally called me back with terrible news.
This news she’d needed to share for a long time, and was finally calling to tell me. In fact, she’d been making calls to her authors, two or three a week, because the news she had to share was too difficult to tell too many times in one week. I won’t go into specifics here, because this concerns her private life. But she has been very ill, and her disease has progressed to a state that she has to close her business. She wants to spend her remaining time with her family, etc.
I listened to her tell me that all the rights to the book revert back to me, that I can purchase as many of the remainders as I want, that I can release an eBook immediately, that she is not renewing her 2-year dues to the nationwide distributor because she doesn’t know if she’ll be around then, so no one will be able to order from Amazon or Barnes & Noble because there will be no distributor for the books, and all I kept thinking was, “F*cking unfair for her and f*cking unfair for me and this whole unfair scenario is just crap.” I couldn’t be mad at her anymore. You can’t be mad a person who is terminally ill. I felt horrible for her and for her family. And I thought, “What a sad, short life for this little novel, too.”
I understood why the entire publishing experience had been so chaotic. My publisher’s life had been spinning out of control, and she was trying to balance her health with a one-woman publishing company.
I don’t know if this is a cautionary tale. I feel mainly sad about her situation. Sad that my book never really had a chance to sell copies. I'm proud to have learned how to request reviews and how to set up a book tour; I'm incredibly thankful to the online community of writers who have shared their stories and wisdom as I trolled the internet for hope. I don’t know what “lesson” I’ve learned other than I’m determined to get an agent for my next novel. An agent who will know the field infinitely better than I and has access to more and larger publishers. I still believe that smaller presses are doing a wonderful, admirable service for authors, and they are doing hard work to keep literature alive and available in traditional publishing. I fully support little presses! I'm suggesting that hopeful authors painstakingly research the press to which they submit before signing contracts. Make calls and send emails to currently published authors with the press and ask about their honest appraisal of their experience. This past year has been a learning experience. I am still grateful that M published my book. It’s beautiful, and I’m still hopeful that she’ll send me the remainders I ordered from her over a month ago.
But I’m not counting on it. It will be a year next month, and I still have not received a check for the publication, a royalty statement, or any paperwork of sales figures. I am in the dark about the future of Orange Moons.
The digital book is now out, and I’m glad that it has been getting some beautiful reviews.
And I have two completed novel manuscripts out to agents who have requested full manuscripts. So there’s light in other places, and I’ve moved into it. I suppose I wanted to finally tell the complete story that this blog promised to tell: the real journey this author took with the little press that loved her novel.
*This post has been updated to remove M's full name and to emphasize that I still admire and appreciate the invaluable work of small and independent presses.