Every now and then, it’s necessary to push the reset button.
My first full-length collection came out last year, and it didn’t happen by accident. I envisioned it and I planned for it; I sent it to a press I believed in, Sundress Publications, and I’ve been so happy with my relationship with them, and with the exposure my little book has received. I would change nothing about the Sundress experience, and I highly recommend the press to any writer.
This year was to have been the year that my second collection would be released by a second press, but that’s a different kind of story. I would have had my second book in my hands right about now, had I stuck with that contract—but instead I pulled it, and I remain a poet with one full-length collection.
There are a lot of reasons to pull a book, but for me, it came down to my own readiness to do it justice, and to my new press’s ability to meet my demands.
My second book was going to be released as one of twenty-six titles coming out from my press in a year. That press was basically a one-person show, past the manuscript selection stage, and while the publisher was unbelievably capable when it came to producing attractive books, the policy of the press was not to edit its chosen manuscripts; rather, that was something writers could pursue on their own.
I found that I wanted something more than a beautiful book; I wanted my poems to sing. With my first book, I enjoyed an extended conversation with two different editors, and the result was a manuscript that was greatly changed over the course of several months of feedback. I still love the results.
Notably, the things I felt unsure about after some long consideration were very clearly specified in the contract I signed with the second press. This is another key expectation—transparency and openness about the process—and the press absolutely met that requirement. But writers have the responsibility to read contracts carefully (I wish I had done so), and they should remember that the initial contract they receive is just the opening of a negotiation about their book.
Just because poetry book sales are small, that doesn’t mean that the writer needs to accept every aspect of a contract. That’s not how contacts work. The difficulty of having a manuscript accepted can overwhelm us, I know—by the time a contract arrives, we may feel ready to go along with anything to bring the book into the world. But we should probably slow things down and think them over at this point. It’s a good idea to take at least a week to think things through, and also to run the contract by trusted advisers.
I have a few thoughts about choosing a publisher—and I’m speaking generally here, rather that specifically about my would-be press, which I continue to love and support. That publisher does the near-holy work of putting poetry and fiction out into the world and of amplifying underrepresented voices. I am in awe of the tremendous effort that press puts out, and, in fact, of the work that all presses do. I feel we owe them a great debt.
But writers are also owed a debt, and a commitment to publish a book should include a promise to do much more than just that.
Writers who go the small-press route—and that’s most poets and writers of short fiction—should be careful that their publisher is going to do more than put a collection in print. The fact is, printing isn’t publishing. Printing is just reproducing. These days digital printing is literally the same as photocopying.
What should a publisher do with an accepted book? Here are my expectations.
- Manuscript selection should be efficient and careful, and a response is absolutely called for every time, even if the manuscript is rejected.
- Acceptance rates should be a tiny fraction of the number of submissions. A whole bunch of good books come out every year; thus, the bar for adding a title to the marketplace should be a high one. I’d rather see a press choose a handful of excellent manuscripts than a bunch of good ones.
- The real work begins after acceptance. Presses should commit to an intensive editing process that is more than just copyediting. Careful editorial work is the value that a press adds to a collection.
- Months before production, promotion must begin, with collection of blurbs and with advance review copies distributed to major reviewing outlets. Promotion must include a plan for attaining media coverage. At the same time, a press needs to make sure that the people who hear about a release can purchase it—online or in the author’s local bookstore.
- Books should be produced on an announced schedule, and production targets should be faithfully met.
- A release event is needed. For a small press, the work of putting together a release party or signing may well fall to the author, but the author should get plenty of support from the publisher.
- Author copies should be very affordable, and authors should not be discouraged from keeping books on hand or from selling them personally.
- The author should work with the press to set up readings wherever possible. The job of the press, then, is to make sure that books are provided for signings.
- After a book’s release, authors should be provided with sales numbers and, if the publishing agreement provides for them, with on-time payment of royalties.
- The book should be kept in print for the life of the press. If the press decides to fold, writers should be notified in advance so that they can obtain as many copies as they wish while they are still available.
Almost every expectation I outline here is easy-peasy for a large publishing house, and a few, like keeping a title in print, are even easier for a small press. Not one of these expectations is unreasonable, and I believe each is reasonable and should be honored.
Small presses have no business putting out books if they aren’t prepared to promote them and keep them available to the reading public. That’s my goal for my own second collection, and it’s also my hope for all poets and writers.
Publishing a book is about connecting with readers, and that is no small part of the creative process. Work really isn’t finished if it isn’t received, and so a writer’s goal should be to reach as many readers as possible. Here’s hoping my second book finds its own welcoming place in readers’ hands and on their shelves.