In 2006, I ran into Rodger Kamenetz, one of my former professors, at the Louisiana Book Festival. During our conversation, I mentioned that I’d written a chapbook, Balm, and had a publisher lined up. Then I dropped this bombshell:
“But I’m thinking about starting my own press and publishing it myself.”
He was quiet for a moment, smiled, and said, “Well, you know what they say about how to make a small fortune as a publisher.”
“Start with a large one.”
I didn’t get it then, but I do now.
In my defense, I wasn’t foolish enough to think that publishing my chapbook and, eventually, other people’s books would make me rich. But what I really knew about publishing probably couldn’t have fit on a Post-It Note.
Since then, I’ve learned a lot, and in an interview with The Alchemist Review, I gave a little advice on starting a small journal or press. Because I don’t want to repeat myself too much, I’m going to focus on what goes on behind the scenes at a small press from both an author’s and an editor’s perspective.
A lot of small presses operate, at least in part, as co-ops. Unlike large, traditional publishers, these presses usually have limited resources and small staffs, often volunteer. Thus, they rely on authors to handle tasks—copyediting, layout, design, advertising, etc.—that a bigger company would. In some cases, the authors are as involved in production and promotion as the press.
For Petticoat Government, my first book, I worked with Jared Michael Wahlgren, the founder and publisher of Gold Wake Press, to edit and lay out the copy, and I designed the cover myself. (I did consult a professional graphic designer, however, for advice on typography, spine measurements, and file conversion. I’m not perfect.)
When the book was released, Wahlgren and I both handled promotion. We mailed review copies, submitted the collection to contests, and advertised using social media. I took the copies he provided—and, when those sold out, additional copies purchased directly from the press—to readings. It’s been two years since Petticoat was published, and I’m still marketing it. I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way, and I’m sure I’ll make a few more.
Not all writers work so intensely with their presses, of course, but I know a lot who do. These days, I can’t log into Facebook or Twitter without seeing a promotional post from a small-press author. (I’m not complaining!) The thing is, it’s rare to hear anyone talk about the writer as an active participant in the publishing process.
Here’s what I thought I knew about publishing: the writer’s job is to write, and the publisher handles everything else. I guess if you’re exceptionally lucky, that’s what happens. But shouldn’t the author care as much about his or her book as the press? Maybe that’s why, as Rodger joked, publishers need a large fortune to make a small one—because they have to pay people to care and to make others care, too.
So, here’s the (my?) truth: I learned more about publishing while working on my own book than I did in the five years I’d been running my press, and I wish all writers would collaborate with their publishers. Collaboration is hard but gratifying work. And I think if we all did it, we’d have a greater appreciation for small presses—though not necessarily big wallets.
If I’m honest with myself, I can admit that I had a lot of big dreams and unrealistic ideas when I started Flaming Giblet Press. Couple that with the fact that I had just enough experience to make me feel like I “got it,” and you end up with a person who had no business being a publisher.
That’s not to say that I’m ashamed of the work I did. Far from it! I’m impressed by what I managed to accomplish despite of my limited time, resources, and skills. But it wasn’t until I worked on my own collection that I learned what I believe a press should be, and that made me feel a little guilty. I wanted to use my knowledge for the greater good. That’s why I joined Sundress Publications.
A quick overview of Sundress: it’s a woman-founded, woman-friendly publication group. Currently, Sundress has nine editors, not counting the editors of its affiliated journals. (Each journal is autonomous and retains its own staff, standards, and guidelines.) Together, they form a committee that runs the collective.*
I’d worked with Sundress off and on since 2006 but didn’t join the board until late 2011, after my second book, The Bone Folders, dropped. The impetus came while collaborating with founder Erin Elizabeth Smith on the book’s design; we talked a lot of “game” and found ourselves philosophically aligned. It wasn’t long before Erin asked me why I wasn’t formally working for/with her.
One of the things about Flaming Giblet—what drove me initially—was the desire to publish books that were somehow “unpublishable,” and I think some of that drive has bled over into Sundress. We only publish books we love, of course, but they rarely come to us in perfect pre-print condition. Thus, we foster, support, and provide feedback at every stage of the editorial process.
All submissions pass through our board, where members comment on and vote in favor of or against the manuscript. Once a majority is reached, we contact the author. If the book is rejected, we pass along our comments, offering suggestions for revision, alternative outlets, etc. If we accept the book, we work with the author on everything from order and selection to fonts and cover art.
That level of collaboration demands significant investment. For this reason, we can’t take on projects lightly. You’re probably reading this and thinking that we’re gluttons for punishment, crazed idealists. Maybe we are. When one considers what goes into the creation of a book—from concept to realization—it’s fair to characterize the entire process as masochistic and impractical.
But that’s okay. Small presses aren’t interested in the practical; if they were, they wouldn’t publish. (Seriously, do you know how crazy-making it can be?) It’s all about love, the kind best summarized by Charles Bernstein:
My advice to young poets is always: start your own magazine or press, and publish your own work and those of your contemporaries whose poems seem most crucial for the art. And if possible, respond as much as possible, through poetics and reviews, to this work. Articulate its values, value its articulations.
Sounds like big dreams. Unrealistic ideas.
Oh, hey—guess I’ve always been cut out for this.
T.A. Noonan is the author of Dress the Stars (Dusie Kollektiv, 2013), The Bone Folders (Sundress Publications, 2011), Petticoat Government (Gold Wake Press, 2011), Darjeeling (Ahadada Books, 2008), and Balm (Flaming Giblet Press, 2006). Her work has appeared in Ninth Letter, Verse Daily, RHINO, specs, Phoebe, Harpur Palate, and many others. Currently, she lives on Florida’s Treasure Coast with her husband and serves as the Associate Editor of Sundress Publications and Managing Editor of its imprint, Flaming Giblet Press.