Zoe Zolbrod on publishing with a small press

May 24, 2010

Most of the authors I interview on this blog write nonfiction, either memoir or travel writing or a combination of both, travel memoir. But today we’ve got a guest who has used her travel experience to inform a different type of writing: fiction.

Author Zoe Zolbrod

Zoe Zolbrod‘s first novel, Currency, which is set in Thailand, was released this month. I’ve invited Zoe here not only to celebrate the release, but also to shed light on publishing with a small press. You can buy her book at Amazon.

Zoe lives outside Chicago and works as a writer and editor of literature and language arts textbooks. She blogs at The Next Youth Hostel.

Thanks for joining us, Zoe! To begin, tell us about your book.

Currency is a literary thriller set mostly in Thailand, where an American woman backpacker and a cute Thai guy get involved with each other and an endangered animal smuggling ring. It was just released by Other Voices Books as the first in their Morgan Street International Series, which celebrates novels set outside the United States by writers from any nation.

Where does your travel experience fit in?

In the mid-90s, I backpacked solo around Southeast Asia for about six months. That experience was my inspiration. While writing, I went back to Thailand on a shorter trip to do research for the book.

Why did you decide to go the novel route instead of non-fiction?

My solo travel experience affected me profoundly, but I didn’t think it was unique enough to warrant a full-length treatment. I wanted to tell an exciting story — my characters get in a lot more trouble than I ever did or, hopefully, will — and have the freedom to use literary elements to explore certain themes.

Currency was released May 16.

What challenges did you face in publishing the book?

I faced the challenge of not giving up in the face of industry indifference. And I’m not even sure I succeeded! It took me a long time to find an agent. Then, after the initial flurry yielded only rejections, she quit working for me. (She did try to talk me into co-writing a book with another client of hers, but I passed.) Then I found another agent, who eventually did the same thing. I also tried a couple smaller presses on my own, but by then the many years of rejection had weakened my spirit. It was bittersweet to be told by one of the editors that this was the best novel he’d ever turned down, and I didn’t pursue the small press angle very hard.

Eventually, I gave up and put the manuscript under the stairs in the basement. It wasn’t until a couple years later that Gina Frangello, an editor at OV Books who had read Currency in a writer’s group years ago, asked me if I would consider submitting it for consideration as a Morgan Street International title. That was in 2008, and I had just had my second baby. When they accepted the book for a 2010 release, I was almost disbelieving. There were a few more small ups and downs after it had been accepted, and it took a while to trust it was really going to happen. But it happened! I now have boxes of books in my foyer.

For those of us who don't know much about small presses (like me), can you explain the basics? Are the standards as high as traditional publishers? Do they edit your book? Do you need an agent or can you approach them directly? Do authors make money?

Small presses are independently owned; they are not part of a corporation, as I think all the major trade houses with the exception of Norton are. In fact, “indie press” is basically a synonymous term with “small press” and is probably used more widely. Some small presses are organized as non-profits, and many if not most of them are devoted to a specific mission other than, or in addition to, maximizing profits.

While indie presses are small compared with major trade publishers, they vary greatly in size, and some of them are really growing and getting quite smart about how they market and distribute. OV Books is one of several imprints of Dzanc, a non-profit that is doing great things in worlds of both literature and education, and the support of the larger house allows OV to be as professional as they are. Because of the size of Dzanc, Currency was available for pre-order and in kindle form at Amazon, for example. It will get relatively decent bookstore distribution compared to that of books from very small presses.

When you ask whether standards are as high as they are at the big trade houses, I’m going to assume that you mean literary standards. In that sense, yes, the standards are very high — at least for the literary small presses with which I’m familiar. In fact, in some ways, the standards at small presses might be higher, because they tend to explicitly value literary writing and complexity and choose which books to publish very carefully. I think a writer is also more likely to receive personal editorial attention at a small press, or at least that’s been my experience at OV, where the editors worked very closely with me on my final revision. From what I hear, editors at the big houses devote fewer hours to that kind of thing these days. OV also paid for a truly excellent copy editor to review Currency. As a professional editor myself, I’ve been nothing by impressed. (And grateful!)

Although I know a writer whose agent-ed manuscript was accepted by a small press, it’s more typical for writers to approach the presses directly. Most have submissions guidelines on their websites.

As for money, you’re going to have to keep your day job if you go with a small press, at least at first. I’ve never heard of one offering a big advance. But while I don’t fault any writer for wanting that high five (or better yet, six!) figure up-front sum, it might not always be in the long-term best interest of the writer. Or at least there’s enough evidence to allow starving and rejected writers to tell themselves that with straight faces.

Big publishers tend to operate on the casino model. They can offer large, even obscene, advances, just to see what sticks. They lose money on many of those bets, but occasionally they land a big winner — a Lost Symbol or Lovely Bones or whatever. As for the writers, they have the benefit of a significant advance, but if their books fail to earn back that advance at a fairly fast rate, the support for them is likely to disappear. It may actually be harder for them to get a second book published if they have not met the sales expectations set up by their advance.

At a small press, writers might get a small advance — perhaps only three or four figures — but mostly they will be paid as royalties come in. My understanding is that the royalty rate does not differ much between big and small presses, so if you sell a million books, you’ll end up with roughly the same amount of cash. Of course, small presses don’t pay for placement in Barnes and Nobel, they don’t get carried at big box stores, and they don’t have the same access to big media markets; you’re less likely to sell a million copies through them. On the other hand, you’re not paying an agent 15 percent if you’ve landed yourself at a small press, and your title might be in print much longer, even if it is not selling gangbusters right away.

(I also want to clarify something: Independent presses are not the same thing as print-on-demand services such as iUniverse or AuthorsHouse. No reputable independent will charge you fees to publish your book. Also, university presses are not quite the same as indie presses, but I think there are more similarities than differences. Some university presses might be good homes for nonfiction travel writers.)

What types of authors and books are best suited to use small presses? What's the best way for a writer to find a small press that might be interested in her book?

Books that do not fit neatly into a commercial mold are well-suited to small presses. And big presses seem to have a pretty specific set of molds right now. My book, for example, is a fairly smooth-reading page-turner. It’s plot-driven. But it’s set almost exclusively outside the United States, which turns-off mainstream publishers. (Although books set in India are said to the be the exception.)

Also, a small press is probably the best, or most likely, home for books that appeal to a niche audience. Big houses want big print runs and big profits, but a small publisher can find ways to make a profit and a presence for a book that might interest fewer people, but interest them passionately. A small press is more likely to keep that book in print for years.

The best way to find out about what small presses might be right for you is to research books in your area — which you’ve probably already done — and notice who publishes them. For travel writers, especially female travel writers, I would bet that some of the titles on their lists would be published by Seal Press, one of the best-known publishers of that genre.

If you have a list of books similar to your own that does not include any books published by small presses, I challenge you to do some more extensive research, because you might be relying too heavily on mainstream venues to deliver information to you.

So how do you sell the book? Online? Can you contact bookstores yourself and ask them to carry it?

The chain bookstores might carry a few copies of Currency; through Dzanc, OV Books has a big enough distributor to make that likely, and I know it’s listed at Barnes and Nobel. But it won’t be displayed cover-forward on a table or in the window or on a rack, which is what really drives the sale of books. That placement is most often paid for by big publishers, kind of like pay-to-play in the music industry, where music by small labels is never heard on commercial stations.

I expect to sell most copies either through Amazon or some other online business or through the bookstores that I visit on my tour, where the idea is that the booksellers might hand-sell copies, having met me and hopefully becoming intrigued by the book. And indies don’t charge for display treatment — it could become a staff pick or something like that. Another writer told me that as a first-time author with a small press, half the books I sell might have my DNA on them, meaning I will know personally or be present when sales are made. My hope is to eventually get on some kind of list that might give the book attention — an Indie Next list, or some reviewer’s Best Beach Reads or Travel Tales, or something like that. But I can see how hard it is to get attention. There are a lot of books out there. Book reviewers are sitting amidst stacks and stacks of books. How to get them to pick up mine and give it a chance? I wish I knew for sure.

Can you tell us more about what you’re doing to promote the book?

In Chicago, I’m having a public release party in a couple weeks, the first in a series of events here. And I’m about to embark on a book tour. OV Books has made most of the arrangements and is giving me significant help with the expenses, which is another thing I’m grateful for. Many big houses are not offering that support to their mid-list authors. Because this is my first book and I’m not a known writer, I’m usually appearing with a couple other writers to help grow my audience.

Excerpts of the novel are going to appear on a couple of literary websites, and I’m also doing web interviews like this one and trying to make connections with the online travel community, because I think there’s a natural audience for my book there. And of course I’m trying to talk myself up as often and as creatively as I can, without becoming obnoxious. It’s hard for me, sometimes, but I do notice a correlation between how much I talk — or Facebook or Twitter — about the book and how many hits I get on my blog.

What have you learned through this process that you wished you knew when you started?

Mostly, I wish that I had started some of what I’m doing now earlier, like blogging and participating in online literary and writing communities. Also, I wish I had been less easily defeated while trudging through the desert of rejection. That coincided with a time in my life when I was adjusting to motherhood and had increasing work pressures, and I sort of dropped out of my writing community and tried to ignore the growing Chicago lit scene, seeing it mostly as a painful reminder of what I wasn’t able to do. But I was no less a writer then than I am now, and community is of vital importance to writers, both for getting published and for enjoying and improving our craft. I think your website is a great facilitator of that.

[tweetmeme source=”alexisgrant”]

Thanks, Zoe! If anyone wants to leave additional questions in the comments, Zoe has agreed to answer them.

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    0 Replies to “Zoe Zolbrod on publishing with a small press”

    • Karen Walker says:

      Fantastic interview. Thanks Zoe and Alexis. I wish I’d known about small presses before I self-published my memoir. I wonder if they would consider a self-published book? Hmmm.

      • zoezolbrod says:

        Hi Karen–
        I’m not in a position to speak with much authority on this, but my sense is that publishers of any size are not necessarily put off by titles that were originally self-published. In fact, having success with a self-published book might help open doors. My dad self published a novel–Battlesongs, about the Korean War–that a small press is now interested in re-packaging. It’s a very small and very new press that is looking for a very specific kind of author, but there you go. Good luck!

    • Peggy Frezon says:

      Thanks Lexi and thank you Zoe for a thorough and helpful commentary on publishing with small presses. I’m in about the same place as you were. I have an agent and we’ve had lots of nibbles and bites and chomps… but it’s a really difficult time in the publishing world. I think all presses–big and small–are cautious right now. Do you know of a searchable database of small presses? Thanks! And best of luck with your exciting novel!

    • Brent Winter says:

      Thanks Alexis and Zoe for a really great interview. Zoe, I’m interested in your comment that you wished you had started participating in online literary and writing communities earlier. Can you say a little about the communities you participate in? I’m trying to start a little community around my blog, and I have readers, but I wouldn’t call it much of a community yet. I’m interested in community but not much aware of what the options are for writers. Thanks!

    • zoezolbrod says:

      Hi Brent–
      For me, community has been more easily found by looking outside my blog rather than by trying to create something on it. As an indie, literary writer, the community-building sites I’ve been interested in are The Nervous Breakdown and Fictionaut. I got hipped to these sites from writer friends. I don’t know how long it would have taken me to have found them on my own. (There’s also The Rumpus, but that’s less about contributing pieces of writing than about reading and commenting with a like(ish) minded crowd.

      Twitter seems like a way to find online communities that interest you, although if there’s a clear, direct route, I haven’t found that.

    • zoezolbrod says:

      Currrency just got a great review at a site called NewPages, which is all about independent presses, stores, and magazines. It turns out they have a good guide to small presses. http://www.newpages.com/book-publishers/

    • Rose says:

      Great interview, Zoe, and thanks so much for sharing!

    • zoezolbrod says:

      For those who don’t check out Poets and Writers, I want to share this link to an article in the most recent issue. It’s about agents, but I think it gives a great overview of commercial publishing. This is great information for anyone who is looking for an agent or who has one.

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