Monday, November 05, 2007

Catherynne M. Valente on Small to Large Press

Today we are initiating the first post in what will hopefully become a series, wherein other pros come in and talk about some aspect of craft or publishing. We're starting with a great piece by:

Catherynne M. Valente

Born in the Pacific Northwest in 1979, Catherynne M. Valente is the author of the Orphan's Tales series, as well as The Labyrinth, Yume no Hon: The Book of Dreams, The Grass-Cutting Sword, and four books of poetry, Music of a Proto-Suicide, Apocrypha, The Descent of Inanna, and Oracles. She is the winner of the Tiptree Award and the Million Writers Award and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, the Rhysling and Spectrum Awards, and the World Fantasy Award. She currently lives in Northeastern Ohio with her partner and two dogs.

If you're interested in taking a look at some of her books you can find them by following the links: The Orphan's Tales: In the Cities of Coin and Spice and The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden.

Catherynne is going to be talking about the journey from no press to small press to big New York house, a topic I'm particularly delighted to see here since it was only a few weeks ago that I realized I'm a dinosaur about small press stuff. Please feel free to ask questions and throw in comments, Catherynne will be checking in periodically and taking a swing at them, so without further ado here she is:

Little, Big

When I was a little kid, I had a vague idea of what school was supposed to be like. First you go to kindergarten, then you go to elementary school, then junior high, then high school, then college, and then...well, it got a little fuzzy at that point.

When I was unpublished, I had a similar batch of received wisdom about the literary/genre world and How You Do It. First you write some short stories, then you get them published in the Big Three magazines, then you write a novel, then you query agents until one takes it on, then it's accepted by a Big New York House, and then...profit! Or the same fuzziness of the four-year old trying to mentally model her post-collegiate years.

I still hear about the inherent value of the above system, and I'm sure it has some...if only I knew anyone who had followed it. Every writer I know has some story about stumbling backwards into their agent or their contract, usually after running directly and resoundingly into the many brick walls that "traditional" system puts forth. In my own case, I wrote a book called The Labyrinth when I was 22, and was not nearly naive enough to think a Big New York House would be interested in it, since it was a funky surrealistic half-prose-poem of a thing and they haven't been jivving on that sound since never ever. So I submitted to the small presses, the independent houses, the ones I thought might like something really different. And difference is key, especially with the small presses who aren't expecting you to be Martin or Paolini or Tolkien's undead twin.

Anyway, I submitted to basically everything with an imprint, and got a healthy stack of rejection letters--though not so many as you might think. When you aren't querying agents or multinationals, the list isn't that long. I signed with a California-based press which will go unnamed, only to have the charming antiquarian experience of having the contract yanked when I declined to sleep with the editor. That sunk me for awhile--I couldn't believe that crap still happened, and I was very discouraged. Also I didn't know who else to submit to, having gone through a number of stamps. Enter my stocky Greek guardian angel.

You see, it is a little about who you know. But the flip side of that rather icky coin is that in this day and age, it's pretty easy to get to know anyone. Following through Livejournal blog links I came upon Nick Mamatas, whose first novel, Move Under Ground, had just been released. I asked him who he would recommend submitting to, and he gave me a list, all of which names I knew all too well. In the first extraordinary act of kindness to which I owe my career, Nick asked to see my first chapters, liked them, and sent them along to his editor at Prime Books, Sean Wallace. Sean snapped up The Labyrinth as well as my second novel, Yume no Hon: The Book of Dreams, but when he came upon the first of a funny little fantasy series, he was reluctant to acquire it. Enter second act of kindness: he sent it to the woman who was to become my editor at Bantam Spectra, believing it to be more commercial and therefore the one book of mine that might make it in the shark-filled ocean of those fabled Big New York Houses.

Over the next year and a half I worked with Prime on those two books, and then a third, and two poetry collections. I waited, and waited. 18 months later the contract came through, and with it in hand I made my first call to an agent, and The Orphan's Tales started its journey into the world.

This may not be how you're supposed to do it, but it's how it gets done, more often than not these days.

I think hardly an interview has gone by in which I have not been asked what the difference is between working with a Big New York House and a small press. The biggest one is like the elephant in the room no one wants to make eye contact with: money. A big press will pay you enough to live on (for awhile) and a small press can rarely afford to. But it's not quite that simple, because small presses offer what big presses cannot in order to fill the attraction gap, and that thing is control. In my years at Prime I chose all of my own covers, farming our work to artists I knew just needed a little exposure to make their name. My contracts were looser and granted me more rights. I was consulted far more often about the final form of the book. These are all good things. There is also less pressure to be a bestseller: a book that sells 5000 copies is a failure for a big press, but a smashing success for a small imprint. At times, more personal attention and publicity will be spent on a single book--but don't mistake me, the publicity a big press can put behind any given novel is enormous; it just isn't always your novel that gets it. However, these days, even small presses publish dozens of books a year, it is possible it won't be your book there, either. (The solution to that, by the way, is an easy one: never assume anyone else will do your publicity. Do it yourself, hit the street and the internet hard, and don't give up.)

I have been extrordinarily lucky at Bantam. My editor is wonderful, and the decisions she made with regards to cover art and interior illustrations were dead on, I have had nothing to complain about. It might have gone the other way. I love working with her, and hope that I will for awhile. But it's a brutal, pitiless business, and the small presses are not only a great place to start--I know hardly a working writer who didn't start there--but when your sales slip, and they probably will, it's often the small presses that will catch you, and keep your words in the world. They are the small angels of publishing, and without them a great many marvelous things would have failed to find a printed page. In this day and age, it is ridiculous not to have solid contacts in the independent press. It's like a stock portfolio--if you aren't diversified, you're just one market dip away from a long leap out the window. The author starting out today has to be incredibly savvy, have at least 6 aces in her pocket, and have contacts at as many presses as she can--no matter what their size. With a decent online audience, she can make a book by even the smallest press profitable for both herself and employers.

And you know what? That's not so hard to do as all that. I started out with an unsellable book, a small press took a risk on me, and a slim three years later I won the Tiptree Award and was nominated for the World Fantasy Award. It can happen, it does happen, it can happen fast--and I'll tell you how to do it. Between you and me, you know.

Make yourself indispensable. Ask yourself this: if you stopped writing tomorrow, would the market be any less for lack of you? Is what you're writing different and dynamic enough that no one else can do what you do, that if a press wants X, they know to go directly to you, do not pass Go, do not consider other sources? It should be. That's how you make a career.

Catherynne M. Valente


Kelly McCullough said...

Hey, is this mic on? Surely somebody among our readers has some questions on small press for Catherynne.

Especially now that I've broken the barrier of being the first to post in the blank space. I also wanted to thank Catherynne for coming by with a great post.

Michael Damian Thomas said...

Hi Catherynne,

Thanks for the wonderful blog about small presses. Did you ever find that there was a stigma attached to working with independent presses from other authors, agents, and editors?

Anonymous said...


Not at all. The only issue that ever came up was the habit new authors sometimes have of selling several books at once to a small press just because they offer, which locks them in for years and doesn't allow them to use any one book as a launchpad to bigger presses. After every independent press book an author should evaluate their situation and see if they can get more for the next book--more money, more exposure, more publicity. That doesn't always mean a bigger press, nor does it mean you can marry up to one at any time, but it sometimes does.

But no, the independent press is a very respectable place these days, and I've never had any backlash about my time there.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post! I had heard of the "stronger control" aspect of the independent presses, but had forgot about it.

I'm curious how the traditional channels would work for them. Would agents even bother to submit them, for the lack of advance?

Also, how skilled are the independent presses? Do most of them give the material the same amount of effort... or do they just keep the details up to the authors? I suppose it varies, but in general?

Is it even more difficult to find reputable independent presses and avoid the scammers? Do many of them stay around for very long?

They certainly seem to pop up all over the place, but how many of them have longevity to them?