Agents

Last night I was a panelist on a zoom presentation sponsored by the Author’s Guild, moderated by Jane Friedman. The other panelists included an editor from Little, Brown, a literary agent, a publisher for a major independent press, and the director of a CMLP, a nonprofit for smaller presses. (You can find their names—I’m not trying to hide, just generalize!—here).

When Jane asked us all about agents, the others all said getting an agent was the most preferable way to publish. Neither Grove, Atlantic nor Little, Brown consider unagented submissions. Mary Gannon of CMLP thought it best to try to get an agent first and then, if that fails, try publishers that accept unagented submissions. I was the outlier. “We pretty much never work with agents!” was my contribution, and then I tried not to feel like the loser in the group, publishing only the unwashed books already rejected by scores of others.

But I really believe our main strength as a press comes from the way we acquire books, and we have never accepted a proposal from an agent.

I started thinking about how we have acquired some books in the past:

Vivian Gibson had never written before she took a writing workshop in retirement. She wrote some short pieces and submitted them for our St. Louis Anthology. The editor of that anthology, Ryan Schuessler, sent me her submission, because it was so strong, and suggested I talk to her about a book. I gave her a call.

Vivian would never have written the kind of proposal that is expected by editors at presses that only take agented submissions. It’s an excruciating genre, the non-fiction proposal, and she was just playing around with writing for the first time. Instead of asking for a proposal, we gave her a contract and a deadline; she wrote, we talked during the process, we edited, we edited some more, and then we published The Last Children of Mill Creek. It was reviewed in the TLS, the LARB, and every St. Louis publication; it is now assigned in classes in St. Louis schools, sold at the Gateway Arch, has sold over 3,000 copies, and has been a bestseller at St. Louis’ Left Bank books for going on 18 months now. I don’t want to sound sanctimonious or self-righteous here, but —- it’s a good thing we accept unagented submissions, right?

Phil Christman, whose second book we are publishing in February, was a successful critic whose writing I loved, and one day a few years ago I sent him an email asking if he had any book ideas, and would he be interested in writing one for us. He admitted he found the proposal process difficult. I said, don’t worry. We talked, and developed an idea, and I gave him a contract. The result was Midwest Futures, which went on to win two awards, was reviewed in The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Commonweal, which named it a notable book of 2020.

I could go on, because every book we have published has some story like this. None of our authors, that I know of, tried to get an agent before they approached us. They all either came to us directly, or we reached out to them. A few of them were savvy-enough about this world to know they could get agents—I am thinking right now of John Warner and Craig Calcaterra, two experienced writers who have the contacts and know-how to navigate that process. But they either had had bad experiences with agents and the Big Five process in the past, or knew enough to know they preferred the quicker, more intimate process from idea to publication Belt offers. And, luckily for us, a big advance was not a high priority for them.

I will admit that a few times, last night, I felt small not just in press but person. Why don’t more agents flood me with proposals? But then I remembered that many of the agented proposals we do receive don’t really fit our mission, and the many authors we would never have worked with if we only looked at what agents were sending.

And let’s be clear: we have published many books by Black authors, and women, and people who are not from privileged backgrounds, and writers who are simply not enmeshed in any writer community or group or MFA program, and people writing about a part of the country often uninteresting to New York publishing,—and those are also the writers least likely to try or succeed at the agenting process. We offer an alternative—we offer access— not a fallback plan.

Now: I have nothing against agents! I have sold a book with the help of an agent myself. I recently counseled a good friend, whose book I wanted to publish, to get an agent instead, because I thought he actually could get a six figure advance, and he needed that up front money, plus he was curious as to whether he could get it (it worked! But it’s not so fun for him now, after the contract has been signed and that big first check delivered, in ways that are familiar to me; my experience with my agented book was not positive).

An agent is one way to navigate traditional publishing. It’s not the only one, or necessarily the best, and getting one is a prohibitive process for many writers whose voices we want—and need—to hear.

It’s the fourth quarter! That means the best way you can support this newsletter is to take a shopping trip over at the Belt Publishing store. It also means it is coupon code season. So, my beloved newsletter readers, use NEWSLETTER20 and get yourself 20% whatever you choose.

"A Novel"

Refusing the genre reveal

I have a strong memory of being in grad school, and my (illustrious, MacArthur-winning) PhD advisor talking to us about the then-new (?) trend of putting “A Novel” on the cover of novels. We were discussing theories of the novel, and genre, and the history of form, and, well, post-structuralism was still cool, so there was much to analyze with this whole stamping of the genre on the front of an example on that genre. We laughed at the absurdity —hahahahaha.

A few weeks ago, when David Wilson and I were discussing the cover design for Belt’s first novel, publishing in 2022, David asked if we were putting “A Novel” on it. Now, this question was in some respects surprising, as David has never asked me if we should put “Non-Fiction” (aka “Not a Novel”) or “A Memoir” or “A Researched Argument” on any of our other covers. But he clearly knew that these days, most novels scream their genre to potential readers. I was quick to respond: “No! I hate that convention of adding ‘A Novel’ to covers!” Then, when we looped the author, Aaron Foley, into our cover design discussions, he saw a few mock-ups and asked, “Should we add ‘A Novel’ to it?” Because he also, despite having published two other books with us that did not state their category on the cover, knew that novels must say “A Novel.”

Last week, I participated in the pre-sales meeting for our Spring 2022 titles. Pre-sales meetings are when publishers ‘present’ their forthcoming books to a panel of people who work for our distributor and who are in charge of various accounts: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, ‘the field,’ (independent bookstores), Baker & Taylor, and Ingram. Our distributor is PGW, and we have been with them for three years, and I am still learning the conventions of the pre-sales meetings (as well as the subsequent sales meetings, when we re-present the titles, this time for regional reps from indie bookstores). It took me ages—and I still forget during each meeting, and am temporarily taken aback—to learn that part of what happens in these meetings is reps suggest things we should change. Common recommendations involve lowering prices, switching from paperback to hardback or vice versa, adding more metadata to the info we load into the database they use to look at our catalog (always add more metadata!), getting more or better blurbs (or, in our case, any blurbs at all, as we are shifting away from them), and changing our comps (‘too old’ is common). They also recommend pretty extensive changes sometimes: change the title, change the cover. Those do still startle me, and I vacillate between going back to the staff and author and telling them we need to make some pretty major changes and simply nodding at the advice and then thinking to myself, “nope.” If you have read this far into this paragraph you can probably now guess that a comment that was made at the last pre-sales meeting was “You need to add ‘A Novel’ to the cover of your novel.” I think it wasn’t even a suggestion; it was more like catching us in a mistake: we forgot the ‘A Novel.” (Many new memoirs also add ‘A Memoir’ to the cover but sales reps have never asked us to add ‘A Memoir’ to our covers).

Still not going to do it! Our novel will go into the world without a genre reveal! (Yes, I AM very proud of that phrase). Ou novel will go forth into the world as our not-a-novels do, naked and undefined by arbitrary formal conventions! People might just guess that are genre fluid! (ok I’ll stop). The only retort I can imagine is “people need to know it’s a novel when they are browsing” and to that I say: “booksellers almost always do their own categorizing? like putting a label like “FICTION” on shelves? Also, gajillions of books are sold online and all the sites include genres in their metadata (metadata!)”

I have not done the research on “when did putting ‘A Novel’ on covers of novels become a thing, and why?” but in my muddled head it was the mid-90s, when I was in grad school discussing genre theory, and laughing at it—hahahahaha. Maybe then, during the Borders Era, stockers needed the labels to know where to shelve the new releases? I dunno! They certainly did not also start adding genre stamps to all books; only fiction it seems. Why were/are novels special, harder for browsers to conceptualize upon seeing their covers? And now that we are here, why not “A Fiction” so we can put short stories into the mix? Or were people in the 90s buying novels thinking they were short stories and feeling ripped off then they realized they only got one long story? The 90s were a weird time!

If you know more, or if you have another reason why our novel should have A Novel, please get in touch!

In other news—well, there is a lot of publishing news, isn’t there! I’m reading it all and making mental notes towards a future newsletter on some of it (and in news about newsletters and publishing that also mentions this newsletter on publishing, see this story in Fortune about Substack. It’s really good.) Also, thanks to all who took me up on my free book to new subscribers option.

Thanks for reading Notes from a Small Press! If you subscribe and send me your address, I’ll send you a free copy of So You Want to Publish a Book?, the book based on this newsletter. It does not state its genre on the cover.

Beanie Babies & Books

Also: want a free book?


A WORD FROM OUR SPONSOR

Hello my adorable sign ups! (in Substack parlance, “sign ups” are the free readers, and “subscribers” are the paying ones). I am gearing up for a fall of heftier, in-depth and, of course, ranty newsletters—once I get through this flurry of tasks that will consume the rest of September—and I’m here today, upon the advice of various Substack-related marketing emails, to encourage you to ‘convert’ (blech) from free to paid readers of this now 3 year old (!) newsletter. So here’s my offer:

Become a subscriber for $24/year or $4/month, then send me an email (anne@beltmag.com) with your snail mail address, and I’ll send you a *free* copy of So You Want To Publish A Book.

And you already-paid up subscribers? I see you; I appreciate it; you’re awesome.


Over the weekend I read a history of the beanie babies craze. I found it absolutely fascinating, not only because I understand the impulse on both ends: the businessman who figures out that scarcity can be the key to profits, and decides to ‘retire’ products to create demand on the secondary market (which gins up demand on the primary market for flippers), and those who got caught up on it, the dream of riches that stem from identifying value that others have overlooked (in the beginning, of course). During the weekend I also fell into a rabbit hole of thrifting, a longtime hobby of mine. Finding a first edition in a stack at Goodwill is not significantly different from finding a Princess Di beanie at a toy store in the late ‘90s. Nor are these actions all that different from owning a rare bookstore. But we think of beanie buyers are vastly different from those who sell first editions of Harry Potter in wood-lined stores.

There’s a new beanie-esque craze happening now—look up Rae Dunn. Look at eBay sales figures for Rae Dunn. It’s crazy, and it’s understandable, and it’s an astoundingly compelling story for me because it’s complex, a social-novelesque phenomenon. I want to write about beanies, Rae Dunn, capitalism and its hidden sources of serotonin, my thrifting hobby and I how I play games with myself to prevent it from becoming an obsession, and how all of this isn’t that different from what drives me as a publisher. I think I would be able to write a pretty good work of longform cultural criticism and it would be fun and fulfilling for me to write it. But, like other writing projects I’ve written about here, and told friends about, I suspect it’ll remain in the drafts folder, because when I consider blocking off time to do so, I think—as, say, Ty Warner would have—that it’s best to focus on my business. Thus my love for this newsletter, which I give myself permission to do, and gives my writing muscles a 7 minute workout of sorts.

There are moments when much of my job bores me—entering info into databases, scheduling tweets, going through hundreds of names in a media spreadsheet. But when my job is the most exciting, it is so for reasons not that different from the experience of finding a piece of signed Swedish art glass in the back of a shelf in Value World: it’s the discovery of hidden value combined with the promise of future, higher, realized value. Value, of course, can be various: literary, cultural, financial, historical. If the value I imagine in that object—vase or manuscript—doesn’t combine at least two of these connotations, chasing it feels vacuous, like it would if I were lining up at TJ Maxx before it opens to grab the latest Rae Dunn mug, or getting into beanies at the bursting edge of the bubble, or working at a publisher focused on selling books by a former Trump press secretary. But I understand why people do it. I just need my drive to include those other values, the non-financial ones, because I prize those very highly.

Related, probably, to all this reading and thrifting, is my current focus on our Spring ‘22 titles, which are currently like loaves of challah in the second proofing stage, full of promise , and I am getting hungry thinking about them, but also I really hope I don’t fuck up the dough so they end up overproofed or underbaked ((can I just add here that i’ve never been good at analogies in my writing? It’s something about the way my mind works, or doesn’t; I’m in awe of those who are good at it). Because, of course, each book Belt publishes is a new beanie baby—a new animal, with a new personality—aimed at consumers, who I hope will shove each other to get them as they land on the market, and those who lost out will pay five times as much on abebooks.com, and, even better, anyone will be reading them for any reason, for free, in ten years, or one hundred.

But enough of this tortured line of thinking and bad analgoies—books are dough and they are also stuffed snails!—and to the minutiae that create the reality effect. I had lunch with Craig Calcaterra yesterday, and we talked about what we will do between now and April when his book drops, and what he most wants from the reception of the book—riches? prestige? more Cup of Coffee Substack subscribers? a really great party? A review in a fancy outlet? To be part of an ongoing conversation about sports? to leave a legacy? —and I found it challenging and fun to develop a list of things to do based on our discussion of his responses. We also talked about ideas for a subsequent book; perhaps the most satisfying part of my job is working with authors on more than one book, and I hope Craig joins this growing group. At my most arrogant I imagine I am creating a ‘school’, and in a few decades some literary twenty somethings will try to collect the first editions of all of our Notches titles, or all our city anthologies, and they will haunt rare book stores or Goodwills searching for them. But don’t tell anyone about this, because it’s terribly embarrassing, the grandiosity.

Oh and hey—as I prepare my fall newsletters, I’d love to hear from you! What topics would you be interested in hearing me riff about? I love hearing from you guys in the comments. And don’t forget: I’ll send you a free book if you click this here button and then let me know your address.

The Preorder Revolution

What would Marx say?

I am a huge fan of Mike Duncan, whose Revolutions podcast I’ve listened to for years. I recently yelled excitedly to my similarly-Duncan-obsessed son, “it’s finally February 1917!!! Lenin is headed to the station!” What a COVID balm has been the endless lead up to this moment.

For months now, Duncan has been orchestrating a charming preorder campaign for his just-released book, The Hero of Two Worlds. He has asked listeners to preorder, and then send in receipts if they did so at indie bookstores, in an effort to get all the American indies covered. Duncan, who does little in the way of podcast-related ‘monetization’ hawking (years ago I had to search for a while to find some way to send him money), has a soft sell, but it’s every effective. I have been rooting for his book for months now.

At the top of a recent episode, he read us listeners an email report he had received from the marketing team at his publishers, lauding him for being such an effective promoter, and extolling the huge number of preorders that he has generated. The hope is that all these sales, which all count as first day sales, would boost the book onto the bestseller list. “Duncan is the best!” was the general gist of the marketing report.

I wish only success for Duncan, but part of me is bothered by this campaign, because it exemplifies a problem with corporate publishing’s increasing reliance on authors to sell books—and, related—its increasing reliance on offering contracts to authors with large social media or other (podcast, newsletter) followings. Mustn’t it become increasingly easy for the houses to trim or cut marketing and publicity costs for authors who are good at promotion? But if the author is doing so much of this work, shouldn’t they be paid accordingly? Perhaps Duncan’s advance figured in his ability to bring in those preorders. But if not, I hope Duncan receives a higher royalty rate, based on the number of preorders that come in, or at least some nice bonus.

Duncan, and people like him who are particularly adept at drawing in listeners, or readers, or followers, should be taking more control over their publishing contracts. As long as books are going to continue to be a goal for so many ‘creators’ —and getting a book deal remains a somewhat strange, consistent goal for so many old-school celebrities and young social media stars—then book deals should be structured accordingly. Or at least people might start asking for them to be so.

I recently had a chat with someone who I have long courted as a possible Belt author. They have a large social media following. They could potentially get a big five deal and a mid-five figure advance. We cannot match that, but what we can offer is a lot more control over everything involved in the book than a big five publisher. They would not have to worry about the project devolving into something very different from what they want it to be. Even better (I think, for them), they could ask for a larger stake in the book. I floated the idea of us entering into a sort of co-publishing arrangement. For instance, they put up the same amount of money as we do towards producing the book, and we split the proceeds accordingly. Instead of a 5% royalty, they would get a 50% one. We share in the risks, and they would receive more of the rewards than a traditional contract. (As I’ve written about in previous newsletters, his is the kind of deal Harriet Beecher Stowe was offered and declined, in favor of a traditional deal, and thus she lost a fortune; Jane Austen also underwrote the costs for her books’ production) Basically, structure a publishing deal more like a start-up in which all players have equal equity. (Newsletters, by the way, could also work this way. Instead of Substack taking 10%, or Substack Pro writers getting an advance, if both parties are in it 50/50, the writer comes out better.)

Of course, Duncan may have received an advance that will never earn out, no matter how many preorders—and orders—his book receives. Thus such a deal would not benefit him. But then again, if that’s the case, his amazing preorder campaign will not result in more money for him, either, than simply writing the book and handing it over to the publishing house would (though it might indirectly, through a bigger advance for the next book, prestige-that-leads-to-money from hitting the bestseller lists, etc.)

I guess my point here is that authors who are proficient enough to make their living on revenue from newsletters, podcasts, social media and the like should consider publishing deals that pay them directly for these skills, and not just in higher advances that bake in these skills. Don’t let publishers coast on the coattails of their ability to promote books: demand more of a stake, or cut. After all, all these folks are already publishers themselves—of podcasts, newsletters, etc. As they are about to do on next week’s episode of Revolutions, why not take control of the all means of production.

(cue the Hyden)

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