Spread the Word: On Small Presses and the Fight for Publicity
Keeping Pace with Fewer Resources in a Social Media-Saturated Environment
The LGBT Center in New York City hosts a lecture series called Second Tuesday, where people on the LGBTQIA2S spectrum (or rainbow, as it were) are invited to speak. July’s speakers were Garth Greenwell and Paul Lisicky, both authors who’ve been blowing up this year. Greenwell’s debut What Belongs to You has been reviewed in (or its author interviewed for) basically every newspaper, magazine, and literary venue that has managed to get its hands on it (or him). Lisicky recently received a Guggenheim Fellowship and published a memoir, The Narrow Door, with the inimitable non-profit publisher, Graywolf Press. During their talk, the two writers discussed briefly how much publishing a book that achieves success (which, if reviews and prizes and nominations are anything to go by, both their recent books have) means that the authors become extremely public commodities. They’re expected to do events (like Second Tuesday), and they’re expected to hang around on social media, to share their reviews and publicize their own books.
Both Farrar, Strauss & Giroux and Graywolf Press have publicists on staff—good ones, at that, since getting authors in front of prize committees and reviewers is part of what publicists do. But regardless of the publisher’s work on their behalf, Greenwell and Lisicky still have to maintain public personas during the lifecycle of the book, rather than returning to the actual craft of writing. They seem fully aware, however, that their situation is the lucky one. After all, they do have publicists dedicated to their books. They do get help with coordinating events. And neither seems entirely averse to interacting on social media anyway (as Greenwell’s occasional pictures of cats he’s pet-sat this summer attest).
As has been much discussed, this has become standard practice in the publishing world. If you’re a writer who’s about to publish a book, whatever is being spent on publicity doesn’t mean that you don’t have to get involved as well. Authors are asked to find people to blurb their books prior to release; they’re asked to reach out to people who will be willing to review the books; they’re asked to maintain their websites and Twitter accounts and Facebook pages. The difference between being published with a “Big 5” publisher versus a small or independent press is not necessarily how much work the writers have to do, but how much that work gets noticed. For example, @fsgbooks has almost 115,000 Twitter followers as of this writing. @GraywolfPress has over 250,000. If these accounts retweet Garth Greenwell and Paul Lisicky, respectively, that ups the authors’ following and gets their words in front of a whole lot of people. And if word of mouth is still considered to be the best publicity there is, then what is Twitter if not a digital version?
Then what about small presses? Though Twitter is but one limited measure of reach, Indiana University Press, for instance, who published Zachary Tyler Vickers’ debut book of short stories, Congratulations on Your Martyrdom, has only a little over 7,500 followers. That’s two fewer zeroes tacked on at the end than the publishers above: a big difference. Which isn’t to say that small presses don’t do great work in supporting their writers. In fact, Vickers was incredibly pleased with his experience overall: “Smaller presses often consider you much more throughout the process, which was wonderful for me. I was able to provide input on everything from marketing to the cover.” But he also admitted there was a steep learning curve when it came to figuring out his own publicity, especially when it came to getting in front of people directly: “Where I struggled the most was in trying to nail down events/readings—I think some places prefer to hear directly from the press, rather than the author. It was a challenge, but it was also a valuable experience because I learned a lot about the back-of-house work that goes into publishing a book, which is a tremendous amount. I have a great, dedicated team to thank for that.”
Drew Nellins Smith, who published Arcade (which was excerpted on this site) with Unnamed Press, also had a good experience. He said that he feels he’s been “unusually lucky, because Olivia [Taylor Smith] reached out to an insane number of people in advance of the book’s release.” Olivia Taylor Smith (no relation to the author) is indeed lauded by authors she’s worked with her as incredibly effective at reaching out, and in Smith’s case she arranged his readings as well. He told me: “I genuinely thought I had done all I reasonably could to publicize the book. I had emailed a ton of people and brainstormed a number of possible reviewers and contacts. Olivia and I collaborated. We had a shared spreadsheet of the people we wanted to reach out to, and she followed through and contacted everyone, from the most ambitious to the most accessible. There were some great, unexpected results. For instance, a great blurb from David Shields, who loved the book. Same for the piece in The Los Angeles Times by Michael Schaub.” He added that “it truly does seem to be a lottery, what catches on and what doesn’t,” but admitted also that he “didn’t leverage social media at all” because of his own dislike of it (though he has recently rejoined Twitter).
When I started interviewing authors for this piece, my theory—what I’d known up to that point—was that getting a small press book noticed is insanely hard. Yet the publicity landscape is a bit more complicated than that, and impressions of success or failure have a lot to do with a writer’s expectations.
Michael J. Seidlinger has worn many hats in his life, from publicist to editor to published author—the latter most recently also with Unnamed Press, which is releasing his dark YA, Falter Kingdom. He said that “the good, make that the best, indie presses are there as support, not the replacement of, an author’s promotional efforts. The best presses encourage the author, helping where and whenever they can, but most of all the indie editor and/or publicist will act as friend, confidant, and psychiatrist. They’ll be there to guide and to galvanize the enthusiasm into actual practical energy, the energy into efforts that don’t go to waste.” He added: “there’s no right way. There’s no formula that works for every book. There are plenty of wrong ways, though, more than there are books being published.”
The balancing act is where things get tricky for writers, and where they often end up finding themselves disappointed. I spoke to a few such writers who wished to remain anonymous—after all, they still need to maintain working relationships with those presses. Besides, authors should be thankful for having any kind of publisher, right? That seems to be the attitude at times. One author told me, “With a small press, I’d have expected to be kept a little more in the loop (I had to follow up on the status of review submissions and even reminded them of a prize deadline, which would have otherwise passed. It felt like the publicist wouldn’t have followed up if I hadn’t sent that prompt). I was surprised by the amount of leg work and record-keeping I had to do myself.” Another author who wished to remain anonymous said that she had hoped for at least some marketing, but her publisher told her that they hadn’t managed to place any reviews. She also had qualms with social media marketing required of her: “Another thing that bothers me (and perhaps I just need to get used to it) is the heavy reliance on social media for marketing (Instagram and now Snapchat) and this does nothing for me.” She also sees her press’s large catalogue, with an almost constant release schedule, as partly to blame for their inability to give authors the support they need.
The most amazing thing to me—and I’ve seen quite a number of publishing contracts in my work as an agent’s assistant—was the contract this author was given which stipulated “(a) 2 public appearances per month for the first six months; (b) 3 written interviews per month during the first 6 month; (c) 1 Twitter/Facebook chat every three months for the first year; (d) media appearances for the first 12 months; (e) a blog tour.” The author was available and willing to do all of this—but none of it happened. The press didn’t help her arrange any of these things.
But bad experiences seem to be more the exception than the rule. As Seidlinger said, there’s a lot you can do wrong, but no one right way to get the book out there. Annie DeWitt’s book, White Nights in Split-Town City, for example, which is being published by NY Tyrant, a tiny press run by basically two people, got on the radar of The Millions, where it was named one of the most anticipated books of the second half of 2016 in that site’s widely read roundup (and according to Twitter, at least her book was one of three most preordered as a result of her Millions listing). So whether or not it was her press who made this happen or DeWitt’s own hard work, it’s clearly already a success in terms of publicity.
Yi Shun Lai, author of Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu, told me that her press, Shade Mountain, doesn’t have its own publicist—and that basically, it didn’t matter. “My publisher,” she told me, “Rosalie Morales Kearns, is widely read, and contributes her expertise and time generously to supporting the literary ecosystem. She put together a master list of places to notify about my book, asked me to contribute to that list, adding places I’ve written and edited for, and places I had connections. Shade Mountain did all of the legwork, sending out queries.” But Lai still did plenty of her own outreach, but in her case, she expected to. She said that this book was hers, her work, and she paraphrased Alex Maslansky, a bookseller in Los Angeles: It’s not so much author as marketer; it’s author doing honor to the work they’ve done.
Poetry, which is notoriously harder to get paid for or publish is another complex landscape. Carrie Murphy, author of two books—Pretty Tilt ; Fat Daisies—published both with small presses. She told me that with her first book she alone had to send out review copies. There wasn’t even a plan for publicity, and it was her press’s reputation and her own hustling, and in her words, “a LOT of kismet,” that helped get her book some attention. As for her second book, she said, “[It] definitely had more of a publicity plan (a press release, review copies sent out to lots of places, a social media contest).” But as she’d gotten married about a month before the book release, she was concerned with a lot of other things too. She admitted, “[I] probably could have done more leading up to it,” but added that she also didn’t have the funds to travel for a DIY book tour or even for readings.
This is another facet of the publicity game with small presses: the lack of funding. Murphy simply couldn’t afford to do certain things, and her presses certainly couldn’t either. She reflected, “I think the fact that most [small press] publishers are working for very little money (if any), and in their spare time, has a lot to do with the level of publicity available for books.”
It is the lack of funding that publicist Lauren Cerand spoke to me about. She said that “one of the biggest challenges in the small press community is leveraging resources effectively to reach an audience of readers and book-buyers, especially when competition is so stiff at the top level (media), where editors assign books for review that they think people will be talking about; that’s where you need to be as a press to begin. As in, already talked about.” In order to be already talked about, Cerand said that she recommends small presses begin by leveraging their contacts, creating brand awareness, and spending time cultivating relationships with bookstores (which are, she said, “where it’s at for the indie community”). In other words, not blowing all their money on publicity campaigns right off the bat. Cerand commended a fellow publicist’s work in this regard: “Jeff Waxman is the best at that, no question. I’ve seen him transform things for Restless Books, Tyrant Books, and Relegation Books, all in the last year and all in ways that made those presses much more likely to get highlighted by the media for their next releases.”
Which isn’t to say these press’s authors won’t be working alongside their publishers. Let’s remember the beginning of this piece for a moment: Garth Greenwell and Paul Lisicky, with large- and medium-sized presses, also need to do their own publicity. Another writer I spoke to has worked with both small and mid-sized publishers, and while she said that the mid-sized ones arranged “press releases, radio shows, outreach to known bookstores, and introductions to news outlets,” while the smaller ones didn’t, she also said, “I do about the same legwork no matter who the publisher is.” And added that it isn’t the size of the press, but more about “the agreement you have with them. Before you sign, understand what they will and won’t do and then really check in with yourself whether that’s okay. Because you’ll be doing a ton either way, and every bit of support helps. Do not sign with a press that doesn’t promise anything—it’s just too easy then for your book to die a silent death.”
Every press, every publisher, every publicist is different. An author could be at a big five and have the publicists not answering your email or sending galleys out because they’re slammed with such huge workloads. Then again, many small presses give their all in support of the work they’re putting forth.
“In the end it’s still difficult to know,” Drew Nellins Smith said. “It’s very difficult getting publicity for anything (assuming you haven’t received a famous multimillion dollar advance as Garth R. Hallberg or Emma Cline did).” And even then, you don’t know if all the hype is going to make you a success or a disappointment. The relationship status between authors and small presses is, in summation: it’s complicated.