Should I Sign With a Small Press?

I got on my soapbox last week (I mean, if you can’t do that on a blog, where can you do it?) and that was fun.  Got a few trolling comments.  This week, I’m ready to give you an update on this book.

What have been doing the past months or so, you ask?  Well, not writing.  More like lawyering, socializing and waiting.

God, there’s a lot of waiting in this game.

But that’s not to say I haven’t made any progress- I have! I’ve found a publisher who is interested in publishing my book! It’s a small press looking to support black writers.  I met the publisher at a writing conference.

The Small Press Option

It should be noted that I had no idea that signing unagented with a small press was an option before I was approached by one of the publishers.  But I think it’s one that more writers should consider.

This is what I know about the small press I am looking at:

First, I don’t need an agent to sign with them, which is great because I don’t have one.

Second, the publisher would provide me with an editor, publish the book and then help me market it.  I get the impression that they can offer more TLC than a big publisher or a busy agent, which is exactly what I need right now.

I need help.  I need support.  I need guidance.  I want my book to sell, but more than anything I want it to be good and to reflect my vision.  Then I want it to sell.

The downside is that signing with small presses can be risky.  There’s a website called Writer Beware that outlines all the risks.  They’ll even let you know if the specific small press you’re looking at has received any complaints, etc. (mine has not, but she said it was still risky move to sign with them because there isn’t much info about them out there- good or bad). The publishers definitely seem to have experience and credentials, but the Writer Beware lady is right- ultimately this is a new venture.  Like any small business, many of them fail within the first year or two.

Other downsides are that I wouldn’t get an advance (big publishers give advances) yet I also wouldn’t get 80-100% of the royalties (like you do when you self publish).

I spoke to one of the small press’ current clients, who is working with them on her third book.  She was helpful.  She said the publisher is sending her on radio shows, pushing her to do appearances and pursue other things completely outside her comfort zone in an effort to get the word out about her book.  The contract she signed seemed fair and standard (she worked with other publishers in the past).

I’ve also met with the actual publisher a couple of times.  There aren’t really any red flags besides the fact that it’s so new.  I’d definitely be taking a leap of faith, but so would they.

My Other Options

The way I see it, I have three options:  I could a) pursue the small press, b) continue my quest for an agent who will then embark on a quest for a publisher or c) self publish.  I’ve already talked about the small press, let’s discuss the other two paths.

  1. Self publish

I really don’t want to self-publish because I just don’t have that expertise or background.  I don’t have connections to bookstores or libraries, I’m not well-versed in marketing, and I just spent the past three years learning how to write a book (while being a full-time lawyer).  Learning how to publish a book as well seems unappealing.  Not to mention the inevitable hustling that would have to accompany that if I have any desire to sell the thing.  I’ve done a lot on my own, I’m ready for someone to just tell me what to do.  And I’ll be happy to do it.

2. Agent > Big Publisher

Going the agent-big publisher route was always my plan.

Obviously trying to find an agent is a ridiculously long process.  It’s taken a long time for me, and I think that even if it does work out, it will take for-ever.  Maybe months to get an agent.  Then maybe a year to find a publisher.  Then a year of editing.  Then Lord knows if it ever gets on the shelf.  I mean I love my book, but if I can avoid this taking another 5 years, I may very well do that.

The agents and large publishers are also faced with various pressures that seem to hurt minority writers, writers of niche genres, writers with unique styles, and anyone else who isn’t a cookie cutter image of today’s  author.

Finally, I get the sense that I may not get too much assistance or attention, which worries me.  While I’m confident in my abilities, I know that right now I’m limited in what I can do.  I really need someone who will help me create my best work- there are agents and others who are willing to invest that kind of time, but it’s not a guarantee. Also, the agent would get 15-20% of whatever I earn, which would be annoying.

Upsides? If I found an agent and signed with a big publisher, that means I’d get an advance and be working with an established institution.  In addition to having a certain degree of prestige, I would benefit from their vast connections and experience.  But would they care about me?

To the extent there any knowledgeable writers reading this, I could really use your insight.

Til next week!

The Dangers of Writing Through a Strictly White Lens

After a brief vacation from blogging, I had planned to give you an update on the trying to get published process- and I do actually have an update.  BUT I’ll have to tell you next time (next week, I promise!) because, as happens sometimes, I read something yesterday that I feel compelled to discuss.

NYT Article Renders Suicides of Asian American Students Invisible

A couple of days ago the NYT wrote a story about mental health issues and suicides among college students.  Yesterday a writer at Reapproppriate, a site dedicated to Asian American activism, noted the glaring omission of any discussion of the Asian-American students.  She writes:

“Asian American students are more likely than their non-Asian peers to report experiencing [depression or anxiety]. Asian American women have the highest suicide rate of women of any race. Asian Americans are also among the least likely of patients to seek and receive medical help for depression or related symptoms… [the NYT] had ample opportunity to mention this Asian American disparity — and the impact of racial identity in general — with regard to on-campus mental illness and its treatment; but she repeatedly and disconcertingly fails to do so.”

She asks, why did the NYT make Asian-Americans invisible in a story about an issue that deeply affects that community?

The NYT Article Shows the Dangers of Writing with a Strictly White Lens

I talk often about how most movies or books about life or humanity (i.e., not about race or difference) by default feature white characters, as if white people are the only ones who feel love or loneliness or have issues with their parents or a blinding ambition.

The consequence is that the world sees and internalizes a very limited portrayal of people of color.  Even Obama said that, growing up, his understanding of what it meant to be black in America was primarily based on what he saw on TV.  In other words, the way minorities are depicted in the media not only affect how others see us, but also how we see ourselves.

This is what makes the NYT’s omission of Asian-American students particularly troubling.  She’s writing about an extremely sensitive topic and people who feel marginalized and invisible, but she’s doing so through a completely white lens.  As a result, not only does she contribute to the limited portrayal of people of color, she contributes to the very problem she’s trying to address by suggesting that the death of students of color (and therefore the lives of student of color) aren’t as meaningful as those of white students.

On Twitter, the writer acknowledges there is an issue in the Asian-American community but that “one story can only do so much.”  She then points out that she didn’t discuss men either. I understand the impulse to defend herself, but I think she’s missing the point.  The racial component isn’t a separate story.  It’s a crucial part of any discussion of suicide on campuses.

I don’t think her omissions were malicious.  I don’t think the writer is racist.  But her perspective was limited, and therefore so was her ability to write the story.  Writers, publishers and newspapers- especially the NYT – should hold themselves to a higher standard.

DC Writers Conference: Pitching Agents; Getting A Peek Into the Publishing World

A couple of weeks ago I went to the Washington Writers Conference. Usually I’m excited about the panels and workshops, etc., but the purpose of this visit was strictly business—meeting agents. By signing up for the conference you got 5 minutes to pitch 4 agents of your choosing. It was a solid selection. I decided to only meet with people I hadn’t already sent queries to.

The pitches

The conference came after my last post, in which I wrote that the idea of networking for this book was an annoying concept. Given that that’s how I was feeling at the time, I didn’t go to the cocktail party in Bethesda the Friday before the conference to mingle with agents and publishers—including a few I pitched. I should have gone, but I didn’t.

Saturday, I attended a few panels, during which the pitch sessions were scheduled. Two of the agents I sat with made me feel stupid for even being there (was it me, or was it the fact that they had been sitting in a 90 degree room all day?) One asked me for 75 pages (yes!) and the last asked me if my book was “like a Nicholas Sparks novel but with black characters.”


If you follow this blog, then you have an idea of how my face reacted, outside of my control, to that question. I recovered though, and she asked for three chapters.

Nevertheless, I was feeling a little deflated at the end, like I hadn’t really made the most of the day. But then this guy who works at a tiny publisher approached me. I think his company has an interest in minority authors. Anyway, he said they do everything traditional publishers do- edit, market, etc. and you don’t need an agent to pitch them.

I did some investigating, and I learned that there are other ways to getting published besides querying millions of agents and then hoping to find a publisher. Apparently there is a whole army of tiny presses like his (e.g., university presses) that target niche audiences that you can pitch without an agent. Once I look into it further, I will probably blog about it in greater depth. For now, I’ll just let you know that I sent him my full manuscript.

The conference: a reminder that I’m a black woman

This is the first writing conference I attended that wasn’t 90% women. I hadn’t really thought about that when I signed up, but the differences were apparent immediately.

While most of the agents were women, all of the panelists on the publisher panel were men. The keynote speaker was a sportswriter for a major newspaper who mentioned at least dozen of writers and athletes who influenced him—all of them were men.  Meanwhile, the lady sitting next to me was there to pitch a biography about a woman and trees. One of the few male agents expressed some interest and she was surprised that a man was interested in that topic.  His response was “my sister is a women’s studies professor” (or something along those lines).

What I learned from that story is that if a man doesn’t have a sister who is a women’s studies professor, he won’t read a biography about a woman. For real though- is that what the agent was saying?

One of the panels was about gender and biography, which I enjoyed. The panelists included famous unauthorized biographer Kitty Kelley and James McGrath Morris– a white man who just published a biography about a black, female civil rights reporter named Edith L. Payne.

I really respected James’ comments about his position being a white man writing about Edith.  He seemed like he got a lot of what I talk about on this blog.  He mentioned that during his time in the industry he observed that when black women write about black women, for example, they are generally perceived as more biased or sympathetic to the subject (he used a different word—I wish I could remember—but that was jist).  Juxtapose those comments with Kitty Kelley’s discussion of her experience writing about Frank Sinatra, for which she got a lot of backlash. (Sinatra even tried to sue her before she had written a word! Thankfully that’s illegal.) She said that because Sinatra is perceived as the pinnacle of manliness, it was in fact men who had trouble writing about him objectively. They had too much reverence for him, while she could write about him (and his flaws) more honestly.

So basically, everyone’s biased. That actually is what I think—there’s always going to be some subjectivity. But what this panel demonstrated was that, while the idea that black women can’t write about other black women objectively is the majority view, Kitty’s perspective that white men can’t write about a white man objectively is the minority view. In other words, when white men write a biography that is the standard/baseline. When anyone else writes, however, they inevitably insert their biased female/minority perspectives into the page…right?

To be fair, I’ll leave you with this…

To wrap up this post about networking and gender/race issues in the publishing industry, I leave with this: at the conference I ran into numerous friends that I met in classes I took at the Writer’s Center (where this journey all began).  One, a white woman, told me she had pitched her story (elsewhere, not at this conference) to a black agent who she really connected with. She could tell the agent was interested in her work, but she couldn’t represent her- because she only represents black authors.

I think that’s a bad business move for the agent (and not just because I believe in my friend). I understand the thinking- it is historically more difficult for minority authors to find representation. Still, it’s never a good idea to turn down a good opportunity. If this agent believed in my friend’s book, she should have pursued it. Not only is that her job, but if the book became successful, then she would have more leverage when representing her other, mostly African American, clients. That’s my view, but I can see others disagreeing. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Tis all.  Have a great weekend!