Submission Tips & Other Small Press Observations
Musings from a newer small press publisher
[Many of these thoughts have been informed at least partly by the Microcosm Publishing podcast—I’m grateful to the service that Joe and Elly continually provide through sharing their knowledge and empowering other publishers to make better decisions.
Please also keep in mind that these are the reflections of simply one person in publishing—and a relatively new one, at that. What I say may not apply to another publisher, and it doesn’t translate to any kind of simple formula.]
Think less like speed dating, more like a marriage proposal (or at least a long-term committed relationship). When you’re sending out work as a writer, it’s a vulnerable process—I get it. You want to put your best strengths out there, get the editor’s attention. But you need to do it authentically and make it as much about the publisher’s role in the project as about yourself.
Follow directions. If it seems like it’s silly that this is always mentioned by editors, there’s a reason. It is silly. And yet the fastest way to show a press that you’re not that invested in their way of doing things is to ignore basic information they’ve requested that helps them do their jobs more efficiently. I don’t see our guidelines as a test to pass or fail (typos or forgetting to spell my name correctly won’t get you sent to the rejections folder), but more as a preliminary glimpse into how the writer navigates professional dynamics and how they see themselves and their work. I think often about something Joe Biel says on the Microcosm Publishing podcast (paraphrase): “People tend to show you who they are. You have to decide what to do with the information.” This can work both ways too, right? If a press’s directions or general presence online don’t give you the impression that your work would be respected, believe them. (Oh, and if a press doesn’t use Submittable or another sub database, please take the time to track that submission elsewhere in case you need to withdraw—Submittable has an “external submission” feature for this very thing)
Show awareness of the press’s catalog, presence, vision, etc. I’m also a writer, and this concept has been particularly challenging for me to learn. In the past, I felt wary of coming off as insincere or overly effusive or something if I tried to praise the press or list off writers I admire from their catalog, so I tended to keep my cover letters as boilerplate as possible (while sticking to guidelines, remember?). This didn’t seem to hurt my chances necessarily, but I doubt it also gave editors any warm fuzzy feelings. Now, after spending more time on the publisher side, I deeply appreciate when a writer demonstrates knowledge of the work I’m pouring nearly all my time into—bonus points if they make an effort to acknowledge how a project we’ve published may relate to their own. I understand now why some outlets ask you to share how you learned about them; it makes me happy when someone expresses admiration for our social media presence or points out a mutual connection (when done authentically, of course). It’s a long-term relationship, right? You want to make sure you understand (and can try to articulate) how your work fits into their vision in a collaborative way, not merely a transactional one.
Publishers are not interchangeable (another insight directly from Microcosm). This is sort of an expansion on the first point because it’s about relationships; actually, I won’t be surprised if all of these points turn out to be about relationships because that’s kind of my thing. But it’s important to do your due diligence and get a sense whether a press would actually be a good fit for you/your work; otherwise it’s a waste of everyone’s (all-too-limited) time. For example, if you’re looking at a regional press, make sure your project actually aligns with that focus. There is so much anxiety around getting published that it can feel like too much to look closely at every potential press—but remember that you’ll be spending a lot of time and energy connected to them if it works out, so take the time to choose wisely. Getting published is not the only goal in and of itself; finding the right home for your work is what really matters. Also, small presses want to sense that they aren’t being perceived as an ATM or solely as a book-making service.
But also, remember that book publishing is a business. If a press decides to take on your work, it’s not solely a testament to the work’s quality (though of course, that matters); it’s also a reflection of the press’s decision to invest significant amounts of money, time, and other resources into bringing a project into the world in such a way that will (fingers crossed) make other people want to buy it too. This involves so many layers: cover design, editing, typesetting, publicity, strategic book development (description, blurbs, etc.), bookstore/events support, and yes, taking the author’s writing background into account. For me, this doesn’t have to mean something like an MFA or previously published work, but rather a sense that they are actively involved in building a literary community and have a clear vision of where their work belongs in relation to other writers. A lot of factors go into these decisions beyond the work itself, including how a project may fit and/or stand out alongside other projects on their lineup. Many of these things happen behind the scenes.
Show an active, ongoing interest in the press. This may look like a lot of different things to different people, so I’m largely speaking for myself, maybe. While I have a lot of feelings about things like submission fees or expecting purchases to accompany submissions—and plan never to make that a requirement for Belle Point—I also see every single order that comes through our website (because I pack and ship them). I run our social media feeds. I commend people who cultivate deeper lives outside of the internet, but I notice the people who seem genuinely, consistently interested in what we’re doing versus the people who saw a post and threw together an email. If Instagram or Twitter isn’t your thing—or if, you know, your platform seems to be imploding these days—skip a disposable purchase and buy a book. Wouldn’t you like to see the kind of work a potential press does firsthand before putting your own name on it? Again, I’m not expressing this as a prescriptive standard because I think there are already enough barriers to access in the literary world and I know people have a lot of other priorities besides supporting small presses. I think my point is to try and be as intentional and thoughtful about where your words find your home as you can—and to be generous toward the people who can help you make it happen, whether that means monetary or emotional-karma support.
Be thoughtful about your own presence in the community. I sort of hesitate to put this point in print, to be honest; it feels like the closest I tend to get to something like a “hot take” or a controversial opinion. But it seems to me that it should be obvious that you need to maintain a professional image in public, however you interpret that. What you put on the internet stays there, as they say. Particularly in these days when publishers are often expected (by some) to take responsibility for who they publish, it’s worth remembering that people are watching. Cultivate and contribute to a culture of respect. (For me, by the way, that also means I’d really rather not see my own private emails blasted across Twitter—but I digress.)
A no doesn’t have to be forever. One of my favorite things so far as a publisher has been getting to revisit certain projects that didn’t fit the immediate moment but seem to have a place later, or to follow up with a writer I’d had to reject because I saw a new project of theirs I’d like to take on. Remember that as personal as the author-small press publisher relationship can be, it can also be about timing. Keep building that relationship, and who knows what may happen?
Get to know the person behind the press. I’m not sure why I’m including this, exactly, because I’m a fairly private person—but I think what I mean is that small presses especially are driven by individual (or a handful of) human beings. As I’ve gotten to know people through our work, I’ve come to build a mutual trust that makes me more flexible and more willing to take on new ideas or projects. I know I can be transparent with them when the kids are making work impossible without seeming like I’m just making excuses; I hope that I give them that same sense of trust and openness. While I believe in maintaining healthy, professional boundaries, it means a great deal to me how many friendships I have built through the work of the press, and I believe it’s made the work we produce better.
Know when to hold on and when to let go. I see a lot of tweets asking open questions for where to submit projects. I do it too sometimes. But while there can be value in getting other writers’ insights about a publisher or in riding the momentum of a press that seems to be getting more attention recently, that doesn’t mean they’ll be the right fit for you. Similarly, just because you have it in your mind that a particular publisher is your “Dream” doesn’t mean it’s meant to be—or maybe it does, but it’s up to you to figure that out. Let go of others’ expectations for a “good” press or for the “right” road to publication. Don’t ride the pressure of publishing trends; just keep doing the work.
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This is such a wonderful post! I've been on both sides of the desk, as it were, both submitting and receiving submissions, and all of this is 1) right on and 2) more insightful than other similar lists I've seen. Will look forward to referring writers to this post.