This issue of WD celebrates the work that independent publishers do to serve authors and better the literary landscape. But don’t just take our word for it; hear the case for independent publishing straight from the staff behind the books. While every publisher is different, I sought interviewees from four small publishers in “Think Small, Win Big” that represent a broad range of the books being published throughout the independent publishing realm. Here, they reveal everything that authors should know when considering a small publisher for their books.
Meet the Staff
A MacDowell Colony and Hawthornden Castle fellow, Leland Cheuk is the author of three books, most recently, No Good Very Bad Asian. His work has appeared in Salon, San Francisco Chronicle, Catapult, Joyland Magazine, Literary Hub, and elsewhere. He is the founder of 7.13 Books and lives in Brooklyn.
Adam Z. Levy is the founder and co-publisher of Transit Books.
Kate Gale is co-founder and managing editor of Red Hen Press, editor of The Los Angeles Review, and teaches in the low-residency MFA program at the University of Nebraska in poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction and in the University of Ashland MFA Program. She is author of seven books of poetry, including The Goldilocks Zone (University of New Mexico Press, 2014) and Echo Light (Red Mountain Press, 2014) and six librettos, including Rio de Sangre, a libretto for an opera with composer Don Davis, which had its world premiere October 2010 at the Florentine Opera in Milwaukee.
Jisu Kim is the senior marketing and sales manager at the Feminist Press.
An independent publisher is generally understood as a fully staffed,
traditional publisher that operates on a smaller scale than the Big Five. But what else separates independent presses from their corporate-owned counterparts?
Leland Cheuk: I categorize the indies in two buckets. The larger ones like Coffee House and Graywolf are often nonprofits, with the typical limitations of nonprofits in terms of staffing and resources, which are dependent on grants and donations. Then there are the smaller indies, or micropresses. They’re usually run by one to two book lovers as a passion project. The key for the author is finding a press that wants their work and has strong national distribution, and usually the indies that have national distribution are in that first bucket.
With the big houses, obviously they’re for-profit with for-profit resources and for-profit accountability and pressures. Most books don’t make a profit, so those that do need to make huge profits to make up for the ones that don’t. These pressures, of course, don’t really matter to most authors when they sign that contract, but can affect them in all kinds of (mostly negative) ways.
Adam Z. Levy: There are differences of scale, but more important are the differences of purpose. Independent presses like Transit Books are mission-driven, not market-driven. We founded the press to publish exceptional and often overlooked works of literature from around the world and champion them enthusiastically here at home.
Kate Gale: We keep books in print longer, and to us in independent publishing, a book is a new book for six to nine months rather than six to nine weeks. Every book is important to us, and we partner with the author to promote their book to bookstores and to media. We focus on finding a way to directly connect the author with their readers.
Jisu Kim: Independent publishing is also an ethos. As an independent press, we take care to protect and strengthen an independent publishing ecosystem. By strengthening writers, literary organizers, booksellers, and more, we help build an industry that’s healthier for everyone.
Why is the work of independent publishers vital in today’s publishing industry? Why do they deserve our support—and submissions?
Cheuk: With literary publishing, the big houses are just publishing several hundred, maybe low thousands, new literary titles a year. That’s why you see every end-of-the-year best books list tout the same two dozen books. There are many, many more writers who’ve written great books, and indies provide authors a chance to find readership.
Levy: Independent publishers take risks on books that are underserved by commercial publishing. There are countless cases where independent presses have taken a chance on a book that might not have seemed saleable to a big house and then gone on to achieve critical and even popular success. Our reading would be less diverse, more insular, and our literary culture poorer without them.
Gale: We are publishing the stories that the big conglomerate publishers ignore, the clearly beautiful books written by often unagented, future legends of the national literary community. We’re not looking for novels written for big commercial audiences; we are keeping alive the unique stories of the LGBTQ community, the Latinx community, stories of the unheard, the wild, and the impoverished.
Kim: Independent publishers are bringing forth some of the most exciting, groundbreaking new voices and stories in the American literary landscape. They lead the charge in unconventional publishing, whether that’s in regard to subject matter or format. They springboard new talent into the larger conversation, and they’re interested in cultivating a writer’s unique voice—the one that originally drew them in—rather than insisting a writer fit into a pre-existing mold. Because independent publishers are smaller than their corporate counterparts, this often means they’re more nimble and agile in their marketing strategy and outlook. In today’s world, that’s essential to getting your voice out there.
What are some benefits that indie publishing can offer authors?
Cheuk: Due to profit motive and the insistence on scale, the big houses do a poor job on a majority of their titles. Junior publicists are working on dozens of books at a time. It’s very possible that if you publish with a big house, your book will get lost. We all know authors who have had bad experiences with big houses. With indies, you’ll likely get more personalized editorial attention, and an increasing number of indies are doing great marketing and publicity and going toe-to-toe with the overwhelmed big houses. Every year, the prestigious book awards seem to have a few, unexpected indie titles.
Levy: With a carefully curated list, we’re able to devote our time and energy to all of our titles. (No books get lost in the midlist!) We also work closely with our authors and translators at every stage of the publishing process, from the first round of edits to publicity and promotion.
Gale: Independent publishers and their staff are able to dedicate more time and attention to the authors than an author would get from the Big Five. Relationships are fostered, and it’s more of a partnership between author and publisher.
Kim: Indie publishers tend to have smaller lists than the corporate houses; for writers, this often means more individual attention. We like to tell our incoming authors that we’re a small, dedicated team—everyone on staff will have read their book, know them by name, and be familiar with how we’re going to get it out into the world.
What types of manuscripts are ideal for indie publishers? Is there a certain type of book you look for?
Cheuk: It depends on the publisher. I’d advise writers to really read submission guidelines carefully. For 7.13 Books, we publish debut contemporary book-length literary fiction for adults. So if you’re writing a YA book, novella, historical novel, or if this is your second or third book, you’re going to be at a disadvantage because we’re focused on finding books that fit our mission. For many indies, they’re publishing just a few titles a year, so the odds are long to begin with. Why submit outside the guidelines and make your odds even longer?
Levy: We look for singular voices—works that excite and challenge us and deepen our literary and political imagination. We’re open to publishing established and emerging writers. In the end, it always comes back to voice and the quality of the language on the page.
Gale: It depends on the publisher. Red Hen looks for dark, strange, wild books with stories underneath the stories, and novels that are under 300 pages so we can market them to our audience. We’re also interested in looking into more novellas, and we love poetry.
Kim: Every indie publisher is different—that’s what makes them independent—but I would say a strong, unique voice is something everyone is looking for. That can be a debut author or someone with a long publishing history. We work with both across a variety of formats and genres, looking for stories that are different from what’s already been told.
Do you prefer to work with agents or work directly with the authors?
Cheuk: We prefer to work directly with authors. Just because of our size and the lack of up front money involved, it doesn’t make a ton of sense for an agent to be involved. If the agent wants me to Venmo them 15 percent of a small honorarium, I guess I’m happy to.
Levy: We typically work with agents, but are always pleased to work directly with authors.
Gale: Either way is fine with us. We believe in continuing to accept unsolicited submissions, so we don’t require an author to have an agent.
Kim: Feminist Press works both with agents and authors!
When submitting their manuscript to indie presses, how important is it for authors to have already established their platform?
Cheuk: It’s of some importance. If there’s an author who just doesn’t want to do any readings going up against an author who is active on social media and willing to do whatever it takes to share their book to the world, I’m going to pick the second author. That said, the book still has to be great. What authors don’t always understand, however, is: There are a lot of great books. Your great book isn’t that special.
Levy: Our international authors are often well-known in their home countries, and it can be helpful when authors have an established profile, but it isn’t necessary.
Gale: Having an established platform is nice, but an author can also build one during the 18–24 months we’re working with them. We’re happy to show them the ropes, but it is definitely easier and more beneficial to the author and their work to have a platform already.
Kim: Independent presses often take on riskier, mission-driven titles—including those with relatively unknown authors. On the other hand, when we publish a book about a certain experience or issue, we seek authors already in dialogue with the community they’re exploring. For example, when we publish activist nonfiction, we are drawn to writing by thought leaders who have been actively organizing or teaching around their given topic for some time.
How has the role of independent publishers changed throughout history?
Cheuk: Their role is growing larger because of the increasing profit pressures at big houses. The reality is: Books are occupying a smaller and smaller role in our culture due to the proliferation of other attention-sucking media like TV, film, and social media. Amazon is going to continue to squeeze the big houses because half of all books are sold through Amazon. No one is ready to admit that maybe for-profit literary publishing isn’t a sustainable future in this scenario. The number of people who read books with the hope that it’ll change their way of thinking about their lives is probably shrinking, and indies can be 100 percent devoted to serving that niche segment while for-profit publishers can’t afford to without selling millions of copies of celebrity memoirs.
Levy: The imprints of the Big Five houses all started as independent publishers. Acquisitions and corporate mergers led to the situation we’re in today, where a small number of houses beholden to shareholders control an outsize portion of the market. I can’t say this has had a positive effect on the quality of books published by commercial houses, but the silver lining has been the emergence over the last 20+ years of a new generation of independent publishers responsible for introducing some of the most vibrant literary voices around and finding new and energetic ways of connecting with readers.
Gale: Independent publishers used to publish the “leftover” books; now, we are publishing the main, cool stories.
What are some of your favorite books by independent publishers?
Cheuk: I’ve been reading a lot of books in translation and indies. New Directions Publishing and Open Letter Books are great presses for translation. I’ve been reading the work of Can Xue, the surrealist Chinese author. [Her book] Love in the New Millennium is terrific. I also loved The Book of Collateral Damage by Sinan Antoon, which is translated from Arabic and about the Iraq War from an Iraqi American’s perspective, published by Yale University Press. There seem to be more great books than ever.
Levy: Some recent favorites include An Untouched House by Willem Frederik Hermans, translated by David Colmer (Archipelago Books); Will and Testament by Vigdis Hjorth, translated by Charlotte Barslund (Verso Books); Lanny by Max Porter (Graywolf); and This Little Art by Kate Briggs (Fitzcarraldo Editions).
Gale: Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado with Graywolf, The Tradition by Jericho Brown with Copper Canyon, and I’m pretty pleased with The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, which was published by Graywolf as well. Go the F*ck to Sleep by Adam Mansbach with Akashic Books has become an indie classic and is a great example of the creativity available with an independent publisher.
Kim: I just finished Females by Andrea Long Chu (Verso Books), which was incredibly fun and thought-provoking. I’ve been on a nonfiction kick—which is rare for me—and some recent favorites are Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush (Milkweed) and The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang (Graywolf).