Unmarked: The Independent Path

There I am in younger days, star gazing,

 Painting picture perfect maps of how my life and love would be

 Not counting the unmarked paths of misdirection

 My compass, faith in love’s perfection

 I missed ten million miles of road I should have seen

– Indigo Girls

 

 Small presses have been gaining more prestige over the last decade, which is why oddball writers like me are finally getting their work out into the world. In the past, a writer who couldn’t find an agent and/or sell a book to a large, commercial press had to either let his/her manuscript gather literal or symbolic dust in a drawer or hard drive file, or to release a self-published volume that is often disrespected in the literary world.

 My publisher, Foxhead Books, is one of those presses. If you go to the website (www.foxheadbooks.com) and click on the link titled “Manifesto,” you’ll be treated to a lively treatise on the subject of publishing today and why a press like Foxhead needs to be in the fray. Reading through the manifesto, I see how much the founders of Foxhead Books have brooded over issues that I, too, brooded over for the past several years as I tried to move from Unpublished Author to Published Author:

Even when gifted writers from flyover country rise beyond the slush pile, or snag representation from a legitimate agency, they’re handicapped from go for deigning to expose worlds too familiar, yet insufficiently exotic, for the self-appointed industry gatekeepers.

My book contains a weird religious group with a tiger running around, yet some of my rejection letters mentioned the narratives were too mundane. Yes, my characters love and hate like regular people, but they also commit incest, threaten tarring and feathering, and release farm animals into parking lots. Not sure where the words “mundane narrative” fit in.

The manifesto continues:

Publishers and agents judge work on completely different criteria than competent, craft-conscious artists use to produce the work. The dichotomy speaks to a clear disconnect between producers and those who exist for the purpose of distributing it.

I feel that the enterprise of publishing has become more attuned to the Hollywood market rather than true literature. Booksellers want to make money, so publishers want big hits, thus agents want big hits to sell to publishers so publishers have happy booksellers. All of this is understandable (I mean, who doesn’t want to make money?), but it doesn’t help a writer care about craft over what sells.

After the above rejection letter, I received kinder rejection letters that read (and I’m paraphrasing several letters here): I like it but it’s a tough market for this kind of fiction, so I have to pass, or It’s beautifully written, and I like it, but I don’t love it and I need to love the manuscript to push it in this climate. Unfortunately, I’m sure they are correct. My book is a novel-in-stories. According to agents and editors I’ve listened to at conferences over the years, short stories and novels-in-stories are harder to sell than traditional novels.

The manifesto addresses this:

 Look to the short story, and the dreaded novella, languishing and purportedly dying slow, agonizing deaths: this, when the advent of mobile devices provide a mode of delivery and contextual framework perfect for those forms.

I believe small presses are keen to take advantage of traditional and pioneer formats. In general, people are more willing to take a chance on an unknown writer if they only have to spend $18 on a book, rather than an unknown writer whose book is $27. I’ll admit I’m the same way. I eagerly bought an Edwidge Danticat hardcover for $25.95 last week; I wouldn’t do that for a new writer unless I was very familiar with him/her. My husband has a Kindle, and takes chances on eBooks, since most of those are even cheaper. I don’t believe he’s alone.

I also believe that small presses are getting more street cred, because they are proving you can be literary and successful. For example, Tinkers, the 2010 winner of the Pulitzer Prize, was published by a small press: Bellevue Literary Review. BLR decided to take a chance on the oft-rejected book, and that chance paid off. They are still a small press, but this win provided them with a more obvious platform than before.

Of course, when you are published by an independent press, the game is often different from your larger presses. More on that next time.

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Jessica Penner’s novel, Shaken in the Water, is available at BookCourt in Brooklyn, NY, www.foxheadbooks.com, and other online booksellers.