Decisions, Decisions: Three Paths to Publication

Alethea Black, Céline Keating, Michelle Toth
From the July/August 2011 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Late last year we realized that, through some strange sort of serendipity, all our fiction debuts were slated for publication within just months of one another. Although we are all friends—connected by the various shared histories of our education, employment, and writing lives—our individual experiences getting to this point in our careers were quite different. Alethea’s agent had sold her collection of short stories to a commercial publisher, Céline had signed a contract for a novel with an independent press, and Michelle was launching her own press to self-publish her novel. So we decided to sit down to compare notes on the distinct paths that brought us all to the same place—on the verge of our careers as authors. Here’s what we learned.

From left: Althea Black, Céline Keating, and Michelle Toth.  (Credit: Black: Nadine Raphael; Keating: Mark Levy; Toth: Block Photography)


Keating: “Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been” goes the Grateful Dead lyric. That’s certainly how I feel about my path to publication. I suspected my novel would be a tough sell to a commercial publisher. Although it has a suspenseful plot,Layla is also a political novel, and politics and commercial publishing often don’t mix. I had secured an agent who loved the book and who wanted to try the mainstream publishers, and I saw no harm in trying, but in my heart of hearts I suspected my book truly belonged with a small press.


Fast forward a couple of years and many “almosts” later: I lost my agent, who decided to get out of the field, and I was confronted with the choice of putting the manuscript in a box under the bed—or in the shredder—or starting to send it on my own to small presses. I didn’t think I had the energy to go through the submission process, but when I saw an ad in this magazine for “issue-based literary” Plain View Press, I changed my mind. The press was also described as a “cooperative of writers,” and that, too, appealed to me. Another advantage of going with a small press is that they typically keep their books in print forever. I wouldn’t have to worry about the publisher remaindering my book if it didn’t do well out of the gate. Susan Bright, the publisher, responded not only with enthusiasm but also with great insight into my thematic intent. I felt my book was being embraced for the reasons that meant the most to me, and so, without even considering another, I decided on Plain View.

Black: Some of the decision of choosing what type of publishing path to follow was taken care of for me: My agent queried several houses, and we went with the one that felt like the best fit. “Best fit,” as you know, doesn’t necessarily mean the most money; in some cases, it’s a matter of wanting to work with a particular editor, and there can also be intangible elements involved. When we left the official meeting at which Broadway Books first made an offer on my book, my agent, Lisa Bankoff, turned to me. “There was a lot of enthusiasm in that room,” she said. “You don’t feel love like that very often.” Lisa has been at ICM [International Creative Management] long enough to have learned a thing or two, and as we crossed West Fifty-Fifth Street, she told me that things usually work out best when you follow the love. So that was it: I decided to sign with Broadway.

Toth: My thought process was so different. While Alethea and Céline were deciding big or small, commercial or niche, I was deciding whether it was worth it to even try to break in to traditional publishing. Calculating the time and focus it would take to query, find an agent, and from there a publisher, and multiplying each step by the probability of success, then comparing it with the appeal of control, speed, and e-book economics for a category like mine—commercial fiction—all led me to self-publish my first novel.

This is not to say I didn’t try the traditional, proven path. I did, sort of. My writer friends scoff when I tell them I amassed only four rejections and three nonresponses to my querying efforts. They report their number of rejections before landing literary agents with a certain survivors’ pride (seeming to average around twenty-five to thirty, except in the case of one outlier who queried only her dream agent, successfully). But for me it was eye opening to see what happened over the period of time that I did query: I got depressed. Really depressed. The world was changing in unbelievably exciting ways that I had been trained for—as an Internet entrepreneur, in business school—and there I was, pursuing the status quo, an approach to producing books that I feared was falling far behind the times.

I absolutely see the benefits and the appeal of having a publishing house behind you. In fact, now that I’ve been at this awhile, I think that in most cases if you can get a publishing deal, you should take it. But if you find the business side of books almost as creative as the writing side, then self-publishing is a viable, exhilarating option—one that successful “crossover” authors such as Boyd Morrison, Brunonia Barry, and Lisa Genova have shown can actually lead to stellar deals with established large publishers.


Black: At the start, I got lucky—my editor, Christine Pride, was a peach. Like the best of editors, she saw both where I was aiming and where I failed and gave me feedback that was sensitive but persuasive. “How tied,” she asked, “are you to the title of your story collection,” which was then “Wise as Serpents, Harmless as Doves”? She was concerned that that title, while interesting, might give the false impression that the book was a religious book. “But,” she said, “some authors are very attached to their titles. Changing it can be as traumatic as changing your name.” Instead she suggested “I Knew You’d Be Lovely,” the title of a story that’s been an audience favorite. I hesitated for a few hours before realizing she was absolutely right.

Keating: The publisher felt my manuscript needed minimal editing, and I went through the galley-correction stages very smoothly. But the press did not have an in-house proofreader, and in hindsight, I should have hired one rather than rely solely on myself. I had to go through an extra round of corrections because I learned it’s really hard to spot errors in your own work.

Toth: One of the biggest downsides to being a self-published author is not having the rigorous review of an agent and editor who have tied themselves professionally to you and your book. When a literary expert has attached his or her reputation (and paycheck, to some extent) to your work, interests are fully aligned. Without such comrades, I’ve needed to personally ensure that Annie Begins meets expected standards of quality. To do this, I hired a manuscript consultant through Grub Street (which cost, in total, about eight hundred dollars) and relied on the advice of a close friend who is a former literary agent for input. I hired a freelance copyeditor (six hundred dollars) and then, after my mother caught eight typos, learned the difference between a copyeditor and a proofreader. I found one through LinkedIn and hired her (for another six hundred dollars). Coincidentally, she was in Alethea’s network so I was able to check her credentials, and she proved to be superb.

In contrast to Céline’s and Alethea’s relatively smooth sailing on the production front, this is where a self-publisher (especially if she has a perfectionist streak) can get tripped up, or at least get sucked into the black hole that is interior book design. While my avowed strategy was to hire experts wherever possible, in this case I found that I couldn’t find freelancers who could work to my standards, timeline, and budget, so I ended up doing most of the print and e-book design myself. I thought it would be a good learning experience, and it has been. I have learned it is exhausting and unbelievably time consuming. I will hire someone next time around.


Black: When my editor first e-mailed me a PDF of what the cover would look like, I opened it and knew it was right. I wrote her back two words: Love it. I loved the way it felt both classic and modern simultaneously; I loved the black and teal coloring; I loved the uncomplicated lines and elegant font. There was just one thing: What was that white silhouette in the lower left corner? A lion? A sexually aroused poodle? The devil? No—it was a couple embracing, with the woman kicking one leg up behind her. Well, this was not exactly clear, in part because the figure appeared to have only three legs—or, rather, two legs and some sort of tail. So Christine sent it back to the art folks with a request that they articulate the image.

Meanwhile I showed the cover to several colleagues, and everyone loved it—except for that white silhouette. Not only was it somewhat inscrutable, they said, but even if you could scrute it, it was too conventional an image for a book of inventive and unpredictable stories. So when the new art arrived, several weeks later, I asked Christine if we could substitute something else entirely (although to this day I have no idea what that would be—a piece of fruit? a guitar? a blender?). This was when Christine informed me that I was working with a publisher who did hundreds of covers a week, and at this late stage in the game, no, they could not send it back and make it a toothbrush. Later we laughed about it, and she said that cover discussions in particular can border on the absurd; she once had an author ask her if she could move the cloud to the left, which has become my personal catchphrase for asking for something I know is unreasonable but I just can’t help myself. (In an interesting twist, a version of that cover remained in place until just weeks before the publication date, when my publisher, based on some early enthusiastic feedback, decided to go with a simpler, more timeless design.)

Keating: One of the biggest benefits of going the small press route, and something crucial to me, was getting to have a say about the cover and the interior design. Authors with mainstream publishers rarely get cover approval in their contracts, while self-published authors have total control in this area. With Plain View, I felt I had the best of both worlds. I would be able to choose the art that would be the basis for the cover and have a say in the book’s interior appearance. At the same time, I was glad to let the press handle design and production. I knew it would be fun to search for the perfect image to represent my book, and when I saw the photo of a strikingly beautiful desert landscape, evocative of the setting of a pivotal scene in the novel, I knew it was “the one.” It had everything I hadn’t known I was looking for: the hint of a young woman, an ambiguous figure in the distance, a sense of longing. Little did I know that it would take two months, and a turn as a detective, to locate the photographer—in Iran! By that point I was more than happy to shell out five hundred bucks for the permission to use it.

Toth: As Céline points out, I had the joy and pain of total control of producing the cover for Annie Begins. Some self-publishers do their own cover design or rely on the templates provided by the author-services companies. Both can be fine options, but I wanted a truly great cover, not something I could produce on PowerPoint. I discovered the Book Cover Archive and became an instant devotee—poring over page after page of fantastic, inspiring design. I clicked my way to a boutique that would create an original cover costing between twenty-five hundred dollars and thirty-five hundred dollars. Yowza.

Then I lucked into finding Tangent Covers, which would allow me to customize from a selection of twenty-one extremely well-designed template covers for much less than a custom option (about three hundred dollars). I thought it over for a day and, as precious as my project is to me, I concluded that Annie Begins is not a baby, it’s a book, and hopefully the first of many, and I needed to start making smart economic decisions with my calculator and not just my heart. I decided to go with Tangent. It’s worth noting that I chose an option that demanded similar constraints to the ones imposed upon Alethea by her in-house designers. However, I don’t think that author in Alethea’s story was wrong to want to move the cloud to the left! I could easily see moving a cloud to the left. Or right. And back again. And I am glad that I retained that option.

I love the cover of Annie Begins for its clean lines and simplicity, but it does lack some of the oomph of the best truly custom designs (and I regret the mostly white cover, which disappeared against the all-white background of Amazon and other online retailers’ sites until a gray line was added). Still, I’m glad I didn’t overinvest, and next time around I might just use crowdsourcing via either crowdSPRING or 99designs.