Decisions, Decisions: Three Paths to Publication

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

Keating: By “cooperative,” Plain View Press didn’t just mean working together in terms of submissions or publicity—it meant taking a financial stake in the book, in the form of pre-buying my first one hundred fifty books. I was uncomfortable with this—it felt a bit like one of those scary vanity presses one hears about. At the same time, I understood the positives: By working in this manner, the press was able to take bigger risks on books that would be shunned by other presses. Royalty and other terms were more than generous. I also liked the fact that the press had been around for more than thirty years and had published award-winning books (including The First Thing and the Last by Allan G. Johnson, which was praised by Publishers Weekly and was chosen as a “Great Read” by O, The Oprah Magazine in April 2010). I was sold when I spoke with another Plain View author, a poet, who had had very positive experiences with the press and had recouped her investment within two months of her book’s publication.

Black: My advance wasn’t life changing (just under twenty-thousand dollars), but it was a good number for a first book of short stories. Of course, if you factor in the cost of building and maintaining an author website and other expenses (this spring I flew to L.A. so I could be at a WordTheatre performance of one of my stories), it’s a little less impressive, but I try to avoid making such calculations. I am fond of saying (and still want to find a T-shirt that says): “Uh, I was told there’d be no math?”

Toth: About Alethea’s advance, I say at least it was a positive number! My expense-laden strategy for self-publishing is to try to replicate everything great about traditional publishing by utilizing top-notch freelancers—manuscript editor, copy-editor, proofreader, book-cover designer, and publicist. (The one thing I cannot realistically replicate is a sales force, so my distribution is almost entirely online.) All of this costs money—lots of it—although plenty of other self-published authors are far more DIY and are producing profitable books for a fraction of what I’ve invested.


Keating: My experience working on marketing and publicity fell somewhere in the middle of the continuum between mainstream publishers, who do most of the heavy lifting, and the self-publishing model. Plain View would be handling distribution and sales, which I absolutely didn’t want to do, as well as presentation of the book at some conventions and book fairs. The press also would prepare a flyer for me and share a mailing list for sending the book out for reviews. But while this was significant support, I knew it was just a fraction of what would be needed to make the book a success.

I contemplated doing the publicity work on my own, but even minimal research—and the advice of my publisher—convinced me that I needed help navigating the thickets of all that should be done in this arena. I’m now aware that I would have been paralyzed by indecision without my publicist, Molly Mikolowski at A Literary Light. Molly, who had headed up marketing for Coffee House Press before setting up her own agency, worked out a plan where I did the easy stuff (such as researching blogs), while she brought her expertise to bear on the more complex aspects of media and bookseller outreach. Expense aside, the actual details of a publicity campaign are probably similar for all three of our publishing models—getting the book into the hands of those who might review it favorably, securing interviews, and setting up readings. These days social media plays a big part, and much of that is up to the author no matter which path to publication is taken. I felt less lonely having someone in my corner day to day.

Black: I agonized over whether to hire an outside publicist. I’d been given the names of some terrific ones, including Jocelyn Kelley at Kelley & Hall Book Publicity and Promotion, whom my agent personally recommended to me, saying, “I don’t think she sleeps.” But I just couldn’t decide what to do. It’s difficult to gauge results—since there’s no control group for a book, it’s hard to know to what to attribute success or failure—and publicists can be expensive. The strongest argument in favor of spending the money (which can range from thirty-five hundred dollars to over ten thousand dollars) was that this book was the culmination of fifteen years of work, so why not do everything in my power to help it reach an audience? In fact, I probably would have gone ahead and hired a publicist had my meeting with the Crown publicity team not gone so well. There were six people in the room, all gushing about the book and what they were going to do to help it—one in a British accent, another in an Australian accent—all of them seeming to have read the stories and to genuinely love them. But to be honest, what I discovered is that a short story collection from an unknown author is just not going to be the top priority at a major publishing house. When three months before the pub date I saw that there were no readings booked, and we didn’t yet have a review from Publishers Weekly or Kirkus, I decided to treat publicity for this book as very DIY. I started e-mailing everyone I knew, offering to be an “opening act” for writers who had books coming out around the same time as mine; alerting contacts at writing conferences that I was willing to be a substitute if they had any last-minute cancellations; querying bookstore owners and artistic directors. It’s a delicate business, though, because in my opinion it’s better to do nothing than to annoy people. It’s also a lot of work, and on many days it feels a bit like operating a lemonade stand on the side of an interstate! But it also feels worth it.

Toth: Céline has talked about the lonely parts of being with a small press and I have to concur—the isolation can be even more pronounced when you wear all the hats. This was one of the reasons I decided to hire a publicist. I needed someone officially on my team. I didn’t have the skills or the contacts to do the publicity in the way I envisioned, and many other writers I know have needed to supplement the in-house publicity teams of their publishers, so I thought it wasn’t such a stretch to do it for my indie project. I have now been working with Jocelyn Kelley (coincidentally, the same person recommended so highly to Alethea by her agent) since late last fall, with a brief hiatus when Jocelyn, who is an Oprah Book Club correspondent, traveled to Australia with Oprah. Although a significant financial investment, publicity is something I cannot do for myself.


Keating: Because Plain View is a very small press among small presses, it doesn’t have a sales force, and I didn’t appreciate the significance of that drawback when I made my decision. Getting copies of Layla on bookstore shelves will be difficult—maybe not as difficult as the obstacles that exist for self-published books, as Michelle mentioned, but hard enough. That will be a big consideration for me the next time around.

But the toughest thing for me occurred just before my advance readers’ copies were about to be sent out for review. Susan Bright, my publisher, died unexpectedly. Susan was a special person, the press very much her creation, and her death brought home the reminder that small presses, even one with a thirty-year history, often rest on somewhat precarious foundations. I was extremely lucky that other wonderful and talented people picked up the reins and that my book’s publication was only slightly delayed.

Another surprise for me was how much I enjoyed the collaborative aspects of working with my publicist and also with a web designer, Andrew Beierle. Molly and Andrew made what could have been a very anxious time, before publication, a lot more enjoyable.

Black: A week before Christmas I received my biggest surprise. My editor was taking a job at Hyperion. This was a promotion for Christine, which she was happy about, but she was distressed to have to leave all her authors. Another harsh reality of the publishing industry, as we all know, is that there’s a lot of turnover. Christine was apologetic and kind as ever. But my book, a friend explained to me over the phone, had been orphaned. Fortunately, Lovely didn’t stay orphaned for long. An enthusiastic, equally wise, and equally gorgeous editor (disturbingly, both of my editors have looked like professional models) stepped in. Alexis Washam has been wonderful, and I’m grateful to this day: They say you’ll be lucky to get one good editor, and I was lucky enough to get two.

Toth: I can’t quite wrap my head around how much has happened in self-publishing in the six months I’ve been at it. Barry Eisler recently turned down a half-million-dollar advance in order to self-publish, while indie darling Amanda Hocking is going in the other direction. Everything is shaking out now, and on the eve of my arbitrarily defined self-publication date, I’m pretty happy to be in this position. But talk to me in six months—especially if by then I’ve only sold books to my relatives and Facebook friends.

Keating: Ditto for me!

Black: And me!

Alethea Black is the author of the short story collection I Knew You’d Be Lovely, published by Broadway Books this month. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives in Pawling, New York.

Céline Keating is the author of the novel Layla, published by Plain View Press in June. She earned an MA in creative writing from City College in New York and lives in New York City.

Michelle Toth is the author of the novel Annie Begins, published in April by (sixoneseven) books, an indie  press that she founded in 2010. A graduate of Harvard Business School, she lives in Boston and New York City.