At Little Patuxent Review’s annual reading this past March, we were lucky enough to hear fiction by Ian Anderson, the founder and editor-in-chief of Mason Jar Press. In this guest post he shares some “lessons from a publisher.”
Mason Jar Press is an independent press based in Baltimore that specializes in handmade, limited-edition chapbooks and full-length publications by established and emerging writers. Recent publications include The Bong-Ripping Brides of Count Drogado, by Dave K, and Not Without Our Laughter, by the Black Ladies Brunch Collective and edited by celeste doaks (celeste and others from the BLBC also contributed to our recent winter issue).
There are two important questions that you should ask yourself when looking for a publisher. The first is, “Am I the right author for this publisher?” The second: “Is this publisher the right one for me?” It’s this second question that is most often overlooked by writers, especially those taking their first steps into the world of publishers, and it can make the difference between having a good experience or a bad one. Most writers aspire to have a book one day, so it can be tempting to go with just anyone who will make that happen. But if it’s a bad experience, that can be worse than no book at all—for both you and the press, and no one wants that. To avoid this, before you even start looking for a publisher, you need to know what kind of book you want in the world.
Is being in Barnes & Nobles (these still exist as I’m writing this) important to you? Is having a say in the design of your book important to you? Are you trying to reach a specific audience? Does the quality and form of the finished product matter? The answer to these questions (and a hundred others you need to consider) can eliminate some publishers and help you focus on ones that fit for you. Here’s the rub, though. There are tradeoffs to some of these questions. For example, if you’re trying to get on the New York Times Bestsellers list, you’re better off trying to get in with a bigger publisher, but they probably won’t ask your opinion on the cover design beyond, “Is your name spelled right?”
Tough decisions might have to be made.
This is because, when we talk about publishers, we’re actually talking about types of publishers. What we do at Mason Jar Press is a whole lot different than what Penguin Random House is doing. What Mason Jar does is closer to what someone like Dzanc Books is doing, but we’re still worlds apart. Between MJP and The Big Five (or Four), there is a hot mess of publishers, each with their own benefits and drawbacks, so take your time thinking about what you want to get out of the experience
Once you know what is nonnegotiable and what you’re willing to be flexible on, it’s time to take out your notepad and do your homework. Go to your local bookshelf or bookstore, and find the books that you love and/or you think are similar to your aesthetic. See who the publishers are. You might even start to notice the same publishers turning up. Look them up online to get a sense of who they are and what they do. Read their mission statement. Does it jive with your own thoughts? Check to see if they’re an imprint of a larger publishing house. Spoiler alert, a lot of them will be. Create a list, or my preferred method—an Excel spreadsheet(!)—of publishers you’re interested in working with along with what you need to do on your end to make that happen. Some of the smaller ones might be as easy as sending a query letter, others—the bigger ones—might only work with literary agents. (How to write a query letter or find an agent are topics all their own, which I don’t have the space to talk about here. Sorry!) If you find a press that you like, but have never seen their books IRL, buy one so that you can make sure it looks and feels the way you dream your book will. If it’s Mason Jar Press, buy two or three!
Occasionally, you’ll find contests or open submission periods for presses. These can be great opportunities to get your work in front of a publisher, because, A) You’re guaranteed that they’ll read at least the beginning of your manuscript; and, B) The process for submitting will be laid out for you, so you can avoid the whole query-letter process, if that’s something that still feels awkward to you. An added bonus is that sometimes presses hold open submissions for particular types of manuscripts. For instance, Mason Jar Press will be holding an open submission this summer that is looking specifically for novella-length work. With an opportunity like this, the guess work has been eliminated for you, and you can submit with confidence knowing the publisher is looking for what your selling…or it isn’t so you don’t have to waste your time and energy with that press at that moment.
Finally, it can’t be stressed enough how much publishing (or any literary endeavor) is an active process. When we look for a writer to work with, we want someone who is active in the literary world. This doesn’t necessarily mean that your number of Twitter followers is the be-all-end-all of getting a book deal, but it might be a factor. When publishers agree to put out an author’s book, they’re taking a risk, not just artistically, but financially. A lot of presses these days are working on tight margins and the bottom line can’t be ignored. The second question we, as publishers, ask ourselves after, “Do we love this work?” is “Can we sell it?” The first part doesn’t matter if the latter isn’t true. If we see an author who is active in the literary world, whether that be on social media, or working with literary journals, or reading series, we see someone who has a network of potential readers—potential customers.
You have to hustle, and you have to put in the leg work. If you want to get a book published, it’s something you need to be working on all the time, and a lot of it isn’t going to involve your manuscript or your future publisher at all. Every step in your literary life matters. They could all be potentially leading to getting a book published, and you only get out what you put in.