The same word of caution applies to vanity or subsidy presses. Whenever you see an ad saying, “We’re looking for writers!” hold on to you wallet. These companies will publish your book, but require that you fund the printing costs. The end result may look good–though it probably will be double the cost of your going to a local printer for the same thing. The difficulty comes in distribution. Bookstores don’t want to deal with individuals. Even small press publishers are faced with this problem. A modest size book store in Madison, for example, has 2,000 regular suppliers. Also, a bookstores are leery of vanity publications, so the burden is on you to convince these businesses to take shelf space from something by a known writer, that is has been publicized by a recognized publisher with an editorial track record for sales results.
On the other hand, if you are willing to promote yourself, consider self-publishing. Here you act as the contractor and hire a printer, graphic designer/typesetter, editor to produce the book, yourself. In these days of desk-top publishing this is both affordable and fun. As opposed to vanity presses you can do small quantities economically (plan on enough copies for the two or three local bookstores who know you as a customer, and for friends, relatives, and future great grandchildren). Years ago three other poets and myself did this. We edited each others work, selected a woodcut for the cover, and typed, proofed and rearranged until we had a book. I took a trunk load of them to book stores along the western side of Michigan one weekend in October. People were cordial and said they would be glad to give the book a try. I remember it was called Quick Blue Gathering. A little over a month later I retraced my route. When I went into the first store, I thought, “Darn, they’re not on the shelf, they probably are behind the counter or piled in the back room.” Imagine my surprise to discover that the dozen or so I had left had sold out. I couldn’t believe it. I hurried to the next location. The same thing had happened. My speed between stores quickened. We had an incredible success on our hands.
Four months later we had produced a second book. This time we had gone out and gotten a loan from a local manufacturer, had artistic photographs taken of each of us, went first class with a square binding that proudly proclaimed our title, The Second Cutting. I received the same cordial greeting at book stores, with additional compliments on the quality of this more elaborate book. A month later, I couldn’t wait. For good luck, I first went to the same book store where the first collection of poems had sold out. Imagine my surprise to discover…not a single issue had been purchased. The same was true at the next stop, and the next. I think I learned my greatest lesson in marketing that day. At $1.50 people took a chance on Quick Blue Gathering. It was a stocking stuffer, spare change at the cash register. But, The Second Cutting cost them $3.50 and there were many more things competing for their purchase in this price range. Eventually we did sell enough to pay back the loan, and in the process had a wonderful time doing readings at parties, libraries and retirement facilities as well as at bookstores and coffee houses. Best sellers, such as What Color Is My Parachute and Creative Visualization began as self-published works.
When I started Rosebud as a magazine “For People Who Enjoy Writing” I wanted to break down barriers that separate writers, editorial staff and readers. In his trying to personalize responses to the three to four hundred submissions the magazine receives each month Rod Clark, the editor, and myself are realizing why this isn’t usually done. It also makes you aware as to why you are predisposed toward some manuscripts even before you read them.
If the work is cleanly presented–crisp type, good paper stock, no cross outs–you know this was done with care. It is someone’s best effort and you want to read it with respect. You hope they have sent you their three or four best poems–they are discriminating–not twenty-five in the hope that something somewhere will stick, though they don’t want to take the time themselves to choose–your selection or lack of it tells an editor to read in depth or skim.
Finally, as an editor, there is anticipation in reading a name you recognize, someone who perhaps you have published before. What have they come up with this time? On going submission creates
a sense of familiarity.
Should you send out the same material simultaneously to different publications? Editors will say no; but literary agents do just that. If your goal is recognition, it seems to me you have to try to reach more than one decision maker at a time. I vividly remember receiving an extraordinary short story at Rosebud. We contacted the writer immediately only to find she had sold it to another publication. We offered to buy secondary rights (reprint it after it appeared initially). Unfortunately, she had sold all rights to it. I was heartbroken and angry. Then two months later she sent a second piece that she was giving us first chance at. I tried not to like it, but it also was so good that we published it, proudly.
An editor can be an incredible asset to a writer, and, as a writer when I have achieved a good working relationship with an editor, I would never jeopardize this by submitting something simultaneously to another publication. An editor, who is the most finely tuned of readers, might point out grammatical confusion in your work, suggest you develop a poetic image further or even recommend that you drop part of a piece. Once an editor wrote back that she liked a long narrative poem I had submitted, but felt the last stanza was unnecessary. She offered to return the piece so I could send it elsewhere or publish it without the final part. I thought, it’s not like cutting off your hand, and told her to go ahead and use it. Years later I came across the magazine and realized she was right. I had been too close to it, and because they weren’t working had struggled too much with those final images to easily let them go. Even the best of writers writes better with the feedback of a good editor.
An editor is so valuable that you might consider hiring your own. Most free lance writers struggle to make a living, why not contact one who writes for a publication you want to be in and ask the writer if he or she would consider editing your work for twenty dollars an hour. You not only get good feedback you learn how someone who is successful shapes a piece for a publication you want to impress. You may even get a word of mouth recommendation within the organization.
Marshall McLuhen stated that the copy machine has made us all into publishers overnight. After you’ve had some pieces published you will ask yourself, what is more important: To be in print or to be read? There are other ways in which you can share your writing that mean more than being in a national publication. One instance of this happened to me twenty years ago. I had been fortunate to have several dozen poems published over a period of a year and a half. My nephew who was an adult living in Chicago heard about this and asked me to send him some of my poetry. I xeroxed a number of them and sent them off to him. A month later he wrote that he had enjoyed them well enough, but that he was very surprised when his mother (my sister) came over one night and spent a couple hours in an easy chair reading them…one in particular. I instantly knew which poem this was. When I was about fourteen my sister and her husband were expecting their third child. They had decided to name it “John” if it was a boy. At that age I took this to mean they were naming the baby after me. The baby was born, right before Christmas. It was a boy. Unfortunately it lived for only a few days, then died. Everyone gathered at my parents home for Christmas Eve. Ordinarily my sister who is sixteen years older than I am, would have been in the middle of the celebration, she is very gregarious. That night she didn’t feel like it so she sat in an easy chair in my room as I worked on the a model railroad building. I didn’t know what to say. I still wouldn’t; but years later when I wrote a poem called “Autobiography” it was this experience that was one of its central images. And now years later, through writing my feelings expressed in that poem reached her. No publication in a magazine could possibly compare to that. Last year I invited my sister to participate in one of my writing seminars. She had been a journalist and I thought it might get her writing again. When it came to this point, where I talk about publishing, I thought to myself, should I include this anecdote. We had never discussed her child’s death directly. I decided to go ahead and recount the story. When I finished all eyes turned to her, they knew she was my sister. She said, “You know the trouble wasn’t that you didn’t say anything, the trouble was that no one said anything.” I was so happy she had seen that poem. That she knew we did care, even if we couldn’t say it. Later in the year, at another seminar, a woman called out, “My God, I had a baby, named John, who died and no one would talk about it either.” We’re all friends,…who just don’t know each other. Writing is a way in which we do.
For further information on publishing, I highly recommend Judith Applebaum’s How to Get Happily Published. It has more information per page than most similar books do throughout.