The small press dilemma

For those of you who missed it, excellent and faithful reader MooCrazy wrote in a few days ago about a concern shared by many writers: the dilemma about how to handle desirable career transitions when dealing with a small press. Quoth Moo:

“Would you please speak to the issue of finding an agent after an author has published a first book through a traditional publisher without one? I love my current publisher, a small regional press. They claim the feeling is mutual. (I make a point of being very easy to work with.) However, I want to make sure my next book – a romp through a farm, similar to Bob Tarte’s “Enslaved by Ducks” – is represented by an agent because it is possibly national, even international in appeal. Should I stick with the publisher I love but try to interest an agent anyway? Will my publisher think it is bad manners to bring an agent in? They’ve already invited me to submit again. I don’t want it to appear that I don’t appreciate and trust them. Of course, there’s always the chance they won’t even like this book. It would be presumptuous of me to assume so.”

Moo, I hear you, and I’m glad you brought this up. I have heard some version of this concern from practically every author I have ever known who went through a small press. You don’t want to ruin the relationship, naturally, but you don’t want to limit your future books a press that may not have the distribution capacity to help your career grow in the long term. You want to be loyal to people who have been nice to you, but you would like to have your future books make a bit more of a splash. You don’t want to alienate those who may be your best chance at publication for the next book, but you are well aware that that prime face-out space on bookshelves and very visible table displays at the major bookstore chains are leased by the big publishing houses.

Here’s a short answer to the dilemma: last time I checked, Bob Tarte was represented by the recently-visiting-in-this-neck-of-the-woods Jeff Kleinman; his clients speak well of him. I have no idea if he would like your book project, but I suspect he would respond with sensitivity to a query letter that began, “I enjoyed hearing you speak at the recent PNWA conference.” (Don’t say this if it isn’t true, of course.) Since you so ably represented Bob Tarte’s excellent ENSLAVED BY DUCKS, I believe you will be interested in my book. While I already have an ongoing relationship with Small Publisher X, who printed my last book, I am eager to seek a broader audience for my work.” Why not test this supposition by sending off such a letter right away?

Before I go into all the reasons that this might be a good idea, let me run through why such an opening might be effective. That, from an agent’s point of view, is a pretty alluring opening paragraph to a query letter. It says that you’ve already taken the time to do some professional development for yourself as a writer, by going to a conference; it recognizes him for his past professional efforts, and ties those efforts to your work, and last, but certainly not least, it tells the agent that you already have publication credits. What’s not to love?

Yes, I know: this reads as though I am evading the central issue, which is whether small publishers get annoyed when their authors try to agent up. But in order to understand the prevailing industry attitudes about this, it’s important to understand why an agent would not see ANY ethical problem to picking up a writer who already has a self-negotiated contract with a small press.

Why? Well, in industry terms, there honestly would be no problem whatsoever: it’s understood that career writers often begin with small presses and move up to big ones. It’s also understood that to deal with the large presses, a writer will need an agent. Just as no one in professional baseball would expect a very gifted minor league player to remain with his original team when a major league club beckoned, it would actually surprise most publishing professionals if a serious writer DID stay with a very small press purely out of loyalty.

So from an agent’s POV, all your having a pre-existing relationship with a small publisher means is two things: first, that you have a successful track record of pleasing an editor (which is a selling point that he can use to try to pitch your work to the majors), and second, that there is already an editor at a press out there who is predisposed to read and admire your work (which means his job will be easier). This is going to make you a very attractive client prospect.

But will your publisher become annoyed if you shop your next book around to agents before you show it to them? Well, there certainly are unreasonably jealous people out there, but people who work for small presses also understand that it’s far from uncommon for a writer to start out at a small press and move up to a big one with the help of an agent. Actually, the more successful they are at promoting your first book, the more they could logically expect you to move onward and upward.

They know, in short, that your wanting to find an agent is not a reflection upon your relationship with them, but merely a practical attempt on your part to enhance your work’s visibility. If they are a credible house (and it sounds as though they are), this will have no effect upon your reputation whatsoever. Authors move from press to press all the time, without any hard feelings, and when well-meaning industry professionals genuinely respect an author, the last thing they want to do is to harm their future books’ chances of commercial success. In fact, if your subsequent books do well, the small press will benefit, because new readers will come looking for copies of your first book. Everybody wins.

Yes, I know: there is a LOT of talk on the conference circuit about writers being blacklisted, but actually, it doesn’t happen very often. In my experience, there are only three situations where presses tend to become mortally offended if their authors seek representation for their next books — and generally speaking, the mortally offended and the genuinely sociopathic are the only people you need to worry about bad-mouthing you. (I’m tempted to digress into diagnosing the motives of the people who have been threatening to sue over my memoir here, but I shan’t.)

What are these terrible instances? First, if it is a press that ONLY works with unagented authors, or who prefers to do so. Such presses are rare, but they do exist; it is undoubtedly cheaper to work with unagented writers. If this is their policy, however, they have set up a situation where their authors HAVE to leave them in order to pursue their careers. Consequently, they expect it.

When such a publisher becomes annoyed with an author for seeking representation, it is only because he was counting upon making more money on any given author before she moved up to the majors. But if a major press where you want to be, it just doesn’t make sense to stick with a press with that kind of policy anyway, does it?

The second instance is where the publication contract for the first book contained a right of first refusal clause over your next book. This is a fairly standard contractual provision, so you should check for it. In essence, it means that when you sold the first book, you agreed to let them look at it before any other publisher does. They already know that they like your writing (which means that it is not at all presumptuous for you to assume that they might want your next, incidentally), and they would rather not have to compete in order to retain you.

If you have such a clause in your first book’s contract, it would not prevent you from sending your next book out to agents. All it would mean is that any agent who did sign you would be legally obligated to show the book to your publisher before shopping it around. It just means that you would have to be honest with the agent about the obligation. You would land the agent, the agent would approach your publisher, and everyone would be happy.

The third situation — and honestly, one hears about it anecdotally far more than it occurs in real life — is where the editor who handled the first book has already heard about the next book and loved it, or has become friendly with the author to the extent that it never occurred to him that you might move on to another press, or who had just assumed that all of their authors are there for a lifetime, or who has fallen so deeply in love with you as to be beyond the reach of ordinary common sense. In short, these are instances where there is either a personal relationship between the author and the editor or publisher — or a dementia on someone’s part that there IS a personal relationship strong enough that it would transcend the norms of the industry.

Truly, there is absolutely nothing you can do about other people’s assumptions. If people at your press decide to be offended at your serving your work’s best interests, though, you might want to give some thought about whether this is the best place for your work in the long term. As an author, your top loyalty needs to be to your books, not to your publisher.

Since you say that you have a good relationship with the fine folks at your publishing house, though, you probably do not need to worry about this. If they’re reasonable people who know the industry, and you’ve been a dream to work with, chances are that they will be pleased if you do well with your next book.

However, if you are seriously worried, here is a close-to-foolproof method for avoiding insulting even the touchiest publishing type: flatter him or her by asking for advice. Send your editor an e-mail, saying that while obviously you would LOVE to have Small Publisher X print your next work, you’ve become aware that for the benefit of your overall writing career, it would make sense for your to seek an agent. Since ideally the editor will be working with any agent you might find, does the editor have any suggestions about whom to query?

This method has two benefits: it diffuses the situation (after all, you ARE being honest, so if the editor want to snap up your next book, s/he knows that s/he will have to take action, pronto) AND it potentially gives you that opportunity to send a query beginning, “Editor Y of Small Publisher X recommended that I contact you about representing my book…” Editors often have agents with whom they prefer to work, and vice versa. A recommendation from an editor will give you a definite advantage in the querying stage.

All that being said, I do think that writers worry too much about offending agents, editors, and publishers — or rather, that the writers who DO end up offending publishing professionals are seldom the ones who sit around worrying about it. The really offensive authors are the ones who don’t meet deadlines, or are rude about editing suggestions, or disappear for a year under the pretext of a rewrite, or don’t live up to promotional obligations, or who call their agents (or prospective agents) three times a week for updates. Trust me, nice writers like you who do everything in their power to be helpful and provide good books are not the ones whom editors and agents curse behind their backs. It’s the other ones, the ones who (I like to think, anyway) do not read my blog.

Remember, your publisher did not do you a FAVOR by publishing your book – your publisher published your book because the staff there thought it could make money and serve art doing it. However cordial your relationship with everyone there, it is in fact a business relationship. These are people who make their living off the talent of writers like you. Most of them are aware of it.

So why do almost all of us tiptoe around these people as though our very existence were cause for apology, although THEY live on OUR work? Well, it’s a pretty common reaction in a situation where one person holds disproportionate power over another.

Of course it is true that an offended agent tends not to sign the writer who offended her, any more than an affronted editor will rush to work with an agent with whom he’s just had a screaming fight. And naturally, you don’t want to impress an agent you want to sign you as a worrywart who will require constant attention from the moment the ink is dry on the contract. But as long as you are polite and respectful both before and after ink is put to paper, doing your job well and allowing them to do theirs, you will usually be fine.

Hope this helps, Moo. And keep up the good work, everybody!

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