Small Press Versus Big Press

I was invited to be a guest author at The Tucson Festival of Books a couple of weeks ago. I sat on two panels and moderated another. On the panel about memoir, a woman in the audience asked of the panelist, “what are your ages?” I responded, “45,” and waited for the other panelists to tell the audience their ages, shaving a year or two off with me. But they didn’t offer. What had I done? Outed myself as someone in their 40s? We can’t fake being 30 forever, fine young panelists , I wanted to say. (OK, one panelist was 37. She should have shouted loud and proud!)

It turns out the audience member didn’t ask, “what are your ages?” she asked, “what about agents?” Now I had been exposed as both old and deaf! Excellent beginning to the Q&A section.

The world of literary agents is a mysterious one. I was just going back through emails to my agent, trying to decipher how long it takes to get a rejection, when I found a list of publishers I sent him. What was I thinking? That he had not heard of certain presses? But I suppose authors get anxious and over-email their agents and agents, recognizing that anxiety is endemic to authors, give the authors a break. I am sorry, David, that I sent you that tone-deaf email!

After the panel, now that everyone knew my age and yet not my agent, a woman came up to me to ask why I didn’t go with a larger press. I told her I did have an agent for Sustainability: A Love Story but when Mad Creek Books, an imprint of Ohio State University Press, approached me about publishing with them (I had sent the manuscript to them before the agent picked up the book), my agent said, “go for it.” Sustainability is probably a little too weird for big presses. And that’s actual good. I have loved working with Mad Creek and my editor Kristen. At an earlier panel, the other panelists, who had big presses, had said that before the book came out, the big publisher had been very supportive but 4 weeks after release date, the book was considered old. Sustainability keeps chugging along, picking up contest positions and getting readers and being featured at book clubs. It would be hard, I think, for a small press book to win a big contest like National Book Award when the rules say you have to have books available to them by May to be considered for that year’s award (my book, which came out in August, didn’t have galleys until June). But Mad Creek Books has had starred reviews in Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus and reviews in the NYT and Washington Post. Every time some good news comes by, the press tweets or posts about it. The books don’t seem to become old news. They instead become part of the collection that makes the press its unique self. I love the series editors. I love the main editor. I love the press team, even though they’re small. I love that they make new posters for my book tours and talk me through foreign rights issues. Sustainability: A Love Story is in more people’s hands than I ever could have imagined. How could I ask for more?  Admittedly, I don’t know what working with a big press is like. And I keep refreshing my browser to see if my agent has any news. A big press would be fun because I’d reach different audiences but the way Mad Creek keeps championing Sustainability: A Love Story makes me feel truly sustained.

2 thoughts on “Small Press Versus Big Press

  1. Thank you so much for your comments–up front and clear. I have completed a memoir along the same lines of SUSTAINABILITY, except that I am a grandmother worried about the future for her grandson. Thanks, too, for publishing your book and getting it out there. It has been an inspiration to me–for the writing and for taking on the topic. I will look for agent representation with “big” press in mind. But that won’t be the only route. All best–


    1. Dear Linda,
      I’m at the airport waiting for a delayed flight which means I finally have a second to respond to say thank you. It means so much to me that there are kindred thinkers out there–I can’t believe where we are but I also have so much belief that we will rally, thanks to people like you.


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