The Joys of Indie Publishing

March 19, 2013 § 7 Comments


author-retroA guest essay from Eleanor Stanford:

Once upon a time, I had an agent. And not just any agent. A glamorous, big-time agent with a firm in London (not even New York–London!). I found her through an introduction from a professor of mine, and she enthusiastically took me on. She called my manuscript, a memoir about my experiences in the tiny West African country of Cape Verde, a gorgeous, lyrical memoir, a work that would open readers hearts and minds.

I was flattered, I admit.

I saw stars. I saw book deals and bestseller lists and maybe even a movie version featuring Gwyneth Paltrow. No, Natalie Portman. No…

There ensued an exciting year of transatlantic emails and phone calls. The agent did several rounds of submissions to big presses both in the U.S. and abroad. I received a number of tantalizingly close rejections.

Then: silence. I tried to convince my agent to submit to smaller presses, but she wasn’t familiar with small presses in the U.S., and didn’t seem eager to pursue that path. I had other things going on, anyway. A baby. A graduate program. A move to a different state. Another baby.

I published my first book, a collection of poetry, with a university press. Again, my dreams of grandeur–or at least a book prize, maybe a review in a medium-sized literary magazine–came to nothing. Three reviews on Goodreads. A box of author copies under my bed.

Then, almost fifteen years after I’d written my memoir about Cape Verde, I pulled it out again on a whim. I’d seen a small press in Chicago featured in Poets and Writers, and thought, why not?

To my surprise, the press accepted my manuscript less than two weeks after I submitted it. No agent. No high-power negotiations. There wasn’t even a contract.

But I was intrigued. There was something so endearing and energizing about this passionate, committed bibliophile producing books in his Chicago apartment. Plus, he seemed to have a lot of marketing acumen to go along with his enthusiasm. The press took both an up-to-the minute, tech savvy approach, with free e-books, as well as a hip, handmade print edition. They took advantage of the democratic nature of social media to sell their books. The press appealed to both my inner revolutionary, and my inner literary conservative. (Also to my inner wannabe hipster.)

I signed on (figuratively).

Unlike with a big press, or even a university press, there was no two-year wait from acceptance to publication. Within three months, book was edited and proofread, the cover chosen, acknowledgements written. I was an integral part of the entire process. It was a true collaboration, and the editors were incredibly solicitous and accommodating. The cover we decided on was one of my own photos from Cape Verde.

While the university press I work with offers much of this intimacy and responsiveness to the authors, their marketing efforts are modest and fairly traditional. My indie press, on the other hand, is highly invested in selling copies and generating buzz, and works with an independent publicist, who has already proved invaluable in finding avenues for promoting my book.

The first edition of my book is just going to press now (or rather, just now being hand-assembled in my publisher’s living room). I’ve already seen photographs of the small, bound hardback–it looks beautiful!–and am eagerly awaiting the mail delivery that will place the final product in my hands.

In some ways, the journey is just beginning. But already, I couldn’t be happier with my choice of publishing with one of the many innovative independents that are taking advantage of all the advantages that technology–both very new and very old–have to offer.


Eleanor Stanford is the author of Historia, Historia: Two Years in the Cape Verde Islands (Chicago Center for Literature and Photography), and The Book of Sleep (Carnegie Mellon Press). Her poems and essays have appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares, The Harvard Review, The Massachusetts Review, and many other journals. She lives in the Philadelphia area.

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§ 7 Responses to The Joys of Indie Publishing

  • I can’t tell you how much this sounds like my story!

    I have an agent, a good one, and she believed so strongly in my memoir about a 5000 mile Kerouac-inspired road trip I took with my sons. She, and many of the big name publishers she sent it to, called it “heartwarming” and “insightful” and “the author is a wonderful narrator.” And we got THIS CLOSE with some high-powered publishers who expressed interest. But, ultimately, it didn’t go.

    I eventually found a wonderful small press in Chicago (not the one mentioned above) that loved the story and wanted to publish it. However, the publisher’s distribution model didn’t work with my plan. And although they were great guys and a wonderful fit, I’m sure, for another author, they were not right for me.

    So – I created my own imprint – Little Big Man Press – (the name comes from what I used to call my older son, Little Man, and what I used to call my younger son, Big Man) and began the self-publishing process. I have worked with wonderful editors, intuitive and wiling designers, and a top-notch book publicist, and I’m running with a better distribution model for my goals.

    It’s a joy. And now, that book – the one my agent loved, and a number of publishers believed in but weren’t ready to buy, will be released this spring.

    “Any Road Will Take You There” is about the long, untidy road between fathers and sons. It seems a fitting story for the long, untidy road these days to getting a book published.

  • Jason Pettus says:

    Many thanks to Eleanor for this incredibly flattering essay. You can download her book for free by going directly to http://www.cclapcenter.com/historia . And a small correction to make — our hardworking publicist, Lori Hettler, is actually a full-time member of our staff, not an independent freelancer. I’m glad you’ve had a good experience with us, Eleanor!

  • My book is now with my beta-readers. When is too soon to start to check out publishing options in this fast changing industry? Seems to me the rules change daily if one wants to stay clear of the traditional pathway–agent to publisher.

    This essay was reassuring. Thanks.

  • Stephen Ulrich says:

    Great story, Eleanor. Good to be offered glimpses of light at the end of often long, dark tunnels.

  • Bill Peschel says:

    Marianna, I don’t see why you shouldn’t be looking at publishing options now. The earlier you become familiar with the process, the easier it will be to make decisions.

    Best of luck on your publishing journey. Sounds like you’ve got a great publishing house.

  • rachaelhanel says:

    I love this! Thanks for sharing your story, Eleanor.

  • Thank you for sharing your experience! I just downloaded your Kindle e-book to read on a trip this weekend. My memoir was also published by a small indie press, 5 years ago, and they are still helping me market it. Encouraging for sure. Getting the story to readers is why we write, isn’t it? (also for the fun of it LOL)

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