Spotlight on IndeDebut 2010: Authors Publishing through Small Presses

Ever thought about sending your manuscript to a small, independent publisher? Some independents, like Candlewick and Sourcebooks, started off in a bedroom. (Kind of like your novel!) Now these two companies have become heavy hitters in the publishing arena.

Many small presses have been turning a profit while larger publishers flounder. Still, authors who decide to go with a small publisher often find themselves battling misperceptions, as well as struggling for shelf space.

Amy Cook decided to be proactive by developing IndeDebut2010 for authors like herself who will be published this year by small presses. Here’s a chance to meet some of these authors, hear their stories and learn about their publishers. Who knows — one of these small presses could become the next Scholastic!

Can each of you tell me how you found your publisher? Why did you choose this publisher?

LORI CALABRESE: I found my publisher, Dragonfly Publishing, Inc., online. Since 2008, DFP has held a children’s picture book contest. DFP has to keep their submissions closed most of the time because they get too many and just can’t physically handle the volume, so Senior Editor Pat Gaines came up with the wonderful idea to give aspiring authors and illustrators an opportunity to get their books in print by holding this contest. I had learned of the contest and entered each year. Unfortunately, the manuscript I sent in 2008 didn’t make the cut, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn my entry for 2009, THE BUG THAT PLAGUED THE ENTIRE THIRD GRADE, won 1st place for Best Children’s Book.

While attending the 2008 Muse Online Writers Conference, I attended the lecture by Lynda Burch of Guardian Angel Publishing and immediately clicked with her philosophy. I took the plunge and submitted my manuscript entitled, THE GOLDEN PATHWAY, and after a couple rounds of edits she accepted the manuscript.

TERRY LYNN JOHNSON: I participated in the free on-line MUSE writers conference in October.  I applied for and won one of twelve spots for a five minute pitch session with 4RV Publishing president Vivian Zabel.  I was so nervous I could barely type, but she offered me a chance to submit to her and one month later, I received the offer.  

SCOTT HEYDT: When I began to pitch MICE DON’T TASTE LIKE CHICKEN, I created a Google Alert for “middle grade fiction.”  One day, PM Moon’s name popped up as sponsors of a contest for children’s fiction work with a first prize of publication.  My manuscript received Honorable Mention in that contest (behind the talented winner and fellow IndeDebut 2010 member, Amy Allgeyer Cook).  One of the PM Moon editors chose MICE DON’T TASTE LIKE CHICKEN as their personal favorite and extended a contract.  I chose to accept the contract because of the family environment PM Moon seeks to create.  

CARLA MOONEY: I read about Soto Publishing in the Children’s Book Insider newsletter. I liked the idea of working with a small publisher and decided to go ahead and try submitting my manuscript to them.  

JO RAMSEY: I found my publisher, Jupiter Gardens, in a strange way. In addition to YA, I write romance, and I’d published with an e-publisher. That publisher also has an imprint that does metaphysical, New Age, and pagan titles, and had published a YA title there. I had written a YA series that includes channeling and energy healing, so it seemed a good fit for that publisher.  

MIRIAM FORSTER: I found OakTara through a family friend who had sold them a trilogy.  He found out I was about to retire this particular book and suggested I send it to them.  At first, I was hesitant.  OakTara publishes inspirational fiction of all kinds and I didn’t see myself as an inspirational fiction author.

On the other hand, I couldn’t see a place for it in the mainstream young adult market, which had changed a LOT in the seven-plus years it took me to finish and polish the book. THE FLUTE AND THE DAGGER takes place in a monotheistic world and is a pretty clean story, (neither of which I did on purpose, that’s just how the story ended up) so I finally decided to give it another good rewrite and send it in.

The publisher I’m working with has published some books of poetry of mine in the past. He has a very small operation, but I trust him and we work well together.

I had a bit of a roller coaster ride with agents and larger publishing houses. I found myself in the position of querying all over again and just decided the heck with big publishing houses. Did I really want to wait three more years for this book to come out? I approached a few boutique publishers and Tod McCoy of en theos press decided it was just the new direction he wanted to go in. I have been involved in the whole process, which is something that doesn’t happen with a larger publisher.

Amy, you found your publisher through a contest, right? How did you hear about the contest?
I heard about the contest through an announcement on Verla Kay’s message board which, by the way, is a great resource for writers and illustrators. [NOTE: Verla Kay no longer runs this message board.]

What gave you the idea to start this group?
Frustration.  I saw how much buzz was being built by marketing groups like “Class of 2K9” and other debutante groups.  I wanted to join but was told over and over that I wasn’t eligible, because my press wasn’t listed in Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market.  A lot of small presses aren’t.  I asked my publisher to apply to be listed.  She’s working on it, but it’s too late now as most of these groups have closed to 2010 applications.  I knew I couldn’t be the only person in this situation, and being a die-hard ‘do-it-yourselfer’, I thought I’d put together my own group. I also hoped we might be able to capitalize on the recent groundswell of support for Indie Bookstores to generate publicity for our publishers and our books. 

How did you find the other authors and interest them in doing the website?
I posted an announcements on Verla Kay’s message board, the SCBWI message board, the ICL message board, Twitter and Facebook.  I ended up with responses from all of these.  Some established writers forwarded the announcements to debut writers they know.  The response was great! 

And we got very lucky!  We have a great group of authors with many different skills and diverse fan groups.  We were able to create our message board, our blog, our logo and press releases within a week of forming.  Our blog already has many great articles on writing and publishing, contributed or forwarded by our members.  We are off to a great start. 

If other authors with books at small presses want to be part of Indie Debut, what should they do?
We have a few requirements:  1) The book being published must be children’s or YA.  2) The book must be their first book published in this genre.  3)  The book cannot be self- or vanity-published. 

If the author meets all of these criteria, they can email amyacook(at)live(dot)com and include their name, their publisher and the info on their book.  We’re currently taking authors with release dates in 2010 and 2011, and we’d love to add a few more members!

I’m assuming a small press has even less of a promotion budget than a large publisher. Besides the joint website, how have you individually worked at promoting your books?

AMY COOK: Having never been with a big publisher, it’s hard to compare what PM Moon does with what Random House might do.  However, I’ve gotten marketing materials shipped to me almost every month.  These kits include postcards announcing my speaking engagements (to send to bookstores or schools), business cards, rack cards for speaking engagements and a banner with my ginormous face.  I’m supposed to put that up when I have an author event, but in all honesty seeing my face that big creeps me out.  For my part, I’ve set up a platform similar to other authors, with a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Red Room, Jacketflap, a website, and of course a blog.  I think writers talk about writers they know, and making contact with them is the key to building pre-release buzz.  Plus, you make a lot of great friends! 

Like Amy said, having never been with a big publisher, it’s hard to compare, but I think most small presses have small promotion budgets, so a lot, and sometimes all, of the marketing efforts are the author’s responsibility. Even though my book is being published in 2010, I’ve already started marketing. As authors, we’re not just marketing our books, but we’re marketing our brand, which is us the writer.

Besides the IndeDebut2010 website, I have my own personal website; I distribute a monthly e-mail newsletter called The Book Bugz  (you can opt-in at my website); I consistently blog about children’s books and writing at my website; I’m the National Children’s Books Examiner for; I contribute articles to article directories such as Ezine articles; I conduct school visits and I try to do as much social networking as I can. When my book is published, I look forward to participating in blog tours, sending the book out for reviews, contacting Independent bookstores, and participating in book fairs and events.

DONNA MCDINE: One of the first marketing steps I took was to create a blog by the name of my book – My story book is a historical fiction account of the Underground Railroad and beyond the information I am distributing for my book I include book reviews of other children’s books on the Underground Railroad and additional information on museums, websites, and blogs based on the Underground Railroad.

TERRY LYNN JOHNSON: I have a website and a personal blog that I’ve had since before my book contract so my readers have taken the trip with me.  I really enjoy the blogging community and think it’s a great way to get your name out there for free.  I also regularly contribute to sites like Absolute Write, Verla Kay boards, SCBWI forum, She Writes, Jacket Flap and a variety of dogsledding forums.  On every post, my signature with DOGSLED DREAMS and my website appears. Once my book comes out I have plans to attend the dogsled racing circuit.  One thing about writing a book about dogsledding, my target audience is easy to find.

I should also add, that I write articles for magazines and my bio is published the end of each article.  I’ve had many readers send me personal emails telling me how much they enjoyed my article and where can they find my book!  I think this is great promotion – and you get paid to do it! I’m planning to submit to dog magazines closer to DOGSLED DREAMS release date so hopefully I’ll get some added exposure with good timing.

SCOTT HEYDT: You’d be surprised at what promotional items I’ve received from PM Moon, some wonderful items and professional materials to assist with pre-promotion. That being said, I make sure I have web presence on my own website as well as popular social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, Shelfari, JacketFlap, etc. Also, I am a member of the SCBWI as well as the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group.  These associations provide countless opportunities for promotion and interaction with my audience.

CARLA MOONEY: I haven’t done a lot yet. I have a website. I’m planning to order bookmarks and postcards to mail and pass out to local bookstores, schools, libraries, etc. I’m doing my first school visit for my daughter’s fourth grade class sometime this winter. Hopefully, more will follow. I’d love to have a book signing at our local indie bookstore and plan to approach them near my book release. I’m also planning to make a book trailer to post online.

JO RAMSEY: I have my own website,, and have begun doing school visits. I’ve also spoken with an independent bookstore in my town. I belong to SCBWI, and to a few other online groups, so I’ve mentioned my book there as well.

MIRIAM FORSTER: I started a blog (of course!) and really set myself a goal of getting to know the online author community.While I try not to spam people with book information, I do have a Facebook fan page and often post mini-excerpts of my book on my blog. I also set up a website for myself and a book launch page with quizzes and contests, but that’s for after the book is out.

DANIKA DINSMORE: One of the reasons I finally decided to go small press is that as a new novelist I was going to have to do a lot of my own promotion anyway. The toughest thing is getting promoted at book fairs and conferences, because the booth rentals are pricey.

For promotion, I’ve boned up on my social media skills, learning more about how I can use Facebook and Twitter. I’ve also just launched a website where I can promote my WHITE FOREST series.

I have a background in teaching and performing, so I’ve already got one book tour planned. That’s the most exciting part to me because I love being in front of groups of people, whether it’s in a classroom or on stage. My book tour is a combination of readings, classroom visits, and working the book fairs. I call it my Imaginary Worlds Tour.

Did any of you try bigger publishers, or did you just want to go with a small press?

 I did try the bigger publishers, but fantasy has been flooded in the post-Harry Potter age.  And even though The Invisible Sister caught an agent’s eye, I didn’t break into the bigger houses even with her help.

I think every writer dreams of being published by one of the large publishing corporations and writing the next number one New York Times bestselling book. Many authors work hard to get their books published, but unfortunately, the number of major firms has shrunk, and competition has grown to an all-time high. Like many new writers, I was anxious to get my manuscript out when it wasn’t quite ready. After receiving a few rejections from the larger publishers, I revised and revised and decided to submit it to DFP’s contest. It’s great that various alternatives such as small presses exist because they do give a new writer the opportunity to break into publishing. 

 At this point in my writing career I’ve targeted small publishers and, at this time, I’m quite content.

Since this is my debut novel, I did not try the major publishers, but I did sub to some mid-sized Canadian publishers and agents with several requests to see the full manuscript, but no contracts.

SCOTT HEYDT: I pursued literary agents for MICE DON’T TASTE LIKE CHICKEN. The bigger publishers often require representation, but it is a difficult barrier to break into. I did not find success after numerous agent queries, and then the opportunity for the PM Moon contest arose.

CARLA MOONEY: I had tried two other small presses before Soto accepted OWEN AND THE DRAGON.

 I didn’t try a bigger publisher with this series because I felt this publisher would be the best fit.

MIRIAM FORSTER: I did try bigger publishers, but I was a very new and inexperienced author at the time with a very rough book, so that didn’t go anywhere. As I said before, by the time THE FLUTE AND THE DAGGER was truly ready, the market had changed so much in young adult fantasy that I thought a smaller niche press might be a better fit.

DANIKA DINSMORE: A few years ago I had a fabulous agency in the UK and they took it to several of the largest publishing houses. Only the book wouldn’t sell. We were told the fantasy market was over-saturated and that nobody was taking financial risks with new authors because of the economy. Nobody said they didn’t like the story. As a matter of fact, they really liked the writing. You could imagine how I felt, like I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even though my ego wanted to find a large publisher, I finally decided it was going to be better in the long run this way.

What have you found to be the most effective method for getting the word out about your writing?

Hands down, the internet.  One, it’s free.  Two, the audience is limitless.  And three, we’re just beginning to understand social media and its potential in marketing.  Blog tours, Facebook pages, blog radio interviews…these concepts aren’t limited to the big houses, nor are they prohibitively expensive.  Ten thousand-dollar websites aside, the internet provides a relatively level playing field for all publishers, large or small.

LORI CALABRESE: I think having a website is essential for any writer to get the word out about their writing. If you’re dedicated to building your brand, it can be an effective method to increase book sales, build and maintain a loyal fanbase, interact with readers, spread the word about upcoming events, promote yourself and any services you offer, highlight future books before they’re released, and so much more. Because of my website, I had the opportunity to write a picture book for John Hancock’s 2009 Back to School Campaign called OH! THE POSSIBILITIES that they distributed to their clients. It’s not only a great way to share and promote your work, but also a great way to get work.

Networking, networking, networking! Get involved in your local Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) Chapter, join a critique group (I’m personally involved in two on-line and one in-person at my local library.

 Chat boards are another instrumental way. Popular ones include:

 Nothing beats word of mouth advertisement.  I have a large friend list on social networking sites where I utilize the trickle-down effect to get word out about updates and events.  Also, I find that writing for children is especially rewarding because they can become your biggest natural advocate for promotion if they enjoy your work.  They’ll promote by word of mouth with such honesty and fervor.

 I think an online presence helps. I participate on writing boards like Verla Kay and Nonfiction for Kids. I’m hoping my website also helps to get some of the word out.

 Persuading my 14-year-old daughter to mention it on her Twitter and Facebook, and giving her and my 11-year-old bookmarks to pass out at school.

MIRIAM FORSTER: For me it’s been all about building relationships and staying open to possibilities.  I’ve found good friends in places I didn’t expect, and learned a lot about networking in the process.  If I had just gone into it with the idea that I wanted to build relationships with only certain people, or only been focused on marketing me, I don’t think it would have worked as well.

DANIKA DINSMORE: I’m still working on that one! Social media is vital to the campaign, but personally, I like the in-person approach. I like inspiring young writers through performing and teaching. I had many young readers test the novel and give me feedback. I think having a personal connection like that will build a loyal fan base. I also think it’s important to get librarians interested in your work!

Read Part Two of this interview here.