Publishing with an Independent Press as a Fiction Writer

Author: Gabe Durham

What sort of venues did you consider for your work? Why?

I try to take a good honest look at whatever it is I’ve been working on and send it someplace that makes sense. When I’d completed a collection of narrative comic short stories, my agent sent the manuscript out to the big publishing houses. After writing this book, Fun Camp, I figured I’d written something that looked more like an indie book: a short high-concept book of poemish prose.

Part of the game of writing is to (despite my personality, sensibility, and limitations) try not to think of myself as a certain kind of writer or to close myself off to any types of venues. A few years ago I had a complete sci-fi story on my hands and made a go of sending it out to all the top sci-fi journals. In the end, the story wound up in a literary journal like most of the rest, but it felt important first to knock on the door of the genre on which I was riffing, you know?

What is your forthcoming project and how did you present it to publishers?

My book, FUN CAMP, is a short novel about a week at a summer camp that tries to mold campers into funner, more interesting people. Their concept of fun is very slapstick—pranks, food fights, greased watermelon relays—but its leaders are positively evangelical about it. The highest good is to convert the boring.

The book is told in monologues, speeches, soliloquies, sermons, letters, cards, and lists. These pieces tend to be very short, only a page or two, and tend to privilege voice and place and theme over character or plot.

How are independent fiction publishers different from publishing houses?

Less reach and greater freedom. Independent publishers need to make back the money they put in, but their chief investment is time. Indie editors need to pick a book that they can work on for months without getting bored. For both the writer and the editor, all the pleasure must be in the writing/editing/promoting process itself because real money is just not going to be made.

But. A reputation can be made. A career can be kickstarted. I believe that. (Funny to use the word kickstart now when not referring to the dot com.) In addition to doing readings, tracking sales, and fishing for reviews, I intend to use the book as a sort of calling card, to put it in the hands of personal heroes and potential employers to show what I can do. It will help that the book will look great. We’re not so far in the process that I know what it will look like, but Mud Luscious Press hasn’t put out an ugly book yet. Design is important to J.A. Tyler, which is one of the reasons I was attracted to the press.

How did you decide that an independent publisher would be a better fit for your work? What qualities made your work a better fit for an independent publisher?

Again, it was the nature of this particular book. FUN CAMP began in anticipation of taking a graduate poetry workshop. I’d never written any good poems and I really wanted to write my way into a series of pieces that could count as poems without getting too far away from what I was already doing in my fiction. I wanted to recognize myself in a new form.

It was only after I’d written about 15-20 of these short pieces that I began to imagine that they all took place in the same physical space, a summer camp, and that’s when it really took off. I got to explore the camp piece by piece, developing rules and themes and eventually characters. A few times I wondered if I ought to crack the whole project open and write it as a traditional novel, but so much of what was making it work was there in form itself. The entire book is narrated by the campers and staff, and so takes on this disembodied quality that leaves a lot of room for the reader to populate the book with his or her own ideas and memories. And that’s a very indie book sort of idea, that openness, that unwillingness to digest the story for the reader.

What tips do you have for fiction writers searching for an independent publisher for their work?

When you’re looking into an indie publisher, buy something they’ve put out. Examine it. Make sure it looks and feels like a book, that the fonts aren’t wonky, that the layout is clean. Read the book. Make sure there are few-to-no errors. Make sure the book doesn’t suck. Make sure their website isn’t ugly or embarrassing. See how they sell the books. Make sure it’s not hard to buy. Make sure it would not cost $18. It’s ideal if they have some distribution. Mud Luscious uses Small Press Distribution, which is the best one to have for indie press books.

Be nice. Be understanding about how long it takes editors to read your manuscript. It’s usually just one person fielding PDFs from all over the world, trying to give everyone their due and fighting back that overwhelmed feeling.

Make sure you can see this press reasonably putting out your book, but also don’t picture an editor being really aesthetically rigid. Most people are into lots of different stuff. When first listing presses I might send FUN CAMP to, I didn’t seriously consider Mud Luscious because I’d never read anything from them that was as voicey as my book. A lot of what they put out (and a lot of what J.A. Tyler writes) is spare, austere, mysterious.

Like here’s a passage from his book: “Eliza stirs soup in a kitchen pot, waits for the onions to tender. Her father never returned from the war. And the bullets he shot impaled trees and air, never cutting down even one opposite soldier.” Beautiful. Now here’s me: “Come on, hands up. Nothing to be shy about. You all’ve got a leg up on the pussies from unbroken homes. While they mosey into adulthood expectant in their dumb grins, you’ll have already learned just how hard you can bite without drawing blood.” So you never know. Often, we’re all most impressed by the writers who are totally different animals than we are.