SMALL PRESS: BIG DECISION
Interview with Carmela Martino
For writers today, there are many paths to publication. I’ve asked children’s book author and speaker Carmela Martino to share her insights on publishing with a small press. Carmela is the author of two award-winning historical novels and recently presented a webinar for SCBWI Illinois called Small Press, BIG Decision.
DIFFERENT PATHS TO PUBLICATION
Julie: Welcome, Carmela. Tell us a little about your books and their different paths to publication.
Carmela: My middle-grade novel, Rosa, Sola, began as a short story based on events from my own childhood, written for an assignment in my MFA program at Vermont College. My classmates and teachers convinced me to expand the story into a novel. After graduation, I finished the novel and began submitting. Rosa, Sola was eventually published by Candlewick Press, a large independent press.
My second novel, Playing by Heart, was inspired by two sisters who lived in 18th-century Milan: mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi and composer Maria Teresa Agnesi. These amazing women were far ahead of their time, and I wanted others to know their story. Though my Candlewick editor suggested writing it for middle-graders, the story didn’t work for me until I wrote it as young adult.
What I didn’t realize was that YA historicals don’t usually sell well unless they have an unusual hook, such as a murder mystery or fantasy elements. But Playing by Heart was grounded in reality—the extensive research nearly did me in. When I sent the finished manuscript to Candlewick, they rejected it. So did every other publisher and agent I sent it to. Frustrated, I put the manuscript in the proverbial drawer and moved on to other things.
SMALL PRESS PUBLICATION
Julie: How did Playing by Heart reach publication?
Carmela: More than a year went by, and the manuscript still called to me. I considered self-publishing because I knew authors who were having great success with self-published YA fantasy. Unfortunately, self-published realistic YA historicals were not selling well. I feared I wouldn’t have the marketing reach to attract teen readers on my own.
Then I attended an online writing conference where several small publishers were hearing pitches, so I gave it a shot. An editor from Vinspire Publishing invited me to submit. When she offered a contract a few months later, I accepted, reasoning that if the book was published by a small press and garnered favorable reviews, libraries would buy it. And the publisher, though small, would have marketing resources to supplement my efforts.
ADVANTAGES OF A SMALL PRESS
Julie: Are there advantages to publishing with a small press?
Carmela: Based on my experience and interviews with other authors, there are three main advantages:
- Small presses are often better than large publishers at reaching niche markets—books where the subject appeals to a narrow or unique audience; for example, something of interest in a specific geographic region.
- Many small presses accept submissions without an agent. This might be crucial for some books, since it is often harder to find an agent than a publisher.
- Small presses tend to keep books in print longer and support their backlist, unlike many big publishers.
Julie: And the disadvantages?
Carmela: The disadvantages vary depending on the type of book, but the issues authors mention most fall into three categories:
- Small presses typically have small budgets and small staffs. This can affect every aspect of a book’s production, from editorial quality to cover design and marketing. In other words, books from small presses may not look as professional as those from larger houses. Budget restrictions also mean many small presses don’t pay advances, only royalties.
- Small presses have a hard time getting reviews in major trade journals—with limited space, journals are more likely to review books from major publishing houses. And some small presses don’t know how/when to get their books to reviewers. Journal reviews can make or break library sales, especially for nonfiction children’s books. I felt reviews were important for Playing by Heart, since it was inspired by real people and based on extensive research. So, I investigated the review process and nagged my publisher into getting review copies out on time. My work paid off with a lovely review in Booklist (the journal of the American Library Association.)
- Small presses may not have access to the same distribution channels as larger houses, which can affect whether libraries or bookstores will order copies. Distribution issues may keep a bookstore from hosting a signing or even stocking a local author’s book.
Julie: We’ve heard about the marketing challenges when you publish with a small press. What are the most successful things you’ve done to market your book?
Carmela: My push to get Playing by Heart reviewed in trade journals certainly helped, but not as much as I’d hoped. Few libraries bought the book on their own. However, thanks to the favorable review in Booklist, if a cardholder asked their library to purchase Playing by Heart, most libraries did. To make that happen, I shared memes on social media encouraging readers to request the book at their libraries.
When I signed the contract for Playing by Heart, my publisher recommended I follow Tim Grahl’s marketing suggestions at booklaunch.com/book-marketing-resources. Another list of marketing tips I used can be found at www.writehacked.com/productivity/self-published-book-marketing-plan/ . That list is aimed at self-published authors, but much of it also applies to books published with small presses.
My editor pushed me to garner at least 50 Amazon reviews because that was a requirement to run ads in certain influential newsletters. Getting that many online reviews was no small feat! But it paid off in other ways, too, due to Amazon’s algorithms for recommending titles. Personally, I do my best to support independent booksellers, but as an author, it’s hard to ignore Amazon’s influence. Having over 50 reviews and an overall rating of 4.9 out of 5 stars has certainly helped the book reach more readers.
Julie: Can you give us some resources to locate and research smaller publishers?
Carmela: When I presented the webinar Small Press, BIG Decision, I created a list of related resources on my website. www.carmelamartino.com/blog/posts/39973 The list includes links for finding small presses along with resources for vetting them and questions to ask before signing a contract.
Some of the authors I interviewed who had published with small presses were very happy, but others regretted the decision. That’s why I encourage authors to do their due diligence before signing with a small press.
Julie: Thank you, Carmela. You’ve given us a lot to think about. What’s next for you?
Carmela: I’ve returned to my first love: writing poetry. I have three poems out this year in anthologies for children and teens and a poem in an anthology for adults scheduled for 2023. I’m also working on several picture book projects. I continue to teach and blog, and I’d be happy to present my webinar again for other groups.
Be sure to check out Carmela’s informative website: https://www.carmelamartino.com/