Friday, February 10, 2017

Mavericks, Collectives, Small Presses, and Business Empires

by Jean Roberta

Like Annabeth, I was already writing when “vanity press” publications and books produced by amateur writers were widely treated like a joke. Publishing one’s own work seemed too much like masturbating in public. The results (as far as I could see) usually showed a lack of professional skills as well as perspective. Years ago, a ragged man knocked on my door with a box of books, his own autobiographical manifesto, which he considered absolutely unique. He didn’t know how else to sell copies.

To give another example, a lesbian newsletter was irregularly produced in the 1980s by a woman who seemed to type it on a manual typewriter; she lived alone on an isolated acreage in Ontario. To say this journal was “grassroots” would be an understatement. It was carried by one alternative bookstore in my town in Saskatchewan. I bought the newsletter faithfully because 1) it contained news that I could use in my own local lesbian newsletter, and 2) the writer was the ex-partner of someone I knew. She complained in the newsletter about forced conformity, even in the counterculture.

This seemed to be a coded reference to rejection by other lesbian-feminist and leftist types who ran the watering holes which refused to carry the newsletter. (The ex explained some of this to me.) It was single-spaced, hard-to-read, badly spelled, ungrammatical, and copied on paper in loud colours, with nothing to break up the lines of type. The writer seemed proud that she had not “sold out” to any slick corporation in Toronto or New York. I wished her luck, but I didn’t want to become the same kind of maverick.

Dealing with publishers, however, has been an adventure in itself. Luckily, I never wrote anything for Ellora’s Cave, so I wasn’t involved in the wreck of that big ship. However, I tried to sell my first erotic novel to Masquerade in New York just when it was going bust, and before 2000, I got no response to several erotic stories that I mailed to publishers in faraway cities after reading calls-for-submissions on the site of the Erotic Readers Association.

In the early aughts, I got a delightful letter from England, saying that my novel was accepted! My jaw dropped when I read the fine print. The publisher would control the layout, the editing, and the cover art, but I would be expected to pay them several hundred pounds for this service. It sounded like the worst of all options, for me. I refused.

Luckily, I got stories accepted by Cleis Press in California and Black Lace in the UK (the same Black Lace, imprint of Virgin Publishing, part of Richard Branson’s business empire, that published Lisabet’s work). Adrienne Benedicks, who was then running Erotic Readers, recommended my lesbian stories to a Black Lace editor named Kerri Sharp, and Kerri let me know I could send them to her by email rather than mail them to London from the middle of Canada. Kerri chose two of my stories for one anthology, but asked me to choose a different pen-name for one. It all felt very sexy.

As Lisabet and others have said, however, selling to Black Lace was like selling one’s soul to the devil. They paid very well, even by the standards of 2000-2005, and they didn’t want those stories to be resold anywhere else. (I asked, and was told that would be a breach of contract.)

The current trend seems to be for erotic publishers to pay pitifully small amounts (flat fees or percentages of low retail prices) for work that they don’t control. So, theoretically, one could resell the same work for more small amounts. (I’m impressed that the current incarnation of Cleis Press still offers $100 U.S. for a story in an anthology.)

A little over a year ago, I joined Excessica, which seems like a nice hybrid of self-publishing and traditional publishing. So far, I’ve had two previously-published stories added to the Excessica catalogue, and I paid a cover artist to make me a cover from stock images. (I think I got my money’s worth.) If and when I publish something new there, I will get it edited first.

My current frustration with publishers is based on some very slow-moving projects. My story for an erotic anthology based on the work of Jules Verne was tentatively accepted many months ago, then the editor responded to my query by saying that a series of disasters had delayed things. She said I could pull my story from the pile, but I wondered where else I could sell something intended for such a specific context. Then the publisher sent me a contract! I signed it and sent it back promptly, but that was months ago, and I have not had an update since.

Early in the new year, I sent out a flurry of queries to editors and small publishers about stories of mine which seemed to disappear into cyberspace. Several recipients didn’t respond at all. Others said they are aiming for publication in late spring 2017.

I’m aware that small publishers are like small boats in a stormy ocean, and they are undoubtedly under pressure by forces they can’t control. Any writer who self-publishes effectively becomes a small publisher, and I’ve been reluctant to take on more than I can handle.

However, the stigma on self-publishing in general seems to be gone. If and when I venture into those waters, I won’t be photocopying hand-typed pages on construction paper left over from a kindergarten class. Thank the Goddess.


  1. I remember the Masquerade closing just after my first attempt at submitting to one of their anthologies, but they actually did me a favor. Without telling me, they passed along my story (and quite possibly all the stories they'd received) to Paula Guran, who was assembling an erotic horror anthology. She sent me a rejection, saying that it didn't fit her project at all (which I understood perfectly well, not having written it for that market or even known it existed--possibly it was invitation only.) But she did say that she'd consider a different submission from me, which was nice of her. I whipped out a story that she did indeed accept (and that made males in the audience wince when I read it aloud at a convention where I only got a reading gig because they'd scheduled Cecilia Tan without her permission for more spots than she wanted, and there was a snowstorm, so many panelists didn't get there at all.)

    Regarding Cleis, I kind of hate to admit this, but the freelance editors for their anthologies are the ones who determine the payments for stories. To Cleis's credit, the advances to the editors are still the same, so we're generally paying at the same rate we did before. Only the Best of the Year anthologies pay $100, which takes up the entire advance. We could pay more than the usual $50 for stories for other anthologies, but they're not as likely to earn out soon and provide royalties, so we selfishly keep some of the advance. Mea Culpa. On the other hand, the new Cleis administration has decided not to provide any contributor's copies, so I'll be buying the books myself to send out, and it'll be only one for each writer instead of the traditional two.

    I did see that Rachel Kramer Bussel is now offering $150 plus two books for her Best Women's Erotica, stories, and I heard from a friend who asked that she's paying for the books herself. I'm a great admirer of Rachel, and feel guilty for not being as generous, but it's true that her BWE sells far more copies than my BLE, which makes sense in several ways.

    1. That's an interesting factoid about Rachel's books. I think it may reflect the fact that fewer people are now willing to submit to a traditional anthology, because self-publishing is a viable, possibly more remunerative option.

    2. I figured something like this was the story with Cleis payments, and I appreciate the generosity of you and other editors. You shouldn't compare yourself, though - your kindness is much appreciated as it already is

  2. I've had experiences with a number of publishers. With very few exceptions, they have demonstrated more passion than competence, especially on the business side. A number of companies who published my work have folded. Others have been sold to conglomerates.

    Fortunately, I've been able to reclaim the rights to most of my work, and re-publish it. I don't have much time to write, so part of my goal is to keep as much of my oeuvre d'art (to be a bit pompous!) available to those few who want to read it.

    Self-publishing is a great help in that regard (though I've also been able to resell a number of previously published works to publishers).

  3. Thanks for commenting, Sacchi and Lisabet. Today the Creative Writing program at the university where I teach is having its annual Open House, and I agreed to give a short talk (as I have in years past), even though I'm on sabbatical. I'll be summarizing the self-publishing revolution, and since the talk needs to be brief (20 minutes or shorter), I don't think I need to give any technological advice.


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