What's it Like to Be An Indie Author? Writer Tracy Manaster and Publisher Ben LeRoy Discuss the "Punk Rock Sensibility" of Small Presses
If we're talking about authorial/publishing tales as old as time, the battle of the Big Guys vs. the Little Guys is a classic. Stereotypes abound: Money vs. passion! Commercialism vs. craft! 50 Shades of Gray vs. every poetry collection ever! As in any good Hollywood action flick, the Big Guys — Amazon and the "Big Five" publishers — are often vilified, while the Little Guys are portrayed as scrappy do-gooders, righteously doomed to an eternity of eating Ramen noodles in their mothers' basements.
So are the stereotypes true? What does it feel like to be an author who's taken under the wing of a small press? Are the Big Five responsible for killing American art? Is anyone making any money anymore? After figuring out the highly complicated "three-way call" setting on my phone, I talked to Tracy Manaster — whose debut novel, You Could Be Home By Now , has just been published by Tyrus Books — and her publisher, Ben LeRoy, about what it's like to work with or at a small press. As it turns out, the vilification of the Big Guys isn't entirely fair, but the Little Guys certainly are scrappy.
BUSTLE: Tracy, congrats on your first book! How did your manuscript end up with Tyrus Books?
TRACY MANASTER: I connected with my agent, Ayesha Pande, who is wonderful, and revised You Could Be Home By Now to the point that I and she thought that it was ready to be unleashed upon the world — or at the very least, unleashed upon editors. We sent out the manuscript in slow waves to a fairly wide range of presses. Ayesha got a note back from Ben saying that they were 50 pages in and liking it so far. I, of course, Google stalked his name, and discovered that he had written some articles for the Huffington Post involving baseball. My book has a major baseball subplot. I'm notoriously pessimistic about all things concerning my writing, but I told my husband and my first treader, “I really think it's going to happen with this press.”
So once you met Ben, what was your relationship like? How closely did you two work together?
TRACY: Ben and Ashley Myers, who did a lot of the hands-on editing, wanted me to look at the idea of home, which is a big deal throughout the book, but was not coming through. They were also quite meticulous on the line-by-line attention to detail. The book has three very different narrators and unique narrative voices, and Ashley had very keen eyes as to when one of the voices was sounding a little bit like the others.
BEN LEROY: It's important to me that I have a very good relationship with the authors we work with, that they feel like they can come to me with questions, that we can have an open dialogue. There's probably a school of thought that says that publishers and the people they publish shouldn't be friends, but I would say that — more likely than most publishers — I actually have good friendships with our authors. I do this because it helps me to better understand the author and ways to market and promote them, but also because I am endlessly fascinated by the stories people have to tell. I like to pick their brains.
Tyrus publishes a lot of crime fiction, so what drew you to Tracy's book?
BEN: My focus has always been on stories about people who are dealing with a catastrophic life event and how they survive the aftermath. Crime fiction offers that opportunity because someone usually dies. You Could Be Home By Now is dealing with the effects of grief, loss, of “How do you put life back together and move on?” I maintain that that is what the purpose of fiction is for me — to explore the idea of universal human connection and the survivor instinct in all of us.
Let's talk finances. Is it hard to survive as a small press? Is it hard to make it as a small press author?
BEN: I'm kinda cheating by saying I'm a small press, because I sold Tyrus to F+W Media in 2011. So I have the spirit and the flexibility of a small press, but I also have the backing of a multi-million-dollar-a-year company, and I'm a very small cog in the machine. But the challenges I've faced in the past, when I didn't have that corporate backing? Yeah, it's really hard. I was working 50-60 hours a week for no paycheck, no insurance, and financing everything on a credit card. You do it because there's a part of you convinced that if you just work hard enough and put your head down long enough, something good will happen. I've been a lucky sonofabitch in that I've been able to sell to larger companies twice. But when you don't have the backing of a larger corporation, you have to make sure that you have money to pay advances, pay the printer, etc., and if you don't, you go out of business. It also means that you aren't getting paid for all the work you're doing. It's definitely tough. You have to evaluate and reevaluate how much you love words. It's taken 15 years for me to finally get to a place where everything is stable.
TRACY: This is not a business that anyone goes into hoping to be a millionaire by 40. I'm also working an almost full-time job that — barring runaway success, which one hopes for — will continue for the foreseeable future. One thing that stands out about Ben and Tyrus is that when there's a smaller margin, it's tremendously meaningful to me that I am one of the very few books that they are banking on. I wound up feeling a tremendous sense of responsibility, wanting the book to do well not just for my own sake —
BEN: — she realizes that the future of literature is dependent on her book being a big success.
TRACY: I wanted to do right by them.
BEN: There's more anonymity at a big house if you do acquire a flop. If something of ours gets roundly savaged, it comes right back to me — like, oh, what were you doing, asleep at the wheel? Thankfully nothing like that has happened yet, but the buck stops very publicly with me.
You have to evaluate and reevaluate how much you love words. —Ben LeRoy
Do either of you notice major ideological differences between your small press and the major publishers?
BEN: There's a little more of the old punk-rock DIY sensibility when you're dealing with a smaller house. I think big publishing unfairly gets trashed by people saying that they put out all kinds of dreck, but at the end of the day their bottom line is the same as any other business. It's not like big publishers are saying, “This book is substandard, but we want to rub it in the face of all the people who've written great books that we won't publish.” I think there's a camaraderie among all publishers of legitimate status — there is a love of books, words, of story.
That said, there have been times when I've been in the offices of people who are further removed from the process of what is being selected and edited, and there is a hands-off approach. That's one of the really big differences. I have friends at Curbside Splendor and Soho and Midnight Ink and it is inevitable that those companies take on the personalities of the individual that is running the company. That may be less noticeable with big publishing because there are so many layers between the person and the output.
Talk to me about being commercial. Publisher's Weekly just did a roundup of interviews with eleven small-press authors and their publishing partners, and some mention how they don't have the pressure to mold the book into something “commercial” like there would be at, say, Random House. I imagine there's more freedom as a small press/small press author? Do you have to think about being commercial? Does it haunt you from time to time?
TRACY: I would be lying if I said being commercial didn't matter at all and that I didn't harbor secret daydreams about becoming a bestseller, largely because it would free me up to work on the next book — it's an addiction, I can't help it. I hope for enough commercial success to pay back the enormous trust that Ben has put in me and in my work, by rolling the dice with a complete unknown. For me, that's where the commercial tension is: To pay back the faith that's been put in me and to buy time and freedom for the next project.
BEN: When you start manipulating books with the intention of creating something that everyone will want to buy, you get Frankensteined art that actually isn't any good. When it comes to trends, the market is so fickle that what is popular today is going to not be popular tomorrow. I try not to chase after what I think is going to be commercially successful. I look for books that resonate with me and that I think will resonate with people. I like to think that there won't be anything I look back on in 15 years and think, “What was I thinking, why did I publish that?” I try to stake my reputation on what it is that I publish. As a small press, you have to have an identity and hope that the market responds to it. Because you can't compete with the Big Five.
I ask this of all my interviewees, so here goes: Is there any stigma you have to fight against as small press people?
TRACY: Back in the stalking-Ben-via-Google phase, I was checking out a lot of Tyrus' titles and asking questions like “Just how small is small?” There was some wariness — some worries that I would give this book I'd worked so hard on to something one step up from a hit control-P and put it in a mail order catalog operation. I wouldn't say it was a stigma, but there was a tentativeness.
BEN: There is obviously the stigma of “You're a smaller pub, you're not one of the Big 5” — or, “Oh this is a rinky-dink operation run out of your garage, how nice for you.” And that's not what's going on — it's a NICE basement! (No but really, it is a hundred percent truthful to say that if I am working in Madison, I am working from my bedroom.)
But I've seen so many people come and go that I just don't feel the need to prove myself in a social way. There's been an explosion in small publishing houses. Publisher's Weekly named me one of their 50 people under 40 that were going to change the industry, we've worked with New York Times-published authors — not to sound like an arrogant asshole, but what do I have to prove?
How have you seen the publishing scene change over the past five or ten years?
BEN: There's obviously been an explosion of self-publishing, especially in the last half-decade. There's also been quite a rise in small publishing, and that's because the cost to manufacture and publish a book have gotten lower as technology has evolved, which has made it possible to produce books without the outlay of capital that you would have needed 15-20 years ago. On top of that, the internet makes it easier to get the word out about what you're doing. Of course, the downside to that is that you and everybody else in the whole world gets to talk about what they're doing, so you lose some of your reach. The market is filled with people with megaphones all hawking their wares.
I think we're experiencing a resurgence in the popularity of reading books. This has been a wave that has both crested and crashed in my 15 years in the industry. I think people are finding the joy of reading again. I realize that I'm so in the middle of the water that it's hard to know if I'm sensing something objectively true or if it's just some gut feeling of mine that's wrong, but I see people talking about books not just more frequently but with actual and genuine passion and excitement. That's a pretty powerful thing. I want to keep the lines of communication between author and reader open and full, and it's good to know that there are people anxiously awaiting new books from authors, and it's great to see place discussing books with excitement.
TRACY: I find that as a writer, the further I get from anything resembling a scene, the more productive I am and the happier I am as a human being. Aside from my interactions with friends who are writers, my relationship to what is happening is largely as a reader. That is a relationship — between writers and their readers — that is becoming more interesting, with Twitter and Facebook, and more complicated. Writers on Twitter talk about their process, their dogs, their everyday life, and it breaks the fourth wall in a really interesting way and helps with that feeling of connection — that these texts we receive have come from somewhere.
I remember when I was 13, our eighth grade teacher had us write letters to authors, and the author I chose actually wrote back. That was a staggering and formative moment in the life of young Tracy. That was a rare thing then — that moment of connection — and it's much more common now, but it hasn't lost that really cool intensity of connecting with the brain behind the book.
This is the fifth installment of an interview series in which we explore how writing, editing, and publishing are functioning in the Internet age. Our first installment featured successful self-published author Terri Long. Our second installment featured Michael Archer, the editor-in-chief of Guernica magazine. Our third installment was with über-popular romance novelist Gena Showalter about why her genre is stigmatized, and if it matters. Most recently, we chatted with Becky Tuch of The Review Review, a magazine dedicated to reviewing literary magazines.