I've been submitting work to small press magazines for nearly forty years. I've damned small presses to the deepest pits of Hell and sworn I'd never send them another syllable. I've toasted small press publishing with fine vintages and sworn that without it I would never have been able to survive as a writer.
My first contact with small presses was as an undergraduate when I submitted some poems to my college literary magazine. About six months went by without a response when an acquaintance from one of my classes asked: "Are you the Bruce Boston who publishes poetry?" The magazine printed my poems without bothering to let me know or sending me a contributor's copy. In the years since that first acceptance, the same experience has been repeated many times, along with every combination and permutation thereof. I've had work accepted and paid for, only never to appear; work which has appeared with promises of payment I've never received; editors who have accepted my work only to reject it a few months later. I've had poems and stories published in magazines which were so shoddily produced I was sorry I ever submitted to them. I have one story that was accepted six times before it found its way into print.
My own favorite small press horror tale involves a story I submitted to a literary magazine. There was no response after several queries. Two years later the manuscript was returned, badly crumpled and stained with unrecognizable substances. Clipped to one corner was a torn scrap of paper. It contained no letterhead or signature. On it was a lone handwritten sentence, not in the form of an apology, but merely a statement: "This fell behind our refrigerator."
In contrast, there's the positive side. Hundreds of my poems and stories have found their way into print in small press publications. I've dealt with editors who were courteous, prompt, supportive and dependable. I've received letters from individuals who have praised a poem or story of mine they read in a small press publication. And most important, the contacts I've made with editors and other writers have led to some of the significant friendships of my life.
From these two perspectives, let's take a look at some of the conventional wisdoms regarding small press publishing.
"Small press publishing is a waste of time, an ego sop for those who can't cut it in commercial presses."
An ego sop. Certainly... yes! A waste of time? Most certainly... no! Writers need the ego reward of seeing their work in print; it's one of the reasons most of us continue to write. Encouragement is part of the process in any endeavor, and particularly relevant to a creative one. As far as small press writers not being able to cut it in the commercial presses, consider the nature of commercial publishing. Let's say you finish a story you think is near perfect, pure nectar and dynamite, the best you've written in years. Every major market subsequently rejects it. This doesn't necessarily mean the story is a bad one, or even that it is not commercial, only that it didn't suit the tastes of the editors in charge, or perhaps not their personal tastes so much as what they think their readers want to see. From my own experience, the success I've achieved at commercial publications has come not gradually as one might expect, as my writing skills improved, but all at once, in a dramatic rush of acceptances, when an editorship changed hands. In at least two cases, magazines which had ignored my work for years suddenly began to buy nearly everything I sent, including work that the previous editors had rejected.
"Small presses remain the last bastion of legitimate literary expression, the only outlet for work that is truly innovative and takes chances. "
Small presses have certainly been guilty of publishing work that is abysmal, which should never see the printed page. Still, I don't think there's any question they are also an outlet for quality work which doesn't fit into standard commercial categories. If you have doubts, take a look at some of the annual year's best anthologies, such as The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses. Or in the genre field, note the number of entries from small presses in Year's Best Fantasy and Horror.
"Small press publishing is a dead end: once you start publishing in the small press you are branded as a second-rater." (The counter-myth is: "Small press publishing is a stepping stone to commercial success, a proving ground where beginning writers can hone their skills before moving on".)
Anyone familiar with what appears in the small press can see that there is more validity in the second claim than the first. If you read widely in the small press over a period of years, you encounter established writers who not only began publishing in little magazines but continue to do so. In terms of honing skills, many small press editors will take the time to help writers improve their work. However, I do think there is some truth to the second-rater charge, in that the small press can be a trap, one which I've fallen into myself on occasion. Once you've been publishing in the small press for a while, once you find magazines who will accept your work on a steady basis, it becomes too easy to tailor work for these markets and continue to publish there rather than spending the extra time, putting your ego on the line, and trying to break into commercial publishing. If you are committed to a career as a writer, the small press should remain a stepping stone, an outlet for work which is clearly not commercial, but it should not become an end itself.
In my years of jousting with small press demons, I've learned a few things about the nature of the combat. For those who are beginning, here are some danger signs to watch for when submitting to small presses.
Finally, believe in your writing and stand up for yourself. Whenever possible ask for a contract, or at least a statement of what rights are being purchased, the rate of pay, and the projected publication date. There's never a need for poison pen letters, but if editors fail to keep their commitments, call them on it. And if you remain dissatisfied, don't be afraid to let market reports and grievance committees know about the problem. Writers are the only ones who can police the small press field, and perhaps if each of us takes on a share of the task, all of us can profit as a result.
Someday we might confront a small press world where all editors are saints, all covers full-color, and there are more paying markets than any of us can fill. Until the glorious dawn of this utopian speculation, don't take any wooden acceptances.
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