Do Small Press Book Sales Hurt My Chances?

Here’s a quickie but a goodie, since there are lots and lots of magazines, small presses, contests and other opportunities to get some writing credits and book sales under your belt. Cara asks:

Would getting a book or two published with a small press such as a religious press hurt your chances in getting an agent?

writing credits, book sales
Sure, you can list smaller writing credits and book sales in your query letter…but they may not catch an agent’s eye.

Writing Credits and Book Sales with a Small Press

Getting published with a small press won’t hurt your chances at getting an agent, as long as it’s not a small press that you, yourself, founded to be your self publishing or vanity project. It won’t necessarily increase your chances, though, either, because some small presses have looser quality controls than the larger publishers do, and a published book from one of them might sometimes hold less clout than a book from the Big Six. But everybody starts somewhere, and not only are small presses accessible to beginning writers, they also provide opportunities and take unagented submissions. If you do include work published with a small press, be honest and accurate about book sales. Check out my post on how to pitch a book for more info.

The above advice about listing writing credits and book sales holds true for magazines and contests, too. Unless you’ve been published in a really, really prestigious magazine or have won a really prestigious contest (magazines that come to mind: Highlights, Cricket, any glossy available on national newsstands; literary magazines that impress: Glimmertrain, Paris Review, Atlantic Monthly, New Yorker; contests that are good to win: anything held by one of the large publishers themselves, where you won a publishing contract, Pushcart Prize, had your work selected for a The Best American… anthology (Nonrequired Reading is my favorite), etc.), then you aren’t really catching my eye either way.

Be Selective About Which Writing Credits You List

You can list your writing credits and book sales, sure. Do realize, though, that some places that publish writers have lower standards than others, and that’s just a fact of life. So if you win the $10 Olive Garden Gift Certificate Grand Prize at the Podunk Literary Festival, you could list it, of course, but it will not get my attention the way a clip from Highlights will. The competition at a larger national magazine or contest is much more fierce and editors can seek out the best of the best, not just pick the most “readable” entry out of a slow drizzle of submissions.

Self Publishing Writing Credits

Now, I did bring up something in my first paragraph that lots of writers are curious about: self publishing. It’s something agents think a lot about, since new “alternative publishing” methods and models are cropping up all the time. It’s not something I’m ready to tackle on the blog just yet, though, because it is such a controversial issue and because it’s still very much in flux.

At every writer’s conference I go to, there’s at least one question about self publishing, whether it comes up in person or on an agent panel. If you are lucky enough to see me during this moment in a live situation, when I’m actually forced to talk about self publishing to a crowd of conference-goers, you will see the elusive… the hilarious… “I’m-Reading-Something-Bad Face of Awkwardness” that I discussed earlier. But since this is my blog and nobody is staring at me, eager for answers, I’m going to gracefully tiptoe around the issue until I have the perfect post on it.

When you hire me as your query letter editor, I’ll help you determine which, if any, of your writing credits and book sales you should include in your query letter.

25 Replies to “Do Small Press Book Sales Hurt My Chances?”

  1. Great post. I’m always amazed at how touching the topic of self-publishing is. And yes, every conference I’ve gone to, it always comes up. I have friends getting published in various magazines, mostly online magazines, and I think every little bit helps as long as it’s a reputable magazine. 🙂

    Happy Monday, everyone.

  2. “Do realize, though, that some places that publish writers have lower standards than others, and that’s just a fact of life.” EXCELLENTLY PUT! I’ve just spent a long email explaining this to a potential client, who I was actually trying to discourage, because I felt she wasn’t interested in being good enough to be well published, just wanted to be in print.

  3. Nicola — There are lots and lots of people out there who only care about doing something… they don’t necessarily care about doing it well, even though they may insist they do. With getting published, it’s even more difficult, because people hear that “any credit is an asset.” You can give great advice but, at the end of the day, people still just want something in the “acceptances” column on their spreadsheet to take the bite out of all of those rejections. Just like writers often sign with ANY agent instead of a GOOD agent. The temptation to love the one who loves you first is blinding.

  4. Thank you for the advice. It’s good to know what’s worth mentioning and what the mention is worth.

  5. Shari Maser says:

    Thanks, Mary, for tiptoeing closer to the question of self-publishing. Glad to hear you are thinking about writing an in-depth post about it. You’re very brave!


  6. Shari — Well, I have also been considering writing something on the subject since, like, last April, so I’m really not as brave as all that! 🙂

  7. The guy/gal that figures out how to make a boatloads of cash off of self-published authors will be hailed as a visionary. Initially, they’ll probably be received as well as Jerry Maguire and his mission statement.

  8. Ken — There are plenty out there trying to do so at this very moment!

  9. Thanks for this thoughtful and useful post–I’d always wondered, do small press credits help or hinder? It sounds like they are almost “neutral” or perhaps leaning towards a bit of help.

  10. Great post! I’ve often wondered that if by including that I’ve been published before by small presses and epublishers hurt my chances.

    BUT, I’m curious, let’s say you get quite a few rave reviews on those books. Does that help? Because I do add a few with my query. (And only the reviews from respectable review sites, of course!)

  11. Mary – in my heart I know that what you say is painfully true, but it is so hard to read! “The temptation to love the one who loves you first is blinding.” After all the sweat and tears and suffering as we develop our craft, wading through critiques, revising and revising and revising some more, until we at long last finally feel we have something worthy of querying, I can’t imagine saying no to an agent who says yes!

    I know from where you sit that sounds silly and foolhardy, but my writer’s mantra is “You are good, but not yet amazing…..You are good but not yet amazing…….” Then finally an agent says, “You have reached the mountain top. This is amazing and I think I can sell this!” And I respond, “Uh, no thanks.”

    Immediately I imagine sleepless nights with a new mantra. “What if I hadn’t said no to that agent?……What if I hadn’t said no to that agent?”

    Writing is definitely for masochists!!!!!

  12. Terri — Believe me, I have so much respect for writers in all stages of their career… especially writers who are making big business decisions. And there are millions of questions like the ones you mention. “What if I’d gone with a different agent?” “What if my agent had sent to different editors?” “What if I’d made that last revision?” But if you get bogged down with them, you’ll never get anywhere. Make the most informed decisions you can and move through your career. It’s the best you can do. And it’s okay to say “yes” to the wrong person. I’ve personally done it before. (Of course, I don’t think anyone who says “yes” to ME is saying “yes” to the wrong person!)

    But every decision opens new doors and closes old ones. Everything has consequence. Making choices, however, is the only way to move forward. Save the “what ifs” for your writing.

  13. This is very helpful, thank you! One question, though… you mention winning a contest for a book contract with a big publisher, but what about winning a contest for a book contract with a small publisher? Does that fall under “the most ‘readable’ entry out of a slow drizzle of submissions”? Or would it get your attention?

  14. Allison — It really does depend on the publisher, what kinds of books they publish, how widely they get their books distributed in stores, if you have any sales record with them, etc. etc. etc. There are some WONDERFUL small presses out there. On the other side of the coin, anyone can register an LLC and start issuing titles that are printed on demand and call it a “small publisher.”

    At the end of the day, it’s the writing and the strength of the story hook that get my attention.

  15. Julie Angeli says:

    I’ve run into a slightly different slant on self publishing. I was hired to co-author a picture book for the marketing department of a large organization. They handled the printing and distribution. We gave our client what they wanted and they loved it, but the book is probably not the best representation of my writing as an individual. I would put this on a resume, if needed, but I don’t plan on referencing this experience or any other work for hire jobs in communications with agents or editors. I’m not sure this is the best approach, but given the negative impression that surrounds self-published books it seems the safest way to go. I’d love to hear anyone else’s thoughts on this.

  16. I’ve done some work-for-hire educational books, as well as some magazine articles, and I’m currently submitting some short stories to magazines. I’m looking at this as part of my writing apprenticeship, a way of knocking back some of my Million Bad Words…although I hope my words are starting to be pretty good by now, and that they’re on their way to being better.

    I realize that in a cover letter I should keep the paragraph about myself relatively brief. Should I mention my publications comprehensively, but without elaboration? Or should I pick out the best two or three? Is a work-for-hire book for a regional educational publisher more or less impressive than a nonfiction article in one of the Cobblestone group magazines?

  17. Hmm…maybe I should asked if the educational book or article was more or less unimpressive…

  18. I took on self publishing once. I had never wanted to self-publish but I was trying to develop as an illustrator and a friend asked me to illustrate her book. I thought, why the heck not. It was nice to have a deadline and before she had it published I had a critique by art director Laurent Linn, he was so awesome. If you fellow bloggers would like to see it, here’s the link, http://www.authorhouse.com/Bookstore/ItemDetail.aspx?bookid=55944

    However, I would never take on self-publishing a book for publishing credits. I hesitated at first before I decided to this just because I’ve actually heard it can hurt you as a writer or illustrator. It can make you look impatient and unprofessional.

  19. Some writers in my group suggest submitting excerpts or chapters of one’s novel that tell a smaller story to lit mags/online zines.

    I suppose you have to watch publishing rights, but what do you think? Would a byline such as this work in favor when querying editors for the entire novel–if the mag/zine is creditable?

  20. Marybk — I’d be cautious about this. Usually most magazines will buy first rights to publish a piece and this might be a problem down the line. I’d also be cautious about posting prose on blogs. Once it goes up anywhere, it is technically published. It’s something I advise my clients against until they can ask their real editor to make sure it’s okay to post.

    Also, most magazines might want a complete story, and a chapter excerpt rarely is.

    Again, I’m reading the material. You can have the best credits in the world but if the manuscript doesn’t grab me, I wont’ change my mind based on your resume. Focus there, not on racking up credits.

  21. Thanks.


    That makes me feel better.

  22. Mary, once again a well-considered post full of excellent advice. Ever since I started following your blog, I’ve noticed one thing rises to the fore – your sensitivity and empathy to others. I think you must be a very nice human being. 🙂 Keep up the good work.

  23. I’ve heard several persons speak of publishing through twitter. How does that work or is it even possible? I also would like to know more about freelance writing and playwriting. Does freelance writing afford you a foot up and in? I have also written a few plays and I would like to enter them maybe in a playwriting competition ( festival) in hopes that they would be seen on stage across country.

  24. Bethel — All of those are tough rows to hoe, if you will. There are so many people who are doggedly searching out freelance writing gigs that you’ve got to be fully committed to it. Fierce competition will take your place if you’re not. Same with getting staged readings or productions for your plays. (Check out the DRAMATISTS SOURCEBOOK for festival and competition listings.) I’m not saying this to discourage you, just to make sure you’re aware that neither is exactly an “easy in” to novel writing. As for publishing through Twitter, I’ve never heard of it. Sounds like a stupid fad and like you should concentrate on more proven (and therefore probably more difficult) ways to get into it. If someone queried me, for example, and said, “I’m published on Twitter!” I’d probably laugh.

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