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Confessions of a Small-Town Publisher

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“Hello… Ah… I wanted to know… Ah… Do you publish poetry?”

Every so often, a poetry class is offered at one of the local colleges. I have yet to find out where, or whose class it is — but when I do, I think I’ll have a few words with the instructor. I always know when the class ends, however, because that’s when my phone starts ringing. The calls come in batches, four or five in a week, and then I don’t hear from our local poets for another few months.

The problem is, I don’t publish poetry. And I don’t have a clue as to who does publish poetry. The only reason these would-be-authors are calling me is that an instructor has told them the best way to get published is to look in the phone book under “publishers.” I know this because: (a) one of the students told me so, and (b) I am the only publisher in our small-town phone book.

Like I said, someday I’m going to have a word with this instructor…

Then there are the people who start by asking, “Could you tell me what you publish?” That’s a difficult question. I don’t really want to tell them, “I publish one book, and it was written by me, and if I even publish another, it will also be by me, and that’s it.” That makes the company sound a little smaller than I’d like. So I usually say something like “Well, we publish some self-help material,” thinking that if the person writes poetry, this should be sufficiently discouraging.

Would-be authors rarely give up so easily, however. “Oh? What kind of material?” Sometimes I go into detail, but generally I say, “in-house material.” Finally I realized that the best answer to the question was another question: “Why are you asking?”

The answer to that is usually: “Well, I’ve just written a book about… (fill in the blank) and now I’m wondering how to get it published.” Sometimes the person hasn’t gotten that far. “I’m thinking about writing a book, and I want to know how to get it published.” Answer: “Write the book!”

I’ve managed over the years to refine my spiel to a single paragraph that I can deliver in one breath: “The best way to find a publisher is to get a copy of The Writer’s Market at the bookstore or your local library and look for someone who handles your type of subject matter.”

Of course, that’s when the caller asks me what The Writer’s Market is. Sometimes I think that Writers Digest Books owes me some commissions!

Then there are the job hunters. I have no argument with these. It actually is appropriate to look up the type of business you’d like to work for in the Yellow Pages! I’m always kind to genuine job-seekers, and I’m usually fairly patient with those who don’t really know what they want to do but hope that I can somehow tell them. Usually.

Except for the gentleman who called and queried, “How do I get into the publishing business?” I asked him if he could be a little more specific. OK, he’d try. He was considering a career transition and wanted to know, “What it is like to work in the publishing business?” I took a deep breath and tried again. “What kind of publishing? Books? Magazines? What kind of work? Writing? Editing? Production?” His reply? “Oh, I don’t really know. I was hoping you could tell me what kind of work I could get, and what it’s like.”

I’ve had people calling in search of printers (and had an amazingly difficult time trying to explain the difference between a “publisher” and a “printer”). I’ve had people looking for bookbinders. I’ve had people looking for free advice on an amazing range of topics. One of the more esoteric questions was from a gentleman who was asking about who might handle his monograph on hawk migrations. “You know, like the pamphlets you see at the library.” After informing him gravely that he probably ought to check those pamphlets and see who does publish them, I hung up and scratched my head. It took me awhile to figure out why he’d called me. The name of my firm is Peregrine Press!

Moira Allen is the author of Coping with Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet, a title initially released through her former publishing firm, Peregrine Press.

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