wow, i’ve been receiving many emails from folks asking me how my first book was published if i didn’t win any contest. i’m happy to share since it seems too many people are feeling anxiety about never winning a contest.
as i mentioned, i felt bitter towards the entire contest system (what i think about contests now will have to wait for another post). so i stared at my bookshelf and all those book spines, dreaming that i might someday be stacked between Sharon Olds and D.A. Powell. and a funny thing happened: I started noticing the names of the publishers as opposed to the names of the writers. perhaps like many young writers, i purchased books based on the writer. what if, i thought, i began buying books based on the publisher–even if i had never heard of the writer before.
this practice changed my life as a poet. i still bought books by writers i loved, but i also began following publishers, trying to figure out the story of their catalogs. since i wasn’t rich, i requested review copies. reviewing took time, sure, but i got free books out of it.
as time passed, i started to think about what publisher my work would fit with and not what contest would bring me the most prestige. in my journal, i wrote down four dream publishers: Omnidawn Publishing, O Books, Apogee Press, and Tinfish Press.
I loved Omnidawn partly because I studied with one of its editors, Rusty Morrison, during my MFA, and I knew first hand how much care and love they put into their books (which eventually led to me interning for Omnidawn–which I still do). They’ve published some of my favorite writers: Martha Ronk, Elizabeth Robinson, Aaron Shurin, Paul Hoover, Myung Mi Kim, Hank Lazer, Tyrone Willions, and so many others.
I loved O Books because I loved the poetry and poetics of its editor, Leslie Scalapino. i thought it would be cool to say that she was my editor. i also loved many of their authors: Aaron Shurin (my most important MFA teacher), Padcha Tuntha-obas, Brenda Iijima, E. Tracy Grinnell, Will Alexander, Norma Cole, and many others.
I loved Apogee Press because they published several books of another MFA teacher: Truong Tran. His work is so amazing and Apogee puts great care and attention into his books. I also loved the work of other Apogee writers: Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, Maxine Chernoff, Elizabeth Robinson, and Cole Swenson.
Additionally, all these presses were at one point based in the California Bay Area–many of the authors I mentioned (tho not all) were at some point based in the Bay Area. I was living in Berkeley at the time, so I was thinking regionally. I also did my MFA at the University of San Francisco.
The last press, Tinfish, is of course based in Hawai’i. Barbara Jane Reyes’s Tinfish book, Poeta en San Francisco, was very influential to me. I also loved that they published many Pacific writers, including Lisa Linn Kanae, Dan Taulapapa McMullin, and Jacinta Galea’i. I knew I fit in with Tinfish regionally (in terms of the Pacific) and aesthetically.
So I wrote a query email to these four presses. In my letter, I told them a little about my self and my work, included a short excerpt and an offer to send the entire manuscript if they were interested. Four shots in the dark.
And I got lucky. All four were willing to take a look at the whole manuscript. Susan Schultz, editor of Tinfish, emailed me a few weeks later and she was the first to accept the work. I can’t express how thrilled and honored i was to receive her kind letter. I promptly accepted and emailed the other presses to withdraw my manuscript/query. And thus began my rise towards fame and misfortune.
A funny story: after I emailed O Books, Omnidawn, and Apogee to withdrawal my manuscript, two of the presses emailed me back to congratulate me, but one press never responded. At the time, I thought nothing of it. A year later, my Tinfish book arrived on my doorstep and I held my book for the first time.
Two months later, I finally received an email from the press that never responded about my withdrawal: You guessed it, they sent me a very nice rejection letter! Apparently, they never received my withdrawal email!
That very same day, I was notified that my book was the #1 bestseller on the Small Press Distribution (SPD) list! I responded to the rejection email with a “thank you for your consideration,” and a link to the SPD bestseller list! LMFAO
For other folks out there who published your first books outside the contest system, I would love if you would share your story in the comment section here or on my Facebook.
Thanks for reading!