Bigfoot, the Baby, and Bona Fide Books
by Ann Gelder
Last summer, I took part in a panel called “Breakthrough Novelists” at Litquake Palo Alto. Even before the event began, it became clear that “breakthrough” meant something different for each of us. Another panelist was Edan Lepucki, whose new book, California, had rocketed up the best-seller list upon Stephen Colbert’s enthusiastic endorsement. The other two, Stuart Rojstaczer and Christina Nichols, had published debut novels with large-to-midsize presses. Whereas my first novel, Bigfoot and the Baby, had been gently ushered into existence by Bona Fide Books—a newish, very small press in South Lake Tahoe. My book was certainly a breakthrough for me, but for the rest of the literary world, not so much.
Yet I like to think that during this very panel, I created a breakthrough moment for at least a few audience members. During the Q and A, someone asked each of us to explain how we got our agents. When Edan handed me the microphone, I said, “I don’t have an agent,” and prepared to pass the verbal torch.
“Wait!” shouted several members of the crowd. “Then how did you get published?”
That’s when I realized that many people, even those in the literary “know,” don’t know much about small presses. For most people, publishing seems to mean either Random Penguin, or, these days, Amazon and Kindle. It means agents and New York—or else endlessly tweeting five-star reviews of your 99-cent e-book. There is no middle ground.
And so, backed up by Edan, who had published a novella with a small press, I took a few moments to sing the praises of small-press publishing. Yes, I said, many small presses consider un-agented submissions. (See the Poets and Writers small-press database for a list of presses and their policies.) Yes, they take chances that larger publishers won’t—in fact, they exist to fill the niches that bigger, more-risk-averse enterprises can’t. They’re usually run by people who passionately love a certain kind of book, and want to get these books into readers’ hands. They operate on shoestring budgets, and their marketing departments consist largely of you, your editor, and your combined social media skills. Neither you nor the publisher will make any money to speak of.
But if you go the small-press route, you are more likely than not to have a uniquely wonderful time. At least I did. Bona Fide’s publisher, Kim Wyatt, cares about books not only as reading experiences, but as art objects. (In fact, she runs printmaking and book-arts clubs out of the Bona Fide office.) That meant my book had a beautiful and (in my opinion) perfect cover, lovely paper, and a gorgeous, eminently readable font. It underwent obsessive copy-editing and proofing. It was never deeply discounted or given away in huge batches. In short, my book, my baby, was loved from day one. And over the past year, we’ve found a small but vocal group of readers who love it, too.
Just recently, I did find an agent to try to sell my second book, a somewhat more mainstream literary mystery. I love this book, too, as I certainly hope at least one publisher will. But I also know that whatever happens, I’ll never again have the kind of experience I’ve had with Bona Fide Books. And that makes me a little bit sad.
Because what other publisher would buy a Bigfoot suit for your book launch, and recruit her husband to wear it?
Ann and friends at the launch of Bigfoot and the Baby, Lake Tahoe Community College.
Ann Gelder will be appearing at Village House of Books on May 2nd at 11:00 am as part of our California Bookstore Day celebration! Come say hello to Ann and our other local authors that we will be featuring throughout the day!