In fact, Brown, who has worked in publishing for 29 years, warns that any new writer who receives interest from a publisher–large or small–should consider themselves lucky. This is a reality that Rohan B. Preston, co-editor of the anthology Soulfires: Young Black Men on Love and Violence (Viking), learned firsthand when he tried to publish his first book, a collection of poetry entitled Dreams In Soy Sauce (Tia Chucha/ Northwestern University Press, 1992). “I had been sending out query letters and getting a fair amount of rejections. It took three years of actively trying to get the book published,” says Preston. Eventually he ended up contributing a portion of the grant money he won as part of a literary award he received from the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, to publish the book through an independent press.
Since many editors complete only 10 or 11 projects a year, they are limited in how much they can risk on new writers. In addition, an unofficial survey counts only 13 African American editors–the people most committed to signing black authors–within the ranks of the large houses. And, while most black presses are devoted exclusively to publishing African American authors, many issue fewer than a dozen titles a year. Ultimately, the number of black writers wishing to be published far exceeds the number of books issued annually.
CHOOSING BETWEEN A LARGE OR A SMALL PUBLISHER
While a new writer may not be able to pick and choose among publishers, he or she will eventually have to get someone interested enough to publish his or her book. It should be noted that there are some key differences between small black-owned presses and the large presses. One of the most obvious has to do with financing and how it affects a publisher’s ability to offer advances, as well as market and promote a book.
Because they have limited cash reserves, the average advance from a black publisher to an author is in the neighborhood of $500-$5,000. But Brown notes that for new writers the sum can be much smaller, or even nonexistent.
Large advances, reserved for best-selling authors, might reach as high as $25,000. At large publishing houses, however, it’s not unusual for new writers to receive $15,000-$50,000, and best-selling writers to receive six- or even seven-figure advances. This disparity is even obvious in the deal that Mosley made with BCP to publish Gone Fishin’. While he received a healthy six-figure advance from Norton for his last book, A Little Yellow Dog, Mosley agreed to forego an advance from BCP, which could not afford to pay such a substantial sum.
Brown offers this caveat for new writers hoping to sign with a large publisher and reap the big bucks: “It’s very hard for a first-time writer to earn out a $50,000 advance.” An advance, which is paid against a writer’s future royalties, must be repaid to a publisher through book sales before a writer receives a percentage of those sales. If a new writer isn’t able to earn out an advance, the publisher may decide that the writer doesn’t have an audience, and become leery about publishing him again. According to many in the industry, this is a particularly important fact for black writers to know because most major publishers don’t have a real understanding of how and where black readers buy books.