Jessica McCann says she stumbled into her writing career. I think it stumbled into her, starting with her first freelance writing gig as a senior in high school.
She was invited to participate in a writing contest hosted by Barrow Neurological Institute. Students listened to a doctor speak about a breakthrough in brain surgery at a mock press conference and were supposed to submit an article about the medical procedure.
“I was in over my head,” said Jessica. Since she couldn’t write about the procedure, “I wrote my article about the experience instead.”
When the hosts asked her why, she said that her audience consisted of high school students, and that’s what they would be more interested in.
“I guess they were impressed that I was thinking about my reader versus trying to win the contest” she said. “They asked me to write some articles for their newsletter. I said I could but they’d have to pay me.”
And she’s been a freelance writer much of the time since then, deliberately managing her career. Once she decided she wanted to be a novelist, she managed herself toward that goal.
She slowly scaled back on her freelancing and worked in one day a week of fiction writing, entering contests and winning awards and honorable mentions along the way. Her big break came when she won a significant award, a now defunct “Freedom in Fiction Prize” from Michigan’s Mackinac Center for Public Policy.
“That was the first and last time they offered the award,” said Jessica. “The concept was to encourage fiction work that championed ideals of free market capitalism, entrepreneurism and human rights. The first phase was to submit the first 50 pages and synopsis of a novel in progress.”
She was half way finished with her debut historical novel, All Different Kinds of Free, so she entered the contest. She won the grand prize, and that gave her the incentive to finish her novel, which is inspired by the true story of Margaret Morgan, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, along with her children.
Margaret’s heart-breaking ordeal led to a Supreme Court case, Prigg v. Pennsylvania, that ultimately served to discourage states from returning runaway slaves. This little-known case fanned the early embers of the Civil War.
Jessica secured an agent, who shopped the finished manuscript to both large and small publishers.
“We got an offer from Belle Bridge Books,” said Jessica. “I asked my agent if we should wait to hear back from larger ones, but Belle responded quickly and loved it. That’s a good thing. It’s hard to look at that and say, ‘That’s nice, but I’m waiting for a bigger publisher to get to the bottom of the slush pile where my manuscript is.’”
Below are a few of the benefits of being published by a small press.
- Don’t usually need an agent – Jessica had one, but, unlike larger publishers that typically work only with agented authors, small presses don’t typically require that you have one.
- Getting a foot in the door of the publishing business – larger publishers look more toward big-name authors.
- Receiving more attention from the entire operation – Belle staff all love Jessica’s novel.
- Co-developing a promotional plan that fits your needs, not just the needs of the publisher – this one shared Jessica’s belief that a book tour wasn’t worth the time.
- Potentially a shorter time to earn out the smaller advance you’ll get – Jessica began receiving royalties within six months of publication.
- Having your book in print longer – possibly years rather than months.
- Having a niche book – larger publishers want larger markets for their investments.
Naturally, there are plenty of advantages to larger presses. Just a few include:
- Potentially larger advances and royalties
- Potentially more thorough edit, both the content and line edit varieties
- More distribution channels and marketing outlets
- Potentially more striking cover designs
- Clout of the larger publisher’s name
Jessica doesn’t regret her choice to go with a smaller publisher rather than wait for the offer that may never have come from a larger one.
You can listen to an audio excerpt of All Different Kinds of Free below, and you can follow Jessica on Twitter.