Many small press books aren't for everyone, and with modest print runs, they are not meant to be. While there may be 2,000 people who want to read a book like Jenny Boully's The Book of Beginnings and Endings—a collection of essays, with the middles missing, published by Sarabande in 2007—they probably don't live near each other or read the same magazines. So how do you find those disparate readers? Ask Nickole Brown, indie publicist extraordinaire. From her desk at Sarabande's office in Louisville, Ky., Brown, 34, has spread the word about Sarabande's poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction titles for nine years.
Brown made her way to Sarabande after a post-college stint as assistant to Hunter S. Thompson, for whom she worked for six months in 1997. Brown met and was hired by Thompson when he came to read in Louisville, the hometown they share. When her work with Thompson ended, she returned home and did odd jobs, including freelance and volunteer work for Sarabande, which led to her being hired full-time.
Meticulousness is what enables Brown to do with her books what many publicists can't, though she put it another way: “Luckily, I'm super-organized,” she says. She keeps three or four calendars going at all times. “We lack a lot of the publicity muscle that the larger houses have, but I make up for it by doing things very early. I also try to keep things more personalized with handwritten notes and thank-you cards,” says Brown. It may not seem like much, but in a business where common practice is to carpet-bomb media outlets with galleys and generic press releases, a publicist who knows your name, and who makes you remember hers, can make a big difference. Sarabande's fiction titles generally sell about 5,000 copies—Heather Sellers's Georgia Under Water won a B&N Discover Prize—and poetry collections sell about 2,000; these are big numbers for a small press.
“I'm proud,” Brown says, “that we're often reviewed in the New York Times”—Simone Muench's Lampblack Ash is one example—“and almost all our books are covered in PW, LJ and Booklist,” as well as in dozens of small press reviews and literary journals. Even Oprah's O magazine has picked up on a couple of Sarabande titles. And while some trade houses question the importance of reviews to book sales, Brown is certain: “Reviews are really important to us,” she says.
But what's also important to Brown, and to indie presses in general, is the work the author is willing to put in on his or her own behalf. Brown promises, “I will match their enthusiasm.” That means if an author is up for an ambitious book tour (which is still one of the main ways small press authors sell books), then she'll help set it up, and she'll make sure media outlets don't overlook her authors.
And she knows firsthand how well this strategy works, because she used it with her own debut collection of poems, Sister, published by Red Hen Press in 2007. “I busted my ass,” she recalls, giving more than 50 readings. Of course, a small press like Red Hen cannot pay for all those plane tickets. Brown's solution typifies the DIY ethos she champions for her authors: “For six months, I worked as a bartender at night, and that was how I funded my tour.” The book sold out its initial 1,200-copy printing and is in its second print run, another rarity for poetry books, many of which never come close to selling their first 1,000 copies.
A veteran at age 34, Brown is eager to help other small press publicists spread the word about their books. Through CLMP, she has acted as a mentor to other presses, including Curbstone and Ugly Duckling, sharing with them the 20 steps she takes to publicize every book. And while other presses have tried to lure her away from Sarabande, she's not going anywhere: “I love it,” she says. “I've been offered several jobs over the years, but this is sort of a home for me.”