entered the querying trenches in February this year, a first-timer with high hopes for my recently completed memoir. I gave myself a one-year runway to query for agent representation because it’s a literary rite of passage I wanted to experience after pouring years into writing my manuscript. I wanted to feel the highs and lows of agent querying—and boy, have I ...! Struggle, doubt, optimism: I’ve felt it all, with a goal to get to maybe 150-200 agent queries before considering other options. I’m trying to enjoy the ride over this next year as I dream of NYC publishing contracts, but I’m realistic in seeing that an independent or university press will more likely be the conduit that brings my memoir into the world.
One intriguing independent press has already risen to the top of my wish list: Red Hen Press. That’s why I was excited to chat with Deputy Director, Tobi Harper, who is here to help answer questions many of us have as we consider independent presses for our work. WOW’s very own Chelsey Clammer, a popular instructor here (check out Chelsey’s upcoming classes from our full course list) has a collection of essays, Human Heartbeat Detected, coming out this August with Red Hen Press. Chelsey also published an essay collection with them in 2017, titled Circadian.
Let’s jump in and find out what Tobi and the team are looking for with upcoming projects. First, a quick primer on the press: The website states that Dr. Kate Gale and Mark E. Cull co-founded Red Hen Press in 1994 from their San Fernando Valley home, selling nearly all they owned to begin publishing talented writers whose works had been overlooked by large-scale publishers. Red Hen Press has since transformed into a thriving organization that supports the greater Los Angeles area and international communities with arts-based events and literary advocacy. The press maintains five unique programs:
- Publishing: Red Hen Press publishes approximately twenty-five books of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction each year, with more than 550 books released to date and distributed internationally. The press also publishes ten imprints that highlight underrepresented authors from diverse locations and backgrounds. The newest imprint, Quill, publishes one book of prose by a queer author each year.
- Literary Events: The press cultivates nearly thirty readings annually, at a variety of venues in greater Los Angeles, New York City, and internationally. Events feature both acclaimed and emerging writers from throughout the U.S., are free or low-cost, and average 1,000 audience members yearly.
- Writing in the Schools (WITS): Founded in 2003, this literary education program has served more than 4,000 underserved students by placing published authors into fourth through twelfth-grade classrooms. WITS provides free creative writing workshops and books to low-income students. At the end of the school year, students receive a professionally bound anthology of their work.
- The Los Angeles Review (LAR): This literary journal is available online, with a “best of” annual print edition. LAR provides a platform for writers to share their short stories, flash fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry.
- Literary Awards: Red Hen Press and LAR proudly present ten awards (with prizes totaling $12,000) each year to emerging writers. All winners receive a monetary award ranging from $1,000 to $3,000. Red Hen Press Awards winners are guaranteed book publication.
WOW: Welcome, Tobi!
Tobi: Hello Ann and thank you!
WOW: I read in your bio where you serve as Red Hen Press’s main contact with international distributor, Ingram Publisher Services, in addition to leading the staff, representing Red Hen Press at sales conferences and literary festivals, and doubling as the press’s in-house tech support. You’re also the founder and editor of Quill, a Red Hen Press imprint that publishes queer literature, and you’re the publisher of the Los Angeles Review literary journal. On top of all this, you instruct for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. That’s one full plate! How do you fit it all in?
Tobi: Luckily, I multi-task well and the publishing industry works in waves and seasons, so I’m rarely doing all of these at once. The sales conferences are four to six times a year in Nashville and Berkeley (or lately, virtually) and I go to another eight to ten festivals and conferences across the country. Being the in-house tech is no joke, but I have the support of a virtual tech team and since I was a computer tech for about four years, I can figure most problems out quickly. The work of being the editor of Quill and publisher of the Los Angeles Review is incredibly rewarding and the deadlines are far separated from each other, and instructing for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program happens during my “free time” during evenings and weekends. Working with the staff of Red Hen is rewarding, inspiring, and funny! The whole team is fantastic and hardworking, and they regularly blow me away with their creativity as well as their sharp wits. It is truly an honor and a privilege to work with the Red Hen team.
WOW: Writers do not need an agent to submit manuscripts to Red Hen Press, but I see where you also take submissions from agents. Do you consider the work differently, depending on which channel it comes through?
Tobi: We consider manuscripts in the same way whether they come from agents or directly from authors. We feel that taking unsolicited and unagented submissions is one of the most important ways a press can be accessible to the writing community, rather than requiring agents and perpetuating this institutional barrier to publication.
WOW: Love your point about accessibility, and I’m dropping the submissions guidelines link here for our readers. I see where the turnaround is between three and six months. On average, how many queries does Red Hen Press receive in a year?
Tobi: We receive about 2,600 queries a year between agents and our general and book award submissions on Submittable. It takes time to review so many!
WOW: What is Red Hen Press looking for, from a broad perspective? Aside from genre, what storyline characteristics or craft elements, and what type of voice typically resonates?
Tobi: We’re looking for deep, wild stories we’ve never seen before. Stories so authentic and vividly described that your skin prickles. There are plenty of books that 100,000 people might like. We want the books that 10,000 people will absolutely love.
WOW: Stories that make one’s skin prickle. Yes, great way to put it! And what do you, specifically, look for in manuscripts that hit your desk? As Quill’s publisher, do you focus most of your time looking at those submissions or do you also read for other Red Hen imprints? How far do you generally have to read to know whether or not a submitted manuscript is a fit for you?
Tobi: I was inspired to create Quill in 2015 by the work of Eloise Klein Healy, the editor of our lesbian imprint, Arktoi Books. However, I recognized that Eloise is the Inaugural Poet Laureate of Los Angeles and an accomplished author and professor besides being a long-experienced editor, so I humbly chose to start off Quill as an award-based book publication. For the reduced submission cost of $10, queer-identified authors can submit their prose of no fewer than 150 pages. I review each submission myself (about 60-90 per year) along with one or two other readers including Red Hen’s managing editor, Kate Gale. The finalists are reviewed by a judge who changes each year, and the winner receives book publication by Red Hen Press and a $1,000 award.
I also read for Red Hen’s main acquisitions, especially novels and any books with queer content. I can generally tell if a submitted manuscript is a fit within 20 pages, though it’s often clear by page 10 if I’m struggling to continue reading. The best feeling is when I realize I’ve flown by page 20 and I can’t put it down. I’ve heard agents say they’ll stop reading after the first paragraph or the first page if they don’t like it yet, but I like to give manuscripts more benefit of the doubt and see what magic might be discovered in a potentially slow start.
“We’re looking for deep, wild stories we’ve never seen before. Stories so authentic and vividly described that your skin prickles. There are plenty of books that 100,000 people might like. We want the books that 10,000 people will absolutely love.”
WOW: Can you topline the services Red Hen Press offers? And in return, what does the press expect from clients in self-promoting their books? Are there any other costs involved for authors, aside from the submission fee?
Tobi: Red Hen Press is a traditional book publishing company that reviews submissions, accepts manuscripts for publication, and takes them from manuscript to a printed and published book, which is distributed, marketed, and promoted internationally. We send out advanced review copies for reviews and awards and work with our authors to promote their books, events, and press. We hope for our authors to be partners in the publication and promotion process, as the most successful books come from a full collaboration between us. As we are a traditional publisher, there are no costs to the authors to be published aside from the initial submission fee. If an author has an agent, there is no submission fee.
WOW: Sounds like Red Hen covers the whole scope. And, how does the press like to work with an author on the overall vision for a book? Is the press hands-on with edits? Can an author negotiate on edits if suggestions fall outside their own vision for the book?
Tobi: We like to work with an author as a partner in the process, in which we set the timeline according to the publication date and send the manuscript to the author at various stages of the process for editing, review, and approval. We discuss the editorial vision before accepting the acquisition, so the author knows what to expect and we have already agreed on the scope of the edits. Our editorial focus honors authorial style and intent, seeking to remove distractions, increase clarity, cultivate authenticity, and improve the overall pacing and flow of the narrative. All edits are suggestions that can be negotiated and compromised with the author. If there was a deal-breaker edit, it would be resolved before the manuscript was acquired.
WOW: I like the sounds of this very collaborative process. I’m sure it puts authors at ease. A great follow-up question to this: How involved are authors in the final title choice and cover design for their book?
Tobi: Very! The founders of Red Hen Press are authors themselves, so they have first-hand experience with publishers who have changed their titles or covers without warning, let alone approval. Red Hen authors have final approval for their title and cover design. If we think a title will be bad for sales, we let the author know as early as possible and compromise on an alternative title that works for everyone. For cover designs, we create comps that are reviewed by our team before we create the drafts that are shown to the author. Authors will sometimes give us artwork suggestions for book covers, some which work, and others which make beautiful art but would be uncompelling as a book cover. In these cases, we explain why a particular cover will be better for a book’s overall success and sales. When we’re split between ideas, we’ll check in with our distributor, Ingram Publisher Services, who gives fantastic cover feedback. While Red Hen has worked on almost 600 books and their covers, Ingram as a distributor has worked with hundreds of thousands if not millions of books. They have an amazing sense of what will or won’t succeed in the book market.
WOW: How does Red Hen Press handle advances, royalties, and rights?
Tobi: We have an industry-standard boilerplate agreement and escalating royalties, and advances and rights are negotiated per agreement. My preference is that whoever can use the rights most effectively keeps them to the best benefit of all, and we have a robust rights program that includes foreign rights agents from around the world and two non-exclusive film agencies.
WOW: At what point does Red Hen Press start talking with a client about the next project? Does the press prefer and/or expect to sign writers for multiple books, or are one-book deals acceptable?
Tobi: We usually prefer to see how the first book does with a new author before we take the next manuscript, but with a known Red Hen author we’re occasionally open to signing multiple projects at once. One-book deals are definitely acceptable, though our preference is to develop a partnership with authors that spans multiple book projects.
WOW: Let’s talk about trends you’re seeing. What does the publishing landscape look like to you, from a 50,000-foot view? How about from a 500-foot view, inside Red Hen Press? Any predictions for the next five years?
Tobi: From a 50,000-foot view, the book industry is in a precarious position. Many in-person events, book fairs, and conferences are still inactive or virtual, blocking many traditional means by which an author can gain exposure. We’re also experiencing the “after effects” of 2020 and 2021, supply chain issues have caused many book printers to run out of paper, turnaround times for book printing have increased from around four weeks to nine months, and paper costs have increased more than 25% in the last year alone. The cost of retail books will increase this year, though predictions say paper costs may stabilize in 2022 and even drop in a couple of years.
From a 500-foot view, inside Red Hen Press, our authors are excited to be touring with open bookstores and in-person book fairs, our staff of ten is working hybrid and becoming increasingly flexible and creative in this quickly shifting industry, and our editorial lineup is getting even better every season. We have been hosting virtual events for years and now we’re jazzed to be working in person with our authors, like the LA-locals Carlos Allende of Coffee, Shopping, Murder, Love and Kim Dower, former poet laureate of West Hollywood and author of I Wore This Dress Today for You, Mom, which just hit the LA Times Bestsellers list!
In the next five years, I think that paper costs will come back down, hybrid events will become more standard to increase accessibility for local and international audiences, and an authentic and upbeat literary trend will continue to emerge. Readers are looking for happier stories to distract from current realities, but not just sugar coating. We’re looking for the real and happy truth as well as the dark and terrible. The full package: darkness, silver lining, rain, dirt, flowers, and fruit. Books with room for perspective and complexity.
WOW: Thanks for sharing some of these behind-the-curtain stats with us, Tobi. No one will be surprised about supply chain issues or the cost of rising goods like paper in our current inflation-fueled economy, but that said, I appreciate hearing your perspective on what the next five years may hold. I agree, the world is ready for happier stories; not trite, but hopeful.
So, if you had to summarize what the advantage is in working with an independent press like Red Hen over a larger NYC publisher, what would it be?
Tobi: With an independent press the author is not a client, they’re a partner. Being with an independent press means that during the process when the book is being edited and produced, the author works with a small, dedicated team. More importantly, an independent press will promote an author and their new book for six to twelve months after its publication date, rather than only the first six to nine weeks as is typical with a larger NYC publisher. Our marketing and media team is actively involved in promoting books and giving authors personal attention. We regularly meet with our authors in groups and individually in person, on the phone, and on video chat.
WOW: What are some of your favorite Red Hen titles published in the last few years? What is it about these books that appeals to you?
Tobi: Besides the two I previously mentioned, a few of my many favorites are I Only Cry with Emoticons by Yuvi Zalkow, Your Nostalgia is Killing Me by John Weir, gossypiin by Ra Malika Imhotep, New Moons edited by Kazim Ali, Summer of the Cicadas by Chelsea Catherine, Tea by the Sea by Donna Hemans, Boy Oh Boy by Zachary Doss, Subduction by Kristen Millares Young, Her Sister’s Tattoo by Ellen Meeropol, and Like Wings, Your Hands by Elizabeth Earley. Each of these books thrilled me in a way that makes me love working in book publishing. They were each especially funny, or deep, or raw and showed me things I had never imagined. Each of them surprised me and taught me something new about the world and how I feel in it.
WOW: Ooh, I glanced at each of these links. I need to add some to my growing TBR pile! Shifting to contests now, I see where Red Hen Press and the Los Angeles Review literary journal offer contests each year. Readers: find out more about Red Hen contests here, and LAR contests here. In your opinion, Tobi, what makes a submission a standout for any of these contests? And, approximately how many submissions do you receive for each of them?
Tobi: The great thing about these contests is that only the quality of the writing matters. The readers and judges don’t know the names of the writers, the size of their social media platforms, or their publishing history (or lack of). All they can access is the writing itself. Plus, the final judges rotate, so writers can submit especially during years when they think that particular judge might resonate with their work. Each of the LAR awards receives somewhere between 120 and 350 submissions.
“With an independent press the author is not a client, they’re a partner ... the author works with a small, dedicated team. More importantly, an independent press will promote an author and their new book for six to twelve months after its publication date, rather than only the first six to nine weeks as is typical with a larger NYC publisher.”
WOW: Speaking of LAR, I see that it’s both print and online. A print issue comes out annually, but how often do you publish pieces online? What’s the journal’s acceptance rate?
Tobi: We publish several times a week, year-round, plus special issues here and there. The acceptance rate varies, per genre: Poetry 3%, Fiction 3%, Flash Fiction 6%, Nonfiction 11%, and Translation 48%.
WOW: We always like to share with our readers how journals differentiate themselves. What do you think sets LAR apart?
Tobi: Our editors are incredible and dedicated to finding new, wild, and underrepresented work and writers. The Los Angeles Review is looking for daring work, work that is on the edge, and all of our editors are intent on finding work that feels like it is the future of literature. If you are writing work that takes chances aesthetically or in its subject matter, LAR is a good place to send it. We like to think that being on the edge of the country in a Pacific Rim city influenced our decision to look for work that pushes boundaries.
WOW: What do you most enjoy about your publisher role at LAR? What’s a typical day or week like for you?
Tobi: I most enjoy getting to work with all of the genre editors and managing editors of LAR while collaborating with the Red Hen staff who produce the print edition. My work with LAR is often logistical or in front of an audience, so collaborating directly with editors on special projects is incredibly rewarding.
WOW: Finally, we like to turn the tables in these interviews and hear more about our guest’s first publication. Where was yours published, and what made it especially memorable? Include a link, if you have it!
Tobi: I am actually not a published author. About half of publishing professionals are writers, but my passions are reading, editing, and publishing. My last large piece of writing was my master’s thesis, “'What is it?’: Examining Narrative Shifts in Twentieth-Century Genderqueer Novels,” which focused on The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall (1928) and Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg (1993) completed at San Francisco State in 2015, just six months after Leslie Feinberg passed away. Stone Butch Blues is my best example of the importance of small press publishing. This was a book that would never have been published by a corporate or Big 5 publisher, but Firebrand Books is a feminist and lesbian publishing house that published it and brought it to readers, changing their minds and lives forever. When I read this book, I realized who and what I was for the first time, and that is the power of independent press publishers. We’re not looking for books that 100,000 people might like, we want to bring books to light that 10,000 people will love. We’re publishing stories that show new experiences to some, and to others reflect their own truths in ways they have never before seen in the media.
WOW: I love that goal: to bring books to light that 10,000 people will love. That really is the power and the beauty of book publishing. If a book touches or changes just one life, it makes the whole long, winding journey worthwhile.
Before we go, one last question! I read in your bio that you’re a jello wrestler ... so, how can I not ask for more details? LOL. What drew you to that, and what do you love about it? Are you a contest champion?
Tobi: Ha-ha, oh yes, the jello wrestling! I wish it was more common because it is hilarious fun. My fiancÚ, Emily, used to play for a great roller derby team called the Ventura Country Derby Darlins which hosts a yearly jello wrestling fundraiser. To be clear, it’s not sugary jello that you would eat but rather jello wrestling jelly that’s tasteless and has the consistency of the gelatin inside of an ice pack. In 2017, Emily was doing the burlesque fundraiser and I opted for jello wrestling fundraiser, hoping I could hold my own against these fierce derby players. Turns out I’m a natural jello wrestler because I’m the current champion of three years, undefeated!
My thanks to Deputy Director of Red Hen Press and jello wrestling champ for three years straight, Tobi Harper! It’s been a treat to get a behind-the-scenes look at this busy, impactful, and supportive independent press. I also enjoyed that our interview provided a “two-fer” and shared more about the Los Angeles Review. Readers, keep this independent press on your radar as you polish your manuscripts! As a reminder, find submission guidelines for Red Hen Press here, and for LAR here.
Until next time!
Ann Kathryn Kelly writes from New Hampshire’s Seacoast region. She’s an editor with Barren Magazine, a columnist with WOW! Women on Writing, and she works in the technology sector. Ann leads writing workshops for a nonprofit that offers therapeutic arts programming to people living with brain injury. Her writing has appeared in a number of literary journals. https://annkkelly.com/.