Maybe it’s just the time of year. Maybe it’s the fact that Nooks and Kindles and the new iPad are making e-reading that much attractive and (with the exception of the Apple) affordable. Whatever the reason, I am suddenly being inundated with questions about self-publishing. Again. As I was about this time last year.
So after a number of emails and FB messages, I thought maybe it was time to revisit the issue. The last time I wrote about it here at MW, the title of my post was “Why I Still Believe In Big Press Publishing.” You might want to read that post again, because much of what I say in it still holds true, at least in my opinion. I think that I erred in the post, though, by giving short shrift to small-press publishing. That was a mistake, one I would like to address now.
Before we go on, let me point you to a second post that I wrote nearly four years ago now. It’s called “Business Realities For the Beginning Writer,” and it is still a fairly accurate description of what the business model is like for authors publishing a first novel with a large traditional press. If you read that post along with the Big-Press Publishing post, you begin to get a sense for why people are so drawn to self-publishing. The fact is that the money for beginning authors, even those who manage to land a contract with DAW or Tor or Roc, remains pretty poor. It doesn’t flow so much as ooze — the process is terribly slow. And, of course, it is fraught with uncertainty.
But on the other hand, unless one is tech-savvy AND already has a grasp on the publishing business AND has gobs of extra time to devote to things like finding editors, getting art work, formatting for various e-book readers, etc., the self-publishing model remains a difficult road to follow.
That’s where small-press publishing comes in. The small-press route carries many of the benefits of both self-publishing and traditional publishing. It also carries some of the pitfalls. Let’s look at both.
On the positive side, the biggest benefits of small-press publishing (in no particular order) are that, as with big-press publishing, you have the imprimatur of an independent publisher saying that your work is worthy of publication. When I say small-press publishing I don’t mean a house that takes your money and then publishes your book — that is old-time self-publishing or vanity publishing. Small-press publishing means that a publisher is paying you for your book, sometimes with a small advance, always with royalties, or, best of all, with both. Like the big New York publishers, a small press will offer editing, copyediting, artwork, formatting, binding, distribution (in some form), and other valuable services, all as a matter of course. And they will do this at their expense; you won’t pay for any of it.
While the publisher will make many of the packaging and marketing choices — how to market the book to the correct target audience, what kind of art to put on it, how to phrase jacket copy, etc. — a small press is far more likely than a big publisher to seek and heed author input on these choices. In other words, at least some of the freedom and creative control that draws many authors to self-publishing can be found in the small-press route. Also, small publishers (as long as they remain solvent) tend to pay out royalties more quickly than the big presses do, and with fewer of the accounting gimmicks that authors find so very annoying. (See “Reserves Against Returns,” an evil practice by which big presses withhold royalty payments, for months or even years, to offset anticipated bookstore returns.) Again, this is one of those self-publishing benefits — quick payment of proceeds from book sales — that authors cite when choosing to follow that path, and that can also be found in the small-press world.
Finally, with technological advances making book production faster and more accessible, many of the production-value issues that once plagued small presses have vanished. Physical books put out by small presses look great — every bit as good as their big-press counterparts. And at this point, e-book readers generally have unfettered access to books from small houses.
All right, so far small-press publishing sounds too good to be true, right? All the benefits of both forms of traditional publishing with none of the problems? Well, not quite. First of all, advances from small publishers are pretty low, if they exist at all. If the average big-press advance for a first-time author is $7,500, the average small-press advance is probably closer to $1,000 or $1,500. And that’s if an advance is given at all. More often than not, there is no advance. But small-press writers will see royalties much, much sooner, since there is no advance to “pay back,” and because those payments do come more quickly and reliably.
And, I also need to qualify that last bit. Payments are “reliable” so long as the small press is doing well. Small presses, though, are on less firm footing financially than their bigger siblings. I went with a small press with one book several years back and the press went out of business, leaving me with some financial issues and leaving my book orphaned. That happens in the small press world — I wouldn’t say it happens often, but I also wouldn’t say that it’s rare. And significant problems can arise when the rights to your book are held by a company that has just gone bankrupt. That danger is real in small-press publishing. There is no way around it.
Some small presses might skimp on developmental editing and/or copyediting. Before signing with a small press, you would definitely want to have the editorial process spelled out in detail. And while we’re on that subject, small presses are more apt to buy books from authors directly, without demanding that they have an agent, which is good. But that also leaves it to the author to interpret and renegotiate various clauses in that contract, which could be bad if the author doesn’t have a firm grasp of contractual practices.
Sometimes small presses find it difficult to place their books with large booksellers, although in the e-world, that is becoming less of an issue. Still, small presses do facr challenges in distribution of their product that the big houses don’t face. Small press books don’t always garner as much attention from journals and reviewers as books from the big houses. And on the other side of the ledger, while small-press publishing offers an author more creative input on marketing matters than big-press publishing, authors who are drawn to self-publishing might still find that they have to cede more control than they would like.
Overall, I would say that despite its drawbacks, small-press publishing is a viable option for aspiring writers. If I was starting out now, and I was having trouble breaking into the traditional market, or was growing frustrated with my search for an agent, I would definitely consider small press before I turned to self-publishing. I would study my small-press options very, very carefully. As with all things, there are good houses out there, and there are some that are less reputable. But small press offers a balance — editorial guidance and the “vetting” of your work by publishing professionals on the one hand; more control over your own work and less bureaucracy on the other.
I am on the road this week, on the Thieftaker Summer 2012 Signing Tour. But I will try to comment during the day. And if you have read Thieftaker and enjoyed it, please, please, please go to Amazon and post a review. You have no idea how much that helps raise the visibility of a book. Thanks!David B. Coe