Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Small Press Stigma

I'm pretty damn sure we all desire publication with one of the Big Six giants, anticipating all the bells and whistles that go with it. I'm talking about nice advances, distribution and book store placement, as the greatest benefits. Fame, friends and eight-by-tens naturally follow, to some degree or another. It usually takes an agent to get to that threshold, so if you're having dreams of avarice, start your search for an agent now. Some of us, who've had an agent or multiple agents, and have been at this writing gig for years or decades, might still be on the want for such a contract. Although, I can truly say that I did have big publication 20 or more years ago, and did catch my share of limelight. It was only until I picked back up on writing again seven years ago that I desired that once notorious position--you know the one that claims you're only a real writer if you publish with one of the big NYC houses. Or one of the out-of-state independents who furnish the same nice advances, distribution and book store placement.

Instead, here I am, and maybe you too, published with some small press outfit that offers POD (print on demand) or e-book format, or a combo of both. Dawg knows we're trying, and often seeing our friends and peers make that NYC publishing leap without us. We cheer them on from the sidelines, but at our core, we're crying, feeling defeated and left out. We're not real writers. We don't get that advance, distribution or book store placement. We might sell 75 to 200 books in a year, whereas our successful  friends (the real writers) are selling 7,500 to 20,000 copies or much more. We don't get get the same trade reviews and hype they do. We certainly don't get the same respect or notoriety. Even agents can take a very dim view on an author who has published with a POD house, and who shows double digit sales. However, there are those writers out there that are perfectly happy with small press publication, and feel it is a great accomplishment--and so it is. For those who strive for more, it's not nearly enough after the initial shine has worn off.

I'm beginning to think that I'm one of the kings of small press. I've torn up or refused more small press contracts than I've signed. Nine rejected and five published. You can do the math. The problem going with small press time after time, is that you begin to realize that you're on a dirt road to nowhere. It might take you six months to a year to write, edit and polish a manuscript. Then when it's bought and hits the sales rack (virtual sales rack, mostly), your compensation amounts to less than a hundred dollars, or more if you're lucky and have a popular genre and a great story. If you've come out in trade paperback, you've probably participated in the conference route or book-signing adventure, where you might have sold a dozen copies or so. You've wasted shoe leather, spent money on ads, promo materials like book marks, posters and banners, and driven qawd- awful distances, which cost you a pretty penny in gas and time. You might have taken out expensive ads in slick magazines or local newspapers. You've probably donated copies to your local library--they certainly won't order it because they never saw you listed in Kirkus or the Library Journal.

So, it is a stigma, isn't it? About the only thing that small press can teach you is how to edit via track changes, how to promote your ass off and hawk-eye your Amazon rank every day, unless you have a publisher who only sells from their website (then you're in real trouble).

Then we have the other side of the coin. Some of the best editors are in the small press field, either as house editors or professional contractors. So you do have that going for you, especially if multiple editors are involved, content/structural/proof types. Chances are your story will be the better for it after going through a gauntlet of small press eyes. You can learn about the insides of the industry and how long it takes a book to materialize from the printed word until it reaches a bunch of printed words slapped between a glossy cover. You'll have a book that your friends and family can purchase, read and enjoy. So it's not all bad.

But there comes a time to turn mother's picture to the wall, figuratively speaking, and get the hell out of small press. If you haven't got an agent, get one. Hold out for an agent who reps the type of book you write, and has real sales to back it up. This is, of course, if you are unhappy with where you're at in your career. You might have a small press series or trilogy bringing in some major attention and sales. Stay if you feel comfortable. But if you're not kicking up your heels, make that major move to an agent who can help you make that major, recognized sale. Although we don't like to admit it, realize that small press is looked upon as the minor leagues. If you've learned everything you can from these publishers, and seem to be stuck in a rut, move on.

Are small press books looked upon as professional credits? Here there be dragons, as far as an answer. Most agents I've talked to believe that small press publication is an award or minor professional accomplishment. There are some who adamantly revile them. Honestly, when have you ever heard of an agent submitting to a royalty-only paying small POD press? It just doesn't happen. In a best case scenario, you can always hold out for the best small press deal you can get, or hit the brass ring of small press. For e-books, Elloras Cave and Samhein come to mind, for instance. You'll have to search diligently. There are small press POD outfits out there that pay anywhere from a $100 to $2,500 advance. I've been on the receiving end of such offers. So it's not impossible.

Consider small press publishing as a trial and learning experience. You are the only one who knows when it's time to graduate. Don't languish in small press just because it makes you feel good to have that book in your hand, or your appearance on your own Amazon, Kobo, or B&N pages. Make the move before that stigma becomes a deadbeat millstone around your neck. I've made the move. The only thing I have to do now is let my agent handle it and write better books.

But I will say this, never, ever let anyone tell you that you're not a real writer because you've published with small press. It can actually be more difficult to be accepted in some of the best small press out there. You did something very right and have come a long ways. Learn your craft and keep improving.


Planet Janitor: Custodian of the Stars (Engage Science Fiction) (Illustrated)


  1. Hey Chris. When my debut novel was picked up by Echelon after a stack of rejection letters from publishers and agents, it was a gift from heaven. I realized frome the gitgo, that there is a stigma associated with small presses. They are just a step above simply sel publishing. But I tend to look on the bright side. The other authors at Echelon help promote with social media sources. The review on amazon and Smashwords on your behalf. They interview and guest post you on their blogs. For me it is a day to day learning process and I am taking baby steps trying not to make any mistakes. They have a catalogue of books and that helps people discover you defacto by association.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Regge.I can well understand the enthusiasm with having a book published even by the small press. Don't get me wrong, I do take a deal of pride in those accomplishments, and treat them no differently from the higher up houses. I hope we all learn from it and make those baby steps, so we can make the transformation to higher-paying and more recognized markets. I think it's a good learning ground for most of us, whether new to writing or established.

  3. As a book blogger, I'm more likely to give a shot to a book from a small press than one that's self-published. Books from small presses tend to be well-edited and unique. I get the impression that small presses care about the individual authors and are by their very nature must make sure that there's a standard of quality to each book that they release.

  4. Books...I entirely agree. I have never had any regrets from the editing side of small press. I can remember Lyrical running me through six rounds that lasted five months--full-time editing, covering all the bases.