Saturday, October 26, 2013

Small Press Woes?

My views about small press and indie houses have drastically changed over the last seven years. I was trashed the first time out (2006, just returning to the Internet) with two books to the same publisher. They took 26 other authors down with me and closed their doors. The other four publishers (over the years to the present) resulted in lack-luster sales, no concerted promotion/marketing other than a few listings, editorial mishaps and what not. Granted, there are exceptional small presses out there that seem to have all their ducks in a row: Sammy, Elora's, Liquid Silver, Entangled, Night Shade (older days), Soho, Arctic Wolf, Prometheus, and many more.

My experience with the small or "micro" press has generally been about the same.  I'm talking about the very small presses with limited staff, resources, zilch distribution, who use the POD model. I've heard the number of 75 copies from James, our resident Yog, and at first, I didn't believe it until I actually experienced it firsthand. I upped the figure to 150, to be generous, and that figure comes from several friends who have admitted their numbers to me. My one exception has been my SF publisher. We've moved 275 copies, and 14 of those were hardbacks priced at $29.99. That was in the first three months. The rest were e-books.

All of my print sales rankings from all of my publishers reside in the millions. My one self-published book has sold 23 copies (e-books) and it has been out for 14 months. The contract on my last book was not picked up because of poor sales--and this book was my number 1 pick out the the 17 that I've written over the last 26 years.

I can remember the days back in the mid and late '80s when small press made me thousands of dollars. That's because many small presses in those days paid nice advances and had very good distribution--I appeared in every Waldens and B. Dalton book store in the U.S., in addition to making tons of foreign sales, with multiple copies landing in all the libraries. They are still in the libraries to this day. As small as these publishers were, I pulled four major T.V. appearances, over 40 radio shows and God knows how many newspaper and slick magazine reviews and interviews. Today, I call these types of publishers "Mediums." They are not Big Five huge, nor are they tiny, limited-staff operations.

I can truly state that for average sales on an average book, with good editing, attractive cover art and a hot genre, are anywhere from 75 to 150 copies--which has been stated before. There are notable exceptions--breakouts. These publishers, the vast majority of them, offer no advances and have no distribution to get print copies into book stores or libraries and put forth the least amount of promo and marketing. Lots of them provide royalties on net. Some of them are not even listed with Ingrams. I consider many of them to be author mills in disguise--reaping profits from hundreds of authors who might sell double digit numbers during their contract time period. I give you Mundania as a prime example of this type.

If you have to resort to a small or indie press, you start at the top just as you or your agent would with the larger publishers. It's crucial that they have full distribution and offer advances, for me at least. If they perform off-set print runs, it icing on the cake. Check your local library and book store for their presence--make sure those titles are fairly current, too. A publisher can drop a distributor, or the other way around, and you'd find out about it too late in the game.

Email their authors and check sales ranks on the retailer sites, particulary Amazon. Not a real foolproof way to determine sales numbers, but an approximate picture on how their books are moving. Make note of any legit, recognized industry awards--always a good sign. Longevity: I like to see three years or more in business. Staff bios are very important--look for prior experience with verifiable references.

I like to see at least four staff members assigned to the different publishing areas, preferably more. Single operators, mom and pop or family owned houses or author collaborative presses wave red flags at me--accountability being the main issue, related to communication speed, funds dispersal, adequate promotion and marketing efforts, publication scheduling, editorial competence, attitude and tone, book-keeping and other relevant matters.

Are you really going to turn over a book to a questionable small press house, a book that has taken you three, six, nine months or a year to write-edit-polish, to a publisher that offers only royalties (maybe net) on a book that might profit you a few hundred dollars in its lifetime? Book after book after book? Have you sold or signed for a series of books with a publisher without receiving any type of advance or escalating royalty clause? Have you given up subsidiary rights that the publisher cannot exploit?

I know of three authors who've signed huge series deals with small houses, the last one with 18 books to the same publisher, and my gut-ripping thoughts wonder if these poor authors got anything substantial out of the deal. No commitment for your hard work? Why?

If sales and readership numbers mean nothing to you and you view writing and editing as a hobby, then I ask you how you'll feel about this after half a decade or more of this blind dedication and hellish production. Do you think you'll change your mind after that stint and be receptive to getting really paid for your work? I ask you to think about that right now before you even contemplate submitting your books anywhere.

To a point, it's true that a publishable book can appeal to multiple publishers, and if you've received one or two offers, chances are there are more down the line that will snap you up. Caveat: beware that in the last couple years we've seen a glut of people claiming to be publishers that are only interested (first) in building their writing stable. You'll see them via their grandiose mission statements and calls for publication all over the Internet. Their Home page will entice writers--not readers. The quality of the story will be secondary. In all probability, their decision to offer you a contract may be based on your brand name (if you have one), your marketing plan (media reach and platform), and your past (publishing) credit list.

Don't take the first offer unless you are absolutely sure that they are the perfect fit for your book. Research all publishers until hell won't have it--P & E, Absolutewrite, Piers Anthony listings, Ralan's (for re-print, editor/CEO names) and the SFWA Writer Beware site.

Just so this isn't a complete Debbie Downer, my last YA title sold six times and I handed the contracts off to my agent. They were all small press outfits. When the dust settled, we copped a great royalty clause and a high three figure advance--pretty remarkable for one of the little guys. You can do this too, if you find the right one and negotiate the contracts sans an agent. Never be afraid to pow-wow with the purchaser--trust me, you won't chase them off. You'll just make them think harder about how much they want the book.