Someone asked me if I had experienced any bright spots with the small press, and the answer to that is yes. So it's only fair to point out some of the advantages and perks that small press can bring to the seasoned or aspiring author. After all, the primary goal of any publishing venue is to get a quality product out there that is well received by the public, one that provides great structural and copy-editing, cover art, good distribution (even if limited) and some type of an organized marketing campaign.
I never said that I was flat against the idea of publishing with the small press. Only that I was having a more difficult time with it than most. Now here's the caveat: my SF publisher, Engage, has done absolutely everything right and beyond. The CEO and editor have degrees in publishing from a prestigious Canadian university and both served as apprentices in publishing and printing shops before they even opened their doors. They specialize in science fiction only, print classic back titles for coffer money, and remove all stops when it comes to hiring the highest quality professional art designers, who render book covers in original oil and water colors. They attend every conference and show out there, spreading their brand name and have a voluminous list of review and publicity sources. Each books gets its own website, with full descriptions, press news and author bio.
My most recent publisher, Intrigue, seems to have all their ducks in a row. Between the president and editorial director, they boast 22 years in publishing experience, having produced books for the past 10 years. They are selective and exacting in their acquisitions. The editorial director teaches writing at the community college level and is always on demand for panels and speaking engagements. There is no conference or show that goes without their attendance and they are particularly good at keeping their brand consistently in the public eye. They have a marketing director who leaves no stone unturned when it comes to exploring the newest social media applications, and is always in touch with the publisher's authors, to teach, inform and direct them in gaining maximum exposure.
Small press editors are one up on beta readers. It's probable that an author's book, once purchased, will fall under multiple qualified eyes, to suggest small or vast improvements in structure, continuity and plot. There might be multiple edits that span weeks or months until final proofreading. Galley versions (final book layout) will usually be sent to the author for final approval. These types of editing services are very expensive in a professional or freelance setting. When you consider that a full multi-stage edit can run anywhere from two to five dollars a page, you'll begin to see how much of an investment you're in for if you decide to self-publish. Nearly all legitimate, non-vanity small presses include multi-stage editing in their contract that is free to the author. This is one of the huge investments that publishers make to create a quality product fit for commercial consumption.
Someone has to format the book for either digital e-book, print or both, and this is handled by a trained professional who has done this work before, preferably dozens or hundreds of times. This is no easy task, and if an author has no experience in this area, they will have to take a small course and learn its intricacies. This can be very complicated when you consider any type of artwork, chapter headings and design, table of contents, footnotes and other formatting issues that require precise font and style text placement. A service like this can start at $100 and go up.
You rarely see totally incompetent book cover design by the small press today. There are definitely losers out there, but even they can be re-worked through a compromise between the artist and the author. Authors are almost always given the opportunity to share in the book cover creation and are encouraged to participate in its concept and design. Good cover design requires a solid knowledge of colors, bordering, font, style, tone and overall presentation. Good to great cover art grabs and intrigues. It's meant to hold your attention. The best graphic designers can command up to $500 and more for quality book covers. Of course, if you're lucky, your small press will have an artist on board who can render the ideal cover that fits your book perfectly.
Small press publishers are more apt to get book review requests, author interviews and guest blog spots during the all important publicity stage. They also seem to do a much better job of obtaining celebrity endorsements and blurbs. Now why is this? Well, for one thing, they've probably got a database filled with book reviewers that they've used in the past, or go after the ones they know have the most influence, like Library Journal or Kirkus. Review sources are literally clobbered by desperate authors, wishing to expand their brand-name recognition--they're a dime a dozen. Publishers carry more weight and legitimacy since they are inclined to be a bit more impartial and less desperate--it's just business to them--not the end of the world if they are denied. They can send out a dozen or more ARCs (author review copies) in digital or print, do it swiftly and hit the right targets. Experience is a key factor here.
Most small press publishers are inclined to attend conferences and shows where they can network with influential media sources--face to face contact. Physical product placement is achieved by setting up booths, with display banners, new releases, back-list titles, free samples and, ultimately, direct sales.
I've actually seen and been the recipient of small press publishers who have taken out Internet banner ads, or page ads in popular genre magazines. They often get a discount if they group their books together for multiple listings instead of taking out ads for single titles. One of my publishers hired a publicity company to get the word out--an expenditure that most authors would be hesitant to invest in.
There are many other things that go on behind the scenes of a small press publisher. Many things that writers take for granted or gloss over. When you consider the major expense or labor involved in bringing a book to fruition, the small press is certainly a better alternative (IMO) than going the self-publishing route, which could cost you an arm and a leg before you're even ready for Amazon and the retail outlets. Legitimate small press handles all of that for you, allowing you to get your ass back in your typing chair or cuddled up with your laptop.
Now, where can or does small press go wrong most of the time? Since most of these small houses rarely have full distribution, the sales of print copies are really going to suffer. By that, I mean dive bomb unless the author and marketing director hit on some epiphany that shoves the book onto some store or library shelves. Promotion and marketing are the big problems today--not book production. Getting the book sold--it's a numbers game.
So what's happened to effective promotion and marketing in the small press world that has brought down the sales numbers compared to 10, or even 5 years ago? Self-publishing. And I don't mean the author/writers. I mean the collective machine that has caused such a glutonous monster that there aren't enough reviewers or social media hosts in all the world to handle the daily influx of all the new titles that are swamping the market. Compound this by years and you'll begin to see the problem here. If too many people get on the bus, it's going to break down or be immobile.
Don't get me wrong, self-publishing opened up some locked doors and many of these books deserve to see the light of day. Most of them do not. Why? Because, effectively, they don't have the bases covered like most of the commercial small press publishers (see above). Remember I wrote about the self-publishing bubble months ago and made a prediction? I might have overstated that the bubble will burst, but there is every indication that self-publishing is going to level off, stagnate or begin to lose a huge chunk of its future membership. Add to the fact that self-publishers have priced themselves into poverty levels, which has had a chain reaction that's keeping everyone down at below basement level. News flash: "free" doesn't work anymore.
So what's the biggest argument against small press vs self-publishing? Well, gee, it's that 70% cut from Amazon--that's where self-publishing shines. Okay, first tabulate any money you've put into this book and wait until it's earned out before you start counting your larger sales cuts. If you reach 1000 copies in a month or two after release, consider yourself luck and possibly on your way. More? Jump for joy. But don't be surprised if you're staring at two-digit figures after three months, or even more.
An interesting article about the state and perception of self-publishing: