Alternative Routes to Publication
There are several powerful advantages to small press publication. For one, small presses typically keep their books in print forever, unlike traditional publishers. For another, much greater author involvement is the norm. For me, having a say over my cover was crucial. While famous authors can put author cover approval into their contracts, that’s rare for debut authors. Several friends who had traditional publishers hated their covers, yet had no say whatsoever. Cover approval was a deal breaker for me. In publishing my first novel, Layla, with Plain View Press, I worked with the publisher to find an image that I felt really captured the book. I also discovered that I valued other, more ephemeral, positives of publishing with a small press: I enjoyed being part of an alternative culture and I also enjoyed the camaraderie of making connections and doing readings with the presses’ other authors.
Ironically, an author may actually do better financially with a small rather than a big publisher. With a traditional press, the author is given an advance against future earnings, and not another penny is earned until the amount of the advance has been reached from the sales. Since a traditional royalty is typically only 7.5%, it takes a lot of book sales to cover even a modest advance, and for this reason, very few authors ever “earn out.” (At least publishers don’t expect authors to pay back the amount of the advance if the amount of the advance isn’t reached.) Because of this math, many authors never get a single royalty check. Small presses, in contrast, offer small or no advances but offer a much higher royalty. For instance, Plain View Press offered 50% of sales revenue for my novel, and I’m still getting royalty checks, 12 years after publication.
However, few small presses have an in-person marketing department to help get the word out about their books, and so authors of small presses will typically sell fewer books than authors with big publishers. In terms of marketing, the author can either go it alone or hire a publicist. (These days, even authors with big publishers are expected to supplement the work of the marketing department with a hired publicist.) The publicist I worked with for Layla came up with a low-cost plan where I did the easy stuff (researching blogs; setting up my own launch party), while she developed a press kit, press release, reading group guide, and more. She had a great list of contacts to send my book to for review, and that proved invaluable.
Lesson No. 4
Hire a publicist if you possibly can. It’s difficult even for a seasoned professional to get any traction, so don’t tie your own hands by going it alone. Plus, the best part of working with a publicist is that you have someone to guide you, strategize with, and share each of your successes.
My novel Layla did better than I expected and I was very happy with Plain View Press, but there was one disappointment. I didn’t have a clue about one disadvantage to small press publication: When I walked into my local Barnes & Noble, my novel was nowhere to be seen. The bookstore was happy to order it if someone requested it, but of course, this imaginary “someone” would have to know the book existed. This is why a publicist is key: Without a really strong marketing campaign there’s negligible “discoverability,” and few outside an author’s friends and family will know to ask for the book. Why don’t small presses have the ability to get their authors’ books on store and library bookshelves? It has to do with distribution.
Lesson No. 5
Understand the economics of publishing. This is where the importance of “distribution” comes in. Big publishers have traditional distribution, which means they have a sales force that sells the publishers’ books into the stores in their designated territory before a book is even published. Big publishers also attend sales conferences where they pitch their upcoming releases. This distribution ecosystem is one from which small presses (and most hybrid presses) are largely excluded. Small presses will say they have “distribution” but what they mean is that they have a “distributor” to warehouse their books and fulfill orders. But that’s fulfillment, not sales.
Fast forward a few years. New novel, new agent, old result: My novel Play for Me failed to sell to a “Big 5” publisher. My agent, reluctant to give up, was willing to submit to small presses if I did the research to find a press with more clout than Plain View Press. There were a handful of prestigious presses (Graywolf, Coffee House Press) but my novel wasn’t a great fit. Then I heard about She Writes Press.
I’d been a member of She Writes, an online community that gave birth to the press, and was very impressed by Brooke Warner, its publisher, and her focus on publishing women writers. But She Writes Press is a hybrid press. Hybrid presses—or “partnership publishing” as it’s also called—operate on a different model. The author makes a significant upfront financial investment in exchange for a very high royalty: She Writes Press offers 60% for print, 70% for ebook versus traditional publishers’ 7.5%. I was hesitant about any kind of author subsidy to publish. Then I learned that Brooke had secured traditional distribution for the press. She was able to accomplish this partly because the press had the online community of many thousands of members. She Writes Press has the exact same distribution as the “Big 5” traditional presses. It attends sales conferences and has a dedicated sales force that sells titles into bookstores all across the country. Having come to understand exactly how important that is, I came on board.
Lesson No. 6
These days the nuances between the small presses and hybrids, and among hybrids themselves, can be complicated. Because hybrids are doing well, and most small presses are struggling, more and more presses, Plain View Press included, are switching to the hybrid model. There are some bad actors and some poorly run presses. Authors need to be very diligent in their research and take care before making any publishing decision.
In going with She Writes Press for Play for Me, I made a gamble that I’d recoup my upfront cost and have a much broader reach because of their superior distribution. My gamble paid off; I made back my upfront financial investment (at the time, 2015, it was about $4,000) within a few months of publication. And when I walked into the Barnes & Noble in New York City, it was such a thrill to see my novel on the shelf.
My third novel, The Stark Beauty of Last Things, is coming out in October. My agent and I were going to try again to sell to a big press, but my heart wasn’t in it. Soon after, when a health crisis caused her retirement, I decided not to look for a new agent. I returned to She Writes Press and am glad I did. Besides doing an excellent job, the press also offers a true community for writers: Facebook groups, retreats, and webinars for ongoing education and support.
So by all means hold on to your dream of publishing your book with a major publishing house. Just know that if that doesn’t happen for you, there are other wonderful paths to publication to explore.