Monday, May 8, 2017

3 Reasons to Choose a Small Press

3 Reasons to Choose a Small Press

Why a Small Press?
My publishing career is so checkered, I call it a “herringbone.” I’ve been published by major publishers and a couple small presses, and self-published too. So I thought I’d give you all some food for thought and write about why I chose to go with a small press for my women’s fiction novel, The Year She Fell.
I got my first publication back in the Golden Era of romance publishing, when all the major NY publishers were starting romance lines and midlist romance writers had print runs of 300K. (Not me, but many others!) I never benefited much from that wave as I wrote in a small niche genre (Regencies), but I stayed published by major pubs for more than a decade. I never made much money, but the prestige of major publication helped my teaching career, as nearly everyone was impressed to hear that I was a “Dell author.” (Of course, I published only one book with Dell before they suddenly dropped their Regency line. The great thing about prestige is it can be based on singular and long-past events.)
But consolidation of the big publishers in the 90s led to the greater commodification of books, and the multi-nationals didn’t seem very interested in marketing to niche readers anymore. Even with a top agent, I couldn’t get back into the closed circle with a book I’d certainly considered commercial. Why? Because I’d been writing “small books,” with print runs under 40K, the suddenly all-important “numbers” – how successful an author was at making lots of money for the publisher—meant editors had to send letters with high praise and that “Unfortunately” last paragraph. (“Unfortunately, with the market as it is, we can’t take a chance on Alicia who hasn’t the record of success we want.”) I knew the book was good, and I knew it would sell well if it got the chance. But it looked like I wasn’t going to get a chance. Then someone suggested submitting the book to Belle Books, a small press that a friend of mine had started years ago with some friends.

Small Press, Big Advantages (3 Good Reasons to Consider a Small Press)
1. Small presses aren’t afraid of small audiences.
For someone like me, who had mostly read big-press books, and had published only with “The Big Eight” (soon to become The Big Seven and then The Big Six and now I think it is the Big Five), looking beyond NYC for publication was scary. I mean, I’d heard about small presses, but thought they published only literary fiction and poetry, and regional publishers, but thought they published only local histories. Boy, did I get an education when I sold the book to Bell Bridge Books (the women’s fiction imprint of Belle Books). I learned that small presses like BB can aim for niche readers because their lower overhead (no Manhattan office to rent! no Manhattan salaries to pay!) means they don’t have to sell as many copies to make a profit on a book.
2. Small presses can be more nimble in responding to changes in technology and marketing.
I also learned that compared to the ocean-liner-sized major publishers, a small press is like a nimble cruiser, able to turn on a dime to take advantage of new technologies and techniques. So though my book came out initially in print, the publisher quickly realized that the rise of the Kindle and other e-readers would open up low-cost opportunities. So they published my book in several electronic formats, and while the sales were small for the print edition, the title caught on for Kindle readers.
The costs are lower, and the royalties much higher in e-format, and a small press like mine can experiment without much cost. For example, my publisher put the book up for free in Kindle format the week after Christmas 2010. I admit, I thought it was crazy to give away books. But it worked, generating many reviews and getting the book onto the top 10 list in the Kindle store. Even when the free period ended, customers still downloaded the book, only this time they paid for it. So paradoxical as it seems, giving the book away was an effective way to sell the book. But I’d never encountered that method with a big press. They didn’t even like to give the author many copies. (Of course, free copies aren’t cheap in print!)
In fact, for a brief moment (and I do mean a moment), my book was the #1 bestselling book on Amazon Kindle. Hey, it’s not the NYTimes list, but you better believe I now call myself a “bestselling author.” For a Regency writer, used to sales in the lowest five figures, this was a heady experience. (And yes, I checked my ranking constantly, and suffered through every bad review too!) And when I got my first royalty check, well, it didn’t quite pay for a new Lexus, but it was several times larger than any of my big-press book royalties.
3. Small presses are eager to maximize income from a potential bestseller, because they don’t have many of those.
One of the Big 5 might have 20-30 bestsellers a year. (That is, after all, how they get to be one of the Big 5.) So even making one of the major bestseller lists won’t necessarily make them pay special attention to your book when it comes to selling it onward. In contrast, small presses are more likely, I think, to explore opportunities for alternate revenues like foreign sales and subsidiary rights, because that way they can maximize income from their relatively short list of books. Just an example: the Harry Potter books were released both in the UK and the US by relatively small presses. Of course, these novels sold millions, but much of the revenue (JK Rowling is the first writer to become a billionaire) came from adroit dealing of film rights and other sub-rights. Of course, the big presses sometimes do try to sell film rights and the like, but very seldom for books in the midlist or below. (A word to the wise, then– try to retain a big percentage of your film and subsidiary rights! JK did. 🙂
My decision was further validated the following Christmas, when my publisher once again did a marketing push for my book (now out for more than a year), and got The Year She Fell up onto the bestseller list again. This persistence was in great contrast to my experience with big publishers, where a book was pretty much up for sale for the release month, and never again. I’d gotten used to doing a frantic round of promotion that month, and then seeing the book taken from the store shelves and stripped to be sent back to the publisher. Instead, I got a second sizeable January royalty check, because my small press can keep the book for sale literally for years.
There are always trade-offs in any decision, and going with a small press has meant giving up a few perks, especially the powerful influence created by the huge multi-national publishers. And there are, of course, limitations to the small press experience. The advances tend to be small because the companies are usually under-capitalized, using the profits from one book to fund the production of the next. The smaller presses can’t afford to have marketing divisions that go out and sell the books to big accounts. (On the other hand, this means that the marketers don’t get to interfere with editorial decisions as I kept running into with big publishers.) Small presses also don’t have the clout to force booksellers to sell a “small” book in order to get enough copies of a “big” book like a Grisham or a Koontz.
[optin-cat id=”630″] But I think my own experience shows that there’s no reason to confine our submissions to big New York publishers. Small presses might have the flexibility and resilience to keep up with the near-constant changes in the marketplace. However, because small presses don’t have the name-recognition and long public histories of a Random House, I’d suggest doing some due diligence before signing that first contract. Google the company name and check with the author-warning sites (like Preditors and Editors) to make sure there aren’t a lot of author complaints (especially ones concerning unpaid royalties!). Read the contract carefully and compare it with sample big-press contracts. Make sure that you’re not expected to contribute any funds of your own. Ask about the company in your writer’s groups and lists. Check the biographies of the company personnel to see if there’s a good mix of editorial and business expertise. Check their own website, and the sales pages of some of their books at Amazon or to see if the presentation is professional. Finally, talk through with the publisher what is planned for your book in terms of publication and marketing. These common-sense precautions will also help you get to know the publisher and get some ideas of how together you can make your book a success in a rapidly changing marketplace.
Has anyone else tried the small-press route? What’s been your experience?
Alicia Rasley is a Rita-award winning author and nationally known teacher of writing workshops. She teaches composition and tutors students in two state universities. She grew up in the mountains of Southwest Virginia but now lives in the midwestern flat land. Her book The Year She Fell has been a Kindle fiction bestseller.
Her website is Her writing book, The Power of Point of View, is still available from Writer’s Digest Books. All her books can be found on her Amazon page.


Coolkayaker1 said...

Another great article, Alicia.

Question: In that extraordinary circumstance when a small-press author has a "hit" bestseller (or wins an award that catapults the book to larger audiences, like when the small book Tinkers by Paul Harding won the Pulitzer a few years back), do mainstream Big Five publishers sometimes pick up on that and offer a direct contract to the author for that particular work? Do agents peruse prospects from quality books of small-presses to represent (or, as a corollary to that, can an author with a direct relationship with a small press still seek agent representation for Big Five for that same work)? In a perfect world, they'd court the author for a new work, sure, but if a book is gaining traction, it's hard to overlook it for hundredfold mainstream success. It'd be sort of like Nirvana, the band, signed to a small label, then "Smells Like Teen Spirit" blows up, and the wolves from the major labels are huffing and puffing to blow the house down!

Although every contract is different, in general, does the author have the right to pull the work from the small press after a certain time? Or is it that, if the small-press book gets Big Five interest, the author or the Big Five publisher must negotiate to buy the rights from the small press? It's rare, but what if a small press cannot keep up with the printing demands of an unexpected bestseller, or for that matter, doesnt have the wide distribution and resources necessary to bring the book to the next level? You kind of get the drift of my question, which ended up being many questions. Sorry for that. Although unlikely, it could happen and does happen rarely (I think James Redfield's The Celestine Prophecy was one such example from years ago, and maybe the Chicken Soup for the Soul books). The answers to the above questions might well impact whether an author chooses the small press publisher route straight away, or if they toss their hat in the ring for the agented Big Five first.

Please don't bother yourself with an answer just for me on this, Alicia. If you get other thoughts or comments, or wish to make a blog entry on these notions, feel free. Otherwise, I'm cool with just dreaming, and worrying about the details if I hit one out of the park. Lol.

Thanks for your thought-provoking blog entry in small presses, Alicia. Sincerely, Wayne.

Ian said...

I'm a fan of small presses. Disclaimer: I'm also chief cook and head bottle washer at one, Local Hero Press.

Edittorrent said...

Coolkayaker, One big consideration is what the contractual sitch with the small press is. My small-press books are licensed to that publisher for X number of years, and I can't sell them anywhere else. The small press might be able to make a deal with a Big5 publisher to get greater distribution, and presumably my contract has some clauses which deal with how I'd get paid for that, but dang, that's never come up. :)

I think that everything would depend on the contract, but I can't see why a small press would let a potential bestseller opt out to take the profits to a larger company. Small presses can survive for decades on a single huge seller, and it might be that they can only get that level of distribution by partnering with a big press. (They probably wouldn't actually sell the rights to the book, but rather make a partnership.)
But the small press is the one who would generally make that advance on the big publisher. I'm not saying the author couldn't do it, or the author's agent, but in my experience, there's little to no difference in the licensing clauses of a small press contract and the standard contract-- the publisher has control of the book and most of the rights for X years. So if the small press couldn't deal with the distribution or keep up with the demand, it would likely go to a bigger press and make a deal just for that-- not hand over ownership. You will also see sometimes that the small press will deal out the paperback rights to a larger publisher-- and sometimes, the author will have retained the mass-market or trade paperback rights (it can happen... many authors now retain electronic rights, for example, and I did a deal with Amazon where they got the electronic rights and I retained print rights).

I think probably -- since authors usually retain some (not all) control of film rights-- a better way would be to pursue film/TV options. The publisher will get X% of the revenue (depending on what's in the original contract), but sometimes the author can do a film deal on their own. I'm not an attorney, of course, or an agent, but from what I can tell, authors have more latitude with subsidiary rights.

After Game of Thrones, there's more of a market on premium TV for novel adaptations. And of course, there's more money in that than in books, alas.

Edittorrent said...

Oh, also, it's pretty common for an author who does well with Book 1 at the small press to then sell the next book to a big publisher. That's a good reason to be careful with the option clause that would give the original publisher some right to your next book!