Small Presses: Exposing the Myths

April 18, 2012

While at a writer’s conference, I overheard two writers talking in the bar. One had an offer from a small publisher and wondered if signing with them would trash her credibility with agents when querying them for subsequent books. Her friend snorted that people who pub with small presses are only interested in getting their stuff out there and that agents laugh at these publishers and their authors.

The author with the book offer listened closely, then made up her mind. “That settles it, I’m waiting for a REAL offer from a REAL publisher.”

I nearly swallowed my tongue. The publisher being discussed is a respected niche house that has been around for a long time. Had she signed with them, she would have enjoyed solid sales, credibility, and a lovely publishing credit.

And here’s the problem:  the word “Small Press” has become bastardized to the point where it has no meaning – much like the senseless term “Traditional Publishing,” which makes me want to pull my hair out.

Terms that once clarified, now confuse. An independent press used to mean a publisher who isn’t part of a conglomerate, like the Big Six. But now the self publishers, PODs, and vanity presses have  stolen the term, so now everyone is confused…which makes having a conversation like the one above nearly impossible without further clarification.

The main problem is that we can no longer assume to know what Small Press means. Here are the flavors that now populate the publishing industry:

  • Small Commercial Press:  These are the Big Six’s little sister. They work exactly like the Big Guns but with fewer zeros in their operating cash. They have solid distribution, respectable sales, and their books are in stores across the country.
  • Print On Demand:  They have less operating cash, they don’t have distribution, they do small print runs, and their books aren’t shelved in bookstores.
  • E-Publishers:  Just what it says – they only publish in the e-book format. There are a few who will take their e-books to print after a title has X number of sales.
  • Vanity:  Pay to play.
  • Self-published:  Where the author is the publisher and handles all aspects of production, distribution, sales, marketing, and promotion.

So you can see why it’s vital to be very clear about WHAT publishing option the other guy is talking about because each option yields completely different results.

Myth:  Small Presses Suck Stale Twinkie Cream

Not all Small Presses are created equally. There are some very big differences that separate the wheat from the chaff, so it’s dangerous to lump all small presses into the same margarita blender.

Distribution:The author’s friend assumed Small Press meant a Print on Demand company that has no distribution and few sales, when in truth, the publisher who offered the book contract has excellent distribution and fabulous sales.There are many small presses who enjoy very solid distribution and sales. They coordinate with their distributor’s sales and marketing teams on a regular basis in order to maximize exposure and sales.

Instead of guessing and pondering with a friend who isn’t well-versed in publishing, you should be asking your prospective publisher who distributes their books. If they say IPG, Perseus, Consortium, NBN, IPS, then you know they are working on all cylinders because they have to have a certain amount of $$ coming in to even qualify. They are a proven quantity.

If they say Ingram and Baker and Taylor, then they do NOT have distribution. These entities are fulfillment warehouses. They don’t have sales teams out there pitching their catalog to buyers.

Promotion:  Don’t assume the worst of a small publisher; ask your prospective publisher what they do to promote their books. Do they send out ARCs to all the reviewers? Do they send media kits to print, radio, TV media? How many ARCs do they send out. For example, we send out 200 ARCs.

Editing:  Check out some of their books. If you’re wondering whether to sign on the dotted line, then you should consider reading a couple of their books in order to get an idea of the product they put out. If they are riddled with misspelled words and crappy formatting, then it could indicate what your book will look like.

Print Runs:  Ask what kind of print runs they do. If they say they use print on demand, then you know they do very small runs because they don’t expect to sell many books, or they’re waiting to see if the book actually takes off before investing in an offset run (which is cost-effective at about 1,000 units). Don’t be shy about asking how many books they plan on printing. If they’re offering you a book contract, they must have a good idea what kind of run they plan on doing because they’ve already done a P&L statement.

And here’s the thing; many small presses do these things, and agents know this.

Agents Laugh at Small Publishers 

The idea that agents laugh at Small Presses is laughable in itself. Many small presses work with agents on a regular basis – and these are agents who sell to the Big Guys as well.

Let’s face it, publishing is changing. The Big Boys are under the gun from their corporate overlords to make big bucks, so they’re looking for Big Books. The blockbuster. The problem with this is that many midlist authors are having a hard time getting placed. So guess who’s cleaning up? You got it; the Small Publisher.

The result is that midlisters become the #1 titles for their Small Publishers, and every bit of their arsenal is thrown into promoting those books – possibly moreso than if they’d signed with a Big Six. Because of this, many Small Publishers have a lot of very excellent books that are doing well. And because they’re doing well, agents come a-knockin’ a lot. What they WILL NOT DO is waste their time on a POD/vanity press, or any publisher who doesn’t have proper distribution, a good reputation, and solid sales history.

Sure, there are some agents who will only pitch to the Big Six and walk away. But most agents stick with the project because they love it and believe in it. It may not sell to a Big Gun, but that doesn’t mean it’s unworthy of publication and won’t sell quite well. Agents establish relationships with editors of all kinds of publishers because they’re always looking for a solid option. They’re not laughing, they’re selling.

Agents Laugh at Authors of Small Publishers

There’s this idea that agents look down their noses at authors who pubbed with a small press, and nothing could be further from the truth. If your publishing credit is with a small house, they’ll look up the sales via Bookscan. They may do a bit of research on the publisher of your previous book to decide whether they’ll include that publishing credit in their query letter/book proposal.

But first and foremost, they’re looking at the current book – not your past. If your previous experience is with a vanity press, or you self-pubbed, then you won’t even put that in your query letter because it’s not considered a publishing credit (because there is no litmus for talent). However, if you sold a bajillion copies of your e-book, then yes…include that.

The most important thing with publishing is to know the facts. People, like the one I saw in the bar, lost out on a wonderful opportunity because she listened to a myth. Apart from running out of the beagle’s margaritas, I can’t think of anything sadder.

Publishing terms – one more time…

January 3, 2012

I remember when I was an irritating little kid (as opposed to being an irritating adult), I wanted to utter cuss words with impunity. My older brothers did, and so did my older sister, on occasion. I saw swearing as a sign that I was no longer that PITA kid sister, but a respected, listen-to-me-roar, walking, talking mass of fabulosity.

I sat next to my brothers’ room, hidden, and listened closely to perfect the inflection while finessing the foreign syllables as they rolled off my tongue. At the very next opportunity, I decided it was time to become one of the big kids. Someone knocked my bike over, and I let ‘er rip. “Fluck you for knocking my bike over!”

My brothers stopped skateboarding and stared at me. “Fluck”?

I blinked. “Wha’? It’s not ‘fluck’?”

Never did I feel dumber.

And this is how I feel about people who misuse industry terms. The one that currently and continuously has my goat is the term “Indie.” Here’s the deal:  Indie is a term meant to distinguish small independent commercial presses from their conglomerate Big Six brethren.


But the Print on Demand presses took it to include them as well, which is incorrect because they aren’t commercial trade presses. Then the vanity folks decided this “indie” term sounded much nicer than “we charge you lotsa money to publish your book,” so they ripped it off as well. The self-pubbers, not to be outdone, managed to squeeze themselves into the “Indie” category as well, and Amazon CreateSpace and Kindle was all too happy to play along. Much to my great sadness, I’ve been seeing e-publishers use this term as well.

Now it’s the point where the term “Indie” has been bastardized into something unrecognizable. It’s ironic that in everyone’s rush to sound legitimate and oh-so cool, no one knows what the term means anymore. It’s lost all meaning. So where does this put publishers like me? I stubbornly cling to the term “commercial press” in hopes that the PODs, vanity dweebs, and self-pubbers won’t cross over this particular bridge.

Please, dear authors, don’t use the “Indie” term unless you are with a true “Indie” publisher. Otherwise, you’re perpetuating the confusion, which makes me flucking cranky.


“Traditional” publishing – let’s just change the definition, shall we?

December 22, 2010

“Traditional” publishing.

Seems this term has been tweaked, twisted, morphed, and choked into whatever new upstart publisher decides it is – and this disturbing trend makes me want to mainline Draino because it confuses authors into making decisions that aren’t in their best interests.

“Traditional” publishing (lordy be, but I hate that word) means that they pay advances, they actively market and promote their titles, they assume all production and distribution costs, they have standard royalty rates, AND they have distribution to the marketplace (which, for small indies, means they signed a distribution deal with a reputable indie distributor whose sales teams pitch their titles to the national accounts, libraries, and specialized marketplaces).


Yet I see “traditional” start ups offer no advances, don’t market or promote their books, and have zero distribution. And let me take the time to clarify distribution. These start up companies insist they have distribution because they’re “distributed” with Ingram. This is NOT distribution.

Let me say it again…THIS. IS. NOT. DISTRIBUTION.

Ingram is a centralized warehouse distributor for bookstores and libraries. This means that when a bookstore wants to special order a book, they either call their own warehouse (if they’ve stocked it), or they call Ingram. It’s easier to do this than call thousands of different publishers for the book.

Ingram doesn’t have sales teams who actively pitch titles to the national chains, indie stores, libraries, specialized markets. That job goes to independent distributors such as IPG, Consortium, NBN, etc., who act as a representative for their publisher-clients to the book trade—including bookstores, chains, wholesalers, libraries and specialty markets. They employ in-house and independent representatives to aggressively sell their client-publishers’ books to the marketplace .

There is a huge difference. When a company says they’re “traditional,” well…scratch your head because trade publishers really never use that term…then ask who their distributor is. If they say Ingram, Baker&Taylor, Quality Books, then ask if they have their own in-house sales teams and what kind of relationships they maintain with the corporate chains. If they don’t have any sales teams, you know they don’t have “traditional” distribution and they are not a “traditional” publisher.

Royalty rates – Cover price? Net vs. Abnormal Net

I see start ups who call themselves “traditional,” yet pay royalties on net (as opposed to paying on cover price), which is fine, BUT they don’t pay the standard net royalties, which means paying on the amount they actually received from bookstores (stores purchase books from publishers at a 45%-50% discount). Instead, they pay royalties AFTER they take out expenses that a “traditional” publisher assumes – which are:

  • printing expenses
  • production costs
  • selling costs
  • shipping/distribution costs
  • returns

This is not a “traditional” publisher. This follows more of a vanity model. The difference is that instead of getting a fee up front from the author, the publisher pays themselves back at the back end.

So avoid being sucked into the dank waters of mushy definitions that these start ups are trying to employ in an attempt to make themselves appear better than they are. There is trade publishing, and then there’s everything else. Make sure you know the difference.

Say it ain’t so – “prepublished”??

September 29, 2009

I laughed myself silly when I saw Jane’s blog post about this achingly asinine term “prepublished.” I went over to Editorial Anonymous’ blog – where Jane got the information – and thought, oh come on, you two. No one is really that stupid.

Are they?

And then I started making my usual rounds to various writer’s boards and saw the term being used. In a serious manner. No, no, no, no. Please don’t use this silly, nothing term. You are not pre – anything. You are unpublished. Plain and simple.

Remember the Golden Rule; you always want to conduct yourself in a manner that tells agents and editors that you understand the business. This means you don’t say things like:

  • fiction novel” (a novel is fiction),
  • indie publishing” when you’ve been published by a vanity press or POD press because “indie publishers” are small independent trade publishers.Vanity and POD wear entirely different stripes  (see Publishing Definitions post).
  • My book has distribution when it’s only listed with Ingram and Baker & Taylor (see Publishing Definitions post).

And you don’t say you are prepublished. This, and the other terms above, make you look like a noob – people who don’t know and don’t care. Agents and editors don’t mind new writers, but we avoid noobs like the beagle avoids sobriety.

And speaking of the beagle, she is mixing my morning coffee. If you’ll please excuse me, I have the feeling that I’m predrunk.

Definitions – I know you believe what you think I said, but I’m not sure that what you heard is what I really meant

August 27, 2009

Whenever I go to conferences or writer’s boards, there are usually many terms being tossed about that are confusing because I’m not sure they’re using the correct terms. For instance, when I listen to an author talk about self publishing, I think I know what they mean until they start talking about how their publisher charged them for extra edits. Then I realize it isn’t self publishing they’re talking about, but vanity, or subsidy publishing. And don’t even get me started on Print on Demand – is it a business plan or printing technology?

The same can be said for those who use the term Traditional Publishing. Ach! Read my lips: There is no such term. A Print on Demand company made it up in order to insinuate that mainstream publishing is broken, and their way of doing things is the bestest thing since the invention of the Twinkie. Beagle, bring me my vapors.

Clarity is paramount in this business. It’s what allows authors to make educated career decisions for their books. So for the sake of clarity, I thought I’d put up the most commonly confused terms so you have a complete understanding of their meaning. It could save you from making unwise decisions or confusing those you’re talking to.

Digital printing: Also mistakenly called Print on Demand, creating confusion between the technology and the publishing business model. Digital printing is cost effective at low print runs of one to nine hundred units. All publishers use this process. Trade publishers use digital printing for their ARCs [Advanced Reader Copies] and backlist titles. THIS IS NOT A PUBLISHING BUSINESS MODEL.

Print on Demand/POD: THIS IS THE PUBLISHING MODEL. Publisher pays for all up front production fees. They utilize the digital printing technology because it’s cost effective at lower runs. Nearly all of them rely on authors to do the lion’s share of promotion and marketing because they don’t have any. They have no distribution. Their books are not commonly on store shelves. They probably have a return policy for cases of author events and such, but selling to stores on too grand a scale is risky because they can’t afford returns. This business model is meant to only print what is physically ordered [and paid for]. They make most of their money by authors buying their own books. This definition refers to PODs who take any and all genres.

Now, there is another side to POD, and that has to do with the niche genres. These folks are normally in the same boat in terms of lack of distribution and lower print runs. However, they may very well be so focused on one particular niche that they have established contacts with the niche bookstores and can sell directly to them. In these cases, their money doesn’t come from their authors buying their own books, but from actual sales. There is a huge difference with these types of PODs, so make sure you understand what your book [and the POD] is – niche or mainstream.

Distribution: This does not mean Ingram and Baker & Taylor. Those folks are warehouse distributors – meaning that when a bookstore needs books for their shelves or an author event, they call Ingram or B&T to fulfill that order rather than calling the publisher.

Distribution in publishing terms means that the publisher either has their own sales teams to pitch their catalog to the genre buyers and libraries [like the big conglomerates], or they get with an independent distributor who employs their own sales teams to perform those same services. These are companies like IPG, Ingram Publishing Services, Consortium, Perseus, Midpoint, etc. They also fulfill orders when they come in, so the publisher can concentrate on what they do best.

The reason I make this important distinction is because PODs are very adept at insisting they have “distribution,” when what they really mean is that their titles are listed with Ingram and B&T’s database. They have no one out there pitching their titles. This causes MUCH confusion [and abject sadness] for new authors who don’t understand the terms and think they’re getting something they aren’t.

Vanity/Subsidy: Pay to play publishing. Depending on the type of publisher, the author may incur all the fees or be “subsidized;” the publisher assumes some financial risk as well (but not much). Many call this “self publishing,” but that is wrong because the author doesn’t control any aspect of production. Nor do they have much say in how things will be done – including their retail price, which can be slightly higher.

They also use the digital printing process for their short runs. Publishers like AuthorHouse, iUniverse charge a package fee (very large) for their “basic” publishing option. They also have all kinds of a la carte charges that are geared to separate authors from their money even faster. Extra goodies like extra editing, book return policy [which is a complete waste since bookstores still won’t order these books], extra special hoo ha cover design [which is also a crock because they use the same graphics over and over again].

Now, there is another side to vanity, and those are the folks who are strictly printers. Lulu is a good example of this. Their fees are up front, they don’t do bait and switch. They are there to simply print your book. You can also have them purchase an ISBN if you intend on trying to get your book into the stores. I’ve had a couple friends use them and were very pleased with the results. I’ll just add that if you have a coffee table type book, they are lacking on the quality. But they do get the job done.

Trade publishing: also called independent trade/commercial publishing. They are like the conglomerates only they have fewer decimal points. They perform exactly as the large conglomerates do. They have distribution, experienced editing teams and cover designers, print ARCs to send to reviewers, print up cataloges, get their books on store shelves, have standard return policies. They make their money from selling to the stores and libraries.

Self publishing: The author is the publisher. He assumes every aspect of book production; he buys the ISBN, is responsible for all marketing and distribution, editing, cover design, interior design, and layout. It is his name [or his company’s name] that goes on the copyright page. The sky is the limit for these folks provided they have the time and capital to pour into their book.

They can get independent distributor’s sales teams pitching their books to the genre buyers [provided they meet their requirements and have a solid promotion plan], can get trade magazine reviews, and shelf space provided their promo plan is very good. There have been a number of extremely successful books that were done by those who self pubbed.

On a personal note, I respect the heck out of these folks. Drawbacks to this venture is the lack of publishing knowledge. This route is not for the weak of heart or thin intestinal wall lining. This is a full time job.

So there it is, folks. So now when you’re talking to fellow authors, you’ll be able to make sure that what they hear is what you really meant. And YOU will be able to know exactly what you’re getting into when seeking a publisher.

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