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Small Press vs. Self-Publishing in the New Millenium

Posted by E on September 25, 2011

Ten years ago, if I couldn’t sell my book to a Big Six publisher I would gladly have taken the small press route. Heck, even as far back as five years ago I’d gladly have signed on the dotted line, and bragged to all my friends that at least I got a “real” publisher. I’d have used words like “legitimate” and “prestigious”, and snubbed my nose at the yucky self-published vanity “authors” who used to lurk in the gutter alleyways of imprints like Lulu.

But now, with the possibilities offered by Amazon and Smashwords, I wonder if any small publisher can come even close to the advantages offered by self-publishing. Not that self-publishing is a radically new thing. It’s basically what writers used to do for hundreds of years before established imprints took hold in the last century. So I asked this question on Twitter: If you can’t sell your book to Big Six publishers, would you go to a smaller press and get small/no advance OR self-publish?”

One person managed to give a nearly mono-syllabic answer: “small press”, but when I questioned whether splitting my royalties with a press who doesn’t have the marketing dollars to launch me (and thus force me to do my own marketing) is even worth it, she didn’t respond.

The answer seems obvious to me. I don’t begrudge the efforts of small presses and their editorial teams, but the fact of the matter is, most books published by small presses rarely sell more than about a thousand copies. Small presses do not have the budget for premium spots in bookstores, for massive advertising, and do rely heavily on authors marketing their own books. Which is something I already do every single day. And when my earnings are so small to begin with, I’m not sure I really want to split my royalties 85-15 (or worse) with a small press. I’m just being honest here.

Some may argue that small presses add an indispensable value to one’s book by providing expert editorial services and cover design. What I’d suggest is that if a writer so wishes, they can easily hire out editorial, formatting and graphic design services for a flat rate / one-time fee, rather than entering into contract with a publisher who cannot pay you an advance higher than four figures.

I believe we are living in the gold rush age of publishing. For the last couple of years, Big Six traditional publishers have bemoaned what they call a new evolution of the Guttenberg Press, an electronic Golden Age that they hope to survive unscathed. Hatchette and Random House executives have flown (no doubt first class) to meet Steve Jobs in the hope that Apple can somehow squash the Amazon revolution that precipitated a system in which Gatekeepers are being eliminated faster than one can say “Tyrannosaurus Rex.”

 I had a little laugh when I read about it, imagining all those execs in their crisp name-brand suits and ties, oiled briefcases in hand, walking pompously through Apple’s doors, thinking they have anything to leverage their arguments on. It was all the funnier, knowing that in the next five years, those New York penthouse residents will be lining up at their local Unemployment Office. Unless they package themselves out first, as several NY top editors already have been – and starting self-publishing consulting firms. Ah, the irony.

 This new age spells the end of MFA programs ran by greedy writers of the old generation, many of them mediocre writers in their own right, but who lucked out at a time when publishers would print nearly anything legible passed up the chain through nepotism and tapped favors. I mean, who in their right mind (aside from a trust fund baby) would spend $100K to get an MFA when there is no more Random House or Doubleday?

In the future literary universe, you’ll never get a huge advance. You’ll never have publishing execs speculate over your future success over endless luncheons. No, the only thing you will have to produce is a work that is good. Translation = that sells. That audiences, rather than editors and studio execs, will love.

 No more nepotism. No more favours. Of course, if you’re rich and can afford thousands on marketing, you’ll probably still manage to launch yourself out there. But without the gatekeepers, the world becomes a much more even playing field. Any hipster with a stack of flyers and a penchant for podcasting can generate the kind of grassroots buzz that can turn a coffee-stained manuscript into a bestseller.

In the new age we are entering, the ultimate gatekeeper will be the public. Only the AUDIENCE and the power of their mighty dollars will decide if your book has a future. NOT a nail-filing twenty-five year old acquisitions editor who’s rejecting anything on her desk that isn’t vampire teen porn.

 We are in a time of golden rushes. Thousands of new writers enter the self-publishing stampede with tin pan in hand, hoping to make their fortunes. Most will fail, in the same way that most authors in bookstores will fail to earn out their advance and never get anywhere.

But a few WILL succeed. Their ideas and manuscripts WILL strike gold, and when the dust settles they will enjoy the knowledge that they did it all on their own. That their success was entirely in their hands, and the profits they earned are not going toward paying for a Big Six publishers’ Fifth Avenue office suites and expense accounts, but in their own pockets.

We need to embrace this time of revolution, rather than cower and cling to sinking ships that are too bloated to sustain anybody. We need to remember that we at least have our talents and our fresh ideas, but agents and publishers, without their 15-90% cuts, have nothing. And that it was only a matter of time, in an industry that is barely a couple hundred years old, for things to change. For the unwashed masses on the outside of the palace gates to break through, behead anyone in the way and torch the whole bloody place down.

 Allons enfants de la Patrie! Le jour de gloire est arrive!

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7 Responses to “Small Press vs. Self-Publishing in the New Millenium”

  1. tamelarich said

    You rightly observe: “Some may argue that small presses add an indispensable value to one’s book by providing expert editorial services and cover design. What I’d suggest is that if a writer so wishes, they can easily hire out editorial, formatting and graphic design services for a flat rate / one-time fee, rather than entering into contract with a publisher who cannot pay you an advance higher than four figures.”

    I’ve done just that with “Live Full Throttle: Life Lessons From Friends Who Faced Cancer.” I’m blogging weekly on the self-publishing process here: http://tamelarich.com/category/writing-a-book/

  2. Elisa,

    Thanks, I really enjoyed this piece. I too have been thinking about why writers would still choose to go with a small press at this point — even if they have a relationship with one. What does a small press really offer, now that the retail book industry is entering its terminal demise?

    I think it’s also clear that the line between the small press and the self-publisher is beginning to blur. They’re often using many of the same tools and practices as self-pubbers — farming out a lot of the design, editing, and promotion.

    In a year or two, when more of them have embraced epublishing, the difference, in many cases, will be too small to notice.

  3. The people who truly made money in the Gold Rush, apart from the scant few who found the mother lode, were the people who catered to the needs of prospectors. If your reasoning holds true, then I think the entrepreneurs who will reap the greatest rewards will be those who can successfully package their editorial, design, and marketing services for writers trying to grapple with the new realities of publishing.

  4. Elisa said

    @Robert – Exactly. The difference will be minuscule in all aspects other than royalties. My pocketbook will always tell the difference between small press and publishing myself 🙂 In the end, it’s all about money, not art – as Big Six publishers can attest to.

    @Paul Definitely true. I’ve seen so many stories of Big Six senior editors and “hotshot” agents either getting hired by Amazon Encore or starting their own firms that promise self-publishing packages.
    To even get into that business feels too late … when so many editors, agents (a la Wylie) and business insiders are jumping ship and marketing directly to newbie authors desperate to get into the game.

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  6. Ujjvala said

    OK. granted, I AM the co-owner of a small press, Mason-Dixon Publishing. However, I do buy self-published books for myself, usually because I liked the authors when I talked to them, but so far the books have been duds. Frankly, I wish I could have gotten my money back. The quality of the writing has been uniformly disappointing. My impression is that the authors who self-publish are more interested in the book as a commodity than as a contribution to the literate reading community. Calling a book a “product” make me physically ill.

    If you are already an experienced published writer, for instance having published in ezines, in traditional small or larger presses, and other media where someone else accepts your work, I can see where self-publishing may be a good next step. Self-publishing also makes sense as a side offering by a business owner, consultant, speaker, and so on. However, MOST self-publishers I run into have not researched anything but self-publishing.They have often been novices who should have spent more years practicing before trying to publish.

    Another giveaway is when a writer talks about how writing is his/her “gift from God” (ugh, no, it’s work), and/or how many people have liked their books. So far, my experience has been that the quality of the writing fails to live up to the hype.

    There, my ranting is done.

    • E said

      it’s not a rant, it’s an unfortunate truth about a lot of people who so readily jump into the overflowing pool of self-pubbed writers without having first tried alternate ways of getting their work out there (as in trad publishing, which would teach them the hard way about the importance of editing).
      Having said that, I’ve noticed from experience that there is a growing number of really good writers who’ve been left no choice (after agent and editorial rejections mostly due to the “great work but unsellable/it’s not the next cash-cow Twilight, etc” excuse) but to either throw their manuscripts in drawers, seek out small presses or simply buy a ticket to the self-pub lottery, where in most cases books will fail no matter what. But after putting a lot of effort in their work, it’s still better than nothing.
      I do know the kind of painful writing you speak of having encountered…but I do believe that in the coming years, with big publishers colluding and small ones perishing, that greater numbers of talented authors will have no choice but take this route. And sometimes it can be a good thing – this spring I eventually published a memoir that Penguin Canada had wanted to acquire (but I wouldn’t have been paid for it), and I sold several hundred copies in the last few months. Not because I’m a social media guru who spends her days advertising constantly, but because I think it’s a story people have genuine interest in. I have to hope that as time goes by, the self-pub stigma will recede.

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