Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Is A Small Publisher Right For You?

First, let’s acknowledge that the majority of you reading this will not get an offer from the Big 6 or even a midsize pub such as Harlequin. I’m not talking about YOU, of course, when I use the term majority :o). Even with a marketable book, odds are against it. Your odds increase, though, when talking about going with a smaller digital-first or digital-only publisher. But should you? As with most questions, the answer is … it depends. One of two statements must be true for you to even consider it:

  • You have life challenges (work, family, volunteer commitments) that preclude you from studying the book industry well enough to make savvy business decisions and/or from overseeing the details of editing, covering and publishing the book yourself. 
  • The small publisher offers value-add in the form of benefits that aren’t in your arsenal.
The first bullet is a little tricky in that many folk who don’t have the time to produce a book in the first place or learn about the industry probably won’t have the time to learn the best avenues for promoting the book and then follow through with the promotions. Because you WILL have to promote it no matter whether you publish it or someone else does. Another factor is that the industry is in the throes of massive change right now; you may not be comfortable putting on the business hat you need to succeed on your own, but you also have to be reasonably comfortable that whoever you sign with is successfully keeping up with the market.

The second bullet is tricky in that the benefits the publisher touts may not be all that beneficial. Ironically, not too long ago I ran across someone who works for a small publisher who was citing free editing as a reason to publish with a small pub. We’ve all heard the spiel: Money flows to the author. If you can hand over your manuscript and never pay a dime to have it turned into a digital or print book, then that publisher is legit and worth your time to court. Right?

That thinking is so 2009. Plus it was wrong thinking then and it’s wrong thinking today. When your publisher keeps half your royalties or more, that editing isn’t free. You’re paying for it over time. And for a successful book you’ll likely wind up paying more in interest than in principal. For some authors without much in their nest egg to cover production costs, being able to make “time payments” through a small publisher is the only option they have. For them, partnering with a small pub can make sense based on the cost factor alone if that's the only way they'll be able to put out a top-quality book.

Don’t get me wrong. Finding credible content editors is difficult and time-consuming on the indie side, so there can be a nice advantage there. It’s just not free. Nothing a publisher does is “free.” Don’t lose sight of that and you’ll be able to make better, more dispassionate decisions when it comes to how you decide which publishing model to target.

A strongly branded publisher can help to build and/or validate your brand. Is your smaller publisher recognized for putting out quality romances or thrillers or science fiction? Being included in their stable can help brand you as a quality author in the genre too. Early on, especially, that can be a nice career booster.

Some publishers also have access to certain promo opportunities an author acting alone won’t have. For some recognizable contests, your work has to be nominated by an editor or publisher. The peril, of course, is putting more stock into some of the nominations than they’re worth. For instance, every publisher can nominate works for the Pushcart prize. Being nominated carries little value; only winning makes a real impression on the industry professionals. Publishers also get member-only invites to conferences and conventions where they nominate a certain number of authors to speak or simply attend. You want to look for publishers that have an active presence in your genre, whether that’s accomplished through contests, conventions or marketing.

BUT – and this is a pretty big but – small publisher marketing tends to drive traffic to the publisher’s site. While there may be an occasional spotlight on a single title, efforts in general will be around promoting the catalog. It will still be up to the authors to drive traffic to their own books.

There are excellent small presses out there that truly partner with their authors and provide the value-add to make the relationship mutually successful.

There are some good-intentioned presses that strive to deliver quality but can’t deliver the sales.

And there are other in-over-their-heads presses that are struggling to deliver even the basic services.

Publish fail can be attributed to several causes: Too many authors not making enough money. Too much outgo and not enough income. People in charge who don’t have quite enough business savvy to hold it all together. People in charge continuing to invest all their time and resources in old models that aren’t working rather than spending the time to understand and pioneer in the new market.

The truth is, anecdotal evidence shows that many authors with small digital-first and digital-only publishers don’t make $600 per year from a single book. Historically, small pubs haven’t been able to sell in high quantities, especially those selling just from their own sites. As for small print pubs, many have to churn inventory off their distributors’ shelves. Authors tend to be caught in either the short shelf life or the low quantities moved dilemma.

And while it isn't all about the money, it's hard to objectively measure success by personal satisfaction or any other means.

Just like with their bigger siblings, most small pubs operate under the general wisdom that most books will be modest sellers while only a small percentage take off. Having a number of titles spreads the risk for them. The 25 books they have each making $300 a month for them (remember, the publisher might well be making 4 to 5 times what the author is on each book, though hopefully that ratio is changing) might not be enough to keep the editors paid and the lights on, but the 5 books each making $2000 a month will be. It’s the reason publishers have lead titles with marketing budgets and midlist titles without. It helps to know in advance whether your book would be planned as a lead or midlist title so you can adjust your expectations accordingly.

Until a publisher goes under or you personally find yourself selling no more than a few dozen copies of a book in a month, you may not be able to tell what kind of publisher you have, especially if they are a young company without a track record. Some are even shuttering their doors before they’ve had a chance to become established.

Most publishers don’t make their balance sheets public. While your dream may be to simply hand the reins over and let someone else drive your book, nothing absolves you of the responsibility for the success of your own career. Practicing due diligence up front will save you much heartache on the hind side.

Many companies now provide the services you need to get your book edited, formatted, covered and published out to major etailers for a set upfront free. It’s up to you to figure out if the publisher you’re thinking about signing with offers benefits on the backend as well.

While a publisher may not disclose what the average earnings are for their authors, there are some things you can examine in the contracts to help you decide if THAT publisher is a good one for you.

Be wary of long-term commitments

Just because you don’t have the time or inclination today to keep up with the varying opportunities for selling your work doesn’t mean that won’t change in a couple of years. Industry standard among the small digital-first/only publishers appears to be 3 years, with some asking 2 and a few 5. Think hard about a 5-year contract. For a debut novel, that might be perfectly fine – as long as other contract clauses don’t stifle your ability to publish elsewhere.

Be wary of non-compete clauses

If your publisher isn’t doing as much for you or your books as you’d like – either today or a year from now – you’ll want the freedom to publish with others or to publish on your own. You’ll likely have to compromise on release dates of any new titles you have control of, but you want as much freedom as possible to chase the best deals for your future books.

Be wary of low thresholds for reversion

If a publisher loses interest in you or your titles or if they simply have too many clients to give each one the attention individual titles need to succeed in a changing market, then you don’t want your book(s) lingering with them on the equivalent of life support.

What’s optimal? Genre and price will, of course, play a large part in how many books sell per month. In general, the higher you can negotiate the better. Besides, just because you build in a reversion option doesn’t mean you have to exercise it. IMO, if a publisher can’t move 500 e-copies of a midlist book in a year, they have no business hanging on to it – unless they’re additionally moving other formats as well. In fact, negotiating thresholds for each format could be viable, as well as negotiating by overall royalty: If the book earns you less than $300 in a 6-month royalty period, you can revert rights.

Be wary of unfair royalty splits

What’s unfair? Well, that’s certainly debatable, isn’t it. Personally, I think fair is a sliding scale. Not the sliding scale paperbacks often deliver, such as 6% for the first 10,000 sold, 8% for the next 10,000 and 10% thereafter. I think the royalty rate should be paired with how many years you’re held to a contract, with the rates going up in your favor as the time commitment increases. For instance, 2 years gets you 40% of net, 3 years gets 50%, 5 years gets 60%. Don't let an advance upfront sway you from reasonable royalties. And certainly don't settle for lower royalties if your contract requires you to pay back any unearned advances. 

Should you or shouldn’t you?  

There are some great small presses that can help some new authors find success they may not be able to find on their own and help them navigate the ins and outs of the industry. For first books with a short-term commitment by an author too busy with other non-writing obligations, a small publisher would be a good option. It’s like participating in a mentorship program. Not every author needs or wants a mentor but for those who do, these publishers can provide the services and benefits necessary. Of course, no reputable small publisher wants to be seen as a stepping stone, and none wants to invest heavily in an author who doesn't plan to put out more books with them. So catch-22.

 Just be careful out there and be sure that before signing you are indeed getting the value-add  you expect from a publisher who knows where and how to sell your books. Preferably someone who’ll be in the business long enough that you aren’t left stranded before your contract’s up. 

Which reminds me: Be sure your contract stipulates that all rights will be returned to you within a set amount of time (30-60 days) if the publisher ceases operation for any reason.

Would I?

If I weren't involved with Steel Magnolia Press (which is more of a consortium than a publisher), would I sign with a small digital-first/digital-only publisher? No. But that's because I think I've gained the knowledge necessary to sell on my own in the digital marketplace. I do know that, were I to consider a small publisher, all else being equal, I would chase the publisher with 25 authors each making $1000 a month per title over the publisher with 200 authors each making $100 a month per title. The problem, of course, is that most pubs aren't divulging their authors' numbers so the visibility needed to sway me just isn't there. Going blind into a contract without an idea of what the average earn-out is would be a deal-breaker. As, of course, would be a low earn-out average. 

But everyone's situation is different, as is everyone's measure of success or degree of expectation. All I ask is that you be smart in choosing your path. And I'm betting that's what you want too.


Jo-Ann said...

I'm very relieved to see a new post from you, Phoenix, I was wondering how close those humungous tornadoes came to your home. House and beasties all ok, then?

Wonderful post, as usual. You're very well informed.

Naturally, the comment about the "majority" doesn't apply to moi, how perceptive of you! (A-hem, returing from dreamland)

My first MS is beling polished and re-polished, so soon, it will be decision time!

Phoenix Sullivan said...

Thanks for the concern, Jo-Ann. Wow, the news made it all the way over to Oz? I'm just north of where the tornado outbreak was and the storm system at the last moment jogged juuuust to the east of me so we only got brushed by the bad stuff. There was a lot of hail in the area as well and I was concerned for the ducks who tend to spend storms facing INTO the oncoming wind and rain looking up. Seriously, how have they survived as a species all this time? I had quilts on hand ready to throw over them at need, but thankfully it didn't come to that ;o).

Glad to hear you're close to being ready to make that big decision. Yay! And a secret: More options doesn't make the choice any easier!

Jo-Ann said...

Yes, the tornadoes made it to our news for the simple reason there was great footage of trucks/ buses hurtling through the air. If thousands of people died due to (say) a mud slide in a developing country, with no news crew producing wonderful visuals, it simply would not get any air time.

When you realise the editors of the tv news view their product as entertainment, rather than information, their decisions make much more sense. But, that's my soap-box again!

BTW: greater options = increasing difficulty making decisions.