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Friday Guest Blog: Gwen Gades – The Role Of Small Presses

Justin asked me to write about what a small press has to offer to writers out there considering their options. Should they find a small press/big press, or self-publish? It’s something I’ve been struggling with myself, lately. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about small presses, and about self-publishing, and about big New York publishers, since a bunch of my authors have been getting contracts with those big players.

People use phrases like “gatekeeper,” “barriers to publication” and others to justify the continued existence of publishers. And those are very valid points. Our slush pile is usually full of garbage, written by folks who could easily self-publish with today’s technology. The question is… should they? There are hundreds of publishers out there, thousands of self-publishing folks and almost a million new titles published every year. And the numbers are growing.

Publishing isn’t like any other industry. It’s kinda like the music business, but not really. It’s certainly not like any other manufacturing business. It’s something unique and it faces challenges all its own, today more than at any other time in history.

Publishing used to be a gentleman’s business. Books were published on a handshake. Nobody expected to make any money. Books were bought by people who could afford them. That philosophy has always been an underlying emotional response–getting a book published fulfilled writers’ life-long dreams. Writers made the transition to authors. Authors were revered. They were placed on a pedestal of awe. Bestselling authors reached the pinnacle of the dream. Publishers were viewed with a similar vision–publishing was something to aspire to. People worked (well, still work) for nearly nothing, all for the passion of putting words to paper.

Somewhere along the line that industry started to change.

Passion started to conflict with the almighty dollar. Big corporations started demanding that titles should show a profit (shudder). Of course, the legacy left behind from the “gentleman’s business” meant that it was an exceedingly difficult transition. It’s still happening. The industry has not changed enough to make publishing a profitable business–not for most small presses, and not for most BIG presses. Then technology really changed things up.

Today, writers can make the leap to author without any input from a publisher at all. Self-publishing, whether print or ebook, can be done for a reasonable price, and the stigma of self-publishing is diminishing. Some authors self-publish and make a remarkable success of it, raking in millions of dollars (oh, how I wish I had one of those titles!). But that’s not the norm. It isn’t the norm for a book published by ANYBODY—big publisher, small publisher or self-publisher. Most self-publishers are going to be lucky to sell the average 100 copies.

Most people seem to think that there are three options for publishing: self, small or New York. They also seem to think that these are mutually exclusive options.

I don’t agree. I think that every author who plans to make writing a life-long career should do all three. (There, I said it. It’ll probably put me in the bad books with everyone!)

The industry is changing. I think everyone has a role to play, and I think that authors should take advantage of the opportunities presented today and tomorrow.

As an author, once you are on the road to publication, you are a BUSINESS. You need to stop thinking of yourself as an artist and start thinking of yourself as an entrepreneur. You should have a long term plan that presents options and explores opportunities. You shouldn’t just be packaging up your great manuscript and considering your work done. Because really, the work is just beginning. It doesn’t matter what you write… fiction, non-fiction, you still need to have a plan.

In some cases, self-publishing is an ideal course of action. In particular, professional speakers should have books. Anyone who needs back room product to support their business should certainly maintain the control necessary to build a brand around a self-published body of work, since self-publishing offers a number of unique opportunities in the industry. You control the look, the design and the process. That means you get to pick the cover, what the interior layout looks like. You get to engage in the activities of a publisher, because, guess what… you are the publisher, whether you choose a service provider like Lulu or CreateSpace or Booklocker (get your own ISBN, don’t allow anyone else to control that!). It’s a valid publishing option. It’s a valid BUSINESS option. And it is just that. A business.

If you’re going to succeed, you’d better have a plan. You must get your book professionally edited (that’s not optional, folks). You need a professional cover and layout. While you can do all of that yourself, that just takes time away from doing the stuff that will finally earn you a dollar or two: the selling stuff. Anyone can make an account and upload a file, but only you can sell the book. And that’s hard. It’s a full time job if you want to sell a significant number of books. No matter what path you choose, this is going to be a full time job.

Selling the book requires that you market yourself as an author. Today’s readers care less about who published the book, they just want to connect with you as an author. That connects them to your body of work. They want to feel like they are part of your circle, because remember, a published author has reached that dreamed-of pinnacle of success. You’ll need to spend time networking, building marketing lists, Facebooking (whenever did that become a verb?) and attending face-to-face events. You’ll need to build a following that believes in you—one that extends beyond your friends and family. That all takes a lot of effort. You can hire people to do some of it, but you still have to put your face on it.

If you choose a small press, the pre-press stuff is taken care of by the publisher. You get to participate in the edits, and focus on marketing/selling. Small presses bring to the table something you’re lacking the first time you publish a book: EXPERIENCE. The small press knows how it work—the process and the pitfalls. They have the knowledge and experience to get a book to market. Where they are likely to lack is in marketing support and distribution. So you still get to do that kind of thing–and really, these days, it’s a necessity. As a small press, I can’t connect you with a reader as well as you can connect yourself with a reader. Small presses are also a great opportunity to educate yourself about the business side. Usually, with a small press, you’re in closer contact with the staff, who are willing to share the business side of things.

A small press may take a risk on something not quite the ordinary.

When I went to school, we were told that if you were considering releasing a book, you should check and see if something like it had been done before. If it hadn’t, then you shouldn’t publish it. Big publishers aren’t usually trailblazers. It’s too risky. Small presses have less overhead and will more often take a risk on something unusual. Small presses often are niche publishers with a loyal following. If they can make the ROI (Return on Investment) work based on that, then you can find a home.

If you choose a big publisher, then even more of the process is taken care of by the publisher. You’ll still need to do that marketing stuff, because if you don’t–well, it will be the last book you sell to a big publisher. Mid-list authors don’t get second chances when publishers are forced to try and get their bottom line in the black. But big publishers have the one thing the rest of the publishing options don’t: distribution, access to bookstores, co-op money. All those things that get the books in front of readers in physical and virtual bookstores all over the world.

In my opinion (and it’s a humble one!) I think authors should diversify and explore all of these routes and for some really basic reasons:
• MARKET SHARE. Each publisher has their own circle of influence. By exploring and participating in multiple avenues of influence, the author can expand their own sphere and thus increase their own bottom line.
• CONTROL. There are just some projects where you want to have control. Where you want to make the decisions.
• DIVERSITY. It provides you with options, opportunities and adventures that would be different if you only chose one route.
• MITIGATING RISK. Let’s do an if. If you were to self-publish everything, and your sphere of influence was 324 readers, then you would have a limited opportunity to sell a product to them. You may not even recoup costs, and that would put your business at risk. It goes back to you being a business. Sure, you’ll add readers over time, but it seems like a long slog. (And after more than 15 years of doing this, I can attest to the long slog!)

It probably puts me in the minority, but if I were an author, it’s what I would do. It’s what I’m starting to see my authors do, and I encourage that.

I think a publishing roadmap would look like this:

• Build a plan through education of the business, options and opportunities.
• Write a great book.
• Publish it with a reputable small press. (Or start with a big press if you can, but that doesn’t really happen often)
• Market the heck out of it, building a community of readers based on YOU (all you!)
• Continue to write. Pump out short fiction around your world, or helpful articles for non-fic writers, that you self-publish in ebook form. (Make sure you keep that option available in your small press contract, or work with your publisher to make it work)
• Work to make your relationship with your small press a good one, because you should continue to publish with them.
• Build your market to the extent that you can sell a book to a big publisher.
• Continue to build that community of readers (your sphere of influence) and write, write, write.
• Keep all options open, and place your work where it seems logical. Open doors, don’t close them.

I don’t think publishing is an either/or proposition. I think it’s a business, and you need to treat it as such, otherwise you’ll never sell more than that average 100 copies.




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