Indie, Big Six, or Small Press Publishing: Why Not Try All Three?

Today’s guest post is from Kim Wright, a versatile author who is taking all three publishing routes: Big Six, small press and indie. She’s blessed with a smart, supportive agent who is encouraging her in all the paths she’s choosing. The paperback edition of her literary novel, Love in Mid Air debuts this month.

Hedging Bets: Three Paths to Publication
by Kim Wright

In an eighteen month time frame I will have brought three books to market, all via totally different routes.

I assure you I’m not schizophrenic, or even indecisive. But, in this wacky world of modern publishing, I am trying to hedge my bets. In fact, I’m laying roulette chips all over the table.

You know the old saw about the Chinese symbol for crisis being the same one for opportunity? It seems to me that publishing right now, in the Year of our Lord 2011, is in so much flux that it’s almost impossible to tell where the market is going—and that this uncertainty is actually opening up venues for writers.

It used to be that the only route to publication was to get an agent and to have that agent in turn sell your book to a major publisher. If you couldn’t get an agent or the agent couldn’t sell the book, then sorry, you’d missed your chance.

Small presses existed but didn’t have access to wide distribution and if you wanted to self-publish you had to pay a vanity press a hefty up-front fee to print hundreds of copies of your book, money you were unlikely to recoup in sales.

We tend to romanticize the days when publishing was a gentleman’s game and writers were only required to attend a three-martini lunch, sign their contracts, and then skedaddle back to their snowy cabins in Maine to begin their next book. 

But in truth those were the bad old days. All the power was in the hands of the few.

Enter the Internet and online book sales: suddenly small presses have a completely viable way to reach a national audience. Enter print on demand and ebooks: suddenly self-publishing no longer requires a large up-front investment from the writer and he too can use the Internet to reach potential readers. And where there was once only one way to sell your book, now you have three.

Each of the routes has its own set of advantages and pitfalls. I’m happy to have brought Love in Mid Air out via a big house. I got a nice advance. They sold foreign rights to eight different countries. It got reviewed in places like Publisher’s Weekly and People Magazine, and—I’d be lying if I didn’t count this as an advantage—it feels good to sit at the popular kid’s table. Even in an age where few people read at all, much less literary fiction, publishing a book with a major house buys you a sort of cachet which never entirely disappears.

But, that said, publishing with a big house is hardly a utopian experience. First of all, it’s not that easy to get past the rows of gatekeepers and even sell the book. The rejections, which go on for years for many writers, take an emotional toll. Once you do manage to sell the book you lose control over the process, from the cover to the marketing to even, in some cases, the edits.

If you’re an unknown, first time writer, they probably won’t pay that much attention to you - what’s a life-changing event for you is only a blip on the screen to your publisher, who’s bringing out dozens of books each year. You only pocket about 15% of the profits from your book and it will take years for you to see your royalties, if indeed they ever come at all.

Your publisher isn’t particularly loyal to you or committed to your long-term career: you’re constantly reminded that your book only has a three-month window to establish itself in the bookstores before it’s shipped back and the focus of your publicist switches to the next season’s list.

If you don’t earn out your advance, don’t receive good reviews, and don’t find your audience, you’re toast. Selling the second book will be twice as hard as the first.

All of this kind of takes the shine off of sitting at the cool kids’ table.

Okay, so then there’s the small press method. Since I already have an agent and a publisher, why did I opt to go small press with my nonfiction book? The biggest reason is that I didn’t want to be pressured to soften my message. As you can probably gather from the paragraph above, my book is often critical of conventional publishing, and, as Audre Lorde so wisely said “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Besides, there are a lot of advantages to a small press. They’ll look at unagented material. They also often run contests specifically designed to bring new writers to their attention. Where the big houses won’t touch a book they don’t believe will see at least 40,000 copies—they’re looking for blockbusters and best sellers—you can be a rock star at a small press if you sell 5000 copies. For this reason, small presses will look at more experimental fiction, and are more open to poetry, short stories, and graphic novels. And if they take you on, it’s far more of a partnership. I was consulted about covers, titles, edits, and publicity plans. Small presses also keep books in print far longer than big presses and in general maintain a more sustained relationship with their writers. It’s not the “one strike and you’re out” mentality of some big presses, it’s more of “here’s your chance to publish several books and build an audience over time.”

But don’t start singing kum-ba-yah just yet. The disadvantages of a small press are that you probably won’t be offered an advance at all, and if you do, it will be miniscule. (Sometimes they compensate by offering a writer a bigger percentage of the royalties than they’d get at a big press.)

A lot of small presses don’t bother with the hassles of bookstore distribution, so you may be selling your book entirely on the internet. You probably won’t have a publicist at a small press, you’ll be doing a lot of the publicity work yourself. And while you sometimes hear of small press breakouts like Tinkers, which came out of nowhere to win the Pulitzer Prize, the truth of the matter is that small press publishing is unlikely to make your either rich or famous.

And then there’s self-publishing. Laura (L.B Gschwandtner) and I are bringing out our genre book on Amazon because it’s the first of a series and we believe that if we can entice readers to try the first one at a low 99-cent price point, they may go on to read others and this will develop into an income stream. A stream that can go on as long as ebooks continue to gain market share and a stream that we only have to split with each other. 

Compared to my other books, The Wish Granters was a snap to write. Laura and I bandied it back and forth, making the writing fun and ensuring we didn’t get bogged down in the story. We plan to finish the entire thing, complete with revisions, within three months. Another month for line edits and the cover design and then the book can be uploaded to Amazon where we will begin seeing royalty statements within two months. In the world of publishing, that’s a nanosecond.

The downside?

Everything, but everything, has to be done by Laura and me and it can be hard to find a market for an unknown genre series online. Publicity won’t be a three or four month push but an ongoing task and we know from past experience—this will be the fourth book Laura’s self-pubbed—that the minute you stop pushing, the sales and Amazon ranking plummet. Being an indie author is like starting your own business; the work never stops.

The whole thing is sometimes enough to make you want to curl into a fetal position and whimper, but there’s something exciting about this market too. You not only have three routes to choose from, but you can even take all three at once.

I have this pathetic little joke I tell my workshop students. I say they don’t call the process by which writers get published “submission” for nothing. Yeah, like I said, the joke isn’t that funny, and it’s also not nearly as accurate as it used to be. Because with three options to chose from, writers can take more control over their publishing process than ever before. 

What about you, scriveners? Instead of engaging in the either/or battle that’s waging in the bookish areas of Cyberia, have you considered taking a multiple route approach?  

Kim Wright has been writing about travel, food, and wine for more than 25 years and is a two-time recipient of the Lowell Thomas Award for Travel Writing. There’s a great interview with her at the Chick Lit is Not Dead Blog. She's just finishing up her latest book--a historical mystery set in Victorian London.

Next week I'll be exploring some more of the realities of "sitting at the cool kid's table" and landing that Big-Six Holy-Grail book contract.

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