books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, July 17, 2011

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.

  • My novel, Love in Mid Air, was represented by an agent and sold to Grand Central, a division of Hachette and a major house.
  • My nonfiction how-to book for writers, The Path to Publication, will be published by a small press, Press 53, in September.
  • During that same month a friend and I will be self-publishing a chick-lit fantasy genre book called The Wish Granters on Amazon.
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.

38 comments:

  1. Excellent article. I have experienced the first two: Big Publisher and Small Press. You've captured the pros and cons perfectly. The upside is that there are now more options open to authors than ever before.

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  2. Thanks for posting! I am actually very excited about all the doors opening via options to publish in this day and age.

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  3. This is a wonderful and refreshing discussion of options. Thanks Anne for hosting Kim, and thanks Kim for taking the time. In a time when we have a lot of questions about the changes in publishing, this is one of the few posts I've seen that gives viable courses of action.

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  4. This looks at all three as separate but it made me think of the first two as a means to the third. In other words, getting that Big Six contract or small press contract which sends your visibility through the roof and then going on to self-publish with the idea of building on the notoriety you've gained.

    It would seem (contracts and such notwithstanding) that the ideal for somebody*, strictly financially speaking, would be to publish with a Big Six, have middling success, and then self pub afterwards.

    *Obviously the true ideal is hit a Stephanie Meyer type home run but barring that.

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  5. Excellent post, and a sober, well-rounded and well-reasoned look at the modern writer's options.

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  6. Super post! I hadn't thought about how the internet had changed things for small presses.

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  7. The interesting thing is that some people publish Big Six, then move to indie so they can keep a larger percentage of their sales while others publish indie with the hope that they'll attract a Big Six publisher and thereby reach a bigger audience. So what matters more - selling lots of books or keeping a larger percentage of those you sell?

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  8. Wow, it's so helpful hearing about all three paths from the same person's perspective. Fantastic article.

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  9. Bottom line, I think, is that writers are the most optimistic and determined creatures alive or they wouldn't keep writing and trying to publish, whatever that publishing route is. It IS great, though, that there are options today that weren't around decades ago via the Internet. But the competition is also severe. You have to be determined to convince that reader "out there" that your book is worthy buying and reading!

    As always, Anne, a brilliant and relevant post.
    Ann Best, Memoir Author

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  10. Thank you - i appreciate hearing about the three different types of publishing from someone who's doing/done all three. A useful and insightful post.

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  11. Interesting post, Kim. Wondering where all of this might lead has been a source of worry for me. I did pretty well with small presses, with two books published by that route. However, the ebook revolution has not been that good to me.

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  12. I think it's really cool that you're trying all three, Kim. I enjoyed reading your insight about the ups and downs of each route. I've never been published with a major house or self-published anything. My only experience is with small presses. But I have to say that so far, I'm pleased. Like you said, they treat their relationships with authors like partnerships, which makes it an enjoyable experience to be published. You feel like you've got someone on your side. In the ever-changing and sometimes depressing world of writerdom (if that's even a word), that's a major plus!

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  13. This is a great post! Thanks for outlining the pros and cons of each avenue. As great as it would be to sit at the cool kid`s table, it`s good to know the downsides...and maybe the non-conformist crowd is the way to go. :)

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  14. Anne, this is a great post. And Kim, thanks so much for sharing your writing journey.

    Like a seasoned traveler, you have taken different paths to each destination. This makes your journey more interesting and your career more diverse.

    I love that people are considering the many ways to take their piece of the pie.

    Love that the times are turning in our favor.

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  15. Terrific post - too many posts discussing paths to publication are skewed towards one approach. I like the clear-headed logic you are using. Good luck with your projects!

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  16. I think that those going for self-publication need to approach the venture as a start-up, and have the business accumen to follow through on a marketing plan. Don't do it as a cop-out...you can make it work if you put in the effort and the forethought.

    For any of the three paths-all of which are valid-I believe the strength of the work itself is what will propel sales. A few years ago, it the marketing power of a major publisher was required to get sufficient word out to translate to sales. These days a simple free YouTube can go viral overnight and reach tens of millions of people.

    A good book will find its way into readers' hands.

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  17. Thanks so much for the comments, guys.

    Rick, I agree with you that the bottom line is the strength of the work - but we all also know of cases where good books went unnoticed while something silly like a biography of Snooki was reviewed around the world. So, just as you say, even with a great book, someone somewhere has to market it and - in this publishing environment the truth seems to be that no matter which of the three routes you go, that person is usually the author.

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  18. Thanks everybody! And many thanks to Kim for giving us such positive information about stuff that can look pretty scary from the outside.

    I'm also glad to hear her agent is so supportive of all aspects of her career and that he allows her to write in many genres. I think the agents who will thrive in the new paradigm are the forward-looking ones like hers--agents who will help guide careers in all paths to publication--not just squash us into pigeonholes in order to make the big corporate deals.

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  19. Lot of tough decisions to be made. Good food for thought Anne.

    .........dhole

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  20. Nice, Anne. I've tried a fairly small press and publishing myself. Now I'm back with another small press, but after having complete control, I find it's hard to give it up.

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  21. How fascinating to hear from someone who has accomplished all three. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences with us!

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  22. Kim nailed it re my experience with small presses, good and bad. But I still love that route for the relationships it builds.

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  23. Very well said. I too am in all three camps. I'm the "business manager" of my husband's fantasy books The Riyria Revelations. We started with a small press, then self-published, I started up my own indie press, and then sold his books to Hachette's fantasy imprint, Orbit for six-figures. You are right in that there are advantages and disadvantages to each - just make sure your non-compete clauses in your non-self contracts don't limit you and you should be fine with dipping your toes in each one.

    Robin Sullivan | Write2Publish | Ridan Publishing

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  24. I love that we have so many options these days! I also love that I can start small and go bigger. :)

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  25. I think it's clever to hedge your bets. Right now I'm only working on one book, but I'm hoping that when it's done, the market will have settled and that I'll know what to do.

    :-)

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  26. Anne and Kim - Thank you both so much for such a wonderful and informative post. It's so great to hear the pros and cons of each route from the same author. I've thought about trying both (or maybe all three!) myself. I think it would be a great experiment.

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  27. What an encouraging way to look at publishing. Thanks for such a good analysis of the possibilities.

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  28. Donna--What I like about Kim's approach is that you don't have to make decisions. You can keep querying agents with the romance or YA books, send mysteries and literary to small presses and self-pub chick lit, horror, short stories, westerns, thrillers, and family sagas.

    Thanks Nina! Great interview on your blog this week!

    Ellis & Sue--You do have to shop around with the small presses. Experiences vary widely, it seems.

    Robin--that's good to hear. VERY important advice re: non-compete clauses. Another big reason to have a lawyer check those contracts.

    Michelle--You've successfully done self-and small press. Maybe you'll get a chance to go corporate, too.

    Misha--You're wise. No point in rushing into any of it. Get the book as perfect as you can first. Then write another one.

    Meghan--I think different routes for different genres may become the norm.

    Elizabeth--Yes, actually the news is all good.

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  29. Regarding Anne's comments - yes, I agree, the main advantage to what's going on out there is that you can make your decision based on what's the best fit for a certain project. Genre series do well on line, so it might make sense to try the indie route first. If you've got something artsy, go small press and something blockbuster-esque, take a shot at a large press. What disheartens me is when writers quarrel among themselves or spend all their time trying to convince their commrades (and probably themselves) that whatever decision they've made is the right one. Like big press authors who sneer at indies or small press authors who accuse big press authors of selling out. It's not like there's one right way that works for every person or every project so we need to be a bit broader and more inclusive in our thinking.

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  30. Very interesting! There are so many options and opportunities open to writers today. It's an exciting time!

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  31. It was good to read though Kim's experience. I've been published with a small publisher and have decided to go the self-pubbing route. I figure the marketing end can't be much harder that what I've already been doing.

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  32. It's good to see all the recent changes in publishing and how it has become so much more accessible with so many more choices for the writer. Fantastic post.

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  33. Interesting post. Thank you.

    I am doing two of these at the moment (smallish publishers and indie). Did the third (Big 6) ten years ago with a 7-book series, but the experience was not a happy one and the rights have just reverted to me. I will soon be reissuing those seven books as e-books direct with amazon, and I think it's going to be quite interesting to compare sales!

    You can find other professional authors trying the indie route at http://www.kindleauthors.co.uk

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  34. Talli--You're right. I think there's never been a better time to be a writer.

    J.L--Interesting that you prefer to indie route. There sure is more money when you get to keep it all yourself. And small presses vary widely.

    Lynda--Choices. That's what is so awesome. We get to choose our own path.

    Katherine--Very interesting. I'm hearing from more and more refugees from corporate publishing who shared your "not happy" experience. And now that you make so much less money when you're under the corporate wing--the only reason to go that route is to be able to say you've been there. And I guess it's kind of like buying a lottery ticket to compete in the big-time sweepstakes for NYT bestsellerdom.

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  35. Ditto, ditto, cosign! I'm on this three path journey myself (and documenting all the pitfalls along the way).

    For me, it was an issue of genre. There are some things that just need an agent. Others do fine enough on their own. Like you mentioned, I don't see why this has become an either/or debate.

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  36. East Coaster--Glad to hear the three-path way is working for you. For those in a genre that agents are looking for, it's great to be able to pursue all three.

    Kim--Thanks so much for such an inspiring post! You really helped a lot of people feel more hopeful.

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  37. Thoughtful and helpful...grazie! Its even more difficult to publish in English in Italy. The stigma of self publishing is slowly fading and happily I have two non-fiction books (travel and history)published this year. Promoting oneself is essential; website, blog, FB, twitter.

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  38. I just found out that my writing guide Your Path to Publication is available for preorder at Press 53. http://www.press53.com/BioKimWright.html It gets into a lot of these topics in more detail - including the basics about getting an agent, contracts, networking, working with editors, marketing your book, the pros and cons of self-publishing etc. The intro is available for a free download at the Press 53 site. Would love your feedback!

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