Why Chasing a Big Six Contract is Like Crushing on a Bad Boyfriend

While I’m teaching at the Central Coast Writers Conference this weekend, we have a guest post from the awesome Michelle Davidson Argyle, Literary Labster and author of the thriller, Monarch, which debuts this week from Rhemalda Publishing. Michelle did an  in-depth study on her blog last year on small presses. That study helped me make my decision to go with a small publisher myself. It’s an alternative most writers don’t consider, but in this era of upheaval, the small press is a strong choice for writers who don’t feel they have the time or skills to run their own self-publishing business.

Right now, corporate "Big Six" publishing can be a dangerous place for writers. Advances are shrinking, contracts are going draconian, and corporations are acting out their collective fears on unsuspecting debut authors. 

A horrific story emerged this week from a debut author who was “fired” by a Big Six publisher just before her novel’s launch, because she self-epubbed a collection of previously published short stories. She’d intended for the ebook of stories to promote her debut novel, but the corporation doesn't seem to care about motives or results. What they care about is that authors to know their place. Which is under a very big thumb. Big Six authors are currently considered corporate property. They are not allowed to write, publish, or distribute one word—even a word written and published before the book contract—without express permission from their corporate owners.

This author’s editor called and screamed at her and demanded the return of her advance. The book is now being held hostage while she goes through an expensive lawsuit. (And she’s been “muzzled” so she’s not allowed to give us any more information on this.) 

The corporate overlords are trying to destroy an author's budding career because of something she did at her own expense for the purpose of promoting their book. (If you want to help, you can buy the ebook of Kiana Davenport's short stories here.)  

I don’t know where the author’s agent was during all this, but AAR's response to the situation has been less than supportive. It seems some agents are more concerned with pleasing publishers than in  protecting their clients' interests. I’ve read about this phenomenon on more than one blog this week. I suppose it makes sense. Fewer editors are buying fewer titles as bookstores close and print fades, but 1000's of potential clients are still showing up in agents' slush piles every week We are expendable.
So what’s the alternative to this kind of horror, other than self-publishing?

The small press.

Small-to-medium independent presses are an increasingly attractive alternative.

There are drawbacks, of course:

And remember: a struggling young writer named J. K. Rowling, who’d been rejected by all the biggies, was first published by a smallish, independent press.

by Michelle Davidson Argyle

I’ve noticed a trend in the writing world lately. Maybe it’s not even lately. Maybe it has been happening forever, but within my own circles it's popping up everywhere. The trend is to make it big as fast as you possibly can. Right out of the gate. Bam. You’ve got it made. Money, fame, a career where you can write books at your own pleasure and not worry much about anything except enjoying respect and validation that the world will give you.

The reality is, however, that most authors do not make it big right out of the gate. Most authors don’t sell millions or hundreds of thousands of copies of their first book (or second, or third, etc.) Many of them don’t even sell thousands. Some not even hundreds. As sad as that is, it’s a fact. Some of my favorite authors have been around for over ten years, and most of them have a huge backlist of books. Get this. Most of them started out small. Their debut novel was not a smashing success according to industry standards. They simply sold well enough to keep writing books and eventually they became more well-known and widely-read. They climbed that ladder nice and slow. They were patient.

The Hook

When you’re an author and you start to look at the publishing world, something changes inside you…like a seductive man or woman eyeing you from across the room, it reels you in. You want to be published. You want it so badly you’ll do anything to get it, and just like that you’re hooked. You dream about it. Eat it. Drink it. For some authors it kind of consumes everything they do. They start molding their books to specific boxes so they can sell easier, bigger, faster. Authors might not mold their books on purpose; they do it because it’s nailed into their heads that if you don’t write X, Y, or Z and you don’t write them a certain way you might as well kiss Big-6 Bestseller Huge-Career Publishing goodbye. So many authors stand up and start twirling around the room with that hot love affair and they don’t look back. They start writing for the wrong reasons—and like any hot love affair it is all-consuming.

Ok, so maybe that’s not you and you write what you want how you want it. There are alternatives to big publishing. Or you can get lucky and someone big takes a chance on you and your work. Maybe what you write just happens to fall into the nice little box the big guys want. Yay!

The Alternatives?

So there are alternatives! There is self-publishing and small presses. Those are hot-ticket items, too, right? We’ve seen small guys go big this way. You can, too. You don’t have to waste years of your life querying agents and piling up hundreds of rejections. Wow, an easier way into the career you want. Sounds pretty great, huh? Just skip the gatekeeper and do it yourself or find a small press. Right?

I’m here to tell you I’ve done both. I haven’t gone the Big Route yet into the huge publishing arena, but like I talked about above, I’m starting small and I’m exercising my patience in this career that I’ve been working toward since I was ten years old. Last year in 2010 I self-published my fairy-tale themed novella, Cinders, about Cinderella after she gets married. It is a tight, dark literary piece that I knew would not sell big. It was small and didn’t fit anywhere. In fact, I wrote it to self-publish it because I wanted to learn all about that arena. So glad I did. Through some twists and turns it landed me with my current publisher, Rhemalda Publishing—a place where I am valued and I’m extremely happy because of it.

So I’ve found a good spot for me, but let me tell you that I haven’t avoided the hot love affair of publishing. I want you to know that it exists no matter which route you take.

No author can avoid the politics, the stress, the nightmare, the beauty and excitement of publishing a book. It really is an intense, amazing process no matter which route you go. It’s personal. It will probably change your life and it’s up to you to decide if you want it to turn into more than a quick affair or if you’re in it for the long haul.

The Illusion

I think the most frustrating thing I’ve seen happen in the publishing world is new, young writers looking at authors who have “made it” and not seeing how hard it was for them to get there. It’s an illusion that they made it big out of the gate.

Some other illusions I’ve seen are:

(1) Self-publishing is easier.

If you think starting your own business and making it succeed in a timely manner (while also riding an insane rollercoaster of emotions) is easy, you’re deluding yourself. Sure, it can be easy if you don’t put much into it. Good luck succeeding that way. Self-publishing is just as hard as traditionally publishing, if not harder to succeed. It might feel faster and easier, but in the long run it is not. Everything is just spread out differently.

(2) Publishing with a small press is settling for less.

Actually, publishing with a reputable small press can be a very smart move. As my friend who introduced me to Rhemalda Publishing told me – “A small press can be a really great way to get your feet wet.”

I was impressed that Tinkers, a novella, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010. Guess what? Tinkers was published by a small press. When I heard that I started thinking about small presses in a different light. All of a sudden they became a little more elite in my mind. Cool. Indie. Smart. And a really great place to start my career.

I happen to write things that don’t fit into any box. They might look like they fit into a box when you see them marketed, but when you read them you see quite quickly that they are in some world just off the mark of anything you’d expect. Quite a challenge to find an agent let alone a publisher for that kind of work. Small press? That’s another story. They fill all those gaps the bigger publishers leave wide open. The gaps where I usually find my favorite type of literature.

Publishing with a small press isn’t settling; it’s simply one step in a ladder going up. I plan to stay with my publisher for many years down the road as I gain more readership and release more books.

The best thing? With a small press you can have a lot more control and say over your work. Less sales? Less money? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Less happiness in your career? No way.

In the end it all depends on what you want as an author. Don’t kid yourself thinking there’s only one way to publish or that any path is easier than another. And don’t jump into that hot love affair with your eyes closed. It’s a wild ride and one that could end really ugly if you don’t research, gain a great amount of patience, and work hard every single day. Luck only happens to those who put themselves in its path.


Michelle Davidson Argyle graduated from Utah Valley University with a BA in English/Creative Writing in the winter of 2002. To date, she has completed five novels, and has published several short stories and the novella Cinders. With her two fellow members of the Literary Lab, she has edited two anthologies, Genre Wars and Notes from Underground. Her novel, Monarch, a contemporary thriller, was released by Rhemalda Publishing this week.

What about you, fellow scriveners? Are you still holding out for the overnight-success, hot Big-Six affair? Have you considered the alternative of a small press? Are you less likely to read a book published by a smaller press than one with a corporate logo?


Next week, on Sept 25th, Ruth Harris will bring us some inspiration from a writing superstar—the man who was chosen to step into the shoes of mystery writing icon, Robert B. Parker. Michael Brandman is the television and film producer who, along with Tom Selleck, wrote and produced Robert B. Parker's Jesse Stone movies for CBS. Production was recently completed on an eighth Jesse Stone CBS movie, BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT. After Mr. Parker's death, Michael, who had a long association with the author, wrote a new Jesse Stone novel, KILLING THE BLUES, which debuts with Putnam this month.

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