As I reckon up, I am in just my fifth year of ‘interaction’ with the publishing industry; little more than a baby really. However, because that industry has changed so much in those few years, (which seem more like a lifetime), and because I have been such a keen observer of those changes, I have decided to post my own thoughts and experiences of the industry thus far.
To begin, I shall declare my position: I have two titles (traditionally) published with a small press; Thames River Press of London, (a sister imprint of Anthem Press) and I am due to submit a third shortly. I will also declare my dislike of pejoratives; I will use neither the term ‘vanity publishing’ nor ‘legacy publishing’ in this post since I believe that both are used all too often with the hint of a sneer.
For me, going back in time to a first ‘finished’ manuscript lying on my desk, the decision as to which publishing model to adopt was easy. At that time, I perceived a definite stigma towards self-published books. My own lack of confidence in my writing abilities was such that I needed the reassurance of a third-party who was prepared to put their own time and money into believing in it. I needed to be traditionally published.
I quickly acquired a literary agent who set about submitting my work to the big London publishing houses. Rejection after rejection resulted and he quickly terminated our agreement suggesting that I self-publish to prove the work, and then go back to the traditional channel on the back of solid evidence of sales. This reinforced my view at the time that those who could not get with a ‘proper publisher’, self-published and I chose to reject that advice. Instead, I started to query the bigger of the small presses with a second manuscript I had written, The Eighth Circle of Hell. That one was accepted almost immediately by Thames River Press and so off I went.
A little over three years down the line from that point, what are my thoughts now?
Well, firstly I am still convinced that there are very few authors who would not jump at a deal with one of the very big publishing houses. There has been much mention in blogs and commentaries about negotiating print-only deals and the like with those houses but that is for the phenomenally successful few. Most of the rest of us would rather like a bog-standard deal, thank you very much, with its attendant marketing budgets and its SKU access to bookstores and its top-level reviewers. That dream is becoming less and less likely each year however as the market at that end consolidates and the big houses, (and the literary agents who serve them) become increasingly dependent on sure-fire-winner material and second-guessing the chains.
So that really leaves the small presses and self-publishing, even though some of the small presses are really quite large these days. You are much more likely to be offered a traditional publishing contract by the editor of a small press than a large one, quite obviously. Many will accept direct queries; many will work hard with a manuscript they feel shows promise and many are looking for literary, rather than commercial merit. Importantly to an aspiring author, they will often give an objective and expert opinion as to whether a manuscript is commercially viable (and therefore publishable) at all. Freelance editors will work hard to make an individual manuscript as good as it can be, but they will/can rarely tell a writer to shred it altogether.
The actual experience of publishing with a smaller press can be good too, with a close working and creative relationship with each function in turn. That was certainly my experience. It is the time beyond the publication day where things begin to get a little more difficult.
Most small presses leave the promotion and marketing of a title almost entirely to the author. They may well have a small internal publicity department but after the focus of publication day, and despite their best efforts, that resource inevitably begins to spread very thinly over a large number of titles. My own experience is that within the whole promotional picture, you’re on your own. That was fine by me; I understood perfectly well that was going to be the case before signing on the dotted line and it is still easier to reach the print/broadcast media and many reviewers if you are traditionally published with any publicity department.
But it is still a hard slog.
The time spent promoting your first title impacts massively on the time and effort you can spend writing your second and so on. This is a big problem for small press authors. Their overall sales follow the same model as for self-published authors; perpetual mid-list, building over time with incremental engagements. One of the major drivers of sales is therefore a regular release of titles, which as I noted above, is difficult to do without the big royalty percentages of self-publishing to make it financially worthwhile.
The small press business model is all front-loaded it seems to me. The publisher bears the costs of submission-editing, copy-editing and production, but after that, the costs are extraordinarily light, especially if print runs are short, or on-demand. And if print runs are short, or (even worse from the author’s perspective) on-demand, the author is left struggling to push a printed title with a high-end retail price. At the other end, e-book prices tend to be significantly higher than those of self-published authors since there is simply less margin available to play with. The big houses have begun to respond in this area too and have started to intelligently discount. This, I believe, is also beginning to impact on the e-book sales of many self-published authors.
I’m quite sure that many traditionally-published authors cast envious glances in the direction of their self-published colleagues these days, eyeing their huge royalty percentages, their regular monthly payments and their ability to turn-on-a-sixpence. This sector, of course, is where I, along with everyone else, have seen the biggest changes. Self publishing has becoming the first preference of many. Because of the almost religious fervour of the self-published community of authors, it has largely shed the stigma of a few years ago, although to a greater extent in the more meritocratic United States I would say, than in the more establishment-driven United Kingdom.
Many, even most, self-published authors are quite happy, proud even, to declare their ‘indie’ status and with the direct cause-effect relationship between promotion, marketing and royalties, it is little wonder that social media is constantly buzzing with their tweets and sales messages.
As with most rapidly-developing new markets, we are beginning to see some stratification in the self-published sector. There is a much more general acceptance of the need for professional copy-editing, cover-design and proof-reading inputs and this does lead to better quality products. Having said that, there are still too many poorly-written and un-edited, self-published books out there, which in truth should have stayed in the writer’s imagination. I see no solution to that. It may damage the credibility and discoverability of other self-published authors with more professionalism and/or merit but that’s life. Those books will stutter for a time and die, and others will come along and do exactly the same.
So we have three sectors of the business, all with their own advantages and disadvantages, all watching the others out of the corner of their eyes with some mix of envy and disdain. The continued rise in both tablet use and print-on-demand technology will benefit both the small presses and the self-published but with competitive pricing and the new willingness to cede margin by the big London and New York publishers, whether that will result in such huge gains in market share as is often bandied about, I am doubtful. I personally see the market beginning to settle now with each sector continuing to watch the other with that same mix of envy and disdain, occasionally lobbing pejoratives at each other but nonetheless co-existing. The biggest ‘churn’ will be at the small presses where authors, increasingly competent in production processes will opt for the richer returns of self-publishing, and the commercially successful who will be snapped up by the bigger houses. Nevertheless, I’m certain that there will be plenty of aspiring writers to take their places.
So – after all this contemplation, what am I going to do with my own future work?