Windows into the Imagination

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

In the Ether: Being Writer, Part 2 - Small Presses

There are a lot of writers out there, even more wanna-be writers breaking into the business and just as many avenues of advice on how to be a successful writer. I'm not talking about the craft of writing for which there are plenty of reference sites; I am referring to the suggestions on how to lift your book from the realms of obscurity.
Not that I'm that successful at it. I've had some minor successes and lots of…let's call them learning opportunities. Hopefully this will help someone out there who is navigating a different part of the maze. What could it hurt? The more pieces of the puzzle we have, the clearer the picture.

Well, first of all, I was thrilled that IFWG Publishing liked my manuscript for The Empire and wanted to publish it. How that happened is a convoluted story that I may tell another time. IFWG Pub is a wonderful small press, a couple of years old, that was started by a group of enthusiastic writers. They have some wonderfully talented people.
In an industry that is notoriously difficult to get into, it was like a golden egg had dropped into my lap. Then, I started peeling the layers of this 'egg' to find out what lay beneath, and what I found…
were the joys and tribulations of being associated with a small press and of trying to navigate the publishing industry in general.
It's not enough to have a great story or to be talented, and believe me, as an author, you need to have that confidence or you will give up very easily.
Publishing novels has always been a risky business and by risk I mean, monetary risk—now perhaps even more than ever.
The big publishers are taking fewer and fewer of those risks. Unless you're already a big name author, are a famous personality, or carry your own audience, you might as well not bother. Not to say that they won't take on an unkown, but the chances are very small.

I would dare to say that it is the small, resource-challenged, hard-pressed publishers who will mostly likely discover the next great talents. It was a small publisher who took a chance on J.K. Rowling after larger publishers rejected her 12 times.
It used to be that publishers had their own people who would vet manuscripts that were sent in. In this age where anyone with a computer can churn out stories, it became an increasingly time consuming job. Then came the agents—almost makes it sound the movie industry. Gradually, it seems, agents assumed the role of vetting scripts for suitability, sifting the gems from the chaff and evaluating its commercial potential. Most big publishers don't accept unsolicited manuscripts, especially from authors they are not associated with.
So, does that mean that you need to get an agent?
Well, it would help, especially if you want to pitch to the big 6, and it's always good to aim high. But it is not the only avenue. That's where the small presses come in.
In a recent Canadian book awards, all of the winners and finalists were from small presses.
There are advantages and challenges of being picked up by a small press. Along with being willing to take risks on unproven unknowns, they are enthusiastic and provide more individual attention.
Then come the challenges and this is by no means a negative, or even a buyer beware, but a heads-up as to the responsibilities between an author and the publisher.
As mentioned earlier, succeeding as an author goes far beyond just having a kick-ass story. Small presses, good ones that is, will edit your story and help you polish it for publication. They will format it, get you a cover-spine-back art, and sell it on all the major online book sites like Amazon, and Barnes and Noble. All at no cost to you.

Most of them do not have the resources to print ten thousand copies of a book that will barely sell a  couple of hundred, not even enough to recoup the cost of bringing it to market, which is the fate of most debut novels. So don't expect them to be stocked in your local book store, unless you're willing to go to them personally and offer to sell on consignment and maybe do a book signing.

Then, I found out a few other things after having some negative feedback on the cover. I'm not a visual person by any means and the cover looked fine to me. So it was a rude awakening to have it be described as amateurish, typical of a small press with limited resources. Now, I respect the original cover artist. He did quite well with the resources he had. But, looking at other covers, both good and bad and getting some advice from a couple of artists and illustrators, I realized all the technical problems with the original cover.
Now, this is one of the good things about being involved in a small press that really believes in you as an author. I spoke to my publishers and they were willing to have another cover done. That requires work on their part to reformat both the print and ebook versions and I love them for doing it.
I have a friend who knows quite a few successful authors and she said that from her experience, every author will have at least one cover horror story, especially with large publishers. One of them, when she started out, was forced to take the illustration done for someone else's book because it wasn't being used and they already paid for it. Even though the writer objected that it had little to do with her book. That's what happens when you're with a larger press and you're just a small blip among their large stable of writers.
So now I have a spiffy new cover.
The other challenge of being with a small press is the limitations of their resources. Not that being with a large publisher is much better for a new writer, especially these days with them cutting back. I find myself swimming and floundering in the same ponds.
Yes, a larger publisher has more resources and they will do up a press release, and they have the contacts (which are most valuable) and experience on how to market your book. But beyond that an author has to assume a lot of the work in publicity and marketing even with a larger publisher.
Which makes me wonder. If the success of a book is 10% the book itself and 90% publicity and marketing, shouldn't publishers have a larger ratio of publicity and marketing people on staff?
All that of course takes money, very little of which small presses have.
So, the lesson here today is…small presses are good, but be aware of what your role is in the process or don't expect much success. They are very loyal to the people they believe in and take the chances on. And IFWG is a gem that I will always be grateful to for giving me that first break, but it is a long-and-winding education on how to become a successful novelist.
Friday's post will go back to Science: Fact or Fiction and next week, I will have the final part to Being Writer. This will delve into the marketing and publicity steps I've explored in my journey and their successes/failures.


  1. Well said Elizabeth. It ain't easy :)

  2. Great job, Elizabeth!

    Like your cover incident, an advantage I've found working with a small press is it forces me to educate myself on the different aspects of the business, which I think is an advantage. Also, it requires me to deal with a lot of folks I normally wouldn't, again an advantage in the long run.

    Thanks for taking the time to write about this, it's really useful.

  3. Thanks Louis :) It certainly helps to educate ourselves about the industry and to pool our knowledge.