Since then, I've followed Alicia's career through a mutual good friend and was thrilled when I saw that she had come on board with BelleBooks, the publisher of my short stories. Belle (and its imprint BellBridge) is truly making a name for itself as an independent publisher, drawing in top-notch writers, like Alicia. And so who better to blog about the advantages and disadvantages between a "Big 6" publisher and a smaller press than someone who has been published by both and has been involved in multiple aspects of the publishing industry from writer to instructor to freelance editor for over twenty years?
I know many of you are actively considering which path to pursue among the new possibilities growing stronger in today's publishing. So, please join me in welcoming Alicia Rasley to the blog!
Why a Small Press?
My publishing career is so checkered, I call it a "herringbone." I've been published by major publishers and a couple small presses, and self-published too. Susan asked me to write about why I chose to go with a small press for my women's fiction novel, TheYear She Fell.
I got my first publication back in the Golden Era of romance publishing, when all the major NY publishers were starting romance lines and romance writers had print runs of 300K. (Not me, but others!) I never benefitted much from that wave as I wrote in a small niche genre (Regencies), but I stayed published by major pubs for more than a decade. I never made much money, but the prestige of major publication helped my teaching career, as nearly everyone was impressed to hear that I was a "Dell author." (Of course, I published only one book with Dell before they suddenly dropped their Regency line. The great thing about prestige is it can be based on singular and long-past events.)
But consolidation of the big publishers in the 90s led to the greater commodification of books, and the multi-nationals didn't seem very interested in marketing to niche readers anymore. Even with a top agent, I couldn't get back into the closed circle with a book I'd certainly considered commercial. Why? Because I'd been writing "small books," with print runs under 40K, the suddenly all-important "numbers" – how successful an author was at making lots of money for the publisher—meant editors had to send letters with high praise and that "Unfortunately" last paragraph. ("Unfortunately, with the market as it is, we can't take a chance on Alicia who hasn't the record of success we want.") I knew the book was good, and I knew it would sell well if it got the chance. But it looked like I wasn't going to get a chance. Then someone suggested submitting the book to Belle Books, a small press that a friend of mine had started years ago with some friends.
Small Press, Big Advantages
For someone like me, who had mostly read big-press books, and had published only with "The Big Eight" (soon to become The Big Seven and then The Big Six), looking beyond NYC for publication was scary. I mean, I'd heard about small presses, but thought they published only literary fiction and poetry, and regional publishers, but thought they published only local histories. Boy, did I get an education when I sold the book to Bell Bridge Books (the women's fiction imprint of Belle Books). I learned that small presses like BB can aim for niche readers because their lower overhead (no Manhattan office to rent!) means they don't have to sell as many copies to make a profit on a book. I also learned that compared to the ocean-liner-sized major publishers, a small press is like a nimble cruiser, able to turn on a dime to take advantage of new technologies and techniques. So though my book came out initially in print, the publisher quickly realized that the rise of the Kindle and other e-readers would open up low-cost opportunities. So they published my book in several electronic formats, and while the sales were small for the print edition, the title caught on for Kindle readers.
The costs are lower, and the royalties much higher in e-format, and a small press like mine can experiment without much cost. For example, my publisher put the book up for free in Kindle format the week after Christmas 2010. I admit, I thought it was crazy to give away books. But it worked, generating many reviews and getting the book onto the top 10 list in the Kindle store. Even when the free period ended, customers still downloaded the book, only this time they paid for it. In fact, for a brief moment (and I do mean a moment), my book was the #1 bestselling book on Amazon Kindle. Hey, it's not the NYTimes, but you better believe I now call myself a "bestselling author." For a Regency writer, used to sales in the lowest five figures, this was a heady experience. (And yes, I checked my ranking constantly, and suffered through every bad review too!) And when I got my first royalty check, well, it didn't pay for a new Lexus, but it was several times larger than any of my big-press book royalties.
So paradoxical as it seems, giving the book away was an effective way to sell the book. But I'd never encountered that method with a big press. They didn't even like to give the author many copies.
And small presses are more likely, I think, to explore opportunities for alternate revenues like foreign sales and subsidiary rights, because that way they can maximize income from their relatively short list of books. Just an example: the Harry Potter books were released both in the UK and the US by relatively small presses. Of course, these novels sold millions, but much of the revenue (JK Rowling is the first writer to become a billionaire) came from adroit dealing of film rights and other sub-rights. Of course, the big presses do try to sell film rights and the like, but very seldom for books in the midlist or below.
There are, of course, limitations to the small press experience. The advances tend to be small because the companies are usually under-capitalized, using the profits from one book to fund the production of the next. The smaller presses can't afford to have marketing divisions that go out and sell the books to big accounts. (On the other hand, this means that the marketers don't get to interfere with editorial decisions as I kept running into with big publishers.) Small presses also don't have the clout to force booksellers to sell a "small" book in order to get enough copies of a "big" book like a Grisham or a Koontz.
There are always trade-offs in any decision, and going with a small press has meant giving up a few perks, especially the powerful influence created by the huge multi-national publishers. However, my decision was validated this Christmas, when my publisher once again did a marketing push for my book (now out for more than a year), and got The Year She Fell up onto the bestseller list again. This persistence was in great contrast to my experience with big publishers, where a book was pretty much up for sale for the release month, and never again. I'd gotten used to doing a frantic round of promotion that month, and then seeing the book taken from the store shelves and stripped to be sent back to the publisher. Instead, here I am in awaiting a second sizeable January royalty check, because my small press can keep the book for sale literally for years.
So I think my own experience shows that there's no reason to confine our submissions to big New York publishers. Small presses might have the flexibility and resilience to keep up with the near-constant changes in the marketplace. However, because small presses don't have the name-recognition and long public histories of a Random House, I'd suggest doing some due diligence before signing that first contract. Google the company name and check with the author-warning sites (like Preditors and Editors) to make sure there aren't a lot of author complaints (especially ones concerning unpaid royalties!). Read the contract carefully and compare it with sample big-press contracts. Make sure that you're not expected to contribute any funds of your own. Ask about the company in your writer's groups and lists. Check the biographies of the company personnel to see if there's a good mix of editorial and business expertise. Check their own website, and the sales pages of some of their books at Amazon or bn.com to see if the presentation is professional. Finally, talk through with the publisher what is planned for your book in terms of publication and marketing. These common-sense precautions will also help you get to know the publisher and get some ideas of how together you can make your book a success in a rapidly changing marketplace.
Has anyone else tried the small-press route? What's been your experience?
Alicia Rasley is a Rita-award winning author and nationally known teacher of writing workshops. She teaches composition and tutors students in two state universities. She grew up in the mountains of Southwest Virginia but now lives in the midwestern flat land. Her book The Year She Fell has been a Kindle fiction bestseller.
Susan here -- Thanks so much, Alicia, for sharing your years of experience and wisdom with us!
Alicia is willing to take questions, so please feel free to post in the comments.