Let’s talk about independent publishers. There are more small presses than any of us could possibly count. They pop up seemingly overnight, publish ten or two-hundred books or so, and then vanish, often leaving bewildered authors to pick up the pieces of their publishing careers. Though there are vanity presses and scammers intent on defrauding authors, there are many small publishers who started their company with the very best of intentions.
I’d like to believe that most small presses set up shop with the intent to help authors and perhaps make a bit of money in the process. I’d like to hope these well-meaning entrepreneurs have a solid business plan, a proven marketing model, and good financial backing before they undertake such a venture. I’d like to hope the publishing company and their authors will thrive, eventually growing the business and becoming successful, respected players in the industry.
That’s what I’d like to believe.
Sadly, the majority of these overnight small publishers burst into the industry, believing their ambition and passion will overcome their lack of experience. Or, they believe a couple of years editing their college newspaper and a degree in English Literature is enough experience. They think it will be easy. They might be passionate, they might have years of editing experience, they might even be successful authors–but, do they know what it takes to run a publishing company?
Many of these small publishers are the nicest people you’d ever want to meet. They’re honest, reliable, and, smart. The twelve-year-old who mows your lawn is nice, honest, and smart too, but would you trust him to edit the book you’ve worked years to write? Would you trust the helpful teller at the bank to market your book? Would you ask the friendly waiter at your favorite restaurant to take over all aspects of publishing your book? How about your doctor? Your hairdresser?
The fact is, anyone can claim to be a publisher. All they need is a website and a few willing authors. They don’t need a business license. They don’t have to pass a State test for certification. They don’t even have to know what the hell they’re doing, because if they can convince you they know more than you do, chances are you’ll sign with them. In many cases, the publisher doesn’t know any more about editing than the author. The guy who sets up shop as a publisher today, might have been a bank teller, waiter, hairdresser, or doctor yesterday. They might not have any experience in publishing at all!
If you’re lucky, the newbie publisher will outsource formatting and cover art to professionals. If you’re NOT lucky, they’ll use their amateur skills to perform these tasks themselves, often with bad results. They’ll use print on demand services in order to produce paperback books. They’ll list your book on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The rest is up to you.
Guess what? Any author can hire an editor, commission cover art, and outsource formatting. We all have access to print on demand services, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. So why do we need a publisher?
Why give up control of your book and a percentage of royalties to someone who doesn’t have any more clout in the industry than you do? For some of us, we might think any publisher is better than no publisher. We find the prospect of self-publishing daunting. Before you shake your head and mutter about the naivety of newbie authors, remember this: We were all newbie authors at some point and we’ve all made mistakes.
If you’ve made a mistake and you’ve signed with a nice, but inexperienced publisher, all hope is not lost. You might have lost out on some book sales, maybe lost a bit of money, maybe learned a few hard lessons…but, you’ll be stronger and wiser going forward. If your publisher is an honest businessperson, there should be a way to terminate your contract. An honest publisher won’t want to hold on to an unhappy author and will work with you to find an amicable resolution. I know several authors who have been able to terminate an unfavorable relationship with a publisher and are now happily self-publishing.
So what happens when your starry-eyed publisher realizes setting up shop as a publisher isn’t as easy as he thought? What happens when he isn’t able to turn a profit after a couple of years and decides to close down his business? Or worse–what happens if your publisher stops putting forth the effort to do his job, but refuses to close up shop? Some small press owners quickly tire of ‘playing publisher,’ but aren’t quite ready to close up shop, leaving your poorly edited and unmarketed book languishing in Amazon cyber-hell. After all, it doesn’t make any difference to them if your book is selling. It doesn’t cost them anything to hold on to your book–the burden of selling the book is on you. And, who knows? Maybe it’ll start selling some time in the future. They don’t want to miss out on the big bucks if your book suddenly hits the bestseller list.
So, what’s worse? A dishonest publisher, or an inexperienced small press? Which is worse in terms of your reputation as an author: A well-edited self-published book, or a poorly produced book with a small press’ logo slapped on the back cover?
For those of you (like me) who chose to take a chance with a small press, I wish you the best of luck. We all make decisions based on a number of factors. I’m not telling authors to avoid small publishers, nor am I telling anyone they made a mistake. I just want to make certain up-and-coming authors look more closely at their publishing options. Self-publishing, vanity, small presses, or traditional publishing–they all come with risks and benefits. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer for every book.
So, here’s my advice for new authors: Ask questions, do your research, go with your gut, and do what’s best for you and your book.