Friday, September 23, 2011

Big Press? Small Press? Or Going Solo?


Big Press, Small Press, and Going Indie: What I’ve Learned from Each

By Kim Wright

In an eighteen month period, I will have published a mainstream/literary novel with a large press, a nonfiction book on writing with a small press, and will have self-pubbed a genre book on Kindle. I know. I sound at best indecisive and at worst slap-dab crazy. But I see myself as someone who’s laying multiple bets at the publishing roulette wheel, hoping that if one chip doesn’t pay off, another will.

The best of times and the worst of times, the present market is both terrifying and full of potential. Each of the three major routes – big press, small press, indie – have their own advantages and disadvantages, but the really good news is that you can proceed on all three fronts at once, publishing your books in the way that most suits their genre and audience.

Here are the basic pluses and minuses of each method – plus my takeaway from the experience.

BIG PRESS ADVANTAGES: They can launch you, sell a significant number of copies of your book, and perhaps even – if the gods smile – make you a household name. You’ll get an advance and an opportunity for worldwide distribution that the other methods can’t match. You may get reviews or a book tour or a movie deal or plush toys based on your characters. And even if you don’t get any of these things, mainstream publishing earns you a type of respect that never goes away.

BIG PRESS DISADVANTAGES: It’s hard to get through the door, as any writer who has searched years for an agent or publisher can tell you. And once you get through the door, your publisher may ignore you in order to throw more cash and attention toward already-established authors. You have a very limited time frame (usually around three months) in which to launch your book and if you don’t garner good press and decent sales – at least enough to pay back the advance – it will be harder to sell your second book.

MY TAKEAWAY: It’s scary to be a tiny fish in a big pond and disheartening when your very own editors aren’t that interested in your very own book. I know a lot of writers who have suffered almost a type of post-traumatic-stress-syndrome after being published by a big house and subsequently watching their books go nowhere. I’ve cried. I’ve thrown up. Would I do it again? You betcha. In a post-traumatic New York minute. I need the money, I like the prestige, and there’s always a chance you’ll be one of the few who break through. But this time I’m trying to be a little smarter about it…shelving my literary follow-up to Love in Mid Air and approaching the market with a historical mystery that’s more in line with what’s being bought.

SMALL PRESS ADVANTAGES: This is probably the publishing experience you dreamed of – a committed editor, an enthusiastic (if miniscule) staff, and a mutually respectful, team-like approach to editing and selling your book. Your opinion about titles, covers, and such will be taken into far greater account than if you went with a large press. Small presses give you longer to develop a readership and sell your book. And if you’re dealing with experimental fiction, short stories, or poetry - or if you were unable to get an agent - a small press is far more likely to consider your work than a big press that’s looking exclusively for blockbusters.

SMALL PRESS DISADVANTAGES*: Forget the advance. Probably forget the reviews in major players like People and the New York Times. You may not find your book in bookstores at all, since many small presses don’t bother with the hassles of distribution and prefer to sell exclusively online. When it comes to promotion, the small staff means you’ll probably end up doing a lot of the grunt work yourself. While some small press books rise to national or international prominence, the odds are against it.

MY TAKEAWAY: What a sweet easy dream of an experience and how many great people I’ve met along the way! Would I do it again? Yes, with projects which are probably destined to have a smaller audience anyway, such as short fiction. I’d bring in more help – a personal assistant or intern to help pull some of the load on publicity and production because now that I understand fully how hard the staffs at small presses work. And I would look outside the box for ways to market the book. In the absence of bookstore placement and national reviews, blog tours and small, focused readings matter more than ever.

INDIE ADVANTAGES: Nobody can tell you no. Your book can be for sale on Amazon and other sites within days. Especially if you price your ebooks at 99 cents to entice readers, you can gradually build up a steady income stream that can go on for as long ereaders continue to gain market share. And you get to keep a far bigger percentage of that income stream than you can expect from either large press or small press books. The stigma against indie publishing is fading and this route no longer requires the big up-front payments that were required in the bad old days of vanity presses.

INDIE DISADVANTAGES: You have to do everything – and I do mean EVERYTHING - yourself. Writing the book, formatting it, choosing the cover, marketing. Especially marketing. There are experts to help you if you simply aren’t up to these tasks but their fees come out of your own pocket. The promotion is endless – when you stop promoting the book, your online rankings and sales can fall overnight. This promotion is made all the tougher by the fact many reviewing outlets, from blogs to newspapers, won’t write about Indie books. While some authors have found crazy levels of Indie success, most don’t.

MY TAKEAWAY: This is an ever-evolving world and writers have to be extremely strategic and smart. You also have to be aware that low-priced self-pubbed ebooks work best when they’re quick, light reads and ideally part of a series. The people who are succeeding are those who have multiple books for sale and have learned how to piggy-back publicity for one into sales for another. Would I do it again? The jury is still out on that, since my co-author and I are launching the first in our genre series next month. If we make money at it, then yes, we’ll write more. I see this as the equivalent of my old career as a magazine writer, where I had small ongoing projects to supplement my oh-so-sporadic income from fiction. And it’s not strictly about the money. Having the whole project completely within my own control is a bit of a balm after the big press experience, in which the writer loses control almost the second she sells her book.

Overwhelming, huh? No wonder so many writers drink. But the really good news hidden inside this puzzle is that there are more ways for writers to find readers than ever before and our futures are largely in our own hands. The environment is a bit Darwinesque, but the adaptable and clever will survive, especially if they bring a clear-headed evaluation to each project and really think about which path to publication works best for them.

Kim Wright is the author of Love in Mid Air (Grand Central) and Your Path to Publication (Press53). You can follow her on Twitter at Kim_Wright_W or become a Facebook fan of Love in Mid Air to receive notifications of her future blog posts.

*Baggott pops in to note that small and independent press contracts need to be as carefully eyed as big NYC publishing contracts. There is more standard language in the big publishing house contracts and independent publishers sometimes have territorial clauses that need to be stricken. (I don't think it's a purposeful attempt to be territorial. It's simply that those contracts aren't as standardized by the industry.) Don't sign ANY contracts without having a lawyer look at them.