Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Have You Given Up on New York?

by Nancy Martin

Getting published the old-fashioned way is hard. (A writing friend of mine used to counsel new writers by asking, "If you know it's going to take five or ten years to get published, would you keep trying?" She was right. It does take most writers between five and ten very difficult years to succeed.) Nowadays, many frustrated writers have given up pursuing the traditional route to publication and are turning to small presses.

Not all small presses are created equal, however. When making your choice, here are some questions to consider:

1. The money. Does the press pay an advance? Usually, an advance is the publisher's vote of confidence in a writer's ability to sell books. Does the press pay a royalty rate about the same as other publishers? If not, the press is passing along its risk to the writers. Ask yourself why.

2. Money that flows the wrong way. Does the press ask for money from the author? This is a sure sign the company isn't on firm legs yet. If you're asked to contribute a "marketing fee" or a "buy-in" or to pay "editing costs," think twice. Asking the author to buy a substantial number of her own books is another way of disguising the same issue. Do you want to spend your time selling books out of the trunk of your car?

3. Not all marketing is worthwhile. Most presses crow about doing plenty of "marketing." But what does that mean, exactly? Do they have a good website, prepare catalogs, and send emails to a mailing list of a few hundred industry people? That's nice, but it's the kind of effort that doesn't cost a lot of time or money . . . and doesn't result in significant sales. Do they send ARCs to all the important review outlets? (The SinC Summit team heard over and over that librarians and bookstores are flooded with promotional materials, so when ordering stock they tend to pay close attention to a few trusted publications: PW, Booklist, Library Journal and Kirkus.) If the press doesn't print ARCs, do they participate in NetGalley? Do they pay personal calls on distributors and bookstores to create relationships? If it's an e-book company, do they perform more marketing tasks besides posting on Facebook? Do they participate in online forums? Make your books available in formats that work for all devices? Do they do more than simply put your books up for sale and stand back to wait for the money to roll in?

4. Distribution requires trucks. If the books are printed on paper, does the press regularly place stock in distributor warehouses like those of Ingram and Baker & Taylor? Just making books available to distributors via a catalog isn't the same as actually stocking.

5. The details of distribution: Does the press offer books to distributors and booksellers at the standard industry discounts? Are the books returnable? Are the books priced about the same as other books of their type? If not, the press may be passing along its cash flow problems to booksellers.

6. Everybody needs an editor. Yes, even you. Does the press employ editors who edit your book for content as well as copy editing? Or must you hire a freelancer?

7. Contingency plans. If the company is owned and operated by one or two people, what is the secession plan? (In other words, what happens if the owner becomes incapacitated?)

Maybe you just want to see your words in print and none of these issues matter to you. But if you hope to make your living at writing some day, these are some things to consider. Can you think of more red flags? What other information might help a Sister in Crime make a wise choice?

Nancy Martin has been writing and publishing books since 1982. She has written nearly 50 pop fiction novels, including the Blackbird Sisters mystery series and the Roxy Abruzzo series. Her most recently released title is Sticky Fingers. Nancy serves on the board of Sisters in Crime and edits SinC Links.


Beth Groundwater said...

Some of the most difficult information to find out about a press before you sign a contract with them is how they handle distribution. This is where having a personal network of fellow authors in your genre (like Sisters in Crime) can really help. You can ask authors who have published with the press before how their distribution works--BEFORE you sign that contract.

Sandra Parshall said...

The well-established, reputable small presses (such as Poisoned Pen Press) have all the attributes Nancy mentions -- and they're also deluged with submissions. No writer should approach one of them with the expectation of a quick acceptance. A good press, of any size, will always reject far more submissions than it accepts. Submit only your very best, most polished work to increase your chances.

Nancy said...

Thanks for the input about networking, Beth. Sharing info with other writers is invaluable.

Sandy, the SinC summit team met with PPP on our fact-finding trip this summer. They were very forthcoming. Great to see a small press being so transparent about their business practices.

Nancy Lauzon said...

Sadly, I did give up on my New York publishing dream after 5 years and went with small press, which printed my books POD along with e-book formats, with no distribution to bookstores. In other words, I had to sell the print books out of the back of my car and work like hell promoting myself online for the publisher. (Can you see the word 'loser' written on my forehead? I assure, it was there, LOL).

But not anymore. Five years later I'm a self-published indie author, my backlist is available on Amazon, I have a 4th novel on the way, I'm hiring a professional artist for my covers and pay for my own editing. Voila. I have complete control over my own destiny, and am building a target audience one reader at a time, cutting out the middle man - the NY publisher. But I didn't have much choice.

When I do sell a book, I get 70% of the royalties. A good motivator to work hard.

Chick Dick Mysteries

Nancy said...

Nancy, thanks for sharing. There are lots of ways to get published these days. It all depends on what you want, how willing you are to wear different hats, how much time you want to spend actually writing, etc. etc. There are some writers who only have one book in them, and that's okay, too.

For me, though, the answer is still New York. Whether that will continue to be my best choice--time will tell, won't it?

Sally Carpenter said...

New York publishers (and agents)are very reluctant to take on new writers. For most of the great unpublished, small presses or self-pub are the only available options unless they want to keep beating their heads against a wall for years. Nowadays, anyone who publishes with a NY house will need to do her own publicity and marketing. Small presses allow an author more input and are often more approachable. The NY publishers have lost much of their luster, IMHO.

Nancy said...

Sally, I totally disagree with you. I think NY publishers are very receptive to new writers.---They're a fresh start. No track record is actually better than a faltering track record when it comes to pre-sales into chain stores and indies.

Yes, every writer must do publicity, but I wouldn't say small presses are "more approachable" than anyone else. (Seems to me, everybody's desperate and will eagerly hear out any author with a plan!)

My points, though, are not so much about marketing and publicity as other questions to think about when choosing any publisher. Distribution where the money goes, the quality of editing are all keys to any sucessful publishing operation.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for an excellent post with lots of good information. I got the pointer from a writing buddy -- believe it or not, I had never heard of Sisters in Crime before!

Nancy said...

Bonniers, I love your blog. You're my kind of writer!

Maggie Toussaint said...

Hi Nancy,

Sorry for the late comment. I get the SINC loop (and most of my other loops) on digest so I'm often behind the power curve.

I think many of us keep NY as that Oz-like glittering goal, despite the trend today of doing it yourself and nontraditional publishing. No matter how much success you have with indies and small presses, most of us know deep in our hearts that we'd love to have that stamp of "having made it" into the NY realm.

The thing that's odd is I don't know why this dream lingers because truly folks are walking away from NY deals all the time and experiecing unparallelled success. (where's the spell check? I know that's too many lls)

I wrote for five years before I joined professional writers groups, and then wrote for about ten more years before I got contract offers. Looking back, I can honestly say I wasn't ready, either in skill or temperament, for the rigors of being published, even in the small press venue.

My distillation of this learning curve is that personal and professional growth are necessary, and you get that by writing better and better books. Will I ever hit the NY big-fish pond? I don't know, but it won't be for lack of trying.

A sister and a guppie

Nancy said...

Maggie, you're very wise. We all think (hope!) we know what we're doing while we're doing it, right? Hindsight is 20/20.

With things changing so rapidly in the industry, I guesstimate this blog will be relevant for about a week. The thing we do know about Oz--? Pay no attention to the main behind the curtain!

Sharon Owen said...

As moderator of the Guppy Small Publishers List, I've been adding more presses and trying to update information on those already listed. I really appreciate this post. I'm going to keep it handy and do my best to extract answers to these questions from small publishers whenever possible to assist Sisters who visit the list.

Nancy said...

Sharon, what a terrific resource for the Guppies! I hope you'll share with everyone. Thanks for doing all the work.

Marcia Talley said...

Nancy, LOL. And in the case of HarperCollins -- part of the NewsCorp empire -- that sad little man behind the curtain is Rupert Murdoch!