Sunday, February 24, 2008

They'll Take Anything

On chat with my wonderful editor (two houses, five books), Michelle. We got to talking about the Small Press Paradigm. We wonder whether the small press sales you rack up are an asset to the agent-hunt? or possibly even a liability?

See, I'm not hearing it specifically from agents, but by and large there's a perception out there that if you're published by a small press, it means automatically that your work is substandard, because small presses are all the same. They will publish anything sent to them. They do no screening nor do they do any editing. They put out rubbish, so that's why it's necessary to screen small press titles out of some review sites, many award competitions, RWA type contests, and the like.

This is rubbish. Small presses have standards. They DO screen the fiction that is sent to them. They reject a high percentage of the submitted material. They DO edit. There is nothing basic that prevents small press books from competing on any playing field you choose--save the perception out there that these are second class work that must be suppressed at all costs.

So, Virginia, do not send a small press your 600,000 word epic fantasy or your angst-ridden memoir. They're looking for better things.


Janny said...

Unfortunately, for every small press that does edit, that does screen, and that does care...there are three that don't. That's not a (mis)perception; that's what many of us encounter, day in and day out, just by sufring various small press sites and reading excerpts from the books they're so proud of. You read them and you think, "Okay, this is a passable first draft. But it ain't publishable material by any stretch of the imagination. So who thought it was?" If the answer is "The small press editor," you have one of the cruxes of the problem. And that problem isn't going away with time; if anything, it's getting worse.

You and I have had the benefit of being around some very professional small-press people, people who actually gave a ding-dang and who actually had read a grammar book or two in their lives...people who knew how to write themselves. But we are not in the majority, T2. We are in the lucky and ever-decreasing few--because many of the small presses that care, and edit, and try to do their jobs, don't make enough money to survive, and they're the ones that go under. They don't fail because of some perception in the marketplace, either; generally, they fail for one or two specific reasons, and odds are those one or two specific reasons have everything to do with distribution channels and/or finances in some form. The small press that spends little or no time and money on staff, on editing, on corrections, on producing a professionally printed (or even professionally and competently done e-)book...doesn't have as many places where money can leak out. The ones who do try to do things right have no margin for error, much less acts of God. Thus, we have the untenable situation of only the artistically weakest e-presses staying in business, sending inferior product into the marketplace...and then we wonder why small presses take such a rap. It's nothing more nor less than "What am I seeing out here, versus what people are telling me is out here?"

There was a time I would have been right on that bandwagon cheering and holding the banner with you for small presses' sake. I still want to believe in them; the problem is, many of them are not helping their own cases any by sloppy production and broken promises or contracts. Thus, while we *know* there are small presses that do things right, it's setting ourselves up for a whap upside the head to go on insisting that "small press publication is just as good as large press is." Plain and simple, the evidence presently available does not bear out that statement.

What can be done about this is another topic for another time--but it's not fair or wise to shoot the messengers or penalize those who take a dim view of this end of the industry. They're not "ignorant" or "arrogant." They're only reacting to what they see, and the majority of what they see bears out not only caution, but a somewhat jaundiced eye at this point. Things can and probably will get better; but they're not there yet.


Laurie Alice said...

I had three books published with small presses. They got 4 and 4.5 star reviews from Romantic Times. That's not substandard writing. I've read a lot of substandard small press books. I've also read a lot of substandard mainstream press books, too. And the preception is there because, in the beginning, many small press books were pretty bad, the spilloff of people who started a small press to publish their books. That's not true any more.

Deb said...

Indeed it isn't true anymore. So why are some of the bigger writers' pools and organizations still treating it as though it IS true?

One wonders. The Word say the owner shouldn't muzzle the ox. This smells suspiciously like a muzzled moo-cow to me.

Donna Alice said...

Having had one book accepted by a small press and many others rejected, I'd have to agree that not all small presses are the same.

The ones who demand quality are still out there. As are the ones who are as close as vanity press as you can get and still get paid to put out a book. Which I suppose is another yin/yang of this very weird business. I knew I should have gone into home ec instead--look where it got Martha!

TWCP Authors said...

As the owner of a small press, I can tell you that I am inundated with book proposals and ms submissions. So much so that I no longer look at unagented projects.

Why do I receive so much attention?

First, because there are those authors who think that because I represent a small press that I have no standards. Go figure. Small press does not equate to limitless resources to enable publishing any old book! Publishing one book is expensive and I am not about to make a decision that will not, at the very least, recover my costs.

The second group of authors that approach TWCP do so because they are impressed with what they have seen and heard.

Have I made any mistakes with my publishing choices? Oh yes, one -- that cost me over $10000. Have I learned from this mistake? Yup. An author marketing clause is now inserted into every new contract.

A few of my authors have been contacted by big houses. One author is wavering, the other two will not shift (at this point). They see what I have to offer. Oh yes, and also they realize that marketing their own books is as necessary with TWCP as it is with Random House.

Are there bad small traditional presses? I don't know; I've never encountered any.

Deb said...

I'm hearing, increasingly, that marketing one's output is just as necessary at a large press as it is with the smaller ones.

I hope this doesn't mean that the small presses will cease any & all marketing efforts. Some endeavors are best done by the publisher; others, by the author(s). For example, I could not pitch my small press books at the local Christian bookstore, because my s.p. went through the "wrong" distributor. There I was. Stopped. Dead in the water. No marketing effort of mine, no matter how creative or persuasive, would breach that gap.

Similarly, I can't afford to do book tours to the West Coast, etc. At least, not while s.p. published. These are, and should be, cooperative efforts between the pub and the author. If the large houses mean what they say, they're partnering with the author to make the book a success.

In my eyes, this doesn't mean the author does 99% of the marketing while the publisher gets the major share of the income.

TWCP Authors said...

These are, and should be, cooperative efforts between the pub and the author

Yes, yes, yes! Absolutely.

I do apologize; when I made the comment about the marketing clause, I wasn't thinking what it might sound like to an author.

The marketing I expect is all about the author taking some responsibility for attracting sales. For example, provide media kits, promo materials, business cards (that I've had prepared and provided) to people they encounter; maintain a website/ blog and offer information about the book(s); show up at scheduled events (that have been agreed upon prior to scheduling); promote online by joining and participating in discussions, etc (e.g./ Shoutlife); be willing to sit on discussion panels, give workshops/ talks (this one depends on the comfort level of the author).

As far as paying for book tours? Now that is a different story altogether. That's something even big publishers don't finance -- unless the author is a big name and will draw thousands of people over the tour dates.

One of the most successful book tours in the Christian fiction world was last summer's Fantasy Four tour. Sharon Hinck, Bryan Davis, Christopher Hopper, and Wayne Thomas Batson. The 8-day, 12-city tour was organized and paid for by the authors. The publishers did chip in towards the gas money.
They drove a van, stayed with friends and relatives, and ate peanut butter sandwiches and stopped at fast food restaurants and Waffle Houses. The publicity and press relations was set up by a publisher (the independent, Tsaba House) and a terrific job she did! While the tourers had the blessings of Thomas Nelson, Nav Press and AMG, that was about it! Well, that's not fair, TN (I believe it was) sent out a front person for an event in Atlanta and like I said, they did contribute towards gas money.

So, yes, marketing needs to be directed by the publisher, and authors need to participate in marketing as well.