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Choosing Between Independent Publishers

You spent years pouring your heart and soul into your manuscript. You polished it up to be the best that it can be, and you slogged through seemingly endless submission packages and cover letters to find a publisher or an agent. For whatever reason, you’ve decided to look at independent publishers. Perhaps your book was too edgy or bold for the giants of the industry to take on. Perhaps they liked it, but couldn’t see it as a commercial proposition. Or perhaps you don’t want to wait years for your book to make it onto shelves, and you’d prefer to see it fast tracked with a smaller publisher even if that means fewer sales. Maybe you’re even lucky enough to have received competing offers from more than one independent publisher. Now you need to choose between publishers, and guess what? It’s a jungle out there.

So how do you choose between smaller publishers without getting burnt?

Everyone Has A Horror Story

In some ways, the publishing industry is just like any other. There are good operators, there are those that get by, and there are those that would be better served changing professions. Unfortunately, there are also sharks and scammers. I like to think the vast majority of people in the industry are well intentioned, but that’s small comfort to a writer who never sees his book published because the publisher went bankrupt.

Even more common are authors who start with unrealistic expectations about what their publisher is going to do for them, and where their book is going to be sold. Fortunately there are ways to get answers to these questions and undertake some due diligence on a potential publisher before you sign the contract.

Identify Your Goals

Just as people write for different reasons, not everyone wants to get published for the same reasons. Some writers want fame, fortune and to quit their day jobs. Others want the perceived prestige and recognition that comes with being published. Still others just want a physical book to be able to give their family and friends, or to engage with other people in the writing community.

Whatever the reason, your first step should be to clearly identify your goals and expectations before you try to work out which independent publishers to approach. Different publishers have different things to offer, and being clear about your expectations will help you make an informed decision.

Print or eBook?

One of the first things you should decide is whether you want your book to be published in print, as an ebook, or in both formats. In a way, this goes back to the threshold question: why do you want to be published?

eBooks have taken off in recent years, but there is still a stigma against them in some circles. If you are looking for prestige and recognition, then perhaps you should be looking to have your book in print. By contrast, if your motivation is to have fun and engage with the writing community, then having your book solely or mostly published as an ebook might be entirely acceptable.

There are a number of independent publishers out there who focus on print, but they tend to be highly focused and only acquire books that satisfy a specific niche. They also tend not to accept submissions from unagented authors, and often have their publishing schedule full for years in advance. Don’t blame them – they don’t have the staff and resources of the bigger publishers, and often can’t afford to take risks on new material.

The good news is that there are quite a few ebook publishers out there, some of whom publish great quality novels (and short stories). What’s that I hear? You think you could just as easily self publish an ebook? Well, perhaps you could, but let’s leave that discussion for another time – I wouldn’t want to kick off World War III. The fact remains that the rise of electronic publishing means there are more opportunities for unheard of writers to get a foot in the door than when publishing was dominated by print, and in some cases writers might even find themselves in the enviable position of having to choose between competing offers.

Some electronic publishers will also release books in print, so you can achieve the dream of holding your book in your hands and still have a wider of list of publishers to choose from.

Distribution

If you haven’t been through the process of choosing a publisher before, one of the hardest things to get your head around is book distribution.

Print
Writing about this in detail could easily fill a bookshelf, but at the very least you need know that bookstores will generally only acquire books through distributors. One of the biggest is Ingram. Unless your publisher distributes its print books via one of these well known distributors and offers a significant discount to bookstores (40% at least), you can practically say goodbye to your chances of ever seeing your book on shelves.

Sure, bookstores can order any book that has an ISBN on request, but it is time consuming and expensive for them to do so. I’ve heard stories of independent bookstores trying to stock books for local authors only to discover it would cost as much as $20.00 for them to acquire it from the publisher in paperback (allowing for freight), which means the store has to retail it for $30.00 to make a profit. Who is going to purchase that book when George RR Martin’s latest bestseller is on the shelf right next to it for a fraction of the price?

With that in mind, one of the first things you need to find out when considering a print publisher is how they distribute their books. The sad truth is that the vast majority of smaller publishers don’t try to distribute to bookstores anymore. The discount required, the rate of returns, and the cost of distribution means it is a loss making proposition for them.

That doesn’t mean you should automatically reject those publishers out of hand, it just means you need to be realistic. You can still approach bookstores directly to have them stock your book, and the publisher will hopefully distribute your book in print via Amazon and other popular online retailers – but you are unlikely to see your book on shelves.

Unfortunately, many publishers won’t specify how they distribute their print books on their websites. If in doubt, find out the names of a couple of recent titles they have published and see if they are stocked in your local store. Get online and see if they are listed in your favorite online shop. If you can’t find them, chances are there’s a distribution problem.

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask the publisher about their distribution methods directly. If nothing else, it shows you are informed about the industry.

eBooks
Distribution is just as important for ebooks as it is for print, but fortunately most small publishers are on top of their ebook distribution – it’s their main way of making money, after all. eBooks should be widely distributed to all the usual online retailers, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, and Smashwords. Practically every major online retailer of ebooks should be on a publisher’s radar.

Again, you often won’t find this information listed on a publisher’s website, so you need to get online and search for their titles in stores. If the publisher isn’t distributing to a popular retailer, why not? If they are missing more than one of the likely candidates, then they might not be able to give your book the exposure it needs.

Marketing

A good distribution network means next to nothing without a marketing plan to back it up. Unfortunately, most small publishers don’t have the funds to invest much money into marketing individual books (and if you’re lucky enough to be accepted by one that does, I’d strongly recommend you go for it!).

Still, not all small publishers are equal when it comes to marketing. Some questions you should consider are:

 Does the publisher have an attractive website?
– Does the publisher have a store on its website where readers can buy your book? If so, how easy is it to use?
– Will the publisher try to get your book reviewed, and if so by whom? A couple of good reviews by popular magazines or websites can make all the difference.
– Does the publisher put out a regular catalogue, and how widely is it distributed?
– How well is the publisher’s brand recognized? Try some internet searches and see how well their name and their books rank. If you have trouble finding their books or authors, chances are they could do better in this department.
– Does the publisher have a stall or a sales desk at major conventions?
– Will the publisher help you with blog tours, promotional material and developing your own marketing plan?

In the modern world of publishing, most of these tasks are left up to authors. Every bit of assistance helps, though, so these questions can quickly help you compare between publishers.

Track Record

Making sure a potential publisher has a track record is important for two reasons. Firstly, it shows that they know how to produce and sell books. Publishing isn’t an easy business. A publisher who knows the game, knows how to deal with distributors, and knows how to find an angle for your book, will be better placed to give it the chance it deserves.

Secondly, a track record shows (hopefully) that the publisher is financially viable. A number of smaller publishers have packed up and shut their doors over recent years, sometimes leaving authors stranded with little clarity about what has happened to the rights to their work. It’s hard to imagine anything worse than seeing your creative baby languish in obscurity for years because your publisher couldn’t pay its bills. Do yourself a favor and make sure your publisher is financially stable. Standing the test of time is one of the better indicators.

How Do You Identify Amateur Outfits?

Just about any business can develop an attractive website these days, making it nigh impossible to distinguish amateurs from the professionals. The same goes for the publishing industry.

Here are some warning signs that could indicate a potential publisher isn’t as experienced as you might think:

 They only started publishing within the last 18 months or so.
– They have only released a couple of titles.
– Conversely, they release a large number of titles every year. This could indicate little quality control and editing.
– They don’t have any full time staff, or the owner has a day job in addition to running the publishing business.
– Their authors also work for them as editors. This can indicate a lack of independence, or even that the supposed publisher is really just an outfit set up by a group of writers to effectively self-publish their own work.

I don’t have anything against fledgling publishing houses (including those set up to self-publish their authors) but you, the writer, deserve to make an informed choice.

Value Add

One of the benefits of traditional publishing vs. self publishing is the nebulous trappings that come with being part of a publishing house. A publisher can coach you on marketing strategies, help you build a relationship with a good editor, connect you with other writers and help you network with all the other people needed to make your book a success. Being part of a team can sometimes be easier than going it alone (at least for some of us).

It can be hard to compare between publishers on this criteria because of the lack of information, but don’t be afraid to ask. Some publishers have a mentoring program, regular live chats between their authors, mailing lists and coordinated marketing efforts. If a potential publisher doesn’t offer any of these things, then you should be wondering why.

Cover Art

Is it possible to judge a book by its cover? Whatever your personal views, the fact is that most readers can, and frequently do, judge a book by its cover. A cover might not be as important as a good story, thorough editing or wide distribution, but if all other things are equal, then it is going to have an impact.

Attractive covers are more expensive to commission, because the artists charge more. For electronic publishers, with their low margins per title, the cost can quickly become prohibitive. If a potential publisher has generally awful covers for its books, then you should probably be asking why.

It could be, as in the case of Baen Books, that they don’t need good covers because their titles sell by the bucket-load anyway. Or it could be that the publisher doesn’t sell enough copies to cover the cost of a better artist.

If the choice is between two electronic publishers, one with covers that that would make a B-grade horror movie envious, the other with covers that look as good as the books in your local store, I know which one I would choose.

(I apologize in advance to the folks over at Baen!)

Contract Terms

There’s not nearly enough space here to do this topic justice, so I’ll just make one point: proceed with caution.

If you are presented with a contract that doesn’t make sense, don’t just assume it’s because you’re not a lawyer. There’s a good chance it’s poorly drafted or incomplete. If the contract doesn’t seem professional, then ask yourself, “Why is this publisher sending me an unprofessional contract?” This is the first of many business dealings you are about to have with the publisher. If you aren’t impressed with their business acumen, that doesn’t bode well for the remainder of your relationship.

You should also be aware that there are accepted industry standards for calculating an author’s royalties from sales. The percentage varies, but most reputable publishers don’t deviate from the basic model that royalties are calculated as a percentage of the gross sale price of the book. If you are presented with a contract that calculates royalties on ‘profits’ or allows the publisher to recover their costs before paying you any royalties, then at the very least you should be aware that you are being offered non-standard contract terms, and you should probably seek independent advice.

You should also be clear on exactly what rights you are selling to the publisher, and for how long. Some publishers like to acquire all of the rights to your work, even though they don’t intend to use them. For example, an electronic publisher might insist on acquiring the print rights even though they don’t intend to publish the book in print. In that case you might consider going with someone else so you can keep your print rights. You never know what you might be able to do with them.

Other Resources

This topic is so huge that it’s impossible to cover everything. But don’t despair, you are not alone! There are many, many articles and other resources out there that can help you find your way through the jungle.

One of the best resources for actually finding independent publishers is Duotrope. The service is so good that you might consider making a donation if you like it.

If a publisher has shown some interest in your manuscript and you want to do some in depth research, have a look at Absolute Write. There you can see what other writers have said about their experiences with just about any publisher worth mentioning (and some not worth mentioning!) Preditors & Editors offers a character reference check for agents and publishers and should also be on your checklist.

Finally there’s my favorite – asking authors for feedback about their publishers. So many people are happy to help; it would be a shame not to put them to use.

In the end, remember to take everything with a pinch of salt – opinions are just opinions. Ask lots of questions and make up your own mind before taking the leap.

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5 Comments

  1. Jared says:

    Really good post!

    Just to big up part of the value add in #8 – the editor (or editors’) track record is really important. One major benefit of a publisher (of any size) is that you’ll get an experienced external view of your work. A great editor is really priceless.

  2. Marc Davies says:

    Good point Jared, I totally agree. As a writer, you can’t stop learning even after you manage to get published.

  3. Lindsay B says:

    Very thorough article, Marc! It looks like you’ve changed publishers since the last time I checked your FB page, so you must have some experience here! 🙂

  4. Andy Weston says:

    Good one Marc,
    Very informative, it will help me make some hard choices.

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