Blackwing by Ed McDonald
 

Blackwing

Review

 
Worlds Within Worlds – Part Three: Old Grey Beards
 

Worlds Within Worlds

Part Three: Old Grey Beards

 
Games Wizards Play by Diane Duane
 

Games Wizards Play

Review

 

Small Press vs. Self-Publishing

Given the choice, I feel safe in saying that the vast majority of writers would prefer to be published with a large publishing house, particularly after a bidding war that resulted in a six- or seven-figure advance. That’s pretty much a no-brainer. Unfortunately, most new writers don’t have the luxury of choosing. Books by new writers make up less than 1% of a large publisher’s annual publications. And if you don’t have an agent, or a really good contact, more than likely they will not even give you a chance.

As I said before in my query-letter article, thanks to an explosion of small presses, it’s easier than ever to break in. Most don’t require an agent, and while only about 5% to 15% of their submissions get accepted for publication, many of them are from unknown authors. Small presses are more concerned with a book’s quality than the author’s publication history. If they like your book, chances are you’re in. But there are some drawbacks to small presses, enough to give one pause, especially with the amazing (and relatively inexpensive) self-publishing avenues now available.

Six months ago I would have never considered self-publishing. I didn’t believe anyone could make a living, and places like iUniverse gave self-publishing a bad name. But then Amazon opened up their Kindle Direct Publishing, and authors like Amanda Hocking started making a killing. Hocking made $495,000 in one month, and she’s sold over a million copies of her YA paranormal-romance books. While she does have them available in print, most of them are selling on Kindle. And guess what? It doesn’t necessarily cost a thing to self-publish on Kindle.

Watching these successful authors take off, and even knowing one of them personally, completely changed my thinking. I have two, soon to be three, books published traditionally with a small press, and when I compared my royalties to some of these other “indie” authors, I decided to do an experiment. So I too have published a book on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, and while it’s too soon for me to compare sales, I can at least give you the rundown of the pros and cons of each in terms of getting started.

The number-one benefit, to me, of going with a small press is prestige. I can say that I am traditionally published, which is a big deal to me, and if I weren’t, I probably wouldn’t be self-publishing at all. Outside of my friends and family, however, most readers could care less. They pay attention much less than we think to a book’s publisher. They get drawn in by the cover and then the synopsis. If the price is right and they like the sample, that’s enough for them. We writers are much more likely to be concerned with who publishes us than they are. But if you can’t get past your pride, I’d recommend pursuing a small press first. Then, as a last resort, or for a different book, give self-publication a try.

Another important advantage that small presses carry over self-publishing is the free package that comes with it. By this I mean the cover design, editing, formatting and distribution. All of these are incredibly important components your book needs regardless of your route. If you can’t afford a decent cover design, or know someone (including yourself) who’ll do it cheap, you might as well kiss self-publishing goodbye. No matter how many times you’ve heard, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” it’s simply not true. If you have a crappy cover, no one is going to give your book a chance.

That’s not to say, however, that a small press guarantees a good cover, but your chances are much better. I’m absolutely thrilled with the covers at Champagne. They have extremely talented cover artists who consistently deliver a gorgeous product. For my self-published book, I was incredibly fortunate in knowing a great graphic artist who happens to be a fellow Champagne writer. She did my design for free, and my only cost was securing the rights to a portrait of Lord Byron I wanted to use.

Editing is also incredibly important, as Amanda Hocking will tell you. Although she’s selling books hand over fist, she wrote in a recent blog that one of the main reasons she decided to accept St. Martin’s $2 million contract is so she’d have some decent editors. She’s tired of people “yelling” at her for bad editing. And there’s more to editing than just proofreading for typos. I’d recommend reading a self-editing book for fiction that explains passive voice, showing vs. telling, overuse of adverbs, dialogue tags and how to say more using fewer words. A small press should have a staff of professional editors. Books at Champagne are first edited by a content editor, and then by a line editor. I have learned a lot about editing from them, and incorporated their style when I self-published.

And don’t underestimate the advantage of having someone format your book for you. Different ereaders have different formatting, and I’ve never been so thankful for Champagne than when I went to format my manuscript for the Kindle. I never knew, for example, that you can’t use tabs when starting new paragraphs. They will completely screw up your formatting, and that’s just the beginning. Champagne uploads our ebooks into a multitude of vendors in a variety of formats. There’s also the fact that they provide paperbacks, and that is an expense you will have if you self-publish and want to see your book in print.

A small but nevertheless important benefit to small presses is their sense of community. I’ve become rather attached, not just to the administrative and editorial staff at Champagne, but to my fellow writers. We have a Yahoo loop where we chat with each other on a regular basis, as well as on Facebook. They are amazingly supportive. They follow each other’s interviews, blogs and reviews, they celebrate victories, they answer questions and they are a wealth of advice for marketing. Self-publishing is a lonely venture, and I can’t imagine not having that network of friends.

Now here’s the biggest drawback to using a small press. Most of them have very limited budgets, and simply do not have the resources to do much marketing. The author, therefore, is almost solely responsible for his or her own marketing. And when we’re talking only 35% of the royalties for ebooks (usually 10% for print), well, it gets a little hard to swallow. If you publish on Kindle, you’ll be paid 70% of the royalties, and you’ll be doing the same amount of marketing as you would for a small press. Regardless of which route you choose, if you don’t get your book out there, it won’t sell, period.

The best advantage that self-publishing, especially on Amazon Kindle, has over small presses is that you have almost complete control over your book. You can price it where you want, and as Amanda Hocking has proven, $.99 – $2.99 per download is the magic formula. With a small press, they can’t afford to sell your book for less than $5.00. And if you’re unknown, you can get passed by in favor of something cheaper. Again I’ve only been self-published for a week, so I can’t say if pricing my book at $2.99 versus Champagne’s $5.99 is making much of a difference yet. But I am relishing the control I have over it, and I’ve discovered that I’m kind of anal about formatting. I’ve uploaded a new version onto Amazon about four times, and I still keep finding mistakes. With a small press, the occasional odd spacing or typo is there to stay, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

As far as start-up costs go, it doesn’t get any better than Amazon Kindle. They charge you absolutely nothing to start — they make 30% of royalties — and they have incomparable distribution. You are not required to purchase an ISBN. If you go print, you will have to buy one. They are $125 for one, or $250 for ten. Lightning Source and CreateSpace are the best print options that I have heard of. Lightning Source is slightly more expensive, but they use Ingrams as a distributor, which means Barnes & Noble and Borders will be able to order your book for their shelves. If you use CreateSpace, which is cheaper, you are limited to Amazon as Amazon and CreateSpace are partnered. Smashwords, another ebook publisher, is also free. They will also distribute your ebook onto Barnes & Noble for their NOOK, as well as Sony and Apple. They do require an ISBN, but they have free and extremely cheap ones as long as you identify them as the publisher (free) or distributer ($10). However, their format requirements are slightly different than Amazon’s.

And while some small presses do offer their titles in print, they tend to cost the author a pretty penny, even with a discount, if they want to buy some for book signings or as gifts. For instance, while my titles sell for $15.95 plus shipping for the general public, they still cost me $11 or $12 plus shipping with my discount. If you use Lightning Source or CreateSpace, you’ll be paying much less for your author copies. Then again, you will have also paid them at least $100 to put your book in print in the first place, and considerably more than that if you’ve selected a package that includes editing and/or cover art.

The bottom line? Aside from editing and cover design fees, which aren’t mandatory (but certainly recommended), it’s free to publish on Amazon Kindle, and you’ll be getting a much higher royalty than if you traditionally publish. As far as marketing goes, you have to work your ass off either way, so going with Amazon is going to net you more sales if you price it cheaply. But you have to determine if you have the resources for decent editing and cover art, the perseverance for formatting, and most importantly, that it won’t be a question of pride. If you think your book won’t sell because it’s self-published, then it won’t, and you’d do well to keep knocking on the doors of agents and small presses.

As for me, I’m still keeping my fingers crossed and hoping I did the right thing. I’ll check back with you in about six months or so, when I have a better idea of sales. Hopefully I’ll have something fantastic to report, like my self-published book, because it’s cheaper, sold so well that I now have a legion of fans willing to pay more for my traditionally published books. Or better yet, that my agent landed a deal for one of my other books with Penguin. After all, I think no matter what, that will remain the Holy Grail for us authors.

Title image by CarlChristensen .

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 9.3/10 (23 votes cast)
Small Press vs. Self-Publishing, 9.3 out of 10 based on 23 ratings
Share

26 Comments

  1. Overlord says:

    Absolutely great Ashley, can’t thank you enough for all the insightful information.

    I worry greatly about Self Publishing because I have heard some horror stories. I have heard of people printing thousands of books, paying thousands of pounds for cover art, paying thousands for marketing and putting themselves in a lot of debt.

    Self Publishing can work, but you really have to treat it as a business. Like a new business… no one knows who you are. It is up to you to convince them that they need you. You need to market yourself, you need to approach people and offer your services freely (a read of your book) and trust that your skills will get you recommendations. You need to set the right price (not too cheap, not too high) and generally you need to believe in yourself.

    I think a lot of people self-publishing think that once the book is produced it will sell and sadly it is not quite like that. Self Publishing is not just printing the book instead of a big publisher doing it. If you realise this though and you do your marketing, you do your research and you can reach the right people – you can make some good money and even better have a popular and widely selling book.

    I think you have probably opened a lot of eyes ^_^ (Mine included)

    • Anne Lyle says:

      The “paying out thousands” was certainly true in the bad old days when vanity houses were the only way to self-publish (unless you had the know-how to go direct to a printer). Nowadays, with all the information available on the internet, only a few people continue to get stung this way, thank goodness.

      I second your comment about treating it like a business, though – when self-publishing, _you_ are the publisher. Which means that anything that a normal publisher does, either you have to do (properly!) or it doesn’t get done…

  2. R.T. Kaelin says:

    Great take on this. Pretty much everything I’ve experienced with self-publishing, you’ve covered.

    When I had finished my first novel, I tried the traditional route, had some interest, but agents wanted me to cut a ton. I wasn’t interested. I found a good copyeditor (who had been involved in a previous highly successful indie author venture), and hired her to edit, layout, and proof. Progeny came out in print Dec. 2010, Kindle in Feb. 2011, Nook a little later.

    To me, the BIGGEST drawback (for a new author) is getting the word out. I am author, publisher, marketer…everything. It’s an incredible amount of work, but I love it. Dozens of 5 star reviews later, along with steadily increasing sales (especially on the Kindle) has left me hoping I made the right choice. Heck, next week, I am a featured author at my first convention: Origins in Columbus, OH.

    Anyone thinking about must understand it is a slow-burn process. Quick success for an unknown is an implausible goal. Word of mouth still will be your best friend.

  3. WizardofWestmarch says:

    Couple important notes for those who haven’t researched the self-pubbed game when it comes to epublishing

    1) If you are a USA resident or have a USA tax presence, Nook is just as important to get on. Some people sell better on that platform than on Kindle, especially erotica writers as I understand it. If not, it is still probably worth publishing on smashwords and getting on their premium channels stuff to get on Nook that way.

    2) B&N and Amazon only give 35% royalties (but don’t charge the download fee to you) for books priced under 2.99, which is part of why the 2.99 vs .99 is a hotly debated discussion on some of the indy writer places I hang out, due to requiring 6x as many sales to make the same amount of money, instead of only 3x.

    On the plus side, several authors have managed to get pretty good deals from traditional publishing after self publishing first, Michael J Sullivan being an example in fantasy, so going this route in no way locks a writer into being self-published forever.

    It’s an exciting time, where writers finally have choices other than the bread crumbs the publishing industry will offer us.

    • Good point about the Nook and Smashwords. Smashwords is also free to get started and they’ll get it up on B&N for you. They also have a great formatting manual to follow.

  4. It is very intimidating getting word out, whether you’re traditionally or self-pubbed. But it’s very rewarding too when you start to see it paying off, even just a little bit at a time.

  5. minesril says:

    “Lightning Source is slightly more expensive, but they use Ingrams as a distributor, which means Barnes & Noble and Borders will be able to order your book for their shelves.”

    Not completely true. I think I am right in thinking that Lightning Source is print on demand, which means shops won’t be buying from them for stock, because they won’t be able to return them if they don’t sell. They might order one in specially if a customer asks for it, but otherwise, unlikely.

    • Customers however will be able to order them through Barnes & Noble. My own books through Champagne can’t be ordered through B&N because they don’t distribute through Ingrams. ; )

    • Just wanted to chip in here (although a little late!). I use Lightning Source and their distribution is better than CreateSpace and Lulu (not to mention the print quality, which is superb). Their price-per-book rates are excellent once you’re through the setup. Mine cost $70 to set up ($35 for the cover and $35 for the text block) but then $4.47 per book for 238 pages. Now that I’m an “old hand,” I don’t bother ordering the $30 proof (!) — i just spend the same money on a bunch of copies that I can actually sell.

      Minesril is right that Barnes & Noble won’t just order copies for their shelves. In fact, store owners are unable to. I’ve had long discussions about this with a Barnes & Noble customer relations manager who actually wanted to buy my books for his store but couldn’t. Although customers can order them through B&N, this is a through-sale only; the store can’t buy print-on-demand books for its shelves. Some authors “try it on” by ordering ten copies and then not bothering to come collect them, hoping the store will just shove them on the shelves. It doesn’t work; the books are returned or stored somewhere.

      So, to get around the problem, authors have to send a copy of their book to B&N’s Small Press Department in New York (there’s an application on their website). It takes a while, but eventually they will (hopefully) approve you. Mine were approved, which “green-lit” my books on the store computers, meaning that store owners can order copies in for their shelves. Finally, my books are sitting on the shelf next to J. K. Rowling!!! (…just cuz my name is Robinson.)

      But none of this means that B&N nationwide will order your books. You still have the stigma of being unknown, and there’s no system in place to introduce you to the store and persuade them to give you a try. You have to do it manually, store by store.

      All in all, getting my books into B&N has been almost worthless in terms of sales. But it does make me feel good. I did a book signing there once, and the manager had 20 copies on the table, but I only sold a few. Books signings also seem like a waste of time to me.

      Oh, one final thing. At Lightning Source you get to choose the discount you can offer to bookstores, as well as choose whether or not they’re returnable. The B&N store manager (and everywhere else I’ve read) suggests offering 50% discount to stores, with returnable books — otherwise bookstores in general won’t take the risk of buying them. And if they’re returned, you get to pay the royalties back along with the print costs! :-p

  6. Neal Asher, a very successful science fiction writer, is experimenting with self-publishing on kindle. I think he just wants to see how his sales go because he knows he’ll get to keep way more of the cover price.

    The public pay very little attention to the publisher. What a big publisher does for you is put your book into the hands of many reviewers (who do pay attention to the publisher) and also into many outlets.

    Interesting article – thanks. I don’t know if, given a good book, you have to beat longer odds to succeed through small press or self publishing than to secure an agent and succeed with them. Certainly there’s the potential for a huge amount of promotion work falling on the small press / self published author. I think there are examples of writers succeeding through all of these routes – none of them are easy in general.

  7. Ashley, thanks so much for talking about your experience with a small press. I found it very refreshing to read about a *good* experience with a small press. I’ve heard a lot of horror stories lately, so it’s nice to see that some authors are still enjoying a more traditional publishing experience. I hope that comes across the right way–I don’t mean it to sound backhanded! I guess running in “indie” circles, I just mostly hear horror stories… 🙂

    In any case, I just wanted to add my very brief 2 cents… I decided to self-publish my own work last fall, and I couldn’t be happier with my decision. I’m not making a living yet, but it’s only been six months, and so far, I only have one full novel online. I figure I can only go up from here, right? My experience has been fantastic. I’ve heard mostly very good things about my work, which is a wonderful feeling, and I feel in control of my career, which is a huge thing for someone like me. But, as you mention, it’s a business. I worked as a freelance commercial writer before, so running a business is comfortable and familiar to me.

    Self-publishing is probably not for everyone, but now that I’ve tasted the cookies over here on the dark side, I don’t think I could consider traditional publishing. It sort of gets in your blood…

    Best of luck to you with your upcoming releases!

  8. Thanks for the great info! You have much insight to offer having tried both routes. For me I went with a small press publisher for my first novel last year, and it’s been wonderful. I’d have no idea how to navigate the world of publishing without Omnific’s advice. And I agree with you that the group of authors I’ve met through my publisher have been so supportive and knowledgeable. Just the other day Killian McRae helped me with special formatting of my Microsoft Word document. Technological stuff drives me up a tree and it’s so cool to ask for help from those who aren’t technotards like me. Self-publishing is intriguing but for now I’m staying with Omnific Publishing.

  9. Not to dis anyone’s choices in where they publish, BUT what you said about the big six and new authors is important to remember. Also, the big six only promote their blockbusters. They don’t promote the midlist. In fact the latest contracts say an author won’t get the full advance until a certain amount of promo is done by them.
    So to me the choice is:
    Big Six: advance with conditions and they may not even print enough to earn out your advance.
    Small press: Don’t pay for covers, editing, etc do most of the promo (depends on the small press) and get 30 to 50% of the profits.
    Self-publish: Pay for editing, cover, etc, get 70% of the profits.
    Also adding here, those making the most money, have many books out.
    cmr

    • Amber says:

      Late reply, but midlist authors are promoted. ARCs are one promotional tool, as publishers will send out about 1,000 to insure a few hundred reviews before the book’s publication. Midlist authors also receive reviews in things like Kirkus, which go to librarians who then decide if they want to buy that book for their bookstore. They are also advertise in catalogues, which are geared toward book buyers. A lot of what you tout is a myth. If an author is given a 100,000 dollar deal, they may not receive it all upfront, but they will receive it all, no matter the sales, because a traditional publisher takes ALL the risk, and the author doesn’t. Those contracts you’re touting are red-flat contracts that reputable presses will not do. Otherwise, a literary agent will negotiate those red-flag clauses because once a publisher falls in love with your book, they will do everything possible to get that book, even raising the advance they offered earlier.

      Good small presses do pay for covers, editing, ect. To me, it sounds like you’ve gone with a vanity press under the guise of a small press, meaning they won’t slam the costs at you until you see it in the contract, or you sign that contract and suddenly they start throwing costs at you.

  10. Dennis Young says:

    I’m curious; why do you say iUniverse has given self-publishing a bad name? I’ve published three books with iUniverse, probably soon to be four, with minimal difficulties. Sure, there are issues with getting things done from time to time, but over the last five years I’ve been reasonably pleased with their service. The book quality is excellent, I’ve ben able to speak directly with their technical people where there is a problem with covers, formatting, or other things, and they’ve been prompt on delivery. Also, they run specials on their packages all the time, and for someone on a budget, they’re reasonably priced. Just curious what issues others have had.
    Nice article, by the way.

  11. […] Ashley has also written about Small Press vs. Self-Publishing here. […]

  12. […] of mine did it. Today, while surfing on the Amazon site for an author Ashley Banard mentioned in an article regarding small press vs. self publishing, I discovered that there are some books available through […]

  13. Nice summary! You’ve definitely done your homework.

    Just thought I’d add that CreateSpace does offer distribution to other retailers than Amazon if you pay the $39 Pro Plan fee and enable Extended Distribution. That option gets you into the Ingram catalog. It is my understanding that they even use Lightning Source for fulfillment in some of those cases.

    Also, Lightning Source lets you set the wholesale discount and whether or not you want to allow returns. You can set the discount as low as 20% (i.e. wholesale price is 80% of the retail price). Book stores won’t typically touch self-published books in any case, but even if they could be persuaded, your discount would have to be more like 55% and you would have to allow returns. In my opinion, it’s not worth giving away that much profit for a channel that is rapidly disappearing and probably won’t order your books anyway.

  14. Paul Collins says:

    Out of 42,000 books, my latest book Mack Dunstan’s Inferno and someones else book were selected in a promotion campaign at this link http://www.entertainmentnewsexpress.com/1329388805,iuniverse-publishing-iuniverse-publishing-gives-25-discount-on-all-books.html . I am stunned and amazed. Thought I share the good news with you.
    Paul Collins
    author of
    Mack Dunstan’s Inferno

  15. Benita A Smith says:

    I have a cautionary tail about self publishing that I hope will protect others thinking of using this avenue of publishing. I was contacted by iUniverse Publishing and I was told that it would cost me $700.00 for their least expensive publishing package. I couldn’t pay it in one lump sum so I said I would pay it monthly. My first payment was $270.00. I live on social security and I found that the first month’s payment really cut into my abilty to pay for bills and groceries. Today I asked them for my money back so that I could save up the sum and pay for it all at once at some later time. They told me they would deduct $180.00 from the money that they would give back to me. They havn’t done one iota of work towards publishing my book. In fact they told me that until the full amount of the publishing fee was paid they wouldn’t provide any services for publishing. That means that no contract would be executed until the “consideration was paid. There also was no conract signed between us, but iUniverse still feels that they have the riight to doc me $180.00 out of the $270.00 first installment I paid them towards my publishng fee. This is highway robbery and any potential customers planning on using their services should be aware of their whiley behaviour towards their customers.

    • Sonia says:

      I’ve found this a couple of years later, but great article Ashley. You are absolutely right that readers don’t place as much of an emphasis on publishers as authors do.

      Benita, few of my clients have published via iUniverse. Although none of them have had this type of issue with them, I find them very expensive for the type of work they do. And once your book is published they don’t do much in terms of marketing…unless you want to spend more money with them. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying no one should use them, but a good look at all the costs in comparison with the services received would be recommended.

      If you are still looking to get your book published I can give you some pointers on how you can get the same services that iUniverse would provide at a fraction of the price. Not trying to sell you anything, I promise 🙂 sonia@britoria.com

  16. My feeling is that authors should have their feet in both ponds – aiming for a traditional publishing deal if that’s what they feel they want, but not letting that stop them from building readership with self- and small press-published works. I cut my teeth in the small presses, and learnt a lot about formatting and production as both author and editor. Nowadays, when I decide what sort of advantage a particular method will give me.

    I’ve recently self-published my oldest novels when the rights reverted to me, and it’s been one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had. Yet I also work closely with an author-first collective to direct its short story anthologies and novellas, and occasionally take on authors who either don’t have the time, money or expertise to self-publish. It’s the best of both worlds, I believe, and a win-win situation for both author and editor in this regard.

    What I appreciate about self- and indie-publishing is the amount of creative control with regard to cover art, content and release dates. Not just that but helping realise authors’ vision while not stomping on their creative integrity. Flexibility is key, and as Neil Gaiman said in his 2012 keynote address, it’s about making good art.

  17. Jared says:

    Honestly, it kind of sounds like you’ve had some experiences with crappy small presses. And that’s fair – obviously there are going to be good ones and bad ones, just like everything else.

    I don’t mean to quibble, but this paragraph:

    “The author, therefore, is almost solely responsible for his or her own marketing. And when we’re talking only 35% of the royalties for ebooks (usually 10% for print), well, it gets a little hard to swallow. If you publish on Kindle, you’ll be paid 70% of the royalties, and you’ll be doing the same amount of marketing as you would for a small press. ”

    I’m not wholly sure what you mean by ‘marketing’. A small press won’t be buying ads in TIME for the book (generally), but neither will a self-published author.

    A small press should also have better contacts with reviewers, bloggers, trade, industry, awards, bookshops, etc. So, if you’re talking about “marketing” as in “being active on social media, doing appearances, doing your best to sell your book” – why wouldn’t you do that anyway? Even the largest publishers still ask their authors to “market” themselves in that way, and it is always going to be in your own best interest to sell your own book – at least with someone else on board, you can have some time off!

    I agree with your conclusion though – and I think you’ve nailed the choice. Increased royalties versus handing over the work (including editing, cover art, etc) to someone else. If you’re being ruthless about the numbers – you may get more royalties from self-publishing, but will you sell as many copies as a small press would? And, as to the intangibles, which do you think will give you better opportunities for your long-term career?

    There’s no right answer, and it is wonderful that we now have a publishing landscape with so many options.

  18. Hi Ashley,

    Thank you for this article. I too come from the theatre world, in fact, I worked a contract at Arizona Broadway Theatre just a few years back.

    I was recently approached by a new and small publisher about turning my blog into a book and was wondering what kind of questions I need to be asking and if it would be a worthwhile venture for me.

  19. Hi,

    May I share this article? I’m giving a talk on self-publishing vs traditional publishing at the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference and am writing an article for a kids’ newsletter. I think it would of interest to both these groups. Please let me know as soon as you can. I’ve published with regular traditional publishers, with Book Baby, and with a small e-press. Please check out my site when you have time. This was a great article.

    Thanks.

    Catherine DePino

Leave a Comment