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.