SPFBO 6: Finalist Review Black Stone Heart

Black Stone Heart


A Wind from the Wilderness by Suzannah Rowntree – SPFBO #6 Finals Review

A Wind from the Wilderness

SPFBO #6 Finals Review

Fantasy-Themed Cookbooks

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Multi-Book Review


Will a Small Press add value? 6 things to consider.

Push-BookIf you are a self-published author, there are times where you will feel overwhelmed. Not only do you have to write your book, but you need to arrange for it to be edited, find and direct a cover artist, arrange methods for your manuscript to be printed and/or formatted as an ebook, decide upon how to distribute it, market yourself and your book, create links with bloggers and conventions, manage your accounts, track sales and react to dips or escalations – and that’s just for starters.

This is why the traditional publishing model – where the author writes the book and the renowned publishing house takes care of the rest – is usually the preferred method. Whereas pretty much anyone ‘could’ do everything I listed above, being able to do it in a way that maximises the potential of a book is a real skill and something that comes with experience and a proven methodology. Additionally, a publishing house can use economies of scale to massively reduce costs and use their name/reputation to take multiple shortcuts when it comes to things like getting books in stores or their authors on blog sites or convention panels, etc.

*Note: Keep in mind that even with traditional publishing the growth of social media since 2010(ish) means that authors are expected/encouraged to at least make an effort to interact with their fanbase.

What happens if you aren’t prepared/confident enough to manage the whole publishing process yourself and also can’t find a traditional publishing deal with a notable publishing house or one that suits you and you book? Well, this is where people tend to consider a small press. A small press, generally, is the same as a traditional publishing house, just on a smaller scale. There are plenty of good ones out there: Fox Spirit Books and Jurassic London are two I read work from regularly and hear positive comments about from the authors they work with. At their very best, a small press exists because they see it as their duty to get the unsung books they fall for into as many readers’ hands as possible. They are aware of the competitive nature of publishing and prepared to invest everything they have into each title in order to make sure the magic contained within doesn’t go undiscovered by those who would enjoy it.

nightmare-recruiterAs in any industry there are those who either A) setup to take advantage of others within the industry or B) setup with amicable aims, but fall into a trap of making decisions based on their business’s potential gain versus their passion and beliefs (this is FAR more common).

Now, it would be foolish for any of us to condemn a business for making a profit. Without profit no business could survive. However, if you are starting a small press the chance you are doing it to make a hefty income (or even an income you can live on) is going to be pretty small. Almost certainly you start a small press because you’ve a passion for books and you want to help connect readers and writers.

A few months ago, I witnessed some rather concerning actions by a small press that I had thought showed some real potential during its early days. Following a window of open submissions, I was getting regular messages from friends saying they were really excited because they’d been offered a contract by said small press. The first message came in and I was delighted for my friend, the second came and I thought it was very cool I knew two people to benefit from this open submission period. By the time the third, fourth and fifth came in over a very short period of time, I began to worry. It turned out that all five of my friends who had submitted, had been offered a contract*.

*I won’t go into too much detail on this, as I feel you will hear about it through other channels soon enough, but only one of my friends signed with the small press and the one person who I knew who had previously signed with them (before the open submission window) has just negotiated his way out of his contract – due to a lack of support and numerous production and marketing mistakes. He is currently fighting to get money owed to him. It is also important to note that, despite all of this, he still thinks the owner is a good guy, just in over his head.

The small press model, in order to work, requires the company (usually just a few individuals) to put everything they have behind each book. They should be so overwhelmingly impressed and entranced by a book that they feel compelled to make sure it gets the perfect edit, the most amazing cover and a flawless marketing campaign – all of which will give it the best possible chance of reaching readers. In essence, a small press needs to add value that you – the author – could not add yourself or that would weigh you down to the extent it would affect your future writing. Following are 6 things I would recommend every author considers before submitting to a small press. Especially before signing any kind of contract:

6. Marketing Knowledge & Reach

Lots of authors are naturals at marketing themselves. However, there are some people that don’t do blogging, don’t do Facebook, don’t do Twitter, or anything similar. They may not even use the Internet on a regular basis. In 2016, you are going to truly struggle to succeed as an author, even if you are traditionally published, if you don’t have an online presence. All that said, even if you are confident with your marketing, the small press should be maximising your potential through their channels too. What kind of website do they have? Are their authors appearing on popular SFF blogs? Does the small press have a good social media following? Are they being dynamic with their marketing – i.e. producing videos, interviews, etc? Are their other authors going to retweet/share your content? Where a small press makes perfect sense, in my view, is when they setup to serve a particular niche genre. In this case, when a writer who has produced work within this particular genre is signed and their book is released, a sizeable number of customers who are aware of the press are there just waiting to buy it.

5. Potential Earnings

Money is probably not at the top of the list for those of you considering a small press as their way to becoming a published author. A small press is rarely going to offer you a significant advance, but they should offer you a fair deal on your royalties. Take time, do the math. What percentage of each book sale will go to you? How many copies does the small press intend to sell? What does it mean for potential sequels should the book not sell that many? And so on. A vitally important thing to know is: YOU SHOULD NOT PAY ANY MONEY TO THE PRESS. Vanity presses ask writers to ‘invest’ money for initial print runs. This takes all the risk away from them and puts all the risk on you. Think about it for a moment: if a press doesn’t have any risk, how hard are they going to fight to make your book a success? The answer: not very. In fact, many vanity press setups have made a profit from YOU the writer by the time they print your books…

4. Reputation & Connections

There are some small presses that I’m proud to be connected to. I know the founders of Fox Spirit Books and Jurassic London, for example. These small presses are consistently nominated for awards and, should you have a short story or novella or novel published through them, you are only going to enhance your reputation as an author. Conversely, if you end up working with a small press that gets a reputation for being completely unprofessional and putting out awful material, you are risking tarnishing yourself through their failings. It is also worth considering that a good small press tends to operate as a really tight operation where passion and enthusiasm is the glue holding the publishers and authors together. Being involved with a small press can open lots of doors for you – invitations to networking events, signing events, people to bounce ideas off, beta-readers, an offer for short story submissions to anthologies and so on.

3. Ability / Capability

Does the small press have the ability/capability to do something you can’t do? If they don’t, why are you signing with them? Maybe you don’t have time or, even, you are too lazy… it doesn’t matter: they need to be able to do everything it will take to get your book to market. No one can edit their own work. Do they have a professional Editor? If not, who do they freelance their editing work to? Do they have an in-house cover designer? No? OK. Who is designing your cover then? Can they get books into places you cannot (bookshops or digital stores)?

Just because someone loves books, has a passion and desire to get books out in the open doesn’t mean they have the ability to do so. I’d love to be a lawyer and defend those who have been wronged by large corporations. However, chuck me in a courtroom and I’d be eaten alive due to a lack of knowledge and experience. Rather than help, I’d probably make the case worse through my incompetence. The worst small presses are making books worse, not better.

2. Quality / Timeliness

When a small press starts up, very rarely do they do so with the aim to screw over authors. What tends to happen is that they start up wanting to get books out there and help authors connect with readers (we’ve covered this, I know). The profit on each title is minimal and so they come up with one of two ideas:

1. We need to sign more authors and sell more books.
2. We need to cut costs.

Both of these ‘answers’ are the beginning of the end for a small press. Go with number 1 and they end up being unable to put their weight behind each title. Their relationship with each author gets thinner and the amount of time they can spend making sure each book is setup for the best possible chance of success, followed by support it needs once it’s released, reduces dramatically. Choose number 2 and shortcuts are taken. The freelance editing, the cover designer, and the marketing gets dropped or cheaper freelancers are chosen. The result is the same for both 1 and 2: minimal quality or massive delays. If this continue for too long the small press gets a bad reputation, they get condemned on forums, in Writers Beware-type blogs and quickly their income dries up as readers swerve away from their titles.

The answer, instead, should be the opposite to each of these:
1. We need to re-think who we are signing.
2. We need to invest more heavily in making each title a success.

If you are considering signing with a small press do check how many people are in their employment. Check out their covers (all of them!). Buy two or three of their books and check the editing (it’s worth the investment!). If you find that they’ve got 30 authors with 20 books being published that year, and yet they’ve only 2 members of staff you should be very concerned – especially if they are doing this part-time!

As a side note: if you are with a small press and things have been going well then suddenly, you see 5 or 10 authors snapped up in a short space of time, don’t be afraid to ask how this affects you. Are they hiring more staff to accommodate these authors? Making enough income to hire a few freelancers? Don’t be blind as to what is happening around you. Your work should not become a number.

1. Passion

I’ve put passion as number 1 because I don’t believe 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6 will come should the founding member, and those from the press you deal with, not have this quality for both SFF and your work.

Probably the most concerning story I’ve heard when it comes to small press was an author-friend who submitted a manuscript to a small press and got an enthusiastic offer within a few days. The person was dubious because of the number of other people who were also being offered contracts and the speed at which he’d received his contract – it suggested to him that extensive thought and discussion probably hadn’t gone into the offer. So, he made up a character who wasn’t in the book and asked if the small press thought he should cut him out of the book. The person who offered him the contract from the small press replied and said that he really liked the character, but the assigned Editor would advise him on it at the editing stage. I know… it sounds like crap, a made up story, but I’m assured it is true. The point is: you don’t want to be offered a contract as the first reply following a submission. At least, not on its own. Instead, you want to hear about the small press’s vision for your work. Why do they like you novel? How are they going to make sure as many readers as possible get to enjoy your story? What are they going to offer you and what will they do that you can’t do alone?

If the small press offering you a contract isn’t as excited about your book as you are then I feel you might be better off self-publishing. At the end of the day, a finished product is only ever going to be as good as your best possible vision for it, right? If the small press doesn’t truly believe your book can make it then they won’t pour everything they have into it and that’s pretty concerning.

writer-2On the surface of things, signing away a book to a bad small press that earned a rejection letter from a notable agent, a more reputable small press or self publishing it yourself isn’t harming anyone, right? Well, I’m not so sure. For perspective, read this blog post by Brandon Sanderson who wrote 10+ books before he got one published and consider what would have happened if he’d signed with the wrong small press when he felt he was books were “good – very good”. We’d certainly never have gotten the Mistborn series, perhaps we’d never have heard of him.

If you are too desperate to get your book onto shelves and into readers’ hands then you are setting yourself up to make emotional decisions as opposed to calculated ones. I genuinely believe that making bad decisions early on in your writing career can stunt your growth and development as an author. Any decision you make should be based on discussion, research and statistics with the understanding that writing is a marathon and not a sprint. Rushing into publishing through the wrong small press will only prolong (and potentially stop) you improving as a writer; robbing you of a chance to reflect on your work and improve based on those reflections. In extreme cases authors find their morale and inclination killed following a bad experience.

So, when considering a small press always ask yourself: what value is this small press going to add to me and my work and be honest with your answer.



  1. Avatar Matt Willis says:

    Great piece. I think the one thing I would add is that joining the Society of Authors and having them look over ANY contract you are offered is easily worth the money. I know a number of people who signed with a small press that’s now having all kinds of problems, and I fear it will cost far more than the price of SoA membership to get their rights back, even though the publisher has apparently breached the contract. Even when small presses do play with a straight bat, and most do, it’s no longer enough for them to offer only the things that most self-publishing platforms provide together with the slight additional cachet of being ‘professionally’ published. I would be looking for things like whether they submit books for awards, great cover art, whether they have a good social media presence, as well as the obvious things like sales figures, marketing muscle and reputation.

  2. Really good article, Marc. Some fantastic points for authors to consider to ensure they are protected. There are two more points that are worth talking about from the publisher perspective–whether or not it’s worth discussing here or elsewhere, I don’t know.

    Financially Overreaching
    I think too many small publishers, while having plenty of #1–which is incredibly important–don’t have enough money to back themselves up the second they aren’t as successful as they wish they were.
    When I started GdM, I budgeted the entire cost of the magazine into my personal income (admittedly I under-budgeted by a bit), under the assumption I would never sell a single issue. I set myself a limit on how much money I would spend all up and committed to calling it a day if I was to breach that amount. I figured it was kind of like the cost of a hobby–you know chances are you won’t make money off of it, but you pay for it anyway because you love it.
    I admit that by purchasing short stories outright without having to pay an on-going royalty makes our business model different to the publisher referred to in the article, but I think the principal should remain the same.

    As a publisher, you obsess over being professional. But, at the same time, you often have job, a partner, friends, illness, kids, births, deaths, other interests, etc, etc, and no backup if you’re not there. The emails build up, the queue of people waiting on you grows and grows, and then all of a sudden, you’re under a mountain of work you don’t know how to whittle back down to a hill. When it starts to feel like a day-job stampeding over your evenings, nights and weekends and the weight of work kills off your passion, it’s difficult to get back in to it and there can be a want to just walk away. I’ve not been there yet, but I’ve been on the way a couple of times in two years.
    Again, I admit the difference is that if my magazine shuts down, GdM shows up on a list on someone’s blog as another failed ezine (or maybe a Reddit thread if we’re lucky) and that’s the end of it without having to maintain royalty payments, etc for the life of a contract.

    Anyhow, worth a chat I thought.

  3. […] Aplin wrote an article last week exploring the question, will a small press add value? In the case of Bald New World, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Did I know that going into it? […]

  4. […] didn’t work out, and for a number of reasons really. Marc has already done a piece on here about small presses adding value and I think it hits the nail on the […]

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