by Will Viharo
It’s the dream of most writers to have their work widely read, respected, and appreciated. Though this goal is common, the pathway to its achievement varies from individual to individual.
Most readers nowadays don’t seem to care as much as the authors themselves whether a book is published by a small press, a traditional house, or by the writer him/herself.
So is it pitching your book to a small press even worth the bother? Or is it more practical to just do it all yourself?
The answer, as usual, is not that simple…
Increasingly, self-publishing has become either the first choice or last resort of both aspiring and professional authors. However, many prefer the validation of having their work published by someone else, even a small press, due to the stigma still associated with DIY publishing. And since many indie writers are creating work that is outside the boundaries of mainstream acceptance, small presses might be willing to take chances the larger houses will not.
But is this distinction between self-publishing and small presses worth anything more than personal validation?
The short answer: not really.
Walk The Fine Line
From a practical viewpoint, speaking as someone who has self-published and now is exclusively a small press writer, there really isn’t as much difference as some may like to believe.
For one thing, in both cases, self-promotion via your own social media platforms is a must. Most small presses don’t have the budgets that bigger publishing houses boast, and these days, even the larger presses won’t invest in authors that aren’t already bestsellers, which is a frustrating “catch-22,” and most won’t take risks on new writers at all.
This fact is exactly what inspired the self-publishing revolution, and now traditional publishers are feeling the pinch for a change, as authors across the spectrum circumvent the “middle man” and can sell their work directly to the readers, raking in all the profits for themselves.
Providing there are profits, or course. Therein lies the proverbial rub.
Attack of the POD People
One of the biggest challenges facing indie authors is getting noticed. The best way to raise your reputation amongst audiences unfamiliar with your name and work is to get reviewed outside of customer comments on Amazon, even though organic word of mouth is ultimately the most cost effective method of publicity ever invented.
However, many literary journals, both low and high profile, print or online, will simply not review self-published authors, though a few sites will charge a fee for the “service.” Many will review books published by small presses, however.
More over, many brick and mortar bookstores, whether chains or indies, won’t stock either self-published or small press books. Why would an industry complaining that the Internet is killing their business thumb their noses at lower tier publishers and authors likewise struggling to survive in this tumultuous marketplace?
Simple: profit margins. The majority of indie authors and small presses publish via CreateSpace on Amazon. Other than the fact most bookstore owners resent Amazon’s “hostile takeover” of the market via cut-rates and convenience, the fact is only Amazon really profits from bookstore sales once the tiny pie is divvied up between the three parties.
Plus, since most indie books are POD (print on demand), the bookstores will be stuck with any copies they buy for stock, whereas traditional distributors will buy back all unsold copies.
Basically, bookstores won’t stock POD books because they’re simply not cost effective. It’s always all about the bottom line, regardless of the store’s sincere spiritual support of all writers.
One alternative is consignment, meaning the author provides the books at his or her own expense, but once you factor in both wholesale costs and shipping fees, which all comes out of your pocket, there won’t be much left for you once the bookstore takes its cut. Mostly, you'll earn public boasting rights via your Facebook photos of your lonesome book sitting on an actual bookstore shelf – most probably in the relatively obscure “local interest” section, as opposed to the big table of new releases next to all the big shots. Yes, you'll be at the "kiddie's table." But at least you'll be at the banquet.
Likewise, most (but not all) bookstores won’t allow public reading events by either self-published or small press authors, though some indie stores might, so it’s recommended you at least feel out your neighborhood establishment. Sometimes the fact that you’re a local resident will be a deal maker, as long as you can deliver on your promise to do your own networking to get butts in those seats once you’re up at the podium.
The biggest resource for bookstore buyers is Ingram. Self-published authors will not be able to get their books listed with them, but small presses almost always do. Lighting Source is a publishing/distribution subsidiary of Ingram, and an option to Amazon’s services, even if you publish via CreateSpace.
I’ve heard that Lightning Source will offer to buy back your unsold books, unlike Amazon, making them a more viable option for some bookstores. I’ve also heard this is not true, and I can’t seem to get either rumor verified. You’d do well to simply inquire at your local bookseller.
Basically, unless the small press contracts with an official distributor, it will be virtually impossible to get your book in stores or even libraries. But increasingly, small presses are eschewing distribution services for the same reason many authors circumvent traditional publishers: their cut makes the whole deal virtually worthless.
Read Between the Bottom Lines
So given this sad state of affairs, why even bother to endure the possible humiliation of rejection by a small press – most of which are severely overworked, under-staffed and can’t offer more than their brand logo to distinguish your book from a “selfie”?
Like I always say, it depends on your agenda.
As stated previously, despite claims to the contrary, and even though the paradigm is slowly shifting, there remains a stigma attached to self-publishing, at least within the literary community. But even out it in the world, if you’re at a party and you introduce yourself as a writer, inevitably you’ll be asked potentially embarrassing questions like “who publishes you” and “where can I buy your books”?
If you admit you published your own books, as common as that is these days, a politely congratulatory but unimpressed response is most likely. But if you say I’m published by such-and-such publisher, even if it’s one nobody in the room has even heard of, you’re much more likely to generate an enthusiastic expression of approval.
It’s all a matter of perception and “prestige.”
From the public’s point of view, getting published by an actual publisher – even if it’s really just a single person with a computer in a small, messy room, like you - is generally more impressive than self-publishing, even if essentially there isn’t much difference in terms of tools, process, and limitations. In either case, your work will probably only be available online.
Overall, given the incredible amount of small presses operating nowadays - most run by actual indie authors, some being “collectives” that were initially founded simply to publish and promote their own work, but now accept others - I would definitely give this option a shot.
Another attractive advantage of (some) small presses is the inclusion of free editorial services as part of the contract. It’s always good to have others objectively and carefully scanning your work to catch typos and grammatical errors.
But then you could always ask your eagle-eyed friends to do you that simple favor, too. Maybe in exchange for actual credit in the book's acknowledgements.
Plus, frankly speaking, if you decide to upload your own Kindle book, you won’t have to wait for anyone else’s approval of the content or interior design, finalization of the cover art (which many authors provide themselves anyway), or arrange your life around the schedule of strangers. Plus you keep all the profits.
Best way to find out what’s best for you? Try each way. Just don’t expect the gap between the experiences to be all that wide. Which also makes it that much easier to straddle both simultaneously.
Ultimately, as an indie author, the only limits holding you back are the ones you impose on yourself.
Have you tried self-publishing and contracting with a small press, and do you have a preference or even feel any difference?
PHOTO: MICHAEL MCCULLOUGH