Mark Terry

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Independent Publishers

August 28, 2008
Zoe left me a comment on the bestseller blog post from the other day and I started answering and realized it would make a decent blog post in itself, so here goes:

I'm not sure I would say I'm not a fan of the "indie" way in that my first novel, Dirty Deeds, was published by a small independent press, formerly High Country, now called, I believe, Ingalls Publishing.

In fact, for a year or two I reviewed books for ForeWord Magazine, which is essentially Publishers Weekly aimed at the independent publishing market.

I can't always define "independent press." I someone ironically defined it as not being owned by Bertelsmann, Disney, or Rupert Murdoch. By that definition, I believe Kensington is an "independent press" although by all other definitions Kensington is no more independent than Bantam (part of Random, which is owned by Bertelsmann, which is a Germany-based publishing conglomerate with publishing houses all over the world).

In fact, I think independent publishers are great. Here's my problem with them:

They have no money.
Typically they have poor distribution, ie., they can't get your books into bookstores.
They're understaffed, which means they're slow.

Let's take each one at a time and I'll provide my opinions and experiences. Your mileage may vary.

They have no money.
I gave a talk to some would-be writers several years ago and asked them what a publisher was. Then I gave them probably the only definition of a publisher that anyone needs:

A publisher is someone with money that wants to publish something.

Bantam, for instance, is a publishing house and they have a lot of money. I don't know who's running Bantam these days, but they're part of Random, Inc., which is owned by Bertelsmann. The point being, anyway, that someone up the line has a few billion dollars rattling around in their vaults and they decided they wanted to turn their few billion dollars (or marks or euros, as the case may be) into, hopefully, several billion dollars. (Versus the old joke, How do you make a small fortune in publishing? Start with a large fortune.)

Unfortunately, a lot of indie publishers are underfunded. It's a labor of love and they thought it would be nifty to publish books because they love books and they're enamored with the idea of being a publisher and by golly, maybe they'll even make a ton of money doing it. (In which case, don't try to publish fiction, for God sakes!). So they typically don't pay an advance, or if they do, it's very small because all their money is going into production, and they probably can't afford a really great cover artist so they hire their niece or they use clipart, and then they really can't afford to warehouse your spare books so they use their garage or they try to get you to warehouse them and sell them out of the back of your car on consignment. And then they discover that any ads, mailings, etc. are expensive and what they assumed was a business with very low overhead starts to look like any other business with hidden costs and advanced reading copies are pricey and most aren't reviewed anyway, and a booth at the Book Expo of America costs thousands of dollars and the freelance copyeditor they did (or did not) hire wants more money (or some) and...

Actually, the publishers of Dirty Deeds weren't too bad about this (except for maybe the cover art). They did not pay advances, however and they did encourage me (it wasn't required) to take some copies and hand-sell them on consignment. (I did, 500, and I sold about half until this year I gave up and donated them to an outfit that sends books to troops overseas).

But before Dirty Deeds I had a novel called Blood Secrets, which was picked up to be published by Write Way Publishing, a small publisher out of  Colorado. They were gaining a reputation, they published in hardcover, they had some award nominations, she flipped for real money for classy cover art by one of the top book cover artists and then...

Well, she overextended, made some strategic mistakes, found herself with $100,000+ in returns and declared bankruptcy. Luckily for me (I think), before Blood Secrets was published, so she just released the rights to me. For other authors, she was unwilling to release the rights because she was hoping to squeeze every penny out of any potential movie or paperback sales in order to get out from under the creditors. I believe the remaining writers eventually sued her, but I don't have details other than a general dissatisfaction for everybody.

They have poor distribution.
In the U.S., bookstores and libraries essentially get their books from two places: Ingram and Baker & Taylor. Ingram mostly handles books for bookstores, B&T mostly for libraries. If you're an indie and you want to get your books distributed by them, you gotta pay and you gotta apply but mostly, remember, Ingram and B&T make their money through volume, so they're not all that excited when a small press applies that's only publishing 5 or 6 books a year and selling 1000 copies.

There are other distributors and it's something of a growing area and the number of small presses appears to be tipping the hands of Ingram and B&T, but distribution is a huge freakin' problem for indies. Dirty Deeds was distributed primarily, I think, by Biblio. Last summer I did a library talk and the bookseller who was selling books there couldn't get copies of Dirty Deeds, so as a result, there weren't any there to be sold. Welcome to distribution issues. (Years back I read a column by a writer who'd had his first book published by Penguin and he asked them at the time why his book wasn't in grocery stores or airports and they told him Penguin books were only at bookstores. As he put it, if you want a Penguin, go to a bookstore or Antarctica.)

Midnight Ink, at least on the surface, seemed to be okay with distribution. Their parent company, Llewellyn, is something like the world's 2nd or 1st largest publisher of new age and tarot books and although booksellers I talked to never heard of Midnight Ink, they almost all heard of Llewellyn. (This pointed as well to a certain branding issue, but that's beyond this post). Still, my books didn't always end up in the bookstores, even when I was notifying them locally, etc. That has something to do with sales, reviews, etc.. Bookstores are funny. If you're a Borders or B&N, et al., and the first book sells, say, 4 copies that they optimistically ordered, they don't seem to say, "Oh, he sold all 4, let's order more." They sit. Then the next book comes out and they look at the computer record and see the last book sold 4 copies, so they order... 3. Or 2. Unless you're a monster success or have been frontlisted on a major publishers catalogue. It's a particularly dispiriting way that booksellers' computer systems have been set up to kill writer's careers and actually sell fewer books, but again, let's not go there today.

Welcome to publishing.

They're understaffed, which means they're slow.
High Country, the folks that published Dirty Deeds, consisted of the Ingalls, one editor and an office manager and a part-time marketing guy.

Typically what happens these days is that once writers and aspiring writers discover there's an indie publisher who accepts unagented manuscripts, they swarm them. And suddenly the (one) editor receives 300 manuscripts a week.

Now, one of the best small presses around is Poison Pen Press, run by Barbara Peters (owner of the Poison Pen Bookstore in, I think it's Phoenix, AZ, although it might be Scottsdale) and her husband Robert (Rosenwald?), who is a businessman. Things may have changed a bit in recent years, but 4 or 5 years ago here's how PPP worked. You sent in a partial, it was sent to a cadre of pre-editors who then took months and months to read the manuscript and/or told you to get lost or to read the full. Then more months passed. Then, if a majority approved it, they send it on to Barbara, who spends months and months reading it before, in my case, rejecting it. In my case, twice, I believe, the entire process took 13 to 15 months. Also, this is a personal take, but one that's sort of a core of truth at most of publishing:

In both cases the pre-editors loved--and I really mean loved; the coordinator, a guy with the unlikely name of Monty Montee, told me he'd never seen a manuscript that received such universal nods and thumbs-ups from the review board--the manuscript, which then went to Barbara who turned it down.

Well, it's her company, she can do what she wants, right?

Compare this to dealing with the big houses via an agent, response time is typically 2 to 4 weeks, with 4 weeks being the most common timeframe. (4 weeks or never, I say somewhat ruefully).

And I never quite know what to make of a small press that demands you not send your manuscript to someone else while they consider it, then take a year to get around to reading it. They argue they don't want to waste their time... but apparently it's okay if the writer does.

Oh well.

So, am I opposed to small presses? No. I'm grateful to them. But at this point in my career, they're not the way to go for a variety of reasons I won't go into here. If your goal is primarily to get published, I think indies are awesome. Are they easier to break into? I used to think so, but I'm not sure that's really true any more. Too many good writers, a lot of them who fell off the big publisher wagon and are looking for a place to land.

If you have bills to pay and are trying to make a living writing (like, say, me), then indies can be a problem.

My suspicion is that we're going to see more and more indies (because the technology and the Internet makes it easy, or at least relatively easier), partly because the big publishing houses don't make enough money to warrant publishing books that sell fewer than 5000 copies (which is most of them). So they're going to publish blockbusters they can make millions off and leave everything else to the indies. And if the indies start making money or have a blockbuster...

The big publishing houses will buy them or throw lots of money at the writer to entice them away.

Mark Terry


Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I agree that it isn't right for publishers and agents to insist on writers refraining from simultaneous submissions, given the time it takes for evaluation and the tiny chance of acceptance. The best advice I read about this was the author who said to just ignore the requirement. And what if two publishers or agents accepted a book at the same time? Well, he said, you should be so lucky!

As for indie/small presses, I'm a big fan of them, since it is pretty obvious that I would never have had a book published if not for Poisoned Pen. Although I didn't realize it when Mary and I began writing books, I can see now that the sort of thing we like really has little chance with big publishers because nothing we like to write has mass appeal. (I enjoy reading many things that have mass appeal but they are not the sorts of things I feel qualified to write)

If you want to make a living writing fiction I don't think you can do so with indie publishers. They can only get so many books into stores. But if you want to have the chance to get your work out to a few thousand readers and get a nice royalty check occasionally, indies can be terrific.

Poisoned Pen also follows up hardbacks with trade paperbacks which they keep in print indefinitely, so if you have a series, readers can always read all the books. People still buy One For Sorrow which came out in 1999.

PPP have their books distributed by both Ingrams and Baker and Taylor (and manage a good number of library sales). They also have some sales people to place books in stores and an agent who works on foreign sales and movie rights, although, of course, in those cases they get their cut.

However, from what I've seen I wouldn't look on indies as a step toward getting published by a large publisher. The percentage of PPP authors who have been picked up by large publishers is very very small and I suspect an author writing books suitable for large publishers might have a better chance of submitting directly to them until something sells rather than trying to star off selling to an indie. Indies and the biggies seem to occupy pretty much different universes.

7:30 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Hi Mark:
Having freelanced as a developmental editor for several indies, you are right on the money. In one case, the money spent probably came close to a million dollars and still wasn't enough . . .

I know when my next book comes out, I will get 20-40 emails from friends who will spot it at Hudson News bookstores all over the U.S.--face out--in airports. I'll hear from friends who will buy it in Costco, or will go into a bookstore in Manhattan and lo and behold it will be on the front table. It will have a fighting chance by being there . . . indies simply can't do that, so their battle is always an uphill one. I am rarely so motivated after hearing about a book to place an order for it (unless on Amazon which has semi-instant gratification). On the other hand, I comb bookstores reading back covers, and looking at the new releases.


7:43 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

"The big publishing houses will buy them or throw lots of money at the writer to entice them away."

That's very true, I bet! It would be sad, but true.

For the moment, I'm grateful where I am. I get magazine pay, granted small magazine pay that I pocket, but that I never have to earn out. It's all mine (I'm obsessed with this fact, aren't I?), and then when it's time for royalties, I earn with the very first sale.

I like it. I could eke out a living (a friend did), if I cut my living expenses and marketed more. If I opened my own site I could probably do it full-time. I'm lazy in that department, there's really no other word for it. I don't know what else to say. Plus, if you go that route, you totally don't have time to write.

That path just doesn't feel right to me. I just can't seem to find the path that DOES feel right. I'm ready to go all gung-ho, but... I don't know. Do I sound silly, LOL? I do. Oh well.

7:48 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I didn't touch on using small presses as a stepping stone to career with major publishers (wasn't the post long enough as it was--sheesh?), but I agree with you. In most cases I don't think it is. There are always exceptions, but as a whole I just don't think the majority of small presses are on the radar of larger publishers unless the books really take off in a way they don't usually.

Good point, another one I didn't touch one, for fear of being pilloried, perhaps. I buy a lot of books. Most are NOT from indies. For that matter, few are in trade paperback format either.

I'm very cautious about making that jump from writer to publisher, no matter what the format. And yes, I've considered it (although not for fiction). In my respective nonfiction areas I can see a couple different areas that really, really, really need a good newsletter focused on them. And I've thought about it. But I'm also aware that when you become a publisher instead of the writer you start to really deal with marketing and sales and distribution and advertising and I don't necessarily think that's a good idea for me. Possibly the way for me to do it would be if my wife took on all business things and I handled editorial and writing. She'd probably be very good at that, but I'm not sure she's interested, and it would be a gamble anyway.

8:04 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

TOTALLY, Mark. The two people who I write for did just that, and guess what? They NEVER write anymore. At all. Not in years.

I want to make my writing better, which means I want time to read a ton and write as much as possible. I do want to make money, too, of course. But there's nothing in me that aspires to be a good publisher. I do think DH would be thrilled to do all the business stuff, though. I don't know. Maybe I should think on it.

8:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

THANK YOU for this interesting and thoughtful post. After my agent and I parted ways when my book didn't sell, I decided not to approach the indy/smaller presses. I think this bemuses some of my writer friends, who are taking that route. (And then I wonder if I'm being a snob or something. But I know authors with smaller presses who've had to fight to get their books out there, and that concerns me.)

I would probably feel differently if I'd started with a big house, got dropped, then found a smaller press who was willing to pick up my series because I would already have a fan base.

I didn't touch on using small presses as a stepping stone to career with major publishers (wasn't the post long enough as it was--sheesh?), but I agree with you. In most cases I don't think it is.

I hear this all the time: "It's a stepping stone." But I've always wondered if this was true. During an online SinC discussion with an agent from Folio Lit, she said she thought it was a gamble. Her take: Unfortunately, editors and bookstores will see a low sales number but won't necessarily take into account that a smaller press equates to smaller print runs. Sounds very narrow-sighted but if that's the reality, it's good to be aware of these issues.

1:17 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I think it's entirely possible that publishers--and probably even more importantly, bookstores--will look at your publishing numbers (via Nielsen Bookscan et al) and say:

Book #1 (big house): 30,000
Book #2 (big house): 31,000
Book #3 (big house): 31,500
Book #4 (small house): 4,000

and say, "Why bother, he/she is obviously on the way down."

As for 30,000.... I wish.

1:50 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Compare this to dealing with the big houses via an agent, response time is typically 2 to 4 weeks, with 4 weeks being the most common timeframe.

In my experience, submitting to the bigs through an agent also takes several months to get a response. I'm not advocating the indie route, just saying...publishing moves at a snail's pace, no matter who you submit to.

2:38 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I agree with the snail's pace. But, my experience via agented materials is 4 weeks.

3:25 PM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

Wow, Mark. This is such a well thought out post, thanks so much for devoting a post to this! :)

Now you know why I have no interest in a small publisher (that isn't me.) And I'm not yet ready to play in the big kid pool (new york), and not sure that I ever want that pressure.

So that leaves Indie, in the sense of author=publisher.

You make some very good points and I don't think I can address them all without writing you a novel.

First, I am a crazy person. Absolutely insane, so I'm publishing fiction. Though I am trying to go through little vetting processes and test marketing procedures to help up my odds that what I am putting out is actually not crap. And that I'm not just deluded into thinking I can write.

Yes, it's true. I have no money. (well I will have some, but you know what i mean. I have no money in the sense that all indies have no money lol) Though I've found a very affordable and (I think) talented cover and interior layout artist, who does this professionally.

Yes, I am on a shoestring. And I love that joke about making a small fortune in publishing. :P

As for distribution, I'll be using print on demand technology, but not I'll be setting up my own imprint and going through Lightning Source (which works with publishers. Small pubs as well as larger pubs who use the technology for their backlist. And yes, they work with author/publishers as long as the author/publisher has their own actual business set up and ISBN's etc.)

Using LSI gets me the right to get into Baker and Taylor and Ingram on what's called a "short discount." This makes my life MUCH easier. IF someone goes to a bookstore or library and requests my book and bookstore or library wants to order, I'm in the distribution system so they can.

I may use LSI for my sales, but I may use CreateSpace there, if the quality is close to LSI quality. Because I'll take home more per book profit and I'm always listed "in stock" on amazon.

All my marketing will be very grassroots. I'll be doing free ebooks and podcasts. I'll be focusing most of my sales online, and possibly a few niche markets (still working out the details for that initial marketing plan.)

Chain bookstores only capture 32% of market share now (defined as "where people buy most of their books" 76% of people buy SOME of their books noted by a Zogby poll)

By contrast, online stores such as capture 43% of market share now (defined the same way, and 77% of people buy SOME of their books there.)

In the grand scheme, whether or not I can get on bookstore shelves is irrelevant since there are other markets I can more easily reach without returns, and without cutting too much into profit margins per book sale.

Can I do this and succeed on any level? Can I fight Goliath? Who the hell knows, but it will be fun to try. I'm very risk tolerant for these sorts of things.

Now my "Big Goal" is to sell 10,000 copies in a calendar year (yeah I know insane but I'm aiming high. If I can accomplish it, I'm making more than a teacher's salary before subsidiary and foreign rights, if i can sell them)

My more realistic goal is to break even so I can subsidize the cost of the second book.

Either success though depends on being able to write and package a good book that people will want, and being able to successfully market.

6:19 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Good luck.

Please actively discuss publishing numbers with published authors (self-published or otherwise) for first novels. At least if you have to decide on a print run. Your 10,000 number is very ambitious.

7:42 PM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

Hey Mark, thanks!

Since I'll be using print on demand technology I won't "have" a print run, which lowers my up front risk considerably. Yes, there are economies of scale involved, but due to the way the whole print on demand system (as a technology, not as vanity publishers) operates, you have no warehousing issues, or fulfillment issues (at least if you go with someone like LSI) I also don't have to worry about paying shipping for any books sold directly into distribution (i.e. books not sold directly to me. Anything I buy myself would be in very short runs and sold off my website.)

It is crazy ambitious but I'm a firm believer that if your goals are low, your success is even lower. I may fail, but I do myself no favors by setting the bar too low.

8:10 PM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

Oh, and one other thing...if my big goal is 10,000 copies, and I end up selling 1,000 in a calendar year, in the sense of the big goal, I've failed in terms of those specific parameters, but that's still 1,000 copies sold and it's a small success still that I can build on. And I've also fully funded my next book with a little bit to spare.

If I can't sell 1,000 copies of the title in a year I'm doing something seriously wrong, either from a writing/packaging perspective, or from a marketing perspective and I'll have to work some kinks out.

8:13 PM  
Blogger Stephen Parrish said...

Thanks, as always, for the insight. Posts like these are worth their weight in gold. (They don't weigh anything actually, but humor me.)

8:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I know its more than a year after the August 2008 blog, but I wanted to let you know if you don't already know it, Monty Montee is no longer with Poisoned Pen Press.

Thank you,

Lori A. Mathews

12:43 PM  

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