Small Is the New Big

Starting back in mid-October, I decided to self-publish my fantasy epic and a couple of other books as well. Two months later, I seem to be trapped in amber, or at least I’m waist-deep in molasses. Nothing is happening. Until I have well-designed book covers, I don’t have books.

Last night it occurred to me that in the jump from the idea of mainstream publishing to the idea of self-publishing, I had leaped blithely over the entire world of small press publishing. A small press might be ideal for me: They will already be working with a good cover designer. They’ll handle various other tasks, such as interior design and buying ISBN numbers. I’ll still have to do a lot of promotion, but working with an existing publisher (who may even know what types of promotion work, and what doesn’t work) would surely streamline the process.

My first stop in researching small presses was the Writer Beware pages published by SFWA, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. SFWA members have generously contributed all sorts of horror stories about the malfeasances and malignancies of small presses. It’s a minefield out there, folks.

SFWA bloggers have some very good advice about what to watch out for. You want a publisher who has been around for a few years and has a track record; you don’t want to go with the new kid on the block. You want a publisher who has a human name and some relevant experience: If the website doesn’t tell you who the boss and worker-bees are, it’s a bad sign. Some small presses are actually vanity publishers in disguise — they claim to publish your book for free, but they’ll pressure you to buy add-ons such as a marketing package, an editing package, or a few cartons of books. Some don’t ask you for money, but they fail to pay you the royalties you’re due. Some become abusive when you complain about problems.

And that’s before we even start talking about the nasty provisions in their contracts. One horror story involved a publisher who insisted (as part of the contract) that the author would have to pay them in order to terminate the contract — even if the termination was a result of the publisher’s failure to perform.

Daunted but not dissuaded, I located several online lists of small presses and started plowing through the lists. Even with a list that’s only three years old, a surprising number of the links are dead. The domain name is up for sale again.

Conversely, the fact that a company has been around for a few years may not mean much. I found one site that looked promising until I noticed that their page on how authors can help promote their books was dated 2010. I skated over to their list of authors and checked three of the authors’ books on Amazon. Sure enough, none of them had a new book published more recently than 2011. The website still exists, but is the company active? Apparently not.

Another publisher (Jolly Fish) looked very promising for YA authors until I dug a little deeper. Turns out Jolly Fish was purchased two months ago by a company in Minneapolis called Northstar Editions. Northstar has, as far as I was able to determine from poking around on the web, no track record at all in the publishing game. I also learned that Jolly Fish was losing money before the sale. Why a new company would want to purchase a small company that was losing money is a bit hard to fathom. Northstar may have great plans, and may succeed brilliantly, but as an author I would not want to submit to Jolly Fish for a couple of years.

The award for Turkey Of The Day goes, however, to Their “website” is a wordpress template that they’ve never filled in. At the top it says, “Publisher: Official website of the #1 Bestselling Author.” And below that in bigger letters, “Welcome to the official website of Author.” Considering that this site was listed on in 2012, you’d have to conclude that My Ink Books is off to a slow start.

A runner-up for the coveted Oops! award goes to, whose page for Children & Young Adult includes this disclaimer (and yes, it’s all in caps): “OUR SITE IS UNDERGOING IMPROVEMENT, REVISION, AND RECONSTRUCTION THE WEEKEND OF JANUARY 13-15, 2007 COINCIDING WITH CELEBRATING THE BEGINNING OF OUR 35TH YEAR PLEASE PARDON ANY MESS”. Okay, then.

Another small press says right up front that their contract with authors is non-negotiable. To their credit, they include the contract on their website, so you can see what it is they’re insisting on. The contract doesn’t seem to have any clauses that are red flags, though a few are tantalizingly vague. My suspicion, when a small company says their contract is non-negotiable, is that they hired a lawyer to draft the contract, don’t want to pay the lawyer for any more work, and don’t feel competent to review contract language themselves. That’s not a good sign. I was taught that everything in a contract is negotiable, including the date at the top. If a publisher doesn’t understand the meaning of their own contract language, can you trust them to adhere to the provisions of the contract?

More to the point, perhaps, saying that the contract is non-negotiable is a way of bullying the author into submission. The implicit message is, “We know what’s best for you. We’ll tell you what we want, and you’ll do it without complaining. Your ideas don’t matter.”

I now have a list of eight or nine small presses that look promising. I’ll be investigating further and probably submitting Book I in my series to one or two them, if they pass the sniff test. Good things may happen, or I may still be slogging through the molasses in July. We’ll see.

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