Why Small Publishers Can be a Risky Way to Publish

Deciding whether to self-publish, trade-publish, subsidy-publish or wait for a literary agent is often not an easy or simple decision for the novice or inexperienced author. Clearly, the only way to be published by a major publishing house is through a trusted literary agent. Without one, even a perfect publishing proposal will never be opened or read. Yet, it can more difficult to find an agent than to be published on your own. 

I tried to do both over a number of years. While I now have a wonderful agent who has cracked wide open those big publishers, it took years to receive an agent contract that I was willing to sign. During that time, I SP three books and I’ve been able to be trade-published twice on my own. It really can be easier to get published on your own with a small publishing company. But which small publisher can you trust? Yes, you can conduct research on your own. Small publishers who have a history of fraud or who fail to fulfill their promises will generate plenty of noise on the Internet with author complaints and lawsuits. But many small publishers are so new that they haven’t had a chance to generate any noise, good or bad. So, how can we ensure that the small publishers we contact are honest, skilled and trustworthy? 

If the book is non-fiction and the author can sell thousands of copies on her or his own via an occupation, as a teacher, professor, as a seminar leader or public speaker, then subsidy publishing can be a great decision. Why share the profit with a publisher if you don’t need to? This form of SP is quick, easy and you’ll turn a nice profit on each book. I enjoyed this with my first book, a non-fiction textbook on job seeking skills. Through my consulting practice, I sold books to hundreds of seminar participants. The textbook was also required reading for graduate students at my university. There was never a more perfect scenario for SP, and in particular subsidy publishing, than a non-fiction author with a captive audience. 

Unknown fiction authors, on the other hand, are in a completely different boat. A novice fiction author will typically live or die by her author platform. Unfortunately, very few unknown SP fiction authors produce a best-seller. Most best-selling fiction authors were already famous and they carried their readers along to a new SP book. You can count on your fingers and toes the number of unknown novice SP fiction authors who have produced a best-selling book. Several years ago, I read in a prominent journal that the average SP book costs the author around $2,000 to develop, yet sold only a few dozen copies. If so, the neophyte SP fiction author almost never breaks even or becomes famous. Their platform suffers. On the other hand, the novice TP fiction author paid nothing and those books sold several hundred copies. Perhaps more importantly, using a real publisher enhances the author’s platform. 

I recently read an interesting blog post by Cathy Clamp about the dangers inherent in signing a publishing contract with a small and/or new publishing company. As I discovered several years ago, there are literally thousands of small publishers around the world. And unlike the big publishers, most of them will take a chance on a novice author with talent and a marketable book. Of course, those two concepts are subjective. But most of us can tell if an author has talent within the first chapter or two. And marketable books are those with a significant likelihood of turning a profit. So while a novice author without an agent is locked out of the major publishers (the ones that will throw ten or twenty thousand dollars on your manuscript and generate compelling reviews from the most persuasive sources), we little guys seem only to have a chance with small publishers. 

Unfortunately, the majority of small publishing companies fail within a year or two. Worse yet, authors could have found a better publisher during the time the failed publisher takes going into bankruptcy. The author hasn’t lost any money, but certainly has wasted a great deal of time and energy. 

Some small publishers fail because they save money by hiring friends as editors and graphic artists, or they hire one person to do the job of both positions. Those friends are not always the most talented professionals. And being an talented editor and a graphic designer simultaneously requires use of vastly differing brain components. In other words, very few people can perform both jobs effectively. 

Some small publishers fail by applying standard business practices to the world of publishing, in which those business practices count for nothing. The intuition and business acumen acquired in another type of business does not serve the owner well in publishing. Communication can be poor or non-existent. The owners, editors and graphic designers can argue about a number of issues, leaving the author to wonder what happened to her book. Eventually, the author litigates. But nothing is accomplished and significant time has passed. 

Small publishers often hire employees who might also be professional editors and authors on their own. What happens when these people prioritize their books, putting yours on the back-burner? The same applies to a publishing owner who hires incompetent friends and lacks the courage to fire them when they fail repeatedly. 

Small publishers also may have little cash to start the business. They depend upon the sale of their initial books to pay for all present and future business expenses, including editors, graphic designers, printers, publicists, office equipment, rent, furnishings, etc. When those initial books don’t sell, the staff isn’t paid, the rent isn’t paid and the owner flees into Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The author sues the publisher, but bankruptcy leaves almost nothing for an author left in the lurch. 

Read the entire article here: http://www.sfwa.org/2012/04/guest-blog-post-why-small-publishers-fail/. And remember to always use the two iconic sources of information about writing, awards, publishing, agents, marketing, publicity, fraud and scams and everything related to the world of publishing here at Writer Beware http://www.sfwa.org/ and Predators & Editors http://pred-ed.com/

Happy Writing!



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