Monday, 18 April 2011

SMALL PUBLISHERS: SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST

I acknowledge that being a publisher is hard. (Hold your tears, unpublished and self-published writers...) It's hard for a small and dedicated publisher to make money or even to survive. It's easier if you want to be big and therefore seek to publish mega-commercial books - if you're lucky enough to find some. It's also easier if you strike lucky again and find yourself a few Booker shortlistees or winners, as Tindall Street Press did, or Canongate (which can no longer be called small); or if you pick good books and market them tirelessly, as Strident Publishing do. But what if you don't aspire to that and you just want to publish a small number of good books with a modest but passionate readership? Fair enough, eh? Isn't that like being a midlist author, a perfectly admirable situation and one we have to deal with if we don't choose or happen to write mega-sellers or if we want to write something more cerebral than popular, more artistic than commercial?

I have a great admiration for people who follow what they believe in despite its being hard. I don't exactly take an easy route myself. I also think some of them demand a lot of their potential customers. They ask us to support them because they are small and niche and suffering. I think our sympathies might be more justifiably with small and niche and sensible or ambitious. I say just the same to authors: if what you're writing isn't selling enough or gaining sufficient critical acclaim to make you happy, write something else or go about it differently.

I'd like you to look at four small UK publishers and see what they are doing.

Snowbooks - here I declare an interest because Snowbooks is my chosen publisher for Write to be Published. They are original, award-winning, unorthodox in many ways. After some temporary problems with a piece of software dealing with royalty cheques last year, which understandably caused temporary anxiety to some authors, Emma Barnes (the MD) blogged here about the financial situation for her company and also apologised for the glitch when the printing firm they used went into administration with some of their books underway. I am in awe of this openness. You would not get this with large publishers. Emma is uber-passionate about what she does, but combines this with a very strong business sense, gleaned from her previous career in the financial world. She survives and makes a profit through a combination of publishing out-of-print titles and new ones that she believes have a market - and very often they do. Though she seems to work ridiculously hard, I have never heard her complain. She is amazing to deal with, though I hope her young son wasn't completely fed up when his mother and I spent a whole weekend batting the "final" version of WTBP back and forth.

Strident - I've no idea of the figures, but Strident are looking and sounding very strong. Optimistic, using Facebook and Twitter to promote their authors actively, getting their books into promotions and garnering reviews in great places. They publish two friends of mine, Linda Strachan and Gillian Philip, both authors who are doing very well in terms of sales and acclaim (and both published by other publishers, too.) The MD, Keith Charters, is a children's author, too, and has a business background, enabling him to combine his interest in writing and authors with his financial, business and marketing awareness. Many writers with larger publishers would envy the energy with which Keith gets books into shops and onto shortlists.

Two Ravens - Sharon Blackie, the MD, sent me an email with this link, which she'd like me to pass on to you, and which outlines her current situation. She is fuming about the comments beneath a recent blog-post by the fourth small publisher I'm going to mention (see below) - which surprised me because I thought the comments were largely sympathetic and patient. Sharon criticises "comments like ‘do a business course’ or ‘try e-books/ print-on-demand instead’, 'what if small publishers could band together' or ‘target your specific readership by using social networking sites’" saying that they "show no understanding of the issues that small independent publishers of books that are different – books that the big guys won’t take the risks to publish – face." I know it's annoying when people don't understand but I think those comments were mostly well-meaning and helpful, actually, and they contain a sensible message: if something's not working, try another way. The mission statement of Two Ravens is to publish books "that are non-formulaic and that take risks" - that's enormously brave and commendable but the whole point about risk is that it's risky. And sometimes doesn't work. And, as is the case for authors when a risk hasn't working or is no longer enjoyable, a publisher has to choose what to do to deal with that. 

And here's the fourth one. Linen Press. Lynn Michell asked me some time ago to blog on her behalf. So I did, for the second time. I don't know if she noticed, because she hasn't been in touch, but I hope she's too busy doing more important things, such as selling books. I also spoke supportively about her at the York Festival of Writing and sent people over to what I thought was a great post by her. And Lynn blogged on the Guardian blog about her bizarre situation whereby she loses money each time she sells through Amazon and (as referred to above) she had lots of comments, which I thought, as I said, were largely supportive. The people were generous to take time to answer her problem, I thought. (Having said that, I believe that some of the negative comments were the most helpful ones, just as it's the negative feedback that authors have to deal with before publication that often helps them the most. Yes, it's not just writers who have to deal with negative criticism.)

This is a blog for writers, not publishers. Don't get me wrong: I love passionate publishers and passionate writers, including when they don't sell loads of books. (After all, I don't sell that many myself: I don't measure success by numbers.) But I also love readers. And I will serve readers and writers until I have no writing bone left in my body. I will serve them above publishers because I know what writers go through to produce the material for publishers. And I know how little writers earn - often below 3% of the cover price of each book their publishers sell.

Authors: write books that will sell. Publishers: publish and sell them. When either authors or publishers fail to do that as well as they wish, they need to adapt. It's the survival of the fittest. Publishers, large and small, need to watch the winds of changes blowing around them. They need to work in proper partnership with authors; they need to be realistic, pragmatic, pro-active, farsighted. So do authors. It seems to me, frankly, that authors are sometimes adapting better than publishers, which explains the rise of self-publishing. (Thereby hang another blogpost or two...) It seems to me also that publishers always need authors, but that authors do not always need publishers.

I wish these publishers enormous success. I hope that Two Ravens and The Linen Press find a way to enjoy and succeed in what they are trying so hard to do. But hard work and determination, of which I know they have volumes, are not always enough. Just as they are not enough for authors. Authors have to know how to adapt after rejection: they have to improve what they offer and do everything right, listening to readers. We cannot afford simply to complain about rejection, unless we want to continue to be rejected. Writers have been told that over and over again by publishers. I think publishers sometimes need to accept the same message.

[Edited to add: I have now stopped comments on this post and deleted some. I dedicate countless hours to blogging for aspiring writers and am not a free advertising billboard for anyone, though of course mentioning your work is completely fine if it's relevant and fair. I had received a number of comments all beginning with exactly the same words and I felt somewhat used.]

14 comments:

CharmedLassie said...

I can't recall how I stumbled across Linen Press a few months ago (it may have been via your mention of them) but I was very impressed with the work ethic (for want of a more suitable word) demonstrated on the website. For me, they are a fantastic example of the dedication small presses put into the authors they choose to publish.

Charmaine Clancy said...

Really interesting to see the other side of things.
Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers

Sue Guiney said...

I'd like to add that not only do publishers need to adapt, they need a business model that works - whether they expect to make money or not. The ones who have relied too much on government support (ie Arts Council grants) are now in serious trouble. But it can be done. I publish with a terrific new small press called Ward Wood. In one year they have created a terrific stable of writers who are all doing well and worth reading. But I did have a choice of where to try to publish my latest novel, and I chose them because they run it like a business, making difficult financial decisions while also having a great eye for good writing (if I do say so myself). They are an example of how creativity in business can and should go hand in hand with creativity in writing.

Dan Holloway said...

Very very true. A publisher can set out with any mission statement they wish, but ultimately they will have to
1. be measured against that mission statement and
2. keep insovency at bay

If they have massive wealth behind them (I must confess I don't know any where this is the case) then the latter will be less of an issue, and if they and their authors are happy with other careers and wish only to make a few waves and break even whilst paying the bills from elsewhere, it will be equally so.

In most cases, neither of those apply so there begins that endless titration of commerce and art - and skilfully finding your niche, taking the very best from the experience of others, and learning wilfully to igniore helpful advice from everyone who understands your niche less than you do.

Having lived through disappointment after disappointment in my academic and working life, and learned that the following aphorisms are just not true
"I worked hard therefore I deserve success"
"I spent years getting trained as x, therefore I deserve to be paid as x"
"I love x, therefore I deserve to have a career as x"
(where x, in my case, stands for being an academic but can equally stand for being a writer)
I have no sympathy for the complaints of midlist authors who get dropped by big publishers - I have sympathy for ~*them* in spades, and empathy in buckets, but no sympathy for the complaint that it is somehow unfair, or they somehow deserve to be paid for doing what they love more than upstarts like Amanda Hocking who have rather brilliantly exploited the new market situation.

The same should go for publishers, and it almost does, but with the following caveat.

You mention prizes. These are a great way for small publishers to punch above their weight - Tindall Street as you say are masters at it (and at picking books that judges love). But something has to be mentioned about the fees. Not so simple as just the fees but the complex relationship of media attention going to prizes that have high fees, creating a loop that many small publishers can't feed into - imagine what would have happened to Tindall Street if What Was Lost had won nothing it was entered for... There is a feedback loop between high tariff prizes, media attention and big publishers, and one has to say on behalf of smaller publishers that it has the tiniest whiff of cartelishness

Derek said...

Some great posts here and a special 'bravo' to Dan for saying what needs to be said! Also, I think that writers vs publishers is a bit of a myth. It's not so much a marriage of convenience as a relationship, with each party looking for their own gratification and then finding, over time, that they're bigger together than the sum of their parts. I'll stop now before we all start welling up!

Nicola Morgan said...

And so far everyone is agreeing with me. I knew dan would be with me on this one! Though, Derek, I believe that it used to be the case that it was a proper partnership but that recently too many publishers have forgotten that authors are crucial. There are established authors who are now thinking of and actually turning to self-publishing because we believe we can do as well like that. It's not as much of a partnership as it should be - that's why I'm happy to be with Snowbooks, because it really does feel like a joint effort, but Emma is also very realistic and business-focused.

Also, I have perhaps been too subtle but I am not praising all small publishers in this article. I'm saying they need to find ways to survive, sensible ways, diverse ways.

JO said...

This is a really useful post - with plenty for those of us still knocking on doors to think about.

And oddly encouraging for those of us working our socks off, determined to be good enough one day, to know that there are still publishers willing to work with us. Thanks, Nicola.

Simon said...

It seems to me after reading the Two Ravens article, that some small publishers have more in common with arts venues than with commercial publishers.
I mean galleries, small theatres or art house cinemas. It might be better to follow their marketing model. The place I work, for example, has a loyalty card scheme, a very good mailing list database who get sent value added stuff rather than spam (we think it is anyway!) This include freebies and special invites, early booking etc. Literary small presses are more like a club you'd want to join than a pile em high sell em cheap market stall.

Ann Best said...

As a soon to be published author with a small press, I found this to be a most provocative, informative, and personally helpful post. Thanks!
Ann Carbine Best, Author of In the Mirror: A Memoir of Shattered Secrets

Nicola Morgan said...

Ann - good luck to you!

All - the question remaining is why is The Linen Press still selling books deliberately at such a loss through Amazon? This was my point: publishers need to listen to suggestions. Not all small publishers seem to have the same issue with Amazon. Nor do I.

Dan Holloway said...

Nicola, I'm sure you've read the latest article on the Guardian Books Blog which continues this debate.

Nicola Morgan said...

Dan - I had indeed. Here's the URL:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2011/apr/19/amazon-not-small-publisher-enemy

It will be interesting to see how publishers like The Linen Press decide to respond to that Guardian piece. Are they doing their authors any favours selling at a loss?

Lynn Michell said...

Nicola, my sincere apologies for not commenting sooner. Thank you for joining this debate and for passing your loyal followers across to me.

My excuse is the ceiling downstairs of our half-built house. READERS, YOU CAN SKIP THIS BIT. We didn't get to this house until the tiles were down upstairs so to put in solar-under-floor- heating we first have to grind off, from below, and with an industrial grinder, a thick layer of hardboard and then some concrete. I eat, breath and sleep with grey dust. I've kept my laptop under wraps as much as possible in case it suffocates. OK YOU CAN READ ON.

I have found this debate helpful, stimulating and encouraging. I have responded:

1. You won't find my books on Amazon anymore, but it's not as black and white as some comments suggest. A small publisher may find readers by chance when they search Amazon for a niche book. I've just published an outspoken novel by Nigerian author Olukemi Amala. Readers looking for radical, black women writers might find her on Amazon if the search engine pulls her out. That kind of happenstance discovery is not going to happen on my website. Not many readers know about my website. So by leaving Amazon, I gain some and I lose some.

2. I get the impression I have been labeled a hopeless business woman so I shall quietly rise to that challenge. I know I am a good editor. I'm still learning the business ropes but I've always wanted to be a trapeze artist.

3. It is horribly expensive to enter a book for a prize. The judges want 5 or 10 free copies and sometimes an entry fee too. I have to trust my judgement and be very astute about which book fits which contest.

4. I am looking at POD.

5. This debate affects authors too as Nicola has pointed out. I have a symbiotic relationship with my authors. I put in many days/weeks/months editing and suggesting changes to what my author Olukemi Amara calls 'a raw manuscript'. They, in return, help me with publicity by looking for venues where they can read or talk, and tramping the streets to show book shops their opus. My authors have been more than willing to enter this kind of mutual benefit society. Hema Macherla is an artist when it comes to promoting her novels. It is mainly thanks to her efforts that we have sold nearly 1000 of her debut novel, Breeze From The River Manjeera, and are about to start our combined efforts for her second novel Blue Eyes. Thank you Stephanie Taylor too.

6. Wouldn't it be just great if we small publishers decided to band together and create an online shop where we all sell our books? But which of us has the time to put in the work to get this up and running? My Blog on Guardian Online has produced over 50 submissions. I have a book about to go to print, and two more in the pipeline to be edited.

This is not a whinge. I adore my work, I willingly work long hours and I am privileged to be doing what I want to do. I have put all my savings and more into Linen Press but there is nothing more stashed under the mattress so now I must make money. I hear what you say about business skills and the need to be more visible by using Facebook.

Thank you all or taking the time to join in this debate. I really appreciate your interest, enthusiasm and views.

Thank you, Nicola, for keeping this pot on the boil.

womagwriter said...

I've read several books from Linen Press and have really enjoyed them all. Glad that Lynn is able to take something positive from this debate, and I hope she can work out a more profitable business model with Amazon or other online retailers.