At the end of this blog post (Part 1, in which I explained how the traditional publishing model works) I promised an exploration of some other models. Some *ahem* months later I’ve finally gathered together the relevant information and herded my unruly and disparate thoughts into some kind of order. And as the indie publishing/small press scene is where my heart lies I’ve decided to focus on that ‘other model’ first.
Some pertinent questions from Swanwickers
In August this year, when I gave a talk entitled ‘Publishing Demystified’ at the Swanwick Writers’ Summer School, I explained the traditional publishing model and cover price breakdown. Afterwards, a few attendees asked this pertinent question: “But if small presses don’t publish any huge bestsellers, how do they keep going?”
This was, indeed, an excellent question because a) it showed that the attendees had grasped the whole gambling-like nature of the traditional publishing industry, in which the one or two annual bestsellers pay for all the other books that broke even or lost money that year, and b) because they could see the importance of the risk-taking small press scene for authors whose work wasn’t necessarily commercial though still worthy of publication, and c) it meant that I could talk with great enthusiasm about the heroes and heroines of the small press scene.
“Well…” I began, thinking back to the cash flow issues my press had had just that summer, and any number of small presses that had folded in recent years (the implosion of Freight Books being one of the most notorious). “Sometimes they don’t. But the ones that do tend to rely on Arts Council funding, grants and private investors to keep them afloat. The wonderful Kevin and Hetha of Bluemoose Books re-mortgaged their house to bring their indie press into existence. There’s also crowdfunding, Patreon and subscription models…”
Because, yes, within the small press scene international bestsellers are a true rarity. Though books originating from small indies can and do go on to make an impact – I’m thinking particularly of books published by small indies that specialise in literary/experimental fiction such as Galley Beggar Press, Comma Press, Influx Press, AndOtherStories, Dead Ink Books, Bluemoose, Salt, 404 Ink etc. – your common or garden variety of small press (particularly if it specializes in poetry, short fiction, children’s books or niche fiction/non-fiction or even more commercial genre fiction) won’t be making the same kind of waves (or sales). Hence the reliance on the small press owner’s day job/pension/family savings/freelance work, or grant funding, or crowdfunding to keep the business afloat during the times when sales are low but bills are numerous. But is there a way to actually make a small press sustainable, indeed profitable, when profit margins are tiny and selling books by the truckload can’t be relied upon?
From blog post part 1 you’ll see that it’s the retailer that takes the majority of the cut of the cover price, so a simple solution to increase the profit margin is TO BECOME THE RETAILER. Hell yeah! Take that Jeff Bezos! Waterstones! Tesco! (Indeed, 404 Ink made some pie charts which illustrated this perfectly.)
Many indie publishers have spent great time and thought on how to streamline the ecommerce side of their website so that they can maximise sales and take the retailer’s chunk of the cover price and so reach maximum profitability per book (Salt’s sleek and selling-orientated website is a prime example). Yet year after year Salt take to Twitter to encourage their loyal readers to buy #JustOneBook because they’re facing a financially difficult time. This leads the business-savvy part of my brain to the conclusion that no matter how encouraging, welcoming and sleek the ecommerce side of an indie publisher’s website, it simply cannot compete with the store of all stores, Amazon, which knows what your username, password and payment methods are EVEN BEFORE YOU DO thereby making the buying process seamless and swift.
This is because the majority of readers don’t care (or don’t know) who’s published the book they want to read, they just want the book. And Amazon threw whole planetfuls of money at making their store THE ONLY STORE. So what am I trying to say? Well, maximising profits by becoming the retailer (and making direct sales) makes good business sense, but in practice it takes more than that to keep a small press afloat.
We all know that when money is tight an obvious solution is to tighten one’s belt, right? Within the small press scene, in practise, this means getting the cheapest print deal (or haggling on printing prices), using recycled (i.e. pre-used) packaging instead of brand new packaging, and – significantly – not paying the person/people who won’t kick up a fuss about not being paid (i.e. themselves), as well as asking favours of friends who have experience in typesetting, cover design or proofreading. Some small press owners even do virtually everything themselves – including editing, typesetting and cover design – making costs as lean as possible.
So cutting costs can help, but it most likely won’t greatly increase the profit margin. And let’s not even get into the potentially problematic issues of not paying oneself for one’s work…
So it all comes down to making more sales. But when poetry, short stories, literary and experimental/niche fiction all have small readerships how to do that? I genuinely wish I had an answer to that. I don’t. But from observation and experience I can throw out some ideas. First, it’s important to be aware of who your tribe of loyal readers are so that you can publish the kind of books, by authors that they love, that they will gladly buy. Second, once you know where these readers are and what they want to read, you can continue to give them that and hence grow your tribe, thereby increasing sales. (One problem here is that some small presses, like my own, which publish a range of genres and forms may find it harder to grow their loyal group of reader-supporters than others that are more focussed in their book output.)
But here are some well-respected and high-profile literary presses that are doing just that effectively: AndOtherStories (who have successfully grown a readership through their international reading groups and subscription model); Dead Ink Books with their Advanced Reader Club; and Galley Beggar Press (of Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann fame) who are currently trying to increase their number of subscribers with various tempting offers. Poetry presses also doing this are: the well-loved HappenStance, (one perk of becoming a subscriber is that the subscribing reader-poet gets personalized feedback on their poetry); the ever-stylish Emma Press. Just the other day, Valley Press, a poetry and prose publisher run by the splendid Jamie McGarry, set up a subscription scheme.
But what if sales still aren’t increasing? Some presses – particularly those who publish short stories and poetry – having realized that most of their readers are writers who want to be published by that particular press have taken a different approach and gone for the ‘buy a book to submit to us’ model. On the whole, this is met with positivity – after all, the submitting writer benefits by getting a book (hence knowing what kind of books that particular publisher publishes), the publisher benefits by getting a sale and the writer of the book bought benefits by getting their royalties for that book. However, there is always the odd writer who thinks this a scandalous ploy by said publisher to extract money from penniless writers (though, curiously, these same writers often think nothing of paying a large flat fee to a writing competition which, chances are, they will never recoup). But I digress. The point is that yes, the ‘buy a book to submit’ model, as well as writing competitions, all help to ease cash flow problems, though they can only ever be stopgaps because, after all, running prizes and dealing with submissions all take time and effort (which can be used more effectively to sell more books).
One last point. One very clever way of increasing sales is to repackage said book as a gift or card and hence market it to the gift buying public through gift shops. Candlestick Press, a local-to-me press, did just that and turned poetry into profit by inventing the ‘Ten poems instead of a card’ concept. Utterly brilliant! They are the one poetry publisher I know of that actually turn a profit. If anyone can think of any similarly brilliant ideas, please do comment below so that I can steal share those ideas.
In conclusion, I would surmise that a mixed portfolio, whereby a publisher utilizes a range of the things I’ve mentioned above to maximise profits, cut costs and increase sales, as well as utilising personal funds, Arts Council funding, crowdfunding, Patreon, subscriptions, gift-like special edition books etc. etc. is most likely to keep that said publisher in business. Off the top of my head, Ian Whates of the much-loved NewCon press has been doing just that for a good, long while now, and I’m very pleased to see that his services to SFF fiction were acknowledged at the recent BFS awards.
There is also something to be said for the importance of staying power – the sheer resilience of the one or two people running a press, continuing to put out quality content and treating their authors with kindness and respect. Again, off the top of my head these folk are doing just that: Indigo Dreams Publishing, PS Publishing, Linen Press, A Midsummer’s Night Press, Unsung Stories, Undertow Publications, Five Leaves Publications, Inspired Quill, Fox Spirit Books, Shoreline of Infinity, Luna Press Publishing, Unthank Books, Stonewood Press, Neon Books, Tartarus Press and Elsewhen Press. Also, a shout-out to those newer presses busy making their mark: Louise Walters Books, Fly on the Wall Press, Eyrie Press, Wild Pressed Books, Afrocentric Books, Dancing Star Press, Corona Books, Green Bottle Press, Guardbridge Books, Paper Swans Press and Handheld Press… (in fact, too many mention! Please forgive me if I have overlooked one of your favourites – but feel free to add them in the comments below).
Look to self-publishers
But I’m going to throw out a final thought. Indie publishers can learn, and indeed are learning, a lot from successful self-publishers who, on the whole, publish genre ebooks, and encourage readers to become loyal to them by giving them free reads and other freebies via their newsletters. Now, there’s no doubt that many small indies do encourage newsletter sign-ups, and utilize Facebook ads, reader magnets and others tactics that successful self-publishers do, but I’m not just talking about sales here, I’m talking about a whole shift in publishing model.
For example, take a look at Red Door Press. They specialize in genre books but they’re a cross between a traditional publisher and a self-publishing service. What they’ve taken from the traditional publishing model is this: they are extremely selective about who they take on; they add a lot of value to the acquired manuscript (through professional editing, cover design etc.); and they properly market and sell the books (they also deal in subsidiary rights). What they’ve taken from the self-publishing model is this: their authors “underwrite the cost of the production process of the UK edition of their book.” They go on to say, “After this point we share the commercial returns equally. We’re invested long-term in the book’s success through sales and through subsidiary rights representation – another reason that we can only consider titles of genuine merit.”
When I mentioned this model to Swanwickers last August, one attendee voiced the opinion that it was a brilliant idea. Why weren’t more traditional publishers doing this? he asked. I answered as best as I could, given the time I had left. Historically, money has always flowed from the publisher to the author. (Unless it was a vanity press, which takes a lot of money upfront from an author, as well as the rights to their book, only to give them back their manuscript re-packaged into a poorly produced and unmarketed book. Read more about what exactly a vanity publisher is here.) And it has only been due to the recent upsurge in self-publishing (mostly via Amazon) that this idea has been turned on its head. Now authors can spend money on getting themselves professionally self-published, (potentially) reaping the rewards of sidestepping the gatekeeper and gaining their cut.
I genuinely think that Red Door is onto something (as do a fair few others in the publishing world, according to the booksellers at Kenilworth Books). I think it’s a sound business model, which should keep the press solvent, and after all, as Sir Stanley Unwin said, “The first duty of any publisher to their authors is to remain solvent.”
The one issue is that some authors won’t be able to afford the upfront costs of book production, meaning that working with a publisher such as Red Door (or even getting a whole professional self-publishing package) isn’t an option for them. Also, for some writers this model sits a little too close to the tactics used by vanity publishers. See this discussion. Which takes us back to square one and the traditional publishing model, in which authors don’t need to pay to submit to publishers, literary agents or small indies. Writers will most certainly receive less royalties for their books if they go down the traditional publishing route, BUT there are no upfront costs. Thankfully, there’s a lot of choice out there for those who can’t afford to invest in the production of their own books.
Ebook only and technologically savvy presses
But it’s not just Red Door who are looking to self-publishers for alternate publishing models and ways of selling books. There are any number of indie presses publishing ebooks only, and only in genres that sell well via Amazon. This is an excellent idea, since digital-only publishing cuts out printing costs and many of the most voracious genre readers only read ebooks. Canelo is a prime example of this. Then there is Snowbooks, with their insightful use of coding and metadata to make the publishing process swift and straightforward, while ensuring that their books are targeted – technologically speaking – at the right audience and readers. Lastly, there are any number of innovative indie presses whose founders are greatly experienced in self-publishing and bookselling and who use this knowledge to great effect when publishing others’ books. Lucy Pearce of Womancraft Publishing is a fine example.
So what should authors do with all this information… and innovation? Well if you’re writing poetry, short stories and highly literary/experimental fiction (or indeed, any niche genre), the small press scene is most certainly worth looking into because the big traditional publishers don’t really like to dip their toes in these non-commercial waters (unless you’re an already established or prizewinning author). But… shop around. Grab yourself a copy of Mslexia’s Indie Press Guide* and ask other authors about what their indie publishers are like to work with. Learn more about the publishing model your indie press publisher of choice is using so that you have a better idea of the likely number of sales you’ll make. Get involved in the marketing and promotion of your book and continue to build a following. Be philosophical if things don’t turn out as you expect but, also, have a back-up plan (say, the beginnings of a more commercial novel that agents might love – or DIY self-publishing). Most of all, keep writing and improving your craft. At some point you may well get to the stage where your writing is of such a high quality that publishers, big or small, start approaching you.
*I believe that the third edition is soon to hit the shops…