Sunday, June 14, 2009

Life With A Small Press

by Wilfred Bereswill

I want to talk about a subject that I’ve avoided like the plague; some of the disadvantages of contracting with a small press. Now I’ll say up front that my publisher, Hilliard and Harris is a small press and they’ve been good to me. I’ll just use a phrase that I use a lot to describe the situation, “It is what it is.”

What I want to chat about are things that I did not know about before signing my contract. Would they have stopped me from signing that contract? Probably not, considering how euphoric I was that I had been accepted for publication. For the record, I did chat with a few of the H&H authors that I knew and they had good things to say. In addition, I want to be clear that I’m not picking on H&H, because a number of small presses have the same or similar policies. So here are the issues you need to consider:

Returns. Or lack of returns really. This all starts with the way our book sales work. I’m speaking in generalities here so I’m sure there are exceptions. Most large book stores basically order books with the understanding that they are returnable. But there are a number of considerations with returns. First, there’s stripping. That’s the process of the bookstore ripping off the front cover and returning just the cover to avoid excess shipping charges. They throw away the coverless books. Believe it or not, that’s the most common type of return. If the shop does return the whole book, the condition of the book upon return may render it unsalable. Also, the cost to ship, unpack, restock, etc. makes it cheaper to just go the stripping route.

Because of the cost of returns, some small presses don’t allow returns through the distributors, like H&H. By the way, H&H does take returns if the books are ordered directly from the publisher, but the big chains don't want to order from anybody but the big distributors. I honestly can’t say that I blame them, but, if you don’t conform to the industry standard, you’re screwed. So what that means to the author is that you are now in a deep rut. Chains like Barnes & Noble won’t order your book. Books-A-Million won’t bring it in either. I found that by working with Borders stores individually, you can convince them to buy a few copies, but I’m telling you, it’s a lot of work to talk to each store manager and beg. Oh, by the way, I don’t patronize Barns and Noble anymore. I let my club card lapse and I won’t buy a book there either. Call it sour grapes, but a writers group I belonged to, The St. Louis Writers Guild has meetings at B&N stores twice a month. I’ve been a regular patron at a particular store for years. When I approached the manager about a signing, she insisted she couldn’t order my book due to corporat policy. Even when I was the featured speaker for the group, they wouldn't order in any books. I was forced to sell a few copies out of the trunk of my car to the members who wanted to buy it after the talk. You reap what you sow.

Indies will shy away from non-returnable books too. Several Indies in St. Louis have copies of A Reason For Dying, but for the BIG Indie in town I had to put books there on consignment. Meaning I had to buy the books and sign a contract. If they sell in six months, then they will reimburse my cost, not a penny more and no shipping.

So, that pretty much leaves internet sales, Amazon, B&N, BAM, Borders, and a lot of others have my book on their website, but not in their stores. Then you can find it on foreign sites like or even this AMAZON JP. I’m fairly positive my best sales are through Amazon.

And then there’s POD. Print on demand. Many people link POD with self publishing and vanity presses. It is NOT the same. In fact there was a discussion on Sisters in Crime Yahoo Group about the subject. A lot of people ask me what my print run is. That’s when I get this sheepish look on my face and say that my book is print on demand. Of course, the next statement is usually “OH, you’re self published.” That’s not true. POD is simply a technology that allows books to be printed quickly and delivered as needed. My books are printed by Lightning Source which I believe is affiliated with Ingram, the national distributor. I’ve never had any trouble getting books delivered. Ingram always keeps a enough in stock to supply the, albeit smallish, demand.

I’m telling you that the quality of my books, both paperback and hardback are top notch. No bad bindings, no bad covers, no errors besides what was my fault, never had a complaint.

So how does this affect you as an author?

Besides the common misconception of the association of POD with self publishing, if your publisher uses POD, you are not eligible to join Mystery Writers of America or International Thriller Writers as full members. You are ineligible for awards and programs those orgainzations offer. I believe it is incredibly unfair, but that’s the way it is. Rmember... It is what it is...

In my case, my small press did not send out ARCs (advance reader copies) for review. So, I was not able to get reviews printed in my book. I had to solicit and find authors to blurb me with only the MS Word copy of my manuscript. For me, it was uncomfortable enough asking several authors that I didn't particularly know that well to blurb my book. Add that I didn't have ARCs to send them, well, it didn't help the comfort factor. I owe the extraordinary author John Lutz my heart-felt thanks for helping a new author. John is an awesome writer and you should run out and buy one of his books. You won't regret it.

So to wrap this up, before you sign a contract with a small press, know what you’re getting into. There have been many instances of authors starting their careers with small presses and going on to sign with the big guys. There are instances where, despite self-publishing, authors have gone on to bigger and better things. Trust me, I know it’s tempting to sign that first offer, but take the time to understand the publisher and do what’s best for you and your aspirations as a writer.


Dana King said...

Thanks for the heads up. I have a anuscripts out with a few small publishers right now, and I'll be sure to keep these things in mind before signing anything.

Joyce Tremel said...

Will, you should put a link to your post up on the SinC list.

This is why I'm holding out and waiting for the traditional publisher route. It might take a lot longer, but I think it will be worth it.

Karen in Ohio said...

The entire publishing business, from editing to remaindering, is bizarre, and really unlike any other business that I know about. Add to that the capricious and subjective nature of how editors choose the books they publish, well. Let's just say it's a crapshoot. I wonder how many perfectly wonderful books never get published because an editor didn't like the way he or she was addressed in a cover letter, or there were already "too many" x-type books that year.

Anyone who successfully navigates the obstacle course to publication gets a tip of my proverbial hat, no matter which publisher is lucky enough to get you and your work.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Thanks all.

Joyce, I've hesitated writing about this because I didn't want my publisher thinking I was unhappy or bashing them. I'm not. I'm very grateful to H&H for giving me a chance.

queenofmean said...

Thanks for the information. I'm still somewhat afraid to think about the publishing aspects. I've been concentrating on just getting my WIP finished, but I will store this away for future reference.

PatRemick said...

Thanks for sharing this, Wilfred. It's a real eye-opener! You've certainly done a valuable service for your fellow writers.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Queen, right now that's the most important thing. Get that manuscript finished and make take your time making it the best you can. Don't let impatience creep in. Trying to query before it's ready will just slow you down.

Pat, There is absolutely nothing wrong with small publishers. Every publisher is different, even the big guys. Just do your homework and once you've signed, don't look back.

Jenna said...

Dammit, I had a nice comment all written, and it went God knows where.

Nice post, Will. Very informative. As you know, my first (pseudonymous) series is with Berkley (AKA Penguin, second largest publisher in the world), so obviously I took the 'big house' route. But I've recently signed a contract with a small/independent publisher for the first book in a different series, and it's nice to get the lowdown on what I may expect in the coming year. Thanks much for sharing. Joyce is right, you should link this to the SinC list.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Hey Jennie,

Welcome back. Find the fountain of youth down there?

I would think that most of the big houses are similar, but the small presses are very diverse in what they offer and how they operate. I'd be nice to compare notes when you've gone through the cycle.

BTW, I've been corrected about the Mystery Writers Assoc. membership. You can become an associate member even if you're with a small house, but you are ineligible to be considered for the awards (Agatha's or whatever award it is that they sponsor). So, to put that in context, I MIGHT have been allowed to sign at the MWA booth last weekend at Printers Row Lit Festival, but no guarantees.

On the ITW front, I may have also been able to join as an Assoc. member, but I couldn't qualify for their debut authors program.

Jenna said...

And we would have loved to have had you at ITW, Will! It's ridiculous, really - they let ME in, and I don't even write thrillers! But because Penguin is an approved publishing house, I get in, even so.

I did find the Fountain of Youth. I'm feeling younger already. Although the water tasted awful. Makes you realize how much stuff they take out and put in to make it taste the way it does when it comes out of the tap...

Wilfred Bereswill said...

In some parts of Florida the water has a lot of sulfur in it. Smells like rotten eggs in the shower. I've noticed that time and again while I've been in the Sunshine State.

Jenna said...

You can taste the sulphur, too, not just smell it. The water from the fountain - which isn't a fountain at all, just a little puddle - tasted really bad. But apparently it's good for you. Probably because of all the stuff in it. Although it doesn't seem as if drinking sulphur should be healthy...

Annette said...

Will, I tried to get here earlier today, but Blogger or IE or some other entity refused to grant me passage into Working Stiffs.

Cyber gremlins.

Anyway, I've heard stories like yours over and over. I'm with Joyce in holding out for the traditional route, frustrating though it may be.

Tell me: why do we put ourselves through this torture and rejection???

My word verification today is "rootski." A Polish potato?

Joyce Tremel said...

Annette, I think "rootski" is how we root for our sports teams here in the 'burgh. (After all, we do have a large Polish population here.)

Annette said...

That could very well be, Joyce. I also thought it might be an affectionate term for root beer.

Wilfred Bereswill said...


For me, the desire to share my story/book with everybody overshadowed the importance of making money. Very early on, I told my wife that I'd be thrilled to have my book published and make a buck.

Of course my aspirations have changed. Now I'd love nothing more than to retire to writing full time.

Karen from Mentor said...

Timely advice for me, Thanks!
Karen :)