We interrupt my scheduled ELEW hiatus because Shenanigans Are Afoot again in the writing world, and I have Things to Say.
Buckle up. Ready? Let’s dive in.
News came along a few days ago that a small publisher who has been having trouble paying royalties is going to pare back their list BUT continue to acquire new books. Because of course it is–that’s the sad thing here, that this story is so common.
When Samhain announced they were closing due to low sales and winding down operations, I know it upset a lot of authors but that’s the classy, financially sound thing to do. It is also the rare thing. If I’ve learned anything in the past decade+ about small press among all the writers I know and have worked with, it’s that these (usually one person) operations pop up, go on for a couple of years, and then disappear. Or they limp along for years and years treating authors like crap, making no money, and acquire new books rather than bow out like any responsible business would.
There are some good small presses out there doing excellent work. There are a whole lot of ones who will hurt your career more than help it. How can you tell which is which? If you’re with a place, how can you know if your experience is typical or if it’s a bad situation?
Here’s a non-exhaustive list of tips.
You should be making money.
Hey, it may not be a lot of money, but you should be making something.
If you’re with a small press for years and years, never received an advance, and your royalties on a couple of books can maybe buy you a pizza twice a year? They suck. Get the hell away from them.
Oh, a lot of people won’t like me saying that, but here’s the thing: writers, you have options. You can self-publish easily, control sales and quality, and not only keep all the profits but get paid monthly and on time. If you’re signing with a small press, they should be doing something for you that you can’t do yourself, including wielding their experience and influence to sell more copies of your books.
If they are not doing that, they are not helping your career. You shouldn’t be grateful that you’ve made 10c/hr on the book you wrote simply because “they took a chance on you”. Odds are, they aren’t spending as much as you think they are to publish it–if they had, they’d be working harder to sell it. Promotion does not and should not fall squarely on the shoulders of the writer, because both you and your publisher should be invested in making money.
They pay you on time without excuses.
There is no reason for a publisher to repeatedly delay paying its authors.
Royalties are typically paid after they are actually received. So it looks like this with Amazon sales, for example, with quarterly payments:
- Book sells in March (Q1) on Kindle.
- Those royalties are paid to the publisher two months later in May (Q2).
- Publisher pays authors thirty days after the end of the quarter, which means you get paid the end of July (Q3).
They’ve had that money sitting there for two months, and they’ve had the numbers for two months. They can start running those reports in advance. There is no reason why they should delay that payment unless they’re having financial troubles.
Small publishers run by a small staff means one cog in the wheel coming out of alignment can throw off the whole thing–I get that. There are extenuating circumstances. Someone gets sick, everything gets thrown around, and they will whine and expect sympathy.
Well, that’s nice, but I personally don’t care.
You start a business, you have to behave like a business. That means fucking paying people you owe money, and on time. Can’t complete the work? It’s your responsibility to have a backup plan and someone else who can take over.
Writers, when this is your livelihood, you should expect to be paid on time, and accurately at that. In nearly three years of self-publishing through six different platforms, I have only had two delayed payments, and both were corrected promptly. That is not the case for those I know who in small press.
They have experienced, qualified staff.
This means editors who know how to edit and artists who aren’t a couple of authors with Photoshop. This means design people who know how to properly layout a print book. This means someone involved in marketing who does more than tweet a couple of links about new releases.
Very, very few people can run an entire publishing house and all aspects of it themselves. *I* could come close, as I do that with my own work and work I inherited, but there’s a reason I freelance and didn’t open my own company (besides the fact that I don’t hate myself): that shit is exhausting. To have any kind of success as a publisher, I’d’ve needed to hire knowledgeable staff to assist, and that would be expensive.
A small publisher should pay their staff a living wage. This means their editors should be decent paid flat fees or hourly rates, and not royalty-based, for example. If they don’t pay their staff a living wage, a. they probably won’t pay you, the writer, or at least not on time, b. they are not going to keep experienced staff. The people who stick around for extremely low pay are going to be the ones who can’t get work elsewhere. You do not want them working on your book.
Their covers should also not suck. You might not have an eye for cover art, but try comparing it to well-selling books in your genre. Is the image cohesive? Is the title easy to read? Do the colous complement or clash?
They don’t go through staff like underwear.
So here’s the thing: stuff happens. Editors leave and get new jobs. This happens in all publishing houses. But if you’re with a small press and they contract a series from you and you have a different editor for every book over a span of two years with no explanation…that’s not a good sign. See above: it’s entirely likely they’re not paying their staff well. It’s particularly concerning if you start with an editor who knows your work and is excited about it, and then over the next couple of books you get new editors who don’t seem the least bit familiar with what you’re writing. An editor is there as a partner, it’s their job to invest in the story and polish it up. If every time you have contact with a member of the publishing it’s an entirely different person…worry.
A high staff turnover rate is a very bad sign. A staff who hasn’t worked anywhere in publishing before is a bad sign. And absolutely no information anywhere about who works for the publisher is also a bad sign since you have to question why they don’t offer that information.
They actively try to sell books after they’re released.
Does the publisher just throw a book up for sale and then pretend it doesn’t exist? Then they fucking suck: pull your books and go elsewhere.
If you remember nothing else from me ranting here, know this: a publisher should be just as invested in selling a book once it’s out and not just producing it. If they’re just producing it, they’re going to expect you to be the one moving copies, and seriously, fuck that shit. Examples of selling a book once it’s out: do they have sales to entice new readers? (Not just sales on their website, which probably gets very little traffic, but on Amazon, etc.) Do they advertise those sales? Do they attend genre conventions to meet new readers? Do they court book bloggers and send out ARCs? Do they organize giveaways? If they notice sales are low, do they do a push to get new eyes on the book in question?
I know a couple of small presses who do all or most of the above, and they’re aces. There is NO excuse for a company to not be doing that. None. It’s part of doing business.
They don’t tie up your rights forever.
There needs to be a Reversion of Rights clause in your contract. No ifs, ands, or buts about it–there has to be, and if there isn’t, well…
A RoR clause should contain language that gives you the opportunity to get the rights to your books back either after a certain period of time (like 3 – 7 years) or after sales fall below a certain threshold (this used to be “when the book is out of print” but with ebooks and print on demand, books are ALWAYS in print, so this should specify something like “when ten copies of fewer sell in a six month period” or something). Every single contract should have a way for the author–not just the publisher–to get their rights reverted to them.
If a small press wants you to grant all rights in perpetuity, that is bullshit. RUN AWAY.
They might give the explanation that they are investing money in the book and want to give it time to make back that money, however–using my examples above–if they don’t have the expectation of turning a profit on the book in 3 – 5 years, or expect to sell more than ten copies in six months, that is not a company you want to do business with. They are basically telling you that your books aren’t going to sell, and then they want to bind you in that situation literally forever. (And FYI, if a publisher doesn’t know how to sell books to readers, I don’t care how nice they are: they shouldn’t be in business.)
A good publisher wants to have a good relationship with their authors. Their contracts should protect your rights as much as their own, and since you likely don’t have an agent negotiating when you’re small press, it falls on you to ensure they’re not engaging in a predatory rights grab.
They shouldn’t grow too quickly.
Often a small press opens up. They seem to do well–their books are acclaimed, their covers are good quality, people are excited about them. This goes on for maybe a year or two.
Then they get bigger.
Multiple imprints in widely different genres. Releasing several or dozens of new books a month. And as they get bigger, communication slows. More and more time goes by with books in production and no word about their status.
What usually happens here is that as the publisher is acquiring more books, they’re not hiring more staff (see above; it’s probably because they can’t afford it). A handful of people are trying to keep up with demanding production and staff is spread too thin. The books aren’t being given the time and attention they should; they’re shuffled out to press and then ignored.
This happens to publishers run by nice people who have the best of intentions, but it is bad business practice regardless. There is nothing wrong with staying small and curating a respectable list of quality books. A publisher who has only been around a couple of years but is putting out a hundred books a year isn’t a good sign: you have to ask yourself where they’re getting their money to do this. There is a good chance they’re developing into an author mill, which churns out quantity over quality and makes a profit when writers buy copies to hand-sell.
They don’t pretend they’re doing you a favour by publishing your book.
Listen, a publisher publishes a book for one reason: they think they can sell that book.
They are not charities. Yes, they are taking a financial risk by publishing it, but that is their fucking job. They are not doing you a favour. If they act like they are, if they suggest they have all the power and you should just shut up and be grateful they “gave you a chance”, they can fuck right off. They made a business decision to engage in a relationship with another business: YOU.
Suggesting otherwise is a manipulative tactic appealing to your emotions rather than your good business sense, and you have to ask yourself WHY they would do such a thing and what they’re gaining from it (beyond keeping you in a shitty contract).
They are not your family.
Listen, I get it. Especially since small press is often run by a couple of people, it’s easy to start to feel friendly with them. Like they’re “family.”
Your publisher is not your family; your FAMILY is your family.
Your publisher is not your friend; your FRIENDS are your friends.
Notice what I’ve said here over and over? Often these places are run by nice people. But nice people /= smart business partners. Yes, you can be on friendly terms with the owner, staff, and other authors. That’s a healthy thing; you don’t want an adversarial relationship with those you are doing long-term business with.
But when you start seeing them as family, it’s that much harder to speak up when there are problems. It’s that much harder to act as a business yourself. We put up with shit from our families that we wouldn’t put up with those we’re doing business with, and publishers engaging in bad business practices and predatory tactics will absolutely use your sense of loyalty against you. You don’t need to have a publisher run by someone you’d want to have over for dinner; you need a publisher who is going to sell your fucking book to people.
As I said, not exhaustive, but there are some starting points. I’ll do a second part to this if I think of more to say.
Do note that this isn’t directed at any small press; this is a pattern I have noticed over the years as I’ve worked in this business and spoken to a lot of other authors. It’s not exclusive to small press, either, as imprints at the Big Five can have some of these problems too, and it’s just as big a concern there (although the benefit is that you likely have an agent dealing with them for you). It is also not an attempt to push people into self-publishing; I don’t really fucking care how you publish your books.
But publishers get away with a lot of crap, especially small ones, because writers are dealing on their own, there’s a culture of silence and forced gratitude because you feel like someone did you a favor. It’s bullshit. You and your readers deserve better.
There are fantastic small presses out there doing extraordinary work. I’ve worked with some of them as a freelancer, I’ve bought their books. But there are many who aren’t, and it’s up to you to watch for red flags.
A bad deal is much worse than no deal, folks.
Update: A brief follow-up…
I got some lulz from a comment elsewhere today regarding this post.
1. To the criticism that I’m somehow not being “neutral” here. Um…I am saying a. publishers should pay their writers, and on time, b. publishers should employ and pay good staff, c. publishers should be trying to sell books as much as writers, d. if you can’t do all that, don’t be in business.
That is the middle ground. That is the bare minimum *any* writer should be expecting from a publisher. If you disagree with that, I hope your writers read this and run far, far away.
Is being a small press hard? Yep! I worked for one for over six years, I know how hard and expensive it is. So don’t fucking go into business if you can’t run your business properly. I have absolutely no sympathy for a struggling small press who is tying up the rights to books they’re doing a piss poor job of publishing and selling, and then expect writers to be “grateful”. If you don’t have the deep pockets to go into business and do things right, DO NOT OPEN A COMPANY FFS.
And 2. to suggest it’s a BAD thing that I have no sympathy and think writers should be looking out for their own bottom line? That’s adorable. Notice how I said publishers aren’t charities? Neither are writers. Writers under no obligation to hand off the rights to their intellectual property to someone who cannot pay them or competently run a business, nor are they under any obligation to feel sympathy for people who start a small press with no idea of how difficult or expensive it is.
My landlord doesn’t care about my sob story of why I can’t make rent. The hydro company doesn’t care why I can’t pay my bill. Likewise, when a company owes a writer money–whether a publisher (big or small) or Amazon–I absolutely don’t think they should care either. Pay your writers and STFU.
This is the Evil League of Evil Writers, not Coddle the Preshus Feels of Speshul Snoflakes.
If you read this post and saw your company in all the red flags I listed, you need to carefully examine your current business practices and not get your panties in a wad over #NotAllSmallPress.