WIHM: Publishing With a Small Press vs Self-Publishing
It was 2013, and I had three unpublishable books.
One was a book of short stories. One was about talking rats – imagine if Watership Down had been modeled on a disaster story rather than a fantasy epic. And one was a dark portal fantasy that had been favorably compared (but never by the right people) with Clive Barker’s work.
I’d spent the better part of two years querying the fantasy novel, and the process was wearing on me. It wasn’t the rejection so much as the overall agent-query culture I’d found myself in. I’d joined a forum and followed a ton of agents on Twitter and engaged in the pitch parties and workshopped my query to death and memorized all the standard advice, but the fact was that the things I was writing and the market at large were not intersecting. In 2013, it seemed like everyone around me was writing YA, except for those leaning hard into the newfound erotica zeitgeist courtesy of the Fifty Shades books. Horror wasn’t even a genre listed on most agency websites.
So I did what I imagine a lot of us with a stack of rejection letters did in 2013 and ventured into the wild west of self-publishing. I’d been following it with interest since Hugh Howey’s Wool had come along to devastate expectations and Amanda Hocking at the time was raking in absurd piles of cash. The whole concept was thrilling. Tear down the gatekeepers! Embrace absolute creative freedom!
The problem, of course, is that self-publishing is expensive.
I’m not talking about the scam-laden vanity presses, either. I just mean in terms of production costs. In order to be competitive, you need to either master a dozen or so individual skills, or you need to pay an expert to do them for you: cover design, interior layout, copy editing. You have to buy an ISBN and pay for ads and find self-promotion opportunities open to indie writers. I did the math one day and realized that the production costs of releasing a book correctly could very easily exceed the amount of a full paycheck at my day job.
I did what I could afford with my self-pubbed titles, and they suffered for it. I’m still very proud of them, and I don’t regret sending them into the world, but I also wasn’t completely satisfied with the process.
I’d noticed something, too. Those old friends I’d made, the Twitter-pitch pals, the agent-query collective. Many of them were repped now, but most weren’t landing deals at Random House. Some were out on submission for a small eternity, nose to the grindstone writing another (more marketable) book. Quite a few others were publishing with small presses and boutique publishers.
It feels a lot like nobody talks about small presses. The narrative always seems to present a binary between the big-corporate mega-conglomerations on the one hand and the do-everything-yourself indies on the other, completely ignoring the existence of anything in the middle. But that’s a disingenuous view. There are plenty of competitive small presses out there. In fact, I’d argue that this is the true indie revolution to come out of the e-pub and POD era – with lower production costs and no need for warehousing and returns, a small press can afford to launch and grow and maybe even flourish in a way that just wouldn’t have been possible 20 years ago.
The idea appealed to me.
So I made myself a list of things that were important. I wanted high-quality editing, beautiful covers, extended distribution. I wanted the option for audiobooks. I wanted a fighting chance at getting on a shelf at a library or bookstore. I wanted, in other words, a publisher who could do the things that I could not afford to do for myself, and I was more than happy to trade in the high KDP royalty share in exchange for that kind of investment.
By now it was 2018 and I had spent the intervening five years building up a stack of manuscripts. I’d begun to lean more heavily into horror fiction, which had always been my first love. It was also the perfect proving ground for my small press experiment. Horror is, after all, a subversive genre, and its fanbase is small but fiercely passionate – the perfect environment to host niche publications and boutique publishers.
Armed with my list of priorities, I started to research the available options. I started by looking at Stoker award winners for the last several years, figuring that any book with a Stoker had to be both high-quality and reasonably well-known. I crossed off all the self-published and big-five-published titles off the list and then looked up the remaining publishers one by one, exploring their websites and browsing their catalogs and researching their authors. I ranked them in order of how much I liked their covers and how nice their book formatting was.
I ended up with about a dozen publishers I really liked. The one at the top of the list was Journalstone, which just so happened to be open to submissions a the time, so I bundled up my submission packet, wrote myself a reminder on my calendar to check in at a later date, and went back to writing.
Well, by this point you’ve probably guessed how this story ends. My book RIVER OF SOULS came out in August 2019 from Trepidatio, an imprint of Journalstone.
At the time of writing this, I’m almost half a year into my small-press publishing experiment, and I’m pleased with the results. There are some immediate advantages I’ve enjoyed that I did not have with my self-published titles. Some are obvious – the book is beautifully formatted and has an amazing cover, and I didn’t have to spend rent money to make that happen. Some are less obvious – I can send my ARC to reviewers who don’t read self-pubbed stuff. Some are practically ephemeral – Instead of being a solo maverick, I’ve got a whole book family of editors, cover artists and fellow authors.
I won’t say that the small-press experience is going to be the right choice for everyone. There are drawbacks. It’s slow. If you’re used to the breakneck pace of neo-pulp self-pubbing, you can release two or three books in the time it takes to get one through querying, acceptance, editing and release. Your earnings statements come on a routine schedule rather than on-demand, so you can’t compulsively check your sales at 2am (a blessing and a curse, surely). And, of course, the royalties are lower. Nobody can match Amazon’s 70/30% royalty split, and you’re the only person who can decide if the cost-benefit analysis math works out in your favor.
But it’s an option that should be on the table and one that deserves serious consideration. Take your time to find the right fit for your goals and approach publishing like the business partnership that it is. Ask: What does this publisher have to offer me that I can’t do as well or better on my own? Weed out the scams and the eager-but-inexperienced houses that bring nothing to the table, and query the rest with confidence. You might be pleasantly surprised at how well it can turn out for you.
T.L. Bodine is the author of several dark books including, most recently, RIVER OF SOULS and INSOMNIA: STORIES TO READ WITH THE LIGHTS TURNED ON. She’s also a Wattpad star, and her Wattpad-exclusive THE HOUND was a Watty winner in 2018. Her stories live at the crossroads of uncanny and mundane, where horror lurks in the shadows of everyday life.
When not writing, she can usually be found watching scary movies, playing story-heavy video games, or experimenting in the kitchen.
She lives in New Mexico with her husband, David, and two small dogs.
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