10 questions to ask before publishing with a small press

Salvete, readers!

My first novel, The Way Home, was published this year by Odyssey Books, a small press in my native Australia. I have personally found the experience positive. However, this isn’t always the case when dealing with small presses. For example, my friend and fellow author Robyn Sarty shared on her blog the difficulties she encountered while working with a small press. Good experiences with small presses seem to be the exception. There are many reasons to be wary. For today’s post, I’ll run through some of the questions I ask myself before submitting to a small press. I went through all these questions before I signed on with Odyssey.

This post is unusually long for me. Here’s the short version: make sure you know what kind of career you want right from the very beginning, do your homework, and scrutinise the contract very carefully. With that in mind, here are the big questions:

  1. Am I better off self-publishing?

Disadvantages of small press publishing

  • With a small press, chances are you will end up doing most of the marketing yourself. It’s a lot of work, and you will receive less royalties per sale than you would by self-publishing. All things considered, is it worth sacrificing the royalties?
  • If the publisher is decent, you may have to surrender some creative control over things like content, formatting, layout, pricing, and the cover. You may or may not be okay with this.
  • Ask yourself: what are the advantages of being with a small presses? What does this small press offer that you can’t do yourself?

 

Potential advantages of small press publishing

  • Perhaps the publisher has a good reputation in the industry, or they might have great distribution, or they might have excellent people on their staff with whom you would like to work.
  • The ideal publisher will give expert guidance on aspects like cover design, editing, layout. I personally gain energy from working with others and wanted to benefit from my editor’s expertise.
  • There is a plethora of self-published content out there and it’s easy to get lost in the over-saturated market. Perhaps you’ll stand out from the crowd a little more with a publisher behind you, though nothing is guaranteed!
  • Potentially, you may have marketing opportunities you wouldn’t have as a self-published author. For instance, The Way Home was included in the Christmas catalogue for The Small Press Network and advertised in Books + Publishing, the magazine for the Aussie publishing industry. I don’t think these would have happened if the book were self-published.
  • Perhaps, for whatever reason, you don’t feel comfortable self-publishing—and that’s absolutely fine! It’s enormously time consuming and can be very costly to have sole responsibility for every aspect of your book. Lord knows I wasn’t ready to step into the indie world when I started seeking to publish The Way Home. It’s a somewhat different story now, and I would like to have a foot in both the indie and trad camps. But that is another story for another time…
  • As I mentioned in a previous post, it comes down to your long-term career goals and what your aspirations are for this particular book.

 

  1. Am I better off with a larger publisher?

Disadvantages of small press publishing

  • I’ll keep it short. If you want big advances, to see your books in chain stores, sell the film rights, have a full marketing team behind you, become a household name with your debut novel, then small press publishing probably isn’t for you.
  • Again, it comes down to your goals as an author. Be clear about this from the outset.

 

Potential advantages of small press publishing

  • These days even major publishers tend to grant smaller advances than they used to, and the marketing support has shrunk to the point where you’ll still be doing quite a bit of it yourself. However, if you get an advance you are under considerably more pressure to sell copies, as the publisher wants to recoup its investment. If your first book doesn’t earn out (often for reasons that are completely beyond your control), then you’ll be fighting an uphill battle to publish a second.
  • This pressure doesn’t really exist with a small press if you don’t have an advance, as is usually the case. Without an advance, the book doesn’t need to sell nearly as many copies to be profitable—in the small press world, around 5000 copies is generally considered a bestseller.
  • Again, it comes back to your goals—for your career and your book. These will shape your decisions about whether or not to submit to a small press. For an unknown author with long-term career goals, just starting out and looking to make a reputation in the industry, a well-regarded small press can be a great place to start.
  • Small press publishing fulfils the goals I currently strive for. It won’t work for everyone, but at this point of my career it does work for me.

 

  1. What kind of website does the publisher have?
  • Okay, let’s say that you’ve decided to start looking into small presses. You want to eliminate the bad options and make sure your book ends up in the right hands. Before submission, the first thing you’ll check out is their website.
  • If it’s a clean, professional, modern-looking website, that’s a good start.
  • You’d be surprised how many small presses’ websites look like they were built by twelve-year-old kids learning to use HTML.
  • If the website looks bad, the publisher is bad. That simple. If the website is good, well, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. See below.

 

  1. Am I actually dealing with a legitimate publisher?
  • I can’t stress this one enough. There are a lot of predators out there. Many vanity presses pass themselves off as small presses, trying to prey on the newbie writers who don’t know better. Or perhaps the authors are desperate to see their name in print—even if it means paying ridiculous fees!
  • Though I know there are experimental models of hybrid publishing, as a general principle I think it’s best for the money to flow from the publisher to the author, not the other way around.
  • There are a lot of great resources out there like Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s project, Writer Beware, which keeps track of literary scams.
  • The longevity of the publisher is a good indication of how much you should trust them. Most small presses fold within two years, for lots of reasons. If it seems like a fly-by-night operation or lame get-rich-quick scheme, it probably is.
  • Any publisher which will just print your book with no edits whatsoever isn’t worth your time.
  • Put simply, predators are not your friends. They want to eat you. Be smart like a rabbit and run.

 

  1. What sort of digital footprint does the owner of the publisher have?
  • With a small press, the business owner is most likely also the commissioning editor and solely responsible for the range of books they produce. It might feel a bit intrusive, but I do think it is worthwhile Googling the business owner and seeing what you can find.
  • If your submission is successful, then you’ll be working very closely with this person for a long time. There is a good chance you’ll be under considerable time pressure through the production process as small presses tend to have tighter schedules. It’s stressful. You want to have the confidence at the outset that you’re dealing with a decent person who knows their business, somebody you can work with under adverse circumstances.
  • See question 4 above. If you can’t find anything about the owner, that is a real worry. It suggests that either the individual doesn’t want to be found, or that they have no experience in the industry.
  • If the authors in the publisher’s current stable sing their praises online, that is a very good sign. Decent publishers tend to attract loyalty from their authors.

 

  1. Does the publisher have a good reputation in the industry?
  • How do you know they are well-regarded? Go to conferences and ask people who know. Check out who follows who on social media.
  • If the publisher’s books get shortlisted for publishing awards, it’s a very good sign. One of the reasons I was confident going to Odyssey was because Kathryn Gossow’s Cassandra was nominated for an Aurealis Award, the biggest award for science fiction and fantasy in Australia. My hunch that I was onto a good thing with Odyssey was confirmed when Elizabeth Jane Corbett’s The Tides Between was shortlisted by the Children’s Book Council of Australia.

 

  1. Do I actually like the books they publish?
  • Some small presses publish a diverse array of materials. Others specialise in a particular genre. Either way, if you don’t like the books they publish, chances are you won’t like working with this publisher.
  • See if you can find a consistent theme or tone running through the books. If it resonates with you, go for it. If you like their books, there is a chance the editor will like your stuff. If you don’t like the books, move on.
  • Do the books’ covers appeal to you? Does the publisher invest actual money into cover design? If their covers look cheap, tacky, unprofessional or unappealing, then run.

 

  1. Can I find their books in bookshops/libraries?
  • I’m not just talking about distribution to online stores like Amazon etc. That isn’t a big deal these days. You can distribute to online stores for a very small fee through an automatic service like Draft2Digital. I’m talking about distribution of hard copies to libraries and bricks-and-mortar stores.
  • Chances are you won’t see the books in the major chain stores. That isn’t necessarily a problem. However, do check out the franchises like Dymocks in Australia or Waterstones in the UK. Also check independent bookstores, who are much more likely to stock small press books out of a desire to support the writing community.
  • If you Google “Publisher name” + “distributor” you should be able to find out which company distributes their books. If they don’t work with a distributor, that may be a cause for concern. Part of the reason I was attracted to Odyssey was because their books are distributed via Novella Distribution, which has a great relationship with schools in Australia and NZ. If you write for kids or teens, school libraries are your bread and butter. The distributor isn’t just there to take orders, store and deliver the stock. They also champion the book to potential retail outlets and libraries.
  • The public library is also particularly important litmus test in Australia, which has a thriving public library system. Authors receive a (very small) compensation every time their book is borrowed.
  • It can also help to check out websites like worldcat.org, which give a fairly good overview of which libraries hold a particular book. It isn’t comprehensive or kept up to date, but it will give you some idea.

 

  1. How fair is the contract?
  • Let’s say you’re successful in your submission and you are offered a contract. It can be tempting to sign anything the publisher waves in front of you, but make sure you go in with both eyes open. Read it carefully. If it’s not acceptable to you, renegotiate or walk away. Other opportunities will come along. You have power in this situation. You have something the publisher wants—it is easy to forget that.
  • It is of enormous value to have an expert read it and give their professional opinion. Professional bodies like the Australian Society of Authors and the Queensland Writer’s Centre will provide this service for a fee. It’s worth it.
  • I’m a bit wary of anything written in excessive legalese. The English should be clear even to a lay reader.
  • What rights are you granting? Any publisher that expects you to surrender your copyright is predatory.
  • The terms of the contract should only last for a finite period whose date of expiry is explicit.
  • Also, it should spell out that if the publisher folds—which happens all too often—then all rights revert to you as the author.
  • You are in essence granting the publisher a licence to print and distribute your work, and when the contract is finished you should have the opportunity to renegotiate before renewing it. If the rights lapse, they should automatically revert to you, and this should be made clear.
  • You should keep the adaptation rights. They are more valuable than you think.
  • The contract should also make it clear who has the final say on the book’s content—i.e. the publisher shouldn’t be allowed to make major revisions without your expressed permission.
  • The contract should also spell out exactly what you and the publisher are expected to do in order to ensure the book’s success.
  • If the contract restricts your right to submit future work elsewhere, renegotiate. If the publisher won’t renegotiate, run. There is at least one player in the world of Australian publishing who compels authors to surrender part of their royalties if they submit future work elsewhere. I won’t name names, but for heaven’s sake, don’t sign anything like this!
  • Finally—the contract should spell out what will happen if things don’t work out between you and your publisher. Sometimes they don’t. Look after yourself.

 

  1. How much are my royalties?
  • If you are going to a small press for the money, you may be in it for the wrong reasons. But you *do* deserve to get paid fairly for your work, no matter what.
  • The contract should clearly spell out how much you get paid, how royalties are calculated, and when you can expect payment.
  • If you are not receiving any kind of advance, then it is reasonable to expect more generous royalties. A major publisher will offer 25% of net receipts on e-book sales on top of the advance. Ideally you should get a bit more than this.

 

  1. Bonus question: Are you willing to work your butt off to make the book a success?
  • No matter which avenue for publication you choose–indie, trad, small press—you’re going to need to work hard to make sure the book sells. If you know nothing whatsoever about marketing, then now is a very good time to learn the basics.
  • Again, you are also going to have to work fast and be available to respond to editor’s notes very quickly, as small press schedules are usually tight. If you can do that, you are doing well.

I think that’ll do it for today.

Until next time,

Valete

PS. I’m offering a free short story exclusively to followers of my newsletter. Sign up here for your copy! Fear not, I won’t give away your email address and you can unsubscribe at any time.

Publishing your first book: Some very broad advice

Salvete, readers!

Since the publication of The Way Home, a few people have asked me for advice on how to get published. To be honest, though, I’m still finding my way in the industry and my journey toward publication is by no means conventional. I started out publishing academic work in ancient history. Building on that platform, I’m transitioning to historical fiction. My path is an atypical one. Of course, I’m not actually sure there is such a thing as a typical path to publishing a novel. There are so many different ways to get your work out there, especially in the age of indie publishing. I love hearing authors tell their stories of how they started their careers. That said, I question how some well-established authors speak as though theirs is the only way. Serendipity is always a factor in publishing. Just because it worked for one author doesn’t mean it will work for all. It’s also worth considering that publishing practices vary a lot from country to country: advice that works in the US or UK may not necessarily work in a smaller country like Australia.

The best advice I can give is fairly broad.

Embrace every learning opportunity. Learn from multiple sources and be willing to try different things. Go to writing conventions, talk to agents, listen to interviews with people who know what they are talking about. Don’t be half-hearted, jump in with the enthusiasm of a space cadet. And don’t give up. It’s a hard road and can take a long time. I also think it’s really helpful to engage in self-reflection and be honest with yourself about what your goals are as an author and what kind of career you want. Being clear about your expectations is an important step to realising them.

I think I’ll follow this up with a post sharing the process Matt Wolf and I used to come up with the amazing illustrations for the Ashes of Olympus trilogy. In the meantime, The Way Home is available via the online store of your choice!

Until next time,

Valete

PS. I’m offering a free short story exclusively to followers of my newsletter. Sign up here for your copy! Fear not, I won’t give away your email address and you can unsubscribe at any time.

Some very good news!

Salvete, readers!

As you may have seen on Facebook and Twitter, I have just signed a publishing contract for my debut novel with Odyssey Books. The Ashes of Olympus trilogy kicks off in 2018, both digitally and in print. It’s a YA historical fantasy based on Greek mythology, in which a band of refugees must face the wrath of the gods to find a way home.

I want to convey how thrilled I am to share this news, but words just won’t cut it. Instead, I’ll let my good friend Snoopy do the talking.

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This isn’t my first rodeo when it comes to publication, but still, it’s my debut novel. Academic publishing and commercial fiction are universes apart, and you can bet I’m going to make the most of the experience. Publishing fiction has been a dream of mine since the first grade, when I wrote a story about a boy who was transformed into a koala.

I look forward to sharing the adventure with you over the coming months. As we get closer to publication day, I’ll share the cover with you and tell you more about the story and what went into it.

I hope you’ll join me for the journey.

Until next time,

Valete

Now on Wattpad: The Black Unicorn

Salvete, readers!

Since I announced last week that I’m going to release The Black Unicorn via Wattpad, I’ve been absolutely gobsmacked by the volume of supportive comments I’ve received, and by readers’ enthusiasm for the story. I have great news—the first four chapters of The Black Unicorn are now up on Wattpad! I’m really excited to share my work-in-progress with you. Check out the front cover and blurb below.

The Black Unicorn Cover, white text

When their mother is struck down by the wasting sickness, twelve-year-old warrior Nia and her brother Niklas set out to find the only cure: a unicorn horn. Stepping into the mists, they encounter invaders whose fearsome technology gives them godlike abilities as well as mysterious druids who possess ancient magic. A heroic fantasy in which steampunk meets Celtic myth, The Black Unicorn is a tale of a family’s love and survival in the face of overwhelming odds.

Got to admit I’m a bit bowled over by the front cover. My wife had to convince me to go for it. I live on a very limited budget, and this seemed like self-indulgence. She was right, though. The cover was worth it. As she explained, it’s the first financial investment in my career as an author. Full credit to the artist Viergacht for coming up with such a wonderful image. It’s so perfect for this story.

For the time being, I’m adding two chapters per week to Wattpad. If you’d like to follow along with the story, feel free to subscribe via Wattpad. Any feedback is welcome, whether it’s to validate my work or to suggest improvements. It would be great to have you there.

Until next time,

Valete

Going Indie

Salvete, readers!

I have something very exciting to share with you. You know that middle-grade novel I’ve been writing for my son? Well, I had a fit of madness/daring/recklessness and decided to serialise the work in progress online via Wattpad with a view towards indie publishing next year!

Serialising the work in progress will help to keep me motivated to finish the draft by the end of the year. I have a lot of other writing projects to tackle in 2018, one of which already has a publication deal — more on that later! But I’d like to have this one completed by Christmas. I’ve got two thirds of a draft, but I think I’m more likely to work faster if I’m laying track in front of a moving train. Also, I gain energy from having people read my work and especially love receiving useful feedback. Is it a bit scary to share the unfinished draft with the world? Absolutely. But Wattpad is the ideal medium for sharing work in progress, as nobody expects it to be in its final, polished state. Also, Wattpad is a great way to connect with a younger generation of readers. Better than a blog. Of course, it’ll be sharing space with a lot of fanfic, but that’s cool. If it’s okay for Margaret Atwood, it’s okay for me.

After the draft is finished, the manuscript will go through a few rounds of professional editing before I formally release it. I’ve learned a lot from indie publishing guru Susan K. Quinn over the last twelve months. The biggest lesson is that an author needs to be clear as to whether they are writing/publishing for love or money. In the case of The Black Unicorn, I’m definitely writing for love. My main motivation is to produce a thrilling story for my kids. This is a very personal project. And this will also be a learning experience for me. I’ve long been curious about indie publishing as a vehicle to empower authors, and I’ve spent a lot of time researching the ins and outs of the indie world. Still, there’s only so much you can learn from research. Sometimes you need to experience something before you really get it. I’m not necessarily trying to make money from this first novel, but to facilitate my personal growth as an author. It’s a new challenge, and one which I embrace whole-heartedly.

It’s also a wee bit terrifying, but fortune favours the bold, right?

This doesn’t mean I’m giving up on traditional publishing, either. I’m aiming to be a ‘hybrid’ author with a foot in both the indie and traditional publishing camps. Sometimes authors go indie out of frustration or anger with the publishing industry. That’s not me. How can I be mad at an industry that does so much good for the world? An industry is made of people, after all, and publishing is full of people who dedicate their lives to books. That said, the industry as a whole is going through a period of disruption like never before. It is likely that in future authors will need to demonstrate they can achieve indie success before the traditional industry will take them seriously. Even in the world of traditional publishing, authors are increasingly being relied upon to promote their own work. So I’d like to think that I can apply whatever lessons I learn in the indie world to the traditional publishing world, if and when the time comes. Indie and trad can play complementary roles, can’t they?

I’ll make an official announcement about the Wattpad project over the next couple of days. In the meantime, if you’d like a sneak-peak at the amazing front cover, pop on over to my author page on Facebook…

Until next time,

Valete

My writerly month: June, 2017

Salvete, readers!

It was a tumultuous month, to say the least.

One of my old friends passed away a few weeks ago. Dealing with this ended up being a large focus of my month. I had planned to attend a local writer’s event, but the funeral was organised for that afternoon. Theoretically, I guess I could have attended the event in the morning and then gone to the funeral, but I thought it was better to focus my energies on helping out my friend’s family that day. Then I delivered a eulogy at the funeral. That’s one of life’s less pleasant story-telling exercises, but really vital. Stories can help people heal. The important thing, as always, is to speak from the heart and make it real. This person was an important character in your life, so you want it to be as genuine as possible. A few people came up to me afterward and said how much they appreciated my speech, so I guess I did okay.

I decided to take a week off from blogging after that. Sorry about that. I needed some head-space.

In the end, finances prevented me from attending this year’s CYA Conference in Brisbane, but I’m really thrilled to see that some of my writer friends have experienced such success this year in the pitch sessions and learned so much from the panellists. And gosh, I’m particularly happy that somebody to whom I gave some encouragement at last year’s conference did so well in the competition! Well done to everybody, but particular congratulations go to the organisers for making this conference as special as it is.

Things are steaming ahead on my current novel. It’s going in a rather different direction to what I initially envisioned, because the characters aren’t quite who I thought they were. Initially I had intended to retell the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf from the viewpoint of a teenage girl. Beowulf was going to be a love interest. However, after spending about 10,000 words developing the female protagonist, I realised it would be a real disservice to her if Beowulf came sweeping in. She doesn’t need a male love interest to be a well-defined character. If anything, adding a male protagonist was in this instance going to undermine her characterisation by robbing her of agency. The solution, of course, is to remove the Beowulf framework and let the story stand on its own. It’s inspired by Beowulf, but is no longer an adaptation. The novel is an original historical fantasy whose heroine is a Viking girl. Stepping away from the canonical text is absolutely exhilarating. It has given me the freedom to create something wholly new, and to take my characters to places they never could have otherwise.

Meanwhile, my amazing co-authors and I are pretty much ready to submit our article for peer review. I’ll keep you posted on that one. I also got some good writerly news last week, which could lead to some better news in the future… But that’s all I’ll say for now.

Until next time,

Valete

My writerly week, ending 28 April, 2017

Salvete, readers.

I’ve crawled across the finish line this week, and I’m weary. And yet I do have a few things to celebrate.

  • One of the highlights of this week was when a friend of mine showed me a photo he’d taken at the Classical Association’s annual conference– my academic book was on sale at the Routledge table! And another written by a colleague which I had proofread. I’m really happy that Tertullian and the Unborn Child is reaching people who will find it helpful, and that my efforts do make a difference in this world.
  • After a very intense month in my day job, I decided to carve out some time this weekend to focus on my creative pursuits. I decided to add a few key details to my novel based on the Aeneid, added a new scene to the radio play I’m co-writing, and pushed the next novel forward another few steps.
  • By the end of this weekend, I aim to have my contribution to an academic article done and dusted. It’ll be so great to have that Centaur off my back– hoofs hurt more than monkey paws!

I listened to a podcast this week–The Bestseller ExperimentHave you heard it? It is kind of brilliant. Basically these two guys (whose names, confusingly, are both Mark) have set out to write, publish and market a bestselling novel in one year. Every week they interview somebody from the publishing industry. Whether it’s an author, publisher, editor, agent, or a number-cruncher, the guests share their secrets to success in the world of book publishing. I wish the guys who run the podcast loads and loads of luck, though I suspect that the aim to produce a ‘bestselling’ novel in just a year may be an exercise in hubris. That said, the podcast is really informative and entertaining. I did a literal spit-take when they interviewed Ben Aaronovitch, and the interview with Bryan Cranston is amazingly insightful. Not only am I learning a lot about how the industry works, but I love the sense of connection with all these people who love books and contribute to our literary culture. At the end of the day, whether as big-time mainstream novelists or as indie authors, we’re all in this together. And, yeah, I can dream about being on the show someday. Well done, Marks, you’ve inspired me.

I’d love to talk about building upon one’s academic cred to make a career as a novelist. And compare and contrast modern and ancient means of storytelling. What can we learn from the ancients? How have we progressed? In some ways, have we come full circle?

Or, you know, I could just write a blog post about it.

Well, that’s about that for this week. Thanks as ever for sticking with me, folks. Building a community is one of the main functions of story-telling, as I see it. The writer’s journey can be impossible if you go it alone, but it gives me courage to know that my words reach others, and it’s so heartwarming to hear of others’ success.

Until next time,

Valete

My writerly week, ending 21 April, 2017

Salvete, readers!

My favourite Father-in-law informs me that salvete is not only for Latin for, ‘Hey folks!’ but is also Latvian for serviette. I can only assume that any Latvian readers who stumble across my blog think I have a weird fixation upon serviettes.

This week has been very much focused upon my day job as I am entering a period of intense workload. That’s life. I’ve done a few cool writerly things though.

  • Chipped away at a bit more on the big translation project I’m working on, and finally finished another smaller project. I take back everything I said about Ps. Nicolaus being readable.
  • I can give myself a bit of a pat on the back for sharing my research on how the Great War affected my great grandparents. Hint: it wasn’t that great.
  • I did some research on marketing fiction and looked into some discussion of where the publishing industry is heading. This is, alas, just as important as actual writing these days.
  • I carved out some time to work on an article whose deadline is looming. This comes as a relief, as it’s been hanging over my head for a while.

I’ve been reflecting a bit on my author platform. As a creative writer, I produce historical fiction with a heavy mythological bent. This is a fairly natural extension from my existing platform as a young scholar of Greek and Roman history. But this also means that effectively I’m building two writing careers simultaneously, working in two related but very different genres. They complement each other quite harmoniously. Still, balancing the two can be a challenge sometimes. But it’s a challenge I love to meet, week by week.

Thanks for sticking with me, folks. I really appreciate it.

Until next time,

Valete