Saturday, March 12, 2011

Tips on working with small presses

Writers don’t have too many questions when it comes to the major publishers. Not only are Random House or Grand Central well-established, writers who are accepted here generally have agents who can advise them.

But what about small presses? There’s a bewildering array of these, from reputable houses to enthusiastic but new micropresses, including everything in between.

1. How should a writer investigate a small press before submitting to it?

Speaking to other authors who are published there is always a good idea, as long as you ask the right questions. It’s usually best to find out about editing, distribution and sales. An inquiry about whether the authors are happy may receive a yes, but their definition of happiness might involve seeing their book in print (with sales being irrelevant or editing unwanted).

Scarlett Parrish, who’s published with Carnal Passions and Loose Id, offered a tip:

"…buy a few of their books to see if this is a press you want to be associated with. Too many writers are swayed by a contract offer and they could be getting shafted by a bunch of cowboys. Do your homework first."

This is great advice, because from reading a press’s books, you’ll learn three things :

1. Are the press’s books readily available? Can you find them on major online stores, or are they only available through the publisher’s website?

2. Are the books reasonably priced? If you won’t pay $20 for someone else’s paperback, who’s going to pay $20 for yours?

3. Are the books edited and as error-free as possible?

Before signing with Samhain I read two of their books and at least a dozen excerpts that were available on their website.

2. What potential red flags should writers look for when checking out these presses?

This is tougher, because while a publisher asking for money is clearly a vanity press, some of the stealthier scams shift their fees to the back end and lure writers in with the promise that they won’t have to pay anything up front.

Read over the publisher’s website. That should be updated regularly and free of errors. A press which makes spelling errors on its own website isn’t one I’d trust with my manuscripts.

Another red flag is a website geared towards new writers rather than towards readers. What is the publisher offering? To make the dreams of writers come true, or to provide customers with a great read?

Publishers appeal to their money source. If that isn’t the readers, it’s the writers.

The website should also show what genres the press accepts. If it takes everything, that’s a warning sign. A publisher can’t adequately specialize in every genre.

Be cautious with publishers who have just opened their doors, unless they’re being run by professionals with experience, resources and known authors. One such press – which did have experienced staff – closed before it was even open to submissions. It’s best to make sure that a publisher is established, selling books and lasting the distance.

3. What kind of experience do the staff have?

The publisher should have a webpage about their staff – as an example, here are some of the people at Angry Robot. Check how long the editors have been working there, and if they mention authors or books they’ve handled, do an Amazon search.

To me, this is one way to separate reputable small presses from amateur micropresses. Such micropresses are often run on good intentions by people who may not have much experience in the industry. This should also show whether the press really does have staff, or whether it’s a front for self-publishing the work of one author – like Reagent Press.

Finally, one of my personal red flags (which may or may not be a problem for other writers) is a press where authors also work as editors. That not only implies a shortage of staff, it makes me wonder about the author’s qualifications for the new position. I asked Stacia Kane for her thoughts on this, and she replied,

“I personally am not crazy about it, because I want my editor to be an editor only (just like I want my agent to be an agent only), but there's nothing unethical or anything about it.

I would want to know how open that was, though. Some of those tiny start-ups have two dozen author names listed but they're all pen names for one writer/editor, and that just smacks of vanity press or trying to be deceptive. They may not be doing it on purpose, and they probably aren't deliberately trying to deceive, that's just how it can feel.”

I hope this will help any writer who’s interested in submitting to a small press, but not sure where to start with investigating them.

Many thanks to Scarlett Parrish, whose hot menage By the Book was published by Loose Id.

And much appreciation for the feedback from Stacia Kane, who’s been published through both Ellora’s Cave and Del Rey – I enjoyed her urban fantasy Unholy Ghosts.


LM Preston said...

I'd say do research by looking at the pricing, distribution, covers and other authors supported at the small press. Can they really help you sell your book? Will they pay you?

Anonymous said...

Do you recommend small print presses for novella's and short story collections?

Marian Perera said...

LM - Thanks for mentioning cover art - that's another good way to tell which press has experienced professionals.

Ralfast - I'd say the same criteria apply. If you can get it accepted by the major publishers, try them first.

But if the novella is something appealing to a niche audience, or you don't have an agent, there are small presses which would do a good job. Last I saw of Ellora's Cave, they were looking for contributions to an anthology called Oh Canada. I really liked the sound of that.

Maria Zannini said...

I agree about the cover art. Since it's the first thing that draws people, I want it to be uber professional.

Talking to authors who've been published with the presses you'd like to submit to is a good way to get the inside scoop, but please do it in private. You'll get more information, and hopefully more honesty.

Marian Perera said...

Maria - Yes, cover art is major. And often it's not what looks most artistic (e.g. flourishy fonts) but what's clear from a short distance, distinctive and uncluttered.

A fun experiment would be to show professionally executed and poorly done covers to readers, and see which ones they prefer (as long as the covers showed the same thing - e.g. two people, landscape scene, etc - that variable could be kept more or less constant). The subjects might not be able to articulate why they like or don't like something, but their feedback would still be very useful.

I'd also suggest talking to authors who have been with the press for a year or more. Someone who's just signed up might still be in the honeymoon stage.