Sunday, October 20, 2013

Risks of using micropresses

“It is easy to get overlooked at the big corporate publishing companies…”

Size does matter. When it comes to publishers, anyway.

There are the major houses, there are small presses and there are micropresses. Both of the latter vary in size and reputability, so writers need to make an informed decision about what kind of publishing would work for them. A red flag for me, though, is when the publisher is a one-person operation but pitches this as a positive. “We’re not like those big faceless corporations—we’re a family.”

The greatest risk authors run in such a situation is that the publisher will be unable to live up to their responsibilities. When one person handles everything from acquisitions to editing to cover art to marketing, it’s easy for that person to become overworked and overwhelmed, especially if they have to juggle the needs of a day job and a family. And often, a single person who does take on such responsibilities does so because they have no real experience with publishing, which makes matters all the worse.

Cases in point? Capri Publishing. Dream Books (the founder was all of 18 years old). Lionsong Publishing. Weaving Dreams Publishing. Luna Brilliante. Tico Publishing. The list is endless.

This is the main reason I prefer larger companies to micropresses. I want the reassurance of knowing that one person’s crisis or illness does not bring the entire operation to a standstill. Maybe that seems cold-blooded, but this is a business.

That’s the other risk authors run, when the publisher is more of a family member than a business partner. I’ve seen some writers say this is a reason they prefer, say, Startup Micropress to Macmillan; with the latter, they’ll be the tiniest of cogs in a very big machine, whereas with Startup, there’s a personal touch. It’s friendly and neighborly, the literary version of the small town where everyone knows your name.

Sometimes this even extends to knowing the publisher personally. In a thread on Absolute Write, discussing Firefly and Wisp Publishing, one of their authors stated that the publisher not only treated her to a meal but paid for a replacement tire for her car. Was that a wonderful thing to do? Of course. Was it a testament to the publisher’s capabilities as a publisher? No.

The real danger about thinking of one’s publisher as a close friend or family member is that, if something goes wrong, it’s difficult to regard the situation objectively. If the publisher fails to pay royalties and says it’s because she was ill, what do you do—think about your career and your money first, or trust her and give her as much time as she needs to recover?

And some publishers get very ill.

“I am sick (flu, sinus infection, fell in a hole gardening, food poisoning, etc.) and haven’t been able to make it to the post office to mail your check.”

I wish I had a garden with a hole to fall in when my phone bill was due.

Oh, wait. Bell Canada doesn’t consider itself my family and therefore wouldn’t accept that as an excuse.

“The bank took all my money repeatedly and took away the house, And then the City of Los Angeles construction destroyed everything else. And then dad died and mom had cancer, and I nearly died myself.”

That’s a direct quote from Vera Nazarian of Norilana Books, whose authors haven’t been paid for three years.

Whether the publisher is actually going through all this or not, such excuses for nonpayment put authors in a no-win situation. because if they’re kind and understanding, they’re going to be taken advantage of. On the other hand, if they speak up to request professional and ethical treatment, they become the bad guy for picking on someone who’s depressed, who’s had surgery, who’s fallen in a hole, etc.

When an author with Sovereign Publications wrote to its owner, Dorothy Deering, to say she had paid over $8000 for her novel’s publication and received nothing in return, she got a reply from the owner’s husband:

Dorothy is not only recovering from total knee replacement, but she is struggling to survive everyday. Your letter upset her so much that she sat and cried all over again.

Couldn’t she wipe her tears with some hundred-dollar-bills? She should have had at least eighty of those from that author alone.

As a poster on Absolute Write put it:

Family keeps things in the family. They don't tell tales to other people… The result is a very one-sided family, where the publisher gets away with anything and the authors get the short end of the stick.

That’s not to say that things are perfect in larger publishers, because I don’t think this is the case. But I find one-person operations far more of a risk, and that’s why.


Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

Some good warnings here. Thanks for posting such helpful advice. I must admit, it makes me a little nervous about my small three-person publisher, but their existing authors seem happy with them, so I'm going to hope for the best but view things objectively if a problem arises. So far they haven't been anything but professional.

DeConstruction of the Sekuatean Empire said...

It's like deja-vu all over again!
Another "great" example is the Fantasy Island Book Publishing family--which would be funny if it were not so sad. I was not at the stage of getting royalties but some others were. When the publisher acted as those did in your examples, a few rebelled and the whole conflict erupted into lawsuits that hurt the innocent authors caught in the crossfire. Lesson learned for new authors! As long as there's money to be made, the micropress practice will continue, eh?

Marian Perera said...

Ruth - I should have mentioned, that's a risk writers run with a smaller press, but matters don't go from "everything's moving along smoothly and professionally" to "writers haven't been paid for years" in one step.

There are warnings along the way. For instance, with one press, the owner made it clear some authors were the "Core" - they were the favored ones, the in-group. That's a huge red flag. That also made it more difficult for them to speak up when they saw something was going wrong.

Often authors will have a feeling something's wrong, even if they're not sure what it was. Intuition is another red flag.

If you're happy but prepared to be objective and to treat this as a business relationship with your career being at least as important as your publisher's financial health, you've got the best of both worlds. :)

Marian Perera said...

Stephen - Man, every time I think I've come across the ultimate in names (and I've seen Burping Frog Publishing). Please excuse me for a moment.

"De plane! De plane!"

Ah, now I've got that out of my system... yes, you're right. It's so incredibly easy to hang out one's shingle as a publisher these days. I think it was James Macdonald who said that if you go into your closet, close the door, whisper "I am a publisher", go out and walk down your driveway, you'll find a manuscript under the windshield wiper of your car.

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

Thanks for the reply, Marian. One thing that gives me confidence (aside from the fact that all the authors seem happy) is that one of the partners spent a good part of his career as managing editor of a well-known commercial magazine. So they aren't novices to the business side of things. And they're professional. None of this "we're family" or "you're my new best buddy" stuff. I think I'm just feeling vulnerable because of where I am in the publication process. (Just sent the ms. off to production.) Thanks again for humoring my jitters.

Linnea said...

Fortunately the small press that published my novel was very professional. I was pretty naïve at the time and didn't realize the risks. I was just happy someone liked my novel enough to buy it.
It's nice when folks like you offer advice to those just starting out. Saves a lot of grief if they heed the warnings.

Kami said...

Some of the mid-sized publishers can have problems too. It's always good to do some checking around, not just at the Absolute Write Water Cooler, but around the company's website itself. If it looks like it hasn't been updated in a while, all the covers look like they're done by the same artist (who might fall into a hole ...) or they're blogging more about personal stuff than books coming out and book events, be careful. They could still be great, but at that point I'd want to do some digging to be sure they're doing okay. It's really easy to get caught up in the sense of validation a writer feels when their work is accepted. That high can fly you up ... and then drop you down into an alligator-filled moat.

Marian Perera said...

Linnea - thanks! I've been helped so much along the way that I'd like to do whatever I can to pay it forward.

Kami - You're right, it's absolutely necessary to do the research, and ideally to do so before the acceptance email arrives. That sense of validation is an emotional response which can override a lot of caution. Much better to make sure the high is built on as secure a foundation as possible.