Sunday, June 27, 2010

On small presses and money

In case I've never mentioned it in this forum before, I love reading Maya Reynolds' blog. Maya is one savvy and eagle-eyed lady and I'm grateful that she takes the time to correspond with me and call me friend. So, today, I'll try to do an (inexpert) job of channelling Maya and see how I go.

Now that the iPad has been released, it seems the topic of ebooks is all the rage. Ebooks are going to explode, people! Aspiring writers are going to turn away from traditional houses and go the e-press route, with more money funnelling into their pockets, and adulation from the masses just there for the taking.

Not so fast.

Another friend and I are in the midst of an onward chugging exchange of emails on the subject of agents. He wonders how useful they are. Because I'm a contrary creature, I tend to take the opposite view, no matter my private opinions but, in playing devil's advocate, a few things occurred to me.

First off, in my mind, a well-run e-press is equivalent to a well-run small press. So, when I say "small press" in this post, know that I'm referring to established print and electronic publishing houses.

It's true that, as an aspiring writer, you'll have a better chance of selling to a small press than one of the Big Houses. This is due to a number of reasons, of which a shorter management hierarchy, variety of genres and pushing of envelopes are just some facets; e.g. a small press is more likely to take a chance on something that's not mainstream commercial. That's not what I wanted to talk about.

What I want to discuss is contracts. The contract comes from the publisher, no matter what kind of press we're talking about, big or small. You don't get a publisher saying to you, "we'd love to publish your masterpiece, gotta contract we can sign?". Nah-uh, that's one of the things they've got sewn up even before they've decided on their stable of cover artists. Or writers.

Two, contracts aren't there to make you feel warm and fuzzy. They're there to protect the publisher. And if you get some money out of the deal as well, what are you complaining about?

Over the past few years, I've seen some humdingers of contracts from small presses, and some authors have been generous enough to share with me the details of contracts from big presses. And can I tell you, it's a jungle out there. And here's the problem.

I'm not a lawyer. I'm a writer. There's stuff in contracts that I don't understand. But good agents tend not to touch you when you're contracted with a small press. So even if you go running to them, publishing contract in hand, asking for representation, chances are they'll turn you down. Why? Because there's not enough money in it. The result is that you get stuck negotiating your own contract. You already have the odds against you, because small presses don't have the marketing weight of the larger guys. You're not going to make the same kind of money from Just Furry Felines Press as you are from, say, Random House. And, on top of that, you have a contract that was written and vetted by the publisher that they expect you to sign. The brutal truth is, it doesn't matter if you walk away; it's the law of supply and demand, honey, and there are thousands more on the supply side that the publisher can pick and choose from.

Truth #1: Well-established agents tend not to take on authors published with small presses. (Please note the word "tend". There are no absolutes in this business.)

Truth #2: The small press publisher doesn't really care if you sign the contract or not. There are plenty more writer fish in the sea. This is the downside of being open to more ideas.

So, if you're a well-informed newbie writer with your first or second contract, you already know that your royalty cheques with a small press are probably going to be less than if you were with a big press. And now you've got to sign a contract and you have no solid advocate because you're too little for the top-flight agents to bother with. Are you going to get screwed? Oh, absolutely. You may argue about the type of lube you're eventually going to use, but:

Truth #3: In any contract negotiation without a savvy advocate, you'll lose something.

The prevailing wise counter-argument to my little sprinkling of doom is to suggest you take that contract to an IP lawyer, pay them a flat fee and get the same kind of advice that you get from an agent. Where's the downside? The downside is that, after they've pocketed the fee, that IP lawyer is moving on. They're not going to argue back and forth with a publisher who's determined not to give an inch on Sections 3, 5 and 29. And they're not going to tell you that they can get another publisher lined up should this set of negotiations fall through. Once again, it's back to you. And what are you going to do if the publisher won't budge on a clause you consider a showstopper? (See Truth #2 for a memory jog.)

I have no answers. I'm just letting you know that contracting with small presses have their own set of pitfalls. There is no perfect model for a beginning writer determined to make a living at writing. It's just a question of how much you can afford to lose.

ADDITIONAL: Maya recently had a link to a Huffington Post post titled, "Publishing: Taking the Power Back" about a writer (Judith D Schwartz) who decided that enough was enough and published her book using the Espresso Book Machine. She says:
Readers have responded powerfully to the book.
Now that's terrific and I'm very happy the book managed to find an appreciative audience (it would be the kind of book I'd pick up myself), but how has it translated to royalties? How much money is Ms Schwartz making via Espresso Book Machine, as compared to a similar title published by a big press? Will it even reach me in Malaysia? Is having only a North American edition enough? As I said, I have no answers, but I do think the prevailing fashion of deriding the big presses, and literary agents, is misguided. There's a reason why they're big and why agents are there, and you ignore the ramifications at your peril. Any other opinions?

* Kaz Augustin is a writer who hates contracts. You can find her website at She blogs three times a week, more or less, at and also has a food blog at If all that isn't enough, she's also on Facebook and Twitter. Just look for "ksaugustin".


KeVin K. said...

First of all, thanks for the link to Maya Reynolds -- I lost twenty minutes reading her.

Second of all, great column. Writing is a craft (or perhaps a compulsion) but earning your living as a writer is a business.
(I very much appreciate the fact you’ve got the sequence right: Get the offer from the publisher, then go look for an agent.)

If you believe in your work and if your work is for a large audience: Go for the biggest house that publishes anything like what you have written. If necessary, you can work your way down from there. Yes, this will take months, if not years. But eventually it will lead to your work reaching the greatest number of people possible (and, not incidentally, you earning enough money to be able to afford to do it again).

That being said: If what you’ve written is best for a select group of readers -- a niche market, if you will – then a small press may indeed be the best way to get your work to the audience that will appreciate it most. But do not expect to make a living from writing. (And I would say do not go this route until after you’ve tried a few of the big houses. One aspect of being big is a wide range of targeted imprints in the stable; one of them may be perfect for what you’re offering.

Kaz Augustin said...

Hey KeVin! Maya is a great resource for any writer and I can't recommend her blog highly enough. And yes, large houses like solid commercial propositions, whereas small presses are more willing to take chances. But, as in all things, there's a trade-off.

Liane Spicer said...

Absolutely. There are small presses that I respect a lot, but I'd never think of approaching them first with a submission for the very reasons you mentioned.

[I 'met' Maya years ago when I used to hang around agent blogs, and she was one of the first to go on my blogroll. I can pretty much keep up with publishing issues by reading her blog.]