Authors and small press

Recently, the wonderful Tehani Wessely, the face of Fablecroft Press, asked a series of authors, including me, to write about small press.

There were a lot of great stories in this blog series. People whose beginnings were in small press, whose success was due to small press, and for whom small press offered a lifeline when their writing career was in the dumps.

Australia has many wonderful and amazing small presses that do great work.

Yet my personal experience also spans some not-so-great experiences. I have no intention of mentioning names, but would rather like to caution authors against that all-pervading despair you fall into when you’ve been told that you have a publishing contract (and you’ve been publicly wooting about it) and now you find out that, perhaps, you don’t.

The publisher is late producing the work.
The publisher makes excessive excuses as to why your work hasn’t been published yet.
The publisher produces shoddy work and neglects to fix it.
The publisher neglects to pay you.
The publisher does not respond to communication.

All these should probably be taken as indicators that the press is in trouble. I know it sounds distrustful and horrible. Small presses are run by one or two people. There are perfectly legitimate reasons why the main publisher can be taken out of action. Illness, change of job, you name it.

But, and here is the big but–it’s your work they’re sitting on. This publisher is not your best friend; they’re a business relation. If any of the above happens, chances are that any of the problems causing it are permanent. It could be for the simple reason that the small press’ owner has discovered that running a small press is hard and has moved onto the next shiny toy, but has neglected to tell the authors involved. Emails pile up in the inbox until it becomes all too much, while the press owner sends out general messages that ‘things are getting back to normal’.

That may well be the case, and sometimes it’s true. Then again, pigs have been known to fly. Unless you are getting serious indications to the contrary, as affected author, you should by now be scavenging your contract for the ‘out’ clause. That means that the contract has to have one in the first place: a set time by which the publisher should publish the work before the rights revert to you. For ebooks, there should be clauses that cover failure of payment or other breaches of contract.

Check your contracts now.

Or go read this awful tale

OMG, someone wants to publish my book!

It’s happened to me, and I’m seeing it happen to several of my writing friends. In the race to be published, you submit pretty much indiscriminately to agents and publishers who publish your genre and are open for submissions, and are not on the Predators & Editors blacklist.

And one morning, you download your email and lo, there is an offer of publication.

OMG, someone wants to publish my book! OMG, someone wants to publish my book! OMG, someone wants to publish my book! OMG, someone wants to publish my book! OMG, someone wants to publish my book! OMG, someone wants to publish my book! OMG, someone wants to publish my book! OMG, someone wants to publish my book!

Once you’ve finished jumping around, you sit down and have a look at the contract. But really, you don’t know anything about contracts. You don’t know what’s supposed to be in them, and what the standards are. The publisher making the offer is a small publisher. You don’t know them. You don’t have an agent and have never been able to get one for this particular book. You don’t have the publishing credits to belong to a professional writers’ organisation. You check the internet for information, but it contains cases about contracts that are obviously dodgy, and you’re reasonably sure this publisher is not a scam.

So you’re stuck up the creek. You feel you should be happy, and all your friends are happy for you, but there are a number of things that make you uneasy.

They could be any of the following:

The publisher is also using the press to push his or her own books. It happens. There is nothing as such ‘wrong’ with it, but do you want to be published by someone who may give his or own work preference when it comes to marketing?

The contract you get asks for rights the press doesn’t intend to use. For example, they sell only ebooks, but they want you to sign away the print rights. They are inflexible about changing this.

The person you are dealing with comes across as not very professional. For example, not all your questions are answered, or it takes an extra-ordinarily long time for you to get a reply. There may be deadlines (if you don’t accept this by…), or pushing of a certain editorial service. Whatever it is, it’s not illegal, but you feel uneasy about it.

You check the press’ web presence and the listings for a couple of their books (randomly-chosen—don’t pick their most popular titles) are not encouraging. You can barely find the books on Amazon, and when you do, there are no covers and no reviews.

The venture looks like an author-mill: it has books listed by many authors, and seem to be pushing quantity over quality.

None of those things are illegal, and some of their authors seem reasonably happy.

But you’re still unsure.

Let me ask you a question: if you were to plan an extensive home renovation, and you asked for quotes, and the company offering the cheapest quote had a lousy telephone service, took three days to get back to you, and only sent the quote after you rang them up and asked them for it, would you sign with them? Would you trust them with your money and your beloved house?

A publishing contract is a bit like this. Moreover, once you sign, you’re stuck with these people for a while. You had better like their professional conduct and feel that they could do the best by your book.

If you feel iffy now, imagine what you feel like three years down the track. A publishing contract is an agreement of service: of the publisher, to you. You are going to have to work with these people. One of them will edit you work. Any inter-personal difficulties or differences of opinion will be blown out of the water by this process. You don’t want to start off feeling dubious about their professionalism. These people will design your cover. They will send you regular sales updates. Do you feel confident that you’ll like what they do?

If you have doubts that you’ll be able to work with these people, I’d think twice about signing.