Andrea Phillips: In Praise Of The Small Press

Andrea Phillips is one of those writers I’ve known for a good while, now — we fought in the Transmedia Wars of 2018 together. We played live-action Ultima on the rings of Saturn. We ate fudge. Well, she made fudge? And I ate it? Because she really makes very good fudge. Whatever. Point is, I consider her a genuine friend. And now she has a book out — Revision, about a young woman who discovers that edits made to a Wikipedia-like site actually change reality — and it’s with Fireside, who I adore. Here, Andrea talks about working with Fireside and her experience with a small press. So listen up, word nerds. She has the floor.

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Used to be, if you wanted to call yourself an author, the one true path was to persuade a publisher that your book was a great bet. Then the publisher would print up copies and persuade bookstores to stock them, who would in turn persuade readers to buy them. Nowadays, thanks to the same series of technological marvels that bring us never-ending fonts of porn and cat pictures, you have the option of going straight to persuading readers to buy your book your own bad self.

War has ensued. Pointless but amazingly heated war. Because if someone makes different decisions than you, they’re bad and stupid and wrong and deserve to be murdered by having their lungs filled with chicken feed, amirite?

Wiser heads know it doesn’t have to be like that. There are many paths, and it all comes down to what’s right for you. Me, I’ve been on both sides of the field. I’ve been published by one of the big New York operations. I’ve been an author-publisher, as our dear host Mr. Wendig likes to call it. I’ve crowdfunded, I’ve done work-for-hire, I’ve even put stuff out there on the internet for free-as-in-beer for exposure and funsies.

Reader, let me tell you about a middle way you may not have considered: working with a small press.

My upcoming novel REVISION is published by Fireside Fiction Company. They don’t have the staff of a Penguin or Hachette. They don’t have distribution at Barnes & Noble. They don’t have a PR machine, or deep pockets for advance money and a whopping print run. Hell, mine is the very first book they’ve ever published, so they don’t even have experience!

Sounds like a pretty bad bet, doesn’t it? Why in the WORLD would I sign up to work with a sketchy shop like that, when I could go straight to KDP and keep 70% of the cover price? Have I gone off my rocker? Do I hate money? Am I just prone to making gut-wrenchingly terrible life decisions? In the future, will others look at the burning husk of my life and point it out to their children as an object lesson?

Hey, maybe so, I’ll let you be the judge of that. But working with a small press isn’t one of those terrible life decisions. In fact, I think it’s one of the most fantastic decisions I’ve made in my career (and I think I’ve had a pretty great career so far, too.) Here’s why.

Not Just a Cog in the Machine

When you work with a big publishing company, it’s a lot like dating someone when you’re wayyyyy more into them than they are into you. They’ve got other booties to call. A full calendar of authors to edit, ship, and promote. Some of their books will be great and some of them won’t be, but eh, no big for them if some of those books they’re juggling fall down and roll under the sofa.

This sucks for you-the-author, because you’ve only got the one book, and writing the next one is the work of weeks, months, years. If this one book fails, you just might be screwed and unable to sell the next book.

But a small press will have fewer books to juggle, so the success of any one given book is proportionately wayyyyy more significant. Maybe even as important to them as it is to you. It’s great to feel like your publisher actually, you know, cares a lot if your book does well.

Awwww Yeah Creative Control!

That sense of being important to your publisher changes the whole power dynamic of the author/publisher relationship. They need you the same as you need them. And that makes a difference in how everything else plays out.

When I was published by McGraw-Hill, as lovely as all of my editors and publicists and so on were, I definitely didn’t feel like I could rock the boat. Since I was the little fish and they are the grandmomma shark, they could change my title, give me any old cover they liked, push off the release date, and all I’d be able to do is smile and nod and be glad they didn’t change their minds about publishing me at all.

I mean I could complain, I guess, but so what if I do complain? That doesn’t mean they have to change anything.

But working with a small press tends to be a lot more collaborative. Your voice can be a little louder, and your opinions as the author have more weight. You’re not underneath fifty other people on the totem pole.

Not all small publishers will likely be quite as collaborative as Fireside — you guys, I got to weigh in on kerning for the print edition. You can be sure McGraw would’ve laughed in my face if I gave them my strong opinions on inside page design.

…TEMPERED Creative Control

But at the same time, the author isn’t always the best person to make great decisions about the book and how to sell it. Honestly it’s hard to know what your writing looks like from the outside, which makes it hard to choose the right approach for cover design, for marketing strategy, and on and on.

When you’re publishing your own work, you don’t have anyone to talk you down from your own bad creative decisions. Maybe that joke on page 233 comes off as a mean-spirited slur and not a cute play on words. Maybe your cover design idea is boring and makes it seem like you’re writing a nineteenth century French epistolary drama, not science fiction.

You can hire professionals, sure, but copy editors and cover artists are fundamentally there to do what you tell them to — and as professionals, they’ll do the best they can, but they don’t ultimately have a stake in your book’s sales, nor any leverage to save you from yourself. It’s all on you to direct their skills or professional feedback and wind up the best book possible. But a publisher has enough power to push back against your first instincts. And sometimes your first instincts are bad, you guys. So it helps a ton to get a reality check on your choices from another party who has just as much skin in the game as you do.

Less of That Pesky Admin Work

Now, I’m capable of self-pubbing. I’ve done it with ebooks and with print, I have the skills, I can do a pretty good job. But it kind of sucks?

The process of publishing a book involves a lot of busywork. Emailing, scheduling data entry, making spreadsheets. Not all of it is difficult (though some of it is!) but it sure is time-consuming. Formatting pages, entering copy edits, uploading files, going back and forth with printers or designers… gahhh, I’d rather be writing more work, you know?

So when you work with a small press, you have someone to offload all of that tedious scutwork to. Someone you can trust, because again, this is someone who cares about the success of the book just as much as you do. And meanwhile, you can keep on truckin’ with writing, the thing you’re in this game to do in the first place.

Capital Infusion

I’ve mentioned that my deal with Fireside is no-advance; that means I haven’t been paid a dime for REVISION yet. But I haven’t paid anything out of my pocket, either — as a self-pubber, by now I’d be out a good chunk of change for editing and cover design services, at the very least.

As the publisher, Fireside is handling all of that, and taking on all of the risk, too. So not only is it costing me less time to get the book out the door… it’s costing me less money, too.

Two Promoters Are Better Than One

So OK, a small press might not get you onto brick-and-mortar shelves, much less put you on endcaps and featured-author tables and all that other sweet, sweet in-store promotion. And yeah, that’s a disadvantage, I won’t lie. Point: traditional publishing.

But going with a small press instead of going it alone means I’m not relying on only my social network and resources to promote the book, either. It means I have an advocate who isn’t me going after guest posts and reviews. It means I’m not only selling to my friends and maybe their friends; it increases the scope of my potential audience.

There’s some overlap, of course, because SF/F publishing is a small community at the end of the day. But still — it never hurts to get your message out to a wider circle, right?

The L-Word

No, not THAT L-word, the other one: legitimacy.

The stigma of the author-publisher is fading. But it’s nonetheless true that a publisher, any publisher at all, opens doors that are otherwise padlocked tight. An example: my book got a glowing starred review in Publishers Weekly; but self-pub books go through a substantially different review process, and aren’t covered in Publishers Weekly at all. Other major reviewers have similar policies. When they review the works of author-publishers at all, it’s segregated, and sometimes breathtakingly expensive.

And that perception of legitimacy ripples out through the whole of the promotional process. I’m not acting as the primary contact for this book, which means the whole endeavor gets a credibility boost. There’s less chance of it being canned as spam, you know? Because some of us author-publishers sometimes go a little overboard on promotion, and it’s made the field a little twitchy on the rest of us.

More Money

In exchange for not getting an advance, I’m getting a whopping royalty — basically me and Fireside are splitting the revenue halfsies between us, after third-party distribution fees are said and done.

That means I’m getting half as much money as I’d get if I were to go to KDP myself, to be sure. But for that money, I’m getting all of the same services a major publisher offers — editing, design, production, distribution, marketing, publicity — and I’m getting two to three times as much money per every book sold than I would if the book had gone to one of the Big Four.

Should this book go Hugh Howey big, it might look like a bad bargain on the surface; are those services worth hundreds of thousands, even BAZILLIONS of dollars? My answer to that is: fuck yeah, because without them, the book would never have reached as many people in the first place, it wouldn’t have been as well designed, it wouldn’t have been as widely available, it wouldn’t have been as good.

Working with Fireside has made my book a better product, cover to cover. It’s been a tremendous and positive experience, and I have no regrets about the choices we’ve made together — even if it only sells a hundred copies. And even if it sells a hundred million.

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Andrea Phillips: Website | Twitter

Revision: Amazon | B&N

29 comments

  • (A very short comment in response to this:

    It’s worth recognizing that Fireside is not your average small press. Some small press publishers are very lovely and very earnest and also utterly incompetent. Fireside is aces, on the other hand.)

    — c.

    • Yeah, this is a 100% fair point, and now I’m wishing I’d thought to say it myself! There are *great* small presses, and then there are the ones that fold overnight and leave your rights in a sketchy limbo, or don’t report or pay royalties, or just aren’t good at editing and production management, etc. etc. There’s definitely a wide range of quality here.

      • Oh, I don’t think your piece really needed to address that — I just wanted to bop that footnote into the comments. I think small press remains a meaningful middle ground between “traditional big” and “small as the self.”

  • No no! Don’t give away the secret. Small press is the best.

    I figured that out last year and now you’d have a hard time convincing me to go elsewhere. I have a book with Red Adept Publishing and my experience has been great. I got to submit my entire manuscript, and a decision was based on its merits and not on my ability to write a query letter.

    Also, Fireside is a wonderful press. I have several friends who have published short stories through Fireside. Always high quality stuff. It makes sense that Fireside would do a book.

    Congrats to Andrea!!

    • Jenni, check out their website. Be suspicious if they promote themselves more than the authors they publish. Stalk them online for a bit before signing a contract. If other writers are complaining, you’ll know right away. Also check out Amazon reviews for some of the books they’ve published. If their authors have tons of reviews, that’s a good sign that the at least a few people are reading their books.

    • May 6, 2015 at 11:36 AM // Reply

      Also, if you’re going directly with a publisher and don’t have an agent reviewing and negotiating the contract for you, I recommend finding a good publishing contract lawyer review any and all documents before you sign. As a small business owner, that’s also my standard advice for all business transactions.There can be nasty little things hiding behind legalese in any contract.

  • THIS! This is EXACTLY why I queried small press and signed with REUTS Publishing last fall. So far it has been a marvelous experience.
    Congrats Andrea! And way to speak up for this option.

    • I queried agents for about a year and finally decided that I the book I was querying needed to find another route to publishing, so I queried a couple of small press publishers and found one. The book just came out this month, but so far it’s been a good experience. I had a ton of input when it came to working with the editors and cover artist. I’ll start querying agents again when the second novel is ready, but for now, I have no regrets picking a small publisher.

      One thing I did find strange is that quite a few other writers snubbed their noses at me for deciding to go small press instead of self-pub. Is that normal, or did I just run into a couple of crankies?

      • Jason, I’m finding small presses are the ‘red headed step child’ in many situations. I don’t think RWA has made up their mind about them, and yes it often feels like we receive ‘special’ attention, not always positive

        • Ironically, small press books make up the bulk of book sales in the recent Amazon sales report. And I’m talking close to 50% of sales, eclipsing larger publishers and indies. The dismissive attitude toward small presses IS bizarre, to say the least.

  • May 6, 2015 at 8:56 AM // Reply

    Great post, Andrea! So fab to have options, and glad to know your experience has been so good and Fireside is a quality co. Good luck with the release of Revision! Meanwhile, can see why you and Chuck are fast friends. Similar voice–but less swearing. ; )

  • I got my publishing break with a small press. Though our relationship soured, I’m still grateful to them for that opportunity. Most of my work currently is with Champagne Books. They have been utterly brilliant, from bundling my novellas in order to publish a paperback to devising a way for me to take e-books to a convention.

    Though I am moving more into self-publishing, I couldn’t do that without cutting my teeth on the business through a small press.

  • This could not have been more timely for me; I am, this very second, awaiting a proposal from an indie press.

    I believe in this option as a happy medium between the heartless publishing bohemoth and self publishing, neither of which were very palatable for the exact reasons you outlined above.

    Thanks Andrea (and you too, Chuck). These kinds of things mean a lot to lonely scribblers out in the wild that don’t know if we are making the right decisions.

    RP

  • I really, really want to echo Chuck’s first point. There many small presses that aren’t outright scams, but are run by people with far more enthusiasm than skill. But I do agree with you, if you get in with a good operation, it can be an amazing experience.

    I was lucky to get in on the ground floor with a publisher that has also been an editor, an author, and a publishing marketing manager. So in addition to all of the benefits you mentioned of being with a small press, I was able to get some of the goodies – like Barnes & Noble placement, coverage in Library Journal, prime signing at big specialty stores and more – that are usually reserved for bigger publishers.

    Thanks for the great post.

  • After years of book drag…writing some, not sure what to do with it…I looked into the possibilities. I knew the big presses could be difficult in many ways, and I watched a VERY good, VERY published friend have the soul of her books be ripped out by editors who did not like her characters…and also editors who made changes without tell her. I knew I didn’t want to deal with self pubbing. A new press opened up, put out a call, and I figures what the heck. Sent them a manuscript, got an answer over the weekend, book came out in five months. They’ve grown since then, I have my third book coming out. Editing is good, my covers please me, and they love my writing (BIG plus) No advances but a good royalty % that goes up with each book published.
    Are there problems? Yes. But those same problems show up with big presses that send you a pittance from each sale. I do a lot of my promo but I would never assume any press was going to provide this since I specialize in non standard characters and stories.

  • Hi, Andrea. Lovely post. I’ve just shared it with the Writer Unboxed community on their FB page. It’s a broad range of writers of both the pubbed and pre-pubbed variety. I think you make some great points they’d enjoy reading, and you make those points pithily, wittily, and wryly.

    Not to be confused with Riley.

    Here’s the link if you want to check it out: https://www.facebook.com/groups/writerunboxed/?fref=nf

    Thanks, wonderful advice. And yes, the quality of the small press matters. Ask anyone who had dealings with Macadam Cage.

  • Hey Andrea,

    Thanks for sharing your story.

    Looking forward to hearing how it turns out AND wishing you the very best in publishing adventures!

    Lucie!

  • May 6, 2015 at 4:32 PM // Reply

    Not a writer, but an avid reader, love chuck and love this blog. The description of the book intrigued me so I clicked the Amazon button and bought it. LOVED it. I wish you success! Wink wink nod nod know what I mean!

  • As a guy still two sentences into his first book, this is a great advice. I’d been resigned to self-publishing, but if small publishing firms are an option (that’s to say, if my book doesn’t blow chunks), I’m definitely in!

  • Great advice, Andrea. Always good to consider ones options. My experience with a small press is much the same as yours, and since you said it all so perfectly, I won’t add more. Good times; how wonderful to be an author with choices.
    Dee Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT

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