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.
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?
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.
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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