Almost since its inception two and a half years ago, Sci-Fi & Scary has supported independent (“indie”) authors. We define an indie author as someone who has either self-published work or gotten published through a small press. We review work from major publishing houses when it catches our attention, but we’ve found supporting indie authors to be a much more rewarding experience.
For this article we will be focusing on small presses, and the authors that work with them. Self-publishing will not be a focus.
It has been our experience that there is a lot of serious talent being represented by small presses, and the fact that these authors haven’t gotten picked up by the larger market presses can be attributed to one (or both) of the following things.
- Lack of luck in getting noticed (probably due to lack of representation by an agent).
- Work is too ‘edgy’ for mainstream publishers, who can be hesitant to go outside the ‘sure bet’ safe zone.
Small Press Publishing: The Good, The Bad, and The Cream Filling
Now, a lot of this article is going to focus on the challenges that small presses face and what authors need to know, but there are benefits to working with small press publishers. They range from simply avoiding the unfortunate stigma that self-published authors face, to the benefits of having access to the publisher’s established base of loyal readers, to the much quicker turn-around time for publication, rather than the year or more that you might have to wait with one of the larger presses., and more.
From our conversations with the small presses we worked with when researching this article, we think it’s safe to say that most of the challenges that small presses face could be mostly dealt with if they had enough capital. More capital would mean they were able to hire more staff, place more ads, and pay authors better than they currently are able to.
But, if they’re worth publishing with, they still strive to do their best for their authors, and by extension, their readers.
In fact, when I was interviewing Grey Matter Press, Crystal Lake Publishing, and Unnerving Magazine, I was pleasantly surprised by how similar the answers were to my question about how important was the presentation of their authors’ books to the public.
Tony – Grey Matter Press:
“I believe any product worth buying – in these case books – should deliver on its inherent promise to be high quality, accurate and error-free. There are thousands of reading options available, and when a buyer decides to spend their money on a given title they deserve a product worthy of their hard-earned dollars. A lack of attention to detail – something that’s often missing in self-published and indie press titles – also contributes to the negative impression among consumers of indie-published books in general, and the author in particular. This hurts us all. It’s important to me that Grey Matter Press treat an author’s work with the utmost respect […]”
Joe – Crystal Lake Publishing:
“Extremely. It shows respect to the author, the work, the genre, and the readers. Plus, it’s a very important step toward building a proper brand for Crystal Lake Publishing. Therefor it can affect sales right now and in the long run. My goal as publisher is to build a brand and for readers to trust our brand so they’ll keep coming back for more. I want readers to trust me and Crystal Lake with future releases, whether they’re familiar with the author’s work or not. Lots of our readers have picked up our new releases simply because they trust my judgement.”
Eddie – Unnerving Magazine:
“Presentation is very important. Authors aren’t proud when a publication looks like shit and I’m not proud if it looks like shit. The reader has to be impressed or the [they] won’t come back […]”
(Speaking as someone who has read works from each of these publishers, we can vouch for the veracity of their statements. They do seem to do their best to present very professional looking works.)
As previously mentioned, budget is a large challenge. However, as the guys pointed out, there are other challenges as well. One of the things that Joe [Crystal Lake] mentioned that made us think was that they face the challenge of their own reputation.
Obviously, the first thing that pops to mind is the battle against a negative reputation once it’s started to take hold. However, that’s not always the case. As a small press grows, and achieves some level of success with their works, the expectations that authors have of them grow. Joe puts it better than we ever could, so, in his own words:
“Success leads to authors wanting more…and expecting more. My job is to grow the Crystal Lake image and put our best foot forward, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have problems, setbacks, and tight budgets. We went from paying $30 a story to paying 5c to 6c a word in only two years. After recent successful anthologies (Gutted, Behold, and Where Nightmares Come From), some authors are now expecting 8c to 10c word. I’m a big supporter of authors and helping them write full time, but with so many presses closing down these days, my first responsibility lies with protecting the longevity of this press. Too many presses close down because they think paying more will result in earning more. Hope is the worst marketing plan in existence.”
Eddie and Tony [Unnerving, Grey Matter] both mentioned that one of the challenges was the reputation that indie authors have as a group. We believe that’s absolutely right. Speaking as reviewers, even though there have been a handful of well-known authors that have publicly demeaned reviewers and spoken badly about negative reviews of their works, it is indie authors that get the side-eye and caution when it comes to accepting their books for review. There are lots of reviewers that won’t even consider accepting indie authored books for review because of the chance that a bad review will lead to an undeserved attack on that reviewer.
We here at Sci-Fi & Scary have had lots of positive experiences with independent authors. But we’ve experienced the negative ones as well. And, unfortunately, a negative one can outweigh a hundred positive ones. One sci-fi author upon receiving a bad review of his post-apocalyptic book, accused us of being internet trolls, threatened to report us to Goodreads for posting our honest opinion, so on and so forth. We kept our interactions with the author as pleasant as possible, but it left a nasty taste in our mouth. To the point that we seriously considered changing our policy of accepting books from indie authors. [We decided to just go with public shaming in the future instead.]
Some of this is because most indie authors do not have a publicist to be the “middle-man” unlike the authors working with the bigger publishing houses.
And, circling back to Crystal Lake for one final concern, Joe noted that “a growing concern (with more and more authors choosing to self-publish) is proving to the authors that we’re worth the royalty cut we take. That we have the experience, contacts, and platform to help them be successful.” He goes on to say that (when it comes to self-publishers) “I’m a big fan of self-publishers, and actually recommend hybrid-publishing to my authors and mentees. By choosing to put one or two of your books in the hand of a reputable small press, you now have the opportunity of reaching new readers, reviewers, and perhaps even learning more launch techniques you can try in your own releases.”
Things to Consider as An Author
We asked William Meikle, author of The Ghost Club, Fungoid, Songs of Dreaming Gods (just to name a few), about his experiences with small presses because we had seen his work published from a few different ones.
What have your experiences been like with the various presses? Have you had drastically different experiences from one to another?
William Meikle: “The experience has indeed varied. Some know what they’re doing, are organized, plan ahead, pay on time and put out quality product. Others do some of those things well, and yet others do all of them badly.”
What is the one thing that you, as an author, would change about how the smaller presses work?
William Meikle: “Two things – Quality control is a biggie. Most of them skimp on editing, and it shows in the end product. I’d like to see more of them employing better, more experienced copy editors, for a start.
The other thing is money. Many of the smaller presses overreach themselves, bleed cash, and then spend money they don’t have to try to get back into profit. Then they can’t afford to pay their writers, and everything goes to the wall. The best ones stay stable, don’t make promises they can’t keep, and pay their writers when they say they will. They’re the ones worth working with.”
All Small Presses Are Not the Same
(No, we’re not just talking about the genres they sell)
First off, there are two major types of ‘small presses’. It’s important that the difference between the two is known.
Small Press – Operates much like a large press. Authors/stories must meet certain criteria to be published with them; contracts are signed, so and so forth. Small Press can be niche, micro-niche, etc, but the basic similarities to mass market presses are there.
Vanity Press – A vanity press has no criteria to be met for publication. Anyone can pay to have a book published through them, no matter how abhorrent the subject or quality of the manuscript might be. Vanity presses sometimes try to ‘hide’ the fact that they’re a vanity press. SFWA has a good article on how to spot these wolves in sheep clothing.
We will be addressing issues with only traditional small presses in this section, because as a writer friend that’s fairly knowledgeable about the industry put it: “Vanity press is an entirely different ball of wax and there isn’t enough white space in the world to get into all of the issues there.”
We would like to think that everyone that started a small press was doing so because they loved books and wanted to be involved in the creation of books. And naturally, we also assume that they would want to do their best. Because, as bookworms, any job to do with books seems like a dream job, doesn’t it? However, that’s just not the case.
The simple truth is, just as readers, we’ve noticed a fairly large difference in the quality of small presses. And, from our talk with indie authors, we know that it’s a difference that they can see (and experience) as well. Where some of them will work themselves to exhaustion to make sure they are doing the best and most professional job that they can, others seem to only care about the money that they make now, regardless of their reputation in the long run.
From the presentation of their authors’ work, to their dedication to actually paying their authors the money they’re owed, to the way they interact with their readers, everything that a small press does matters, and should be taken into consideration.
Below, we’re going touch briefly on some of the most important bits.
(Cover art, editing, copyediting, proofreading)
As the publishers above mentioned, how your work is presented to readers is extremely important. A shoddily presented novel is, regardless of how exciting your story is, not going to have nearly the positive impact that a well-presented, professionally presented one will.
The importance of a good cover cannot be overstated. If the cover looks like someone worked it up with the 3D modeling and a Photoshop subscription that they got for Christmas two months ago, the chances of a reader thinking “This looks awesome!” is not nearly as high as you might think it is. The cover is the first impression, and a shoddy cover means a lot of people won’t even be bothered to read the blurb.
Editing, Copy-editing, and Proofreading
Editing: Making changes to the content of the piece. A focus on the big stuff, not the small details.
Copy-editing: Focuses on stuff like consistent formatting, accuracy of the text, spelling style consistency, etc.
Proof-reading: Spelling and grammar oriented. Typographical stuff. Suggests no major edits to a text.
This, collectively, is one that makes us want to bash our heads against the wall. If a book has been put out for people to spend their money on, we readers expect that book to have been – at a minimum – copyedited and proofread. If we are expected to pay money for a book, and find it riddled with errors, it’s going to be a bad experience for us. Regardless of how good your story actually is. As a reviewer, poor presentation means we’re automatically going to deduct a star from your rating.
An author’s book is like a job interview for them. You wouldn’t show up in shorts, no shirt, and flip-flops for a job as an executive assistant, would you? Even if your CV was fantastic, you would be laughed out of the room if you were even allowed in the room to begin with.
And from sheer experience of reading several works from different small presses, we can tell you that some small presses put more emphasis on making sure you’re well-dressed for your interview. Whereas some of them just don’t seem to care, because hey, people are still buying their books, so it doesn’t matter too much, right? Your book is your interview, but they’re the jobs service responsible for getting you hooked up to begin with.
So, if you’re shopping around for a place to take your book, research (and by research we mean read books from small presses, and maybe reach out to some of the authors as well.) the places and make sure they present their clientele in a professional fashion.
Oh, and we mentioned this before, but it’s worth noting again: The turn-around on publication time with a small press can be much quicker than with the mass market press. However, don’t let the lure of seeing your book in print trick you into making a hasty decision. Some small presses can get your book out in 2-3 months, but your book can (and probably will) suffer the consequences. I know of authors who have turned down the reach afforded them by particular small presses just because the lack of care the press has exhibited with previous author’s works is not at an acceptable standard.
Representation and Responsiveness
Authors need to also consider the representation and responsiveness of the publishers that they are considering. To a certain extent, these go hand in hand.
When we were going through the updating process for our list of small press publishers of science fiction and horror, we were surprised to end up with about thirty publishers that could qualify. We – who read about 380 books last year – had only heard of about 6 of them. And of the six we had knowledge of; two of them had somewhat tarnished reputations due to poor presentation of their author’s works and/or the ability to pay their authors in time and/or and in the amounts promised. The majority of them were complete unknowns to us.
By their active promotion of their authors’ works, small presses are also promoting themselves. It is important that whomever you choose has solid plans in place for marketing their books via ads, newsletters, social media presence, and so on.
As we mentioned in the beginning of the article, having access to the publisher’s established reader base is a fantastic thing. One of the things we appreciate about small presses, as readers, is that they often include a teaser chapter from an upcoming release by one of their other authors at the back of the book. There has been many a time when that has greatly influenced what book we get next.
Also, and this ties back in to an earlier remark we made about the reputation problem with indie authors, small presses have an easier time getting reviews for books from hobbyist and professional reviewers because they are a safer, more professional feeling medium to get review copies from. A good small press is going to cultivate a good, mutually-beneficial relationship with a group of good reviewers.
Good reviewers can address both the positive and negative aspects of a book and give a balanced review as a result. Including separating opinion from fact. This means even if the review is negative, some readers may decide to check the book out for themselves.
And speaking of reviewing brings us to our next point: responsiveness.
You want your publisher to be responsive to you, obviously. But you also want them to be responsive to the public as well. When readers (both reviewers and casual readers) have positive interactions with presses, they remember it. Likewise, when they have negative interactions, they remember that too.
Some small-presses, like Grey Matter Press, Crystal Lake Publications and Unnerving Magazine, are incredibly responsive. Others have all the responsiveness of a teenager on their phone with their significant other. No matter how many times you poke, prod, politely inquire, you’re just not going to get a response.
Why is this problematic for you, as an author? As stated above, having multiple book reviewers talking a new release up is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to reach a wider pool of potential readers. Small presses have limited funds to spend on ads. Reviews – positive or negative (constructively so) – cost virtually nothing if the reviewer has been given an e-book ARC.
Also, sometimes we catch errors/goofs – sometimes rather large ones – in books. In those cases, when we have a concern about something, and would like to quietly whisper in the publisher’s ear that Houston, there’s a problem, rather than putting it in – say – a review, but we get no response, where does it get said? In the review. (Circling back to the editing issue with that comment. Not going to lie.)
A ‘bad’ small press is nigh unto impossible to communicate with. Whether we’re reaching out as readers, or potential reviewers, it doesn’t matter. As reviewers who have been around for a few years now, we understand that publishers sometimes have requirements for whom gets their review copies. This is perfectly understandable, and most of us can take a ‘no’ in good grace and move on. Maybe we’ll come back to the press when we do meet the requirements. However, being blatantly ignored is a frustrating, negative experience. There is no reason for it, and that lack of reason leads to an understanding that this press is one we don’t want to bother with in the future.
On a High Note
One of the nice things about going with a ‘good’ small press, is the fact that as an author you have someone, non-family or friend, to cheer you on. A good small press is heavily invested in their author’s success and will be there to encourage and support you in the ups and downs that come with trying to get people to read your books.
You are part of a community when you’re with a small press. You can team up on anthologies, promote each other’s work, learn from the more experienced, and be part of the team that welcomes new authors into the fold. Once you’re part of the small press team, you represent them just as much as they represent you.
So, What’s Most Important?
In closing, we asked Tony, Joe, and Eddie what they thought was the most important thing an author looking for a publisher needs to keep in mind when shopping their novel (or short story) around to small presses.
Tony – Grey Matter Press:
“In one word: reputation. While it goes without saying an author needs to find a publisher that’s a good fit for their work, it’s even more important to also partner with an ethical small press whose reputation has the ability to enhance the author’s own brand.
When I talk about reputation it goes far beyond the ethics of those running the press. It includes everything we’ve been discussing: the ability to properly edit and develop a high-quality, error-free product; to package the manuscript in a manner that’s marketable, professional and visually competitive with titles released by the Big Five; to support the product with appropriate marketing skill throughout the lifetime of the work; and to partner with a publisher with a track record that indicates they’re not likely to close their doors anytime soon, leaving the work in limbo and, possibly, unpublishable in the future.
There are thousands of authors seeking publication but making publishing decisions shouldn’t be entered into lightly and without proper research. I realize passion and excitement at the prospect of being published can sometimes cloud one’s vision. But there’s nothing worse an author can do with their manuscript than to place into the hands of a publisher that doesn’t treat it with the respect it deserves.”
Joe – Crystal Lake Publishing:
“Just like with short stories, don’t take rejection personally. Understand that our schedules and budgets really limit how many books we can accept. Taking on too many books in a short period of time exhausts our resources and support base necessary for a successful launch. With too many books lined up we’ll eventually start spending less money on marketing per book, which will result in poor sales and a press eventually closing down due to too many expenses.
It doesn’t matter how great your book is, it’s just not a guarantee. There’s a reason small presses only have an open sub periods every now and then. We can get up to 300 pitches but will probably only be able to accept five to eight new projects (especially if we offer an advance on royalties). So, don’t think that just because it’s a small press it’ll be easier to get accepted. Great titles can be turned down simply because we can’t expect you to wait two years for the book to be published.”
Eddie – Unnerving Magazine:
“Does this publisher print my kind of story? AND, am I fit as human being? The first is easy: Read a few publications or stories and understand what a publisher likes and prints. The second can be more complicated. I’ve worked with authors who – after the contract was signed – acted as if they were doing me a favor. If you feel like you’re reaching down as an author, don’t submit, just walk away […]”
We would like to thank Grey Matter Press, Crystal Lake Publishing, Unnerving Magazine, William Meikle, and J.B. Rockwell for their assistance and input with this article. Stay tuned for the publication of the full interviews from the three publishers. (We would have included them here, but this got a bit long.)
Check out Grey Matter Press at: http://greymatterpress.com/
Check out Crystal Lake Publishing at: http://www.crystallakepub.com/
Check out Unnerving Mag at: https://www.unnervingmagazine.com/
Check out William Meikle‘s work at: http://www.williammeikle.com/
Check out J.B. Rockwell’s work at: http://www.jenniferbrockwell.com/
Lilyn G is the founder of Sci-Fi & Scary, and leader of the Coolthulhu Crew. She does book and film reviews for both genres the site focuses on. Her tastes run towards creature features, hard science fiction, and lots and lots of action. She also has a soft spot for middle-grade fiction that rears its head frequently.
Though no longer involved with Ladies of Horror Fiction due to other responsibilities and a too-full plate, she was one of the original 4 co-founders.
Feel free to chat her up on Twitter as long as you aren’t hitting her up to review your book.