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The Slush Pile

A Column by Sarah Vogelsong

Small Self-Publishers: Swimming Against the Tide

All aspiring authors dream of two things: holding their book in their hands for the first time, and the perfect editor who will shepherd their fledgling work through the publication process to glory and success.

This editor is to be counselor, friend, and the book’s greatest champion, and the task of editing is to be a twenty-first-century version of the process described by Michael Korda of legendary editors Robert Gottlieb and Nina Bourne working on Catch-22: “[They] put whole pages of manuscript through their own typewriters, rewriting them completely. . .". "The manuscript of Catch-22, endlessly retyped, looked at every stage like a jigsaw puzzle as they labored over it, bits and pieces of it taped to every available surface in Gottlieb’s cramped office.”

Such an intimate portrait of editing and publishing is unlikely to be seen in the industry today. In many cases the author–agent relationship, has replaced the bond between author and editor, and authors now often auction their work off to the highest bidder rather than maintaining ties with one publishing house.

r h pruett

Since the conglomeration craze overtook the publishing world in the 1970s, the industry has regularly suffered from accusations of favoring profits over literary merit, bucks over books.

“People are frustrated with the elitism of traditional publishing and . . . this attitude that only the good books are published traditionally,” says Robert Pruett, owner and publisher of the independent Brandylane Publishers and its self-publishing imprint Belle Isle Books. (Full disclosure: I have previously written for a magazine published by Brandylane, but I have never been an employee of the company.)

peter honsberger

“There are really good authors out there who deserve a chance to be heard,” says Peter Honsberger, owner of Cold River Studio, a Tennessee-based graphic design, advertising, and self-publishing company. “There are so many works being bypassed because they aren’t trendy.”

For many writers, self-publishing has been the answer to this frustration. The last fifteen years have seen phenomenal growth in self-publishing companies and self-published books. The establishment in 2007 of the Author Solutions parent company (which includes AuthorHouse, iUniverse, and Xlibris, among others) and the concomitant mushrooming of free electronic self-publishing services such as PubIt and Smashwords signified the industry’s growing importance and legitimacy.

But although self-publishing has begun to follow the pattern of traditional publishing, with large houses acquiring their smaller competitors, the young industry is still home to hundreds of small, independent companies. Some of these businesses are honest enterprises run by people eager to diversify the literary market. Some are nothing more than money-making machines capitalizing on first-time authors’ inexperience.

Whatever category these companies fall into, one thing is clear: self-publishing isn’t going away any time soon.

*          *          *

In many ways, the story of self-publishing is a story of technological innovation.

In the past, publishing was limited to companies with enough capital to buy, operate, and maintain expensive printing machines like the linotype and the later Compugraphic and ATEX systems. The development of cold type in the 1950s eased this financial burden somewhat, but it wasn’t until personal computers and laser printers appeared in the mid-1980s that modern self-publishing began to emerge. Suddenly, for an investment of only about five thousand dollars, a publisher could produce printed materials independently.

However, it was the development of print-on-demand (POD) technology in 1997–98 that really changed the game.

The idea behind POD is simple. In the past, publishers were forced to estimate how many copies a book would sell before it hit the market. If a book did not sell as well as predicted, piles of unsold books would end up in the publisher’s warehouse. Additionally, industry standards allow bookstores to return unsold books to the publisher at no cost to themselves, which further increases the publisher’s loss.

But with POD, only books for which an order has been placed are printed. Voila—no extra stock and decreased risk to the publisher.

The first POD book was produced in January, 1998 by Lightning Source, the POD arm of Ingram, one of the world’s largest book distributors. Today, many companies both large and small still rely on and maintain partnerships with Lightning Source.

Big Six publishers still largely rely on traditional offset printing, which is higher quality and more economical, but for self-publishing businesses, whose books are unlikely to sell in large quantities or reap large profits, the effects of POD and digital printing have been immeasurable. Nowadays, small publishers can conduct pre-press work from their offices and exert significant control over the production process.

Both Honsberger and Pruett have experienced firsthand these effects. Pruett founded Brandylane as a traditional publisher in 1985 and then later, after the spread of quality digital printing and POD, went on to create a separate self-publishing imprint, Belle Isle Books, in late 2010. Similarly, for Honsberger, these technologies facilitated the founding of his own company, initially called Cold Tree Publishing, back in 1999.

“When we started, we were one of about 75 companies in the United States. It was truly a chance for independent authors to have a place in the marketplace,” Honsberger says. “In the first five years, [self-publishing] had the potential to be incredibly well thought-of. But then, as with any growth industry, there were the operations who just jumped in for a buck. When that happened, all those barriers came back up. Self-publishing again took a turn.”

Indeed it did. Since the industry took off in the late 1990s, self-publishing has in many ways become even more difficult to navigate than traditional publishing. Marketing themselves to frustrated writers as an easy way to fulfill their dreams, a host of publishers of all sizes and reputations have cropped up, each offering a new interpretation of what self-publishing is and what a self-publisher should do.  Authors are often left foundering in a sea of choices, uncertain of whether to choose one of the large companies, often maligned as “author mills,” or a small but less well-known publisher.

There are arguments in favor of each. In an email correspondence, Victoria Strauss, webmistress of the Writer Beware site, a highly regarded industry watchdog founded in 1998 by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, notes, “I generally recommend that writers stick with the bigger, longer-established services . . . and avoid smaller companies established by inexperienced people. I give the same advice about small publishers, for the simple reason that inexperience and undercapitalization tend to result in a high failure rate. The bigger companies, while they have their own problems, tend to be better capitalized, better organized, with better systems and equipment and at least some degree of customer service and accountability.”

But some authors and small publishers complain that some of the larger companies routinely put out low-quality work and take advantage of writers, offering them promises of literary success that are impossible to fulfill.

Honsberger characterizes publishers, either large or small, who engage in this type of profiteering as “sharks and bottom-feeders.”

“They’re basically taking advantage of people,” he says. A particular problem he identifies is “upselling”—the practice of advertising a low rate at which a company will publish an author’s book and then piling on additional fees for editorial, marketing, and design work.

Pruett agrees with Honsberger’s concerns. “There’s a stigma attached to publishing through those [larger] companies,” he says. “The industry knows that [they] will publish any book that is submitted. The industry knows that editing is not required to publish under those companies, so there’s a lot of sloppy work.” (Some large companies contest the claim that they will publish anything.)

Both Belle Isle Books and Cold River Studio demand a certain standard of editing before they will publish. Every Belle Isle manuscript must undergo a thorough editing process. At Cold River, Honsberger will not publish anything that has not been previously edited by a professional editor—and that editor, he adds, “has to be someone who actually edits books for a living.”

But despite these businesses’ emphasis on editorial quality, the reality is that small self-publishers vary wildly in terms of quality. It can often be difficult for authors to distinguish between companies that are trying to produce high-quality work and those that are primarily focused on selling additional services.

“[Writers] need to be really careful about who they choose to help them publish,” says Pruett.

Honsberger strikes an even more cautionary note: “If anything it’s getting worse, in terms of people being taken advantage of.”

When I ask him why, he cites upselling in particular: “Eighty percent of it is just smoke and mirrors . . . and unless you’ve been in the business, it’s hard to tell.”

Nor is this problem likely disappear anytime soon.

“Disreputable companies don’t typically become more reputable,” says Strauss. “When your business model is built on exploiting authors (rather than providing them with good service for a reasonable cost), there really is no reason to change.”

In a way, small self-publishers are caught in the middle of opposing forces. They suffer from the questionable reputation of other small companies, and they risk being squeezed out by the larger companies.

“Certainly if [those large companies] and all those didn’t exist, I’d probably have a hundred projects underway instead of thirty,” says Pruett. But, he quickly adds, “I don’t know that I want a hundred underway. Thirty’s enough.”

Thirty books is often a full load for a small company given the extra difficulty that they face in getting their authors’ books onto the shelves. Both Honsberger and Pruett rely on large distributors—Honsberger on Ingram, and Pruett on both Ingram and Baker & Taylor—for this task.

“We can’t always get our books on the shelf at Barnes and Noble,” says Pruett, “because the space is becoming more and more limited.” However, he adds, both Brandylane and Belle Isle have “years of history and recognition in the region, and the booksellers that we do business with . . . know that our books meet a certain standard.”

Honsberger says, “It’s all about the bottom line for distributors and retailers, and so you’ve got to really have something that is interesting and that stands a chance out there. And what we try to do is make sure that every book that we do [publish] can hold its own out there against any house, both visually and writing-wise.”

At the end of the day, most small self-publishing companies believe that they bring two vital and unique assets to the table: quality and personal attention.

“We maintain a much closer relationship to our authors than the online publishers do,” says Pruett. “If they want to come in and sit on our sofa, they’re welcome to do that.”

Honsberger’s own experience is a textbook case of the value of building personal relationships with clients. His original company, Cold Tree Publishing, shuttered its doors in March 2009 as a result of industry conditions produced by the 2008 economic crash. At the time it closed, Cold Tree had 270 authors and three imprints—one for traditional publishing, one for partnership publishing, and one for self-publishing. Many of these authors actively encouraged him to reopen the business in 2010 as the more diversified Cold River Studio.

“I keep in touch with a third of those [270 authors] still,” says Honsberger. “In the twelve years when we had Cold Tree, we may have had three authors who left us. Almost everybody who publishes once with us will come back a second time.”

Even now, when he travels, he often receives invitations from authors to stay at their homes for a night. Most of his authors have his cell phone number and use it freely.

“I’m a big fly-fisher,” says Honsberger, “and I’ve definitely gotten calls when I’m out on the river.”

Despite the challenges they face, both Honsberger and Pruett are optimistic about the future, and both are expanding into e-books, a popular and increasingly vital market area for small self-publishers.

“Things change, and we continually revamp our operation,” says Honsberger.  “We’ve just got to keep fighting the good fight.”

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