Friday, June 1, 2012

The Small Press Squeeze-out?

This is just a quick post (rant?) today, about something that popped into my head. I have not researched this or looked into anyone else's take on the matter. I'm just blurting it out, and I'll likely go back later and see if there is anything out there to back up my thoughts.

What occurred to me? Small presses seem to be getting squeezed out by the big presses on one side and the mass of self-pubbers on the other side. This may seem a weird conclusion to come to, but bear with me.

We're in a time when publishing is available to pretty much anyone. For almost nothing, and sometimes absolutely nothing, any individual can "publish" a novel, in print and/or ebook, through a multitude of self-publishing venues, like CreateSpace. The vast majority of what is self-pubbed is complete crap. You don't need to research or even read any to know that. Any time there is open opportunity like that, you'll end up with mostly crap. Just watch the initial auditions for American Idol to see for yourself.

But a few self-publishers have wowed the world. Amanda Hocking and Colleen Houck are both paranormal YA romance authors who got their start with self-pubbed ebooks and then were snatched up by agents and bigger publishers because they sold so many books on their own. And this week I learned of an author named Hugh Howey, who self-pubbed a book that seems to be taking the literary world by storm. We all remember The Shack, too, but that was before the mass availability of free/nearly-free self-pubbing.

Those authors have made the world take notice. Enough notice that the other 99.99% of (mostly crappy) self-pubbed books get forgotten in the fog of admiration. We writers stand in awe of the idea of being the next big publishing rebel--and readers, most of whom don't know squat about the publishing industry, look at us and say, "Well, just do what they did."

On the other hand, there are the Big Six publishers, whom most aspiring authors strive to be accepted by. We want that big advance, the marketing budget, the prime spot on the shelves at the major bookstores.

Stuck in the middle of those two: small presses.

I'm going to end this post rather abruptly--and since I'm telling you about it, you need to forgive me. But even if you find it irritating, just think about what I'm saying here:

People see the Big Six as "legitimate" publishing. People are wowed by the guts and glory of the self-pubbed best-sellers. But they seem to see small press authors as the ones who didn't "qualify" for a Big Six house, but don't have the balls to hack it on our own.

Am I the only one to whom this has occurred? Am I seeing it all wrong?


Caprice Hokstad said...

All depends on who you see as "people". I don't think anyone with any familiarity with publishing would understand it this way. Common sense would tell you that small press is going to be a step up from self-publishing just by virtue of the fact that there is vetting and selection going on. PublishAmerica aside, authors with a small press don't automatically get in. They have to prove themselves to at least one other person who probably isn't related.

However, whether these facts are known outside the publishing industry or not and how many average jane and joe readers have enough of these facts to realize this, I wouldn't say. It seems to me that they (average readers) are not so stupid as to not realize most self-pubbed books are trash and wading through the dreck is too daunting a task to be worth their time and effort. As such, they SHOULD give more leeway and respect to small pubs because they are doing them a SERVICE to weed out the dreck and offer quality.

While yes, I DO see the attitude of small press authors being second-rate, couldn't-cut-the-mustard, Big Six rejects, I do not know of anyplace where they aren't at least some level above the self-pubbed wannabe. There are standouts and flukes everywhere. Not every author is destined to become the next Rowling, Hocking, or Howey. I don't think anyone realistically thinks otherwise.

Interesting topic. I'll be looking forward to your follow-up.

Kristen Stieffel said...

I don't think it's so much a matter of small presses being squeezed out as it is a matter of being lost in the crowd.

Kat, you spend a lot of time at Walt Disney World, so you'll get this: When you're in a tour group of 50 people in matching T-shirts and your tour guide is leading the group with a big flag making sure everyone gets to the right place, you stand out. All the other tourists are differently dressed and are wandering around, sometimes not knowing where they are going.

Being with a small press is like going with your family. Dad may have a map and know where he wants everyone to get to, and you may all have matching shirts, but picking your family our of the crowd is going to be harder than finding the big tour group with the flag.

But it's still better to go with your family than to go it alone.

Kat Heckenbach said...

This is pretty random, and definitely not backed up right now. But I can clarify a little.

By "people" I pretty much mean those with little to no understanding of the publishing process. And possibly some with actual knowledge as well, but that's another discussion. I simply remember that before I started writing, if someone had told me they were published by a "small press", I would have given them a dubious look and thought, "What? They're not published by a real publisher?"

That is what I read into the looks of a lot of people when I tell them I'm published by a small press. I think many of them assume it's another way of saying self-pubbed in effort to not have it sound so desperate.

I agree, most people don't look at who the publishers are for their favorite books. I can name very few myself, out side of the books by fellow small-press authors. I never bothered to look before I started writing, though, because I assumed that anything on the shelf at B&N was put out by a "real" publisher--meaning, a big company like Random House or whoever. I had no idea there were only six "big" houses, and that they all have a slew of imprints, but I figured all those publishing house names inside books and on the spines meant *something*.

Now, more of the general public knows self-pubbing is getting bigger because of CreateSpace. I'd bet that if I polled a bunch of non-writers, plenty of them would have heard of CS, but very few would know who Publish America is or Lulu. Part of the reason being, these self-pub-to-NYT-bestsellers are coming out of Createspace, but you don't see them coming out of PA!

Anyway, it will definitely take some more thought and research for this to hold any water. But the thought slammed me so hard today, I had to get it out :).

Kat Heckenbach said...

Kristen, great analogy! Yay, Disney!

I totally agree with you that small press is the better way to go! No arguments there. I'm just thinking about perception, and how it's affecting the state of small presses. As you say, we're like a family with matching t-shirts. But if the family gets separated, even by a few people, in the crowd, they no longer look like a matched set. They mix in too well with the mass of mis-matches.

So you end up with the big group-tour standing out, and the occasional individual grabbing everyone's attention. (If you've been to Disney, you know the individuals I'm talking about...)

Small presses need to be more tightly associated with large presses, so we can stick together and our matching t-shirts made more noticeable. But we're not being given those same advantages. We're being cast into the crowd of self-pubbers.

One thing that prompted this whole thing is the way bookstores see us. We're not taken any more seriously than self-published books. So, in turn, readers can't find us, and thus assume our books aren't worthy. I have been told, "I looked for your book at Barnes & Noble, but it wasn't there." And when I explain why, it's like all of a sudden I'm no longer a "real" author in that person's eyes.

Caprice Hokstad said...

I know exactly what attitude you're talking about, Kat. It used to really bother me when I was self-pubbed because I paid a LOT of money to get a printer/distributor that PROMISED books would be returnable and put in bookstores. On shelves. HA!

So I was more ready for it than some, but still, it SHOULD be more respectable status to be with a small press than self-pubbed.

What I do now, I know will be seen as snobbery and/or rude. However, it is my opinion that brick-and-mortar stores have made a conscious decision to spurn the small presses when they COULD have harnessed them as partners and offered something special and unique that could have HELPED their dying business models. And the physical stores ARE dying. They will be gone soon. It was not my doing, but when they turned a cold shoulder to the small presses, I can't say I am too sorry to see them die.

So when someone says, "I looked at B&N and I couldn't find your book," I say back: "B&N DOT COM, right? You didn't try going to that dinky store over by Starbucks, did you?" As if no REAL reader would waste their time with such a puny place. Even B&N admits their online catalog is 20 times bigger than even their biggest store. I resent being looked at like I'm not a "real" author and I don't see anything wrong with turning this around and laying the blame where it belongs.

The physical bookstores won't stock our books, therefore I will no longer patronize them or apologize for sending customers to Amazon. Yes, if I can manage to say it without being pushy or rude, I do it, but I have also been known to roll my eyes at people who aren't "getting with the times" and learning how to order online. Sheesh, people, the cost of gas alone should convince you to stay home and shop. And if anyone balks about being afraid to use a credit card online while they use them freely otherwise, I can hardly keep my mouth shut about their ignorance of risk. I am not a second class WRITER. You, dear reader, just don't shop at the FIRST CLASS bookstore.

Kat Heckenbach said...

Ohmigosh, I love that! I'm going to use that. Although, I may tweak it to, "You mean that toy and knick-knack shop with Starbucks in it?" It's getting so there is no room for books, what with all the games and puzzles, desk accessories, CDs and DVDs, and of course the coffee shop.

And you are right--bookstores are missing an opportunity with small presses. I can understand them shying from self-pubbed books. I do understand a lot of self-pub authors set up as a "publisher" in order to do it, but it's a quick click on their site to see if that's the case or the publisher has multiple authors and pays royalties. Anyone going to Splashdown's site can see plainly that we're NOT a self-publishing company.

Anonymous said...

My impression has been that small presses are growing. Why? First, anyone who sees a market not being met can now start a small press. How? By using the same technology that self-publishers use.

Small presses don't have the overhead of the big presses and don't have to print books first and hope they sell.

I'm predicting that the big presses (if they want to stay successful) will modernize their model to mimic the small presses to some extent. Big presses must rely on a handful of blockbusters to pay the bills. In the era where anyone can publish a book, this model won't survive without change.

Small presses tend to be more author centered in terms and royalties. They also provide the editing and creation service that the authors want. The tradeoff is they lack the marketing and big press "advances" (which are largely mythical anyway).

If bookstore chains want to survive, I hope they will start to pay attention to small presses. There is still a demand for paper books and there are many, many great authors out there. (I also predict big presses will search the indies more than they have looking for the "next big thing." Movie and music studios have been doing this for years.)

Kat Heckenbach said...

It would be awesome if the big houses started looking at indie presses for new authors--for talent. Right now it seems they do look at indies, but only to those who are already selling well on their own.

I agree there are advantages to the small press set-up, but those marketing dollars the big presses have really do make a difference.