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HANDYMAN'S HELPER: L. Jagi Lamplighter

Publishing…Huh…What Is It Good For?


By L. Jagi Lamplighter

As children, so many of us dream of becoming authors, of penning some great novel and wowing the world with the vision that flows from our typing fingers. For some of us, this dream comes true…well, at least parts of it come true. Our book actually makes it through the obstacle course of life to the shelves of your local bookstore.

There is a magic to published authors. Like singers or ball players, people have their own idea of what an author’s life might be like. A friend whose wife is an award winning author once told of hearing his teenage daughter’s girlfriend exclaim, “Your mother’s a writer? I didn’t know you were rich!” Once someone is published, we have expectations as to what they must be like.

One of those expectations is that anyone who has entered the publishing wonder world can answer the age old question—the question that is asked again and again, in countless forms—which is better: Big house? Or small press?

Can we?

Well…we can definitely give it a shot.

There are numerous answers to this question. Both forms of publishing have their advantages and disadvantages. The short version, however, is:

Small press: advantage = individual expression; disadvantage = labor of love

Big house: advantage = more money; disadvantage = less creative control.

The longer answer is…longer.


First of all, terms. What is “small press”? What does a “big house” mean?

Small press is any publisher that is not a major publishing interest. Little publishing firms have sprung up all over with the advent of desktop publishing technology. Some of them are fly-by-night. Others are serious concerns. But they are all small by the standards of the numbers of books published when compared to the major New York publishing houses—small in relation to the numbers of books they can provide to the major book chains.

The big houses are the massive publishing concerns, many of which are located in New York City. They produce enormous numbers of books which ship out in large boxes to bookstores all over the country—and sometimes all over the world. Often they are major business conglomerates owned by massive companies that are invested in many types of businesses. For some reason, many of these companies happen to be German. This means that the publishing house’s superiors may not be familiar with the particulars of running a publishing society. Instead, they are concerned with the final bottom line.

The particulars of these two publishing entities lead to their separate strengths and weaknesses.

 Small Press:

Small press publications allows for a great range of creativity. They do not have an enormous conglomerate leaning over their shoulder. Nor do they have the massive overhead of a big publishing house. So long as your writing is decently passable, it is likely that you can find a small press that will publish you.

If you have a project that is in any way out of step with commercial publishing, this can be a great way to go. If you want the work to appear exactly as you want it without someone altering it or editing it. This can be a great way to go. Small presses often allow you a great deal of editorial control over your project.

Another advantage of small press is that the whole process is often faster. There are many small presses to choose from. Their turn around time is often quicker than the big houses. Also, it is often easier to get picked up. Since they seldom pay advances, the small presses can afford to take more chances. They can afford to try new authors.

The difficult side of the small presses is that they print the book, but they do not necessarily get the book in front of the customer. They cannot afford to do large print runs on spec. They prefer to print if they have an order. The number of books they produce is so small that many large chain bookstores will not deal with them.

This means, that, often, it is the author himself who needs to do the work to put his book in front of the customer. For the natural showman, this is not a huge burden. It can be great fun to hawk one’s works at conventions and other appropriate venues. But many writers are solitary, nebbish folks. The idea of talking to people, much less asking them to buy your works, scares them beyond the capacity for rational thought.

Also, any time spent selling one’s books is time not spent writing new ones.

So the advantages of small press are that you can probably get published more quickly and have more control over your work. If for you writing is just a labor of love, this is the way to go! If all you want is to see your mind’s child in print, to show your finished book to your friends and relatives, then this is for you.

The disadvantage is that, unless you really throw your back into the work, this path will bring in little financial gain.

Big Houses:

The big publishing houses, on the other hand, offer a greater financial reward. First, they pay an advance. This is moneys advanced against royalties that the book will theoretically earn. This advance does not need to be paid back as long as the manuscript is delivered as promised, but it is hoped that the book will ‘earn out’ the advance. If it does not, it may be hard to get the publisher to buy your next book.

If you want to make a living writing, the big houses could make that dream possible. You can send off your manuscript and receive in return a check that can actually pay your bills, some of them anyway.

Second, the big houses have a huge leg up on distribution. If you are carried by a big publishing house, your book will probably appear in the big bookstore chains. They can get your book in front of more readers. And they have marketing departments. You don’t have to do everything yourself.

The downside for the big houses is that they are huge concerns looking to make money, and they are paying out money to each author they publish. Hence they are much less willing to take chances. It is much harder for a new author to break in. The track record of an established author is already proven. Why try something new when your German bosses are demanding a healthier bottom line?

Also, they already know what their customers buy. So they often want their next book to look like the last one that did well. Even if they try something new, they may have strong opinions about how the book should read or what should appear on the cover. The author can decide whether to agree to changes to his work, but the look and feel of the book is entirely outside of his control.

So, the big houses pay more, but it is hard to break in to become one of the cherished few, and creative control is lost along the way.

The Personal Touch:

Okay, all this theory is well enough, but what is it really like? What would it feel like for a real person who dealt with both a small and a large publishing company?

Well…it might be a little like this.

Many years ago, in 1992, I started a novel titled, at the time, Prospero’s Children. It was a title I really liked because, while the story was from the point of view of Prospero’s eldest daughter, Miranda, it was really about her whole family—her father and her younger brothers and sisters. I thought the title caught what I wanted to say about the story.

Time went by. I wrote. I put it aside. I wrote it again. Somewhere around 2001, I finished the book and sent it off to my editor, an old boss who worked for a large New York publishing house.

About the same time, maybe a year later, I met Danielle Ackley-McPhail and joined her online writing group.

Time went by. I waited. I waited and I waited.

Danielle and I and some friends decided we would like to put together a small anthology of stories written by members of our writing group. We got fellow members who had a small press company to publish it for us. We picked the stories, got illustrations, picked the cover. The volume was named, aptly, No Longer Dreams.

Meanwhile…when it came to my novel, I waited.

We had so much fun with No Longer Dreams, that Danielle came up with a more ambitious idea. What about a themed anthology where we solicited for new stories? How about one about fairies with attitude. She wanted to call it Bad Ass Faeries.

Meanwhile, I waited….

The Bad Ass Faeries anthologies have come out…three of them now, with a turn around time of about six months. We got to pick the stories, lay them out as Danielle suggested, add pictures we choose, and pick our covers. Everything was just the way we wanted it.

Finally, in 2009, the first volume of my novel, Prospero Lost, finally made it to print. It had taken 8 years, and the cover, while pretty, had nothing to do with the book. In fact, I felt that it gave the wrong kind of idea about what might be inside the cover. Also, the publisher had decided to change Prospero’s Children—as the series name—to Prospero’s Daughter, so that they could put the book in a line called Women In Fantasy. I am grateful for the extra support, but the emphasis on the family, rather than the main character, was lost.

So, w hen it came to creative control, the small press rocked.

On the other hand, the income received from the faery project has been miniscule for me…others who actually go out and hawk the books have made more. While I received a rather nice sized advance for the novel.

So…which one is better? Well, they have both been great! But getting the big house publisher to publish my novel took a tremendous amount of patience, while if I hope to make any money from the faery anthologies, I will have to go out and sell them myself.

And that, folks, is the difference in a nutshell (though why you would want to stuff all that into a nutshell…God only knows. I think it sounds a tad messy.)


Do big house writers make big bucks? Some do. But most of them do not make huge fortunes. However, they do make a good deal more than all but the most intrepid and lucky of small press publishers.

For instance, several genre writers I know make $20,000 to $30,000 a year on average. This includes advances and royalties. The same writers make between $15 and $1000 with their small press projects.

Does a small house mean you will not ever break even? Not at all. Some people put in the hours and days of work hawking their own works and do well by it.

Does a large house mean that your paper baby is definitely going to be mauled? Not at all. My husband just got his latest manuscript back to be copyedited for printing and his editor had not made a single change to it.

So…which type of publishing is for you? That depends upon your preferences and goals. Both can serve admirably…so long as you walk into the experience knowing what to expect.

Which is one answer, at least, to the ancient question of small press vs. big houses. Okay, next question?





( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 6th, 2011 04:17 pm (UTC)
Wright’s Writing Corner: Publishing…Huh…What Is It Good For?
User arhyalon referenced to your post from Wright’s Writing Corner: Publishing…Huh…What Is It Good For? saying: [...] is better: Big house? Or small press? Can we? Well…we can definitely give it a shot. Read more [...]
Apr. 6th, 2011 04:59 pm (UTC)
Nice Overview!
A nice overview of the options--and dilemmas--out there for authors. What about a third option: becoming fantastically successful and thus earning huge money AND being able to demand creative control. That's realistic, right?

I snickered to myself when I read this: "But many writers are solitary, nebbish folks. The idea of talking to people, much less asking them to buy your works, scares them beyond the capacity for rational thought." Oh my, oh...oh my. That would be me.
Apr. 6th, 2011 05:37 pm (UTC)
Re: Nice Overview!
It is realistic in some ways...plenty of writers reach a point much like that...but none of us can tell ahead of time if we will be among their number. ;-)

As to the nebbish writers, you are in good company. I know quite a few folks like that. (I, who am, alas, loud and rambunctious, am not among their number.)
Apr. 6th, 2011 06:09 pm (UTC)
Re: Nice Overview!
LOL...I would say it was more than the idea...it's the very pinnacle of what most of us aspire to.

Thanks for reading and posting,

Danielle <---one of those non-nebbish, non-solitary folk ;)
Apr. 6th, 2011 06:06 pm (UTC)
Hi Jagi,

Thank you for the wonderful post. There is a lot of good information here and plenty for the beginning author to consider.

However, that having been said, I have to mildly disagree with your representation of small press vs. big houses, and their role in the career of an author.

While we all do aspire deep down to "hit it big" I think that it is quite possible to make a name for yourself, to be a success and build a career by using small press as a platform. It takes a heck of a lot more work, but is possible, whether or not you sell your own books directly.

The only reason I stress this is because I don't want to give anyone the impression that small press authors are somehow less successful or serious in their pursuit of their careers than their more fortunate and monetarily better compensated counterparts with the big houses.

In some regards if you establish yourself with the smaller presses it can help you get more notice when you do approach a big house because you will already--one hopes--have something of a following and an established publishing history. Also, small press can be a way of staying in the public eye while waiting to be picked up with the larger houses, or even while you are waiting for your already contracted book to come out.

Used wisely all of the various legitimate publishing opportunities can work in conjunction with one another to give authors a stronger foundation in the market.

Something else that was not touched on here--because let's face it, how much can you reasonably cover in a blog without losing people halfway through?--is small press as means of bringing discontinued major publications back into print as reprints, because sadly, unless you have monumental luck and success, those big houses will at some point be putting those titles that drop below their profit threshold out of print.


Apr. 6th, 2011 08:54 pm (UTC)
Re: Caveat
>In some regards if you establish yourself with the smaller presses it can help you get more notice when you do approach a big house because you will already

Oh, that's such a good point! Wish I'd thought to include it.
Apr. 7th, 2011 08:00 pm (UTC)
Re: Caveat
:) Don't sweat it, it just allowed for a bit of dialogue. Always a good thing.

Apr. 7th, 2011 07:41 pm (UTC)
Re: Caveat
Do big-house publishing contracts usually give the author the right to have the book published elsewhere once the big publisher discontinues printing it? Or is it something that needs to be specifically added to most contracts?
Apr. 7th, 2011 07:52 pm (UTC)
Re: Caveat
Hey, guy,

Once the rights revert you can do whatever you wish with your manuscript. The former publisher should not have any clauses in the original contract that would restrict your usage of it once it is no longer their property.

Be sure to check for this when reviewing a contract because some of them will try to put stipulations on what you can do with it, and what you would owe them if you do take it elsewhere, but that is bad business and if you call them on such a clause they should remove it.

Apr. 8th, 2011 06:40 am (UTC)
Re: Caveat
Ah. Is there an industry-standard set of conditions under which rights revert? A certain period of time, or when sales drop a certain amount, or when the author is paid less than X per year...?
Apr. 8th, 2011 11:09 am (UTC)
Re: Caveat
There are several different conditions, depending on the publisher.

For a short story it might read (not in exact verbage, mind you) "the publisher reserves first North American (or World) print and electronic rights in the English language for one year". This term can be either exclusive or non-exclusive, again, depending on the publisher and their intentions for the project and what their methods of distribution are.

When short story rights revert it is automatic and the publisher can usually leave them in whatever collection they appear in, but the author has the right to submit the story elsewhere as a reprint. Assuming the rights reverted under amicable conditions.

For novels it is always, in my experience, exclusive rights for a set time period, usually three years, which allows the publisher an opportunity to make back their production costs. With novels, reversion is not automatic. Authors generally have to submit the request in writing and then rights will revert in anywhere between 30 and 90 days from the publisher's receipt of that letter, allowing them time to dispose of any remaining books, preferably for them, via sales.

Rights also revert if either party violates any of the terms of the contract.

These are just generalizations. Most publishers have their own variations on the above. Publishers that tie up your rights for over three years are to be avoided if they will not modify the contract. As should publishers that require a royalty paid to them if you take the book away from them and publish it elsewhere, or publishers who try and take every conceivable right to your work beyond print and ebook. All other rights should be negotiated and the author is not obligated to relinquish them as they can, in theory, be sold to other parties without violating a print contract as long as they are not a part of the countersigned contract.

All of this is just general info and, of course, if the publisher is willing to revise the contract to remove any clauses or terms you are uncomfortable with, they are worth considering as long as you are happy with the basic terms they do set.
Apr. 8th, 2011 11:11 am (UTC)
Re: Caveat
Gah! Should have added, rights can revert under other conditions.

The one I am familiar with is if the book is out of print for a specified length of time.

The publishers have found a way around that though...sometimes they make the book POD (Print on Demand) so that they retain rights, but books are only printed as they are ordered. Still, technically they are not out of print so the author is stuck until the terms of the contract have been met.

Apr. 6th, 2011 08:16 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this!
Apr. 7th, 2011 07:59 pm (UTC)
Glad it was of help :)
Apr. 7th, 2011 06:00 pm (UTC)
Small vs. Large Publishers
User ysabetwordsmith referenced to your post from Small vs. Large Publishers saying: [...] gives a detailed comparison of small press vs. big house publishing [...]
Apr. 7th, 2011 06:00 pm (UTC)
This is a very apt analysis. I have pimped it on my blog.
Apr. 7th, 2011 07:59 pm (UTC)
Re: Wow!
Excellent! Thanks, lady.
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )

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