Okay, okay, so you’ve had that fine herbal tea I served up a few months back now, and it’s starting to take effect. Good, good. Things are going according to plan.
But now you’re left wondering ‘how do I tell the bad from the good? How do I avoid a contract disaster or a line getting cut or a publishing house going under?’
When looking at alternative presses, also known as independent publishing houses or small/mid-sized presses, you want to look for this lovely thing called REACH.
- Range of distribution
- Editorial know-how
- Agenda in marketing
- Current titles
- History in publishing
Let’s take it from the top, shall we?
R is for Range of Distribution
I’ve said it once, I’ve said it twice, and I will Keep Saying It Until You Learn Your Goddamn Lesson: it’s all about the distributor. Key words to look for when you’re scouring their website for this information: “in partnership with A Big Five Publishing House”, “handled in conjunction with Major Book Distributor Of Awesome.”
Your Big Five Publishing houses are:
- Hachette (it’s not pronounced hatchet – it’s French)
- Simon and Schuster
- Penguin Random House
Due to recent consolidations, the US is left with one sole global distributor – Ingram. This unfortunately makes this far more difficult for authors. If an indie press states that Ingram is their sole distributor, be sure to ask them or an author they already publish if that line is called Ingram Spark. If so, pass. Ingram Spark is a wonderful tool for self-pub authors to get their books in front of regional distributors, however its not something you should take a loss to your profit margin for. You and any author could access Ingram Spark on your own.
To summarize: the range of distribution must hail far and wide. If your goal is just to get your book online, don’t waste time with a publisher; just do it yourself. Your publisher’s job is to make you more money than you could on your own–remember this above all else!
E is for Editorial Know-how
This is where you’ve got to do some digging. (If you’re into pop music, look up “Doin’ Dirt” by Maroon 5 and get crackin with the publishing house Recent Releases page). If they don’t tell you who their editors are and where they come from, find a few titles you don’t mind reading and see how they hold up. If you’re finding errors, walk. Simple as that.
A is for Agenda in Niche and Marketing
Agenda also stands for Niche and Marketing. Some indies have a niche, like Angry Robot’s horde of SF/FA/All Things Weird. If they don’t have a niche, see about Imprints. Often times a decent-sized indie will do things under additional imprints to make it easier to sell books. This helps genre readers find exactly what they’re looking for with ease. Your publisher should always have a marketing proposal, and they should be doing it Well.
A marketing proposal may include:
- One year marketing in advance of release date, six months is the bare minimum.
- Social media presence
- Blogging tour
- Physical book tour
Physical book tours are not often offered by Big 5 let alone indies, however blogging tours are. Be wary of how many hours you spend on the latter, as reading rates of blogs have severely declined in the last decade. Instead, consider a spot speaking on a podcast that represents an aspect of your novel, such as a folklore podcast for horror and fantasy writers, or a true crime podcast for mystery and suspense writers.
Metadata is a big scary word that stands for the data on how data is organized (what?). It’s how keywords and comp titles are born (if you liked This and This, you will like THIS NEW AUTHOR!). The publishing house should have someone on staff who works to analyze the hard data and turn into workable metadata: SEO keywords, phrases for search engines, comparable titles, aka comp titles, to boost sales. Metadata is the foundation of marketing, so this is absolutely crucial to your success.
C is for Current Titles
Who’s on the client list? This is the info that can make or break whether you decide to Give Them The Book or not. Are they big names? Small names? Where are their books? Do they have blogs/what are they like? How did they submit? Do they have agents? Do you need an agent? Many indie publishers do require an agent today, but not all. Add ‘agent’ to your checklist, and if you can’t tick it off…don’t freak out, but do make sure you can check off every other item on the list. (Kensington doesn’t require an agent, and their books are Everywhere under A Ton of Imprints.) Taking authors without an agent does not a bad press make.
H is for History in the Business
You would be amazed to know the number of folks who have left Big Five publishing. Authors and editorial staff alike have said sayonara due to the shake-ups of the past few years, and it’s these wonderfully talented and knowledgeable folks who make indie houses rock. Check out the history behind the staff of any indie house. If they don’t have it on their site, just ask. Publishers like it when authors have questions; it shows you’re paying attention. Smart authors are everyone’s favorite kind of author to work with (including mine).
Okay, but what else is there?
Well friend, we also have the red flags of doom. AKA, Signs You Should Run Away, Screaming. (Do scream, and scream loudly for all to hear – it keeps others from making the same mistake you just narrowly avoided).
- The author will be responsible for purchasing their own ISBN. NEVER. IN A MILLION YEARS. SHOULD ANY PUBLISHER WORTH THEIR SALT ASK THIS OF YOU.
- The author will pay for NOTHING BECAUSE THAT’S HOW THIS WORKS.
- Whispers of whole lines being dropped.
- Books getting endlessly delayed (this is publisher talk for We Want to Drop This Author but We Don’t Want to Pay Them Any Money)
- Publisher has only one author on their client list (and it’s the head of the publishing house. Fancy that.)
- Publisher claims to be shutting their doors, only to redact this statement and remain open, after massive layoffs.
But hey –not all indie houses are scary, slimy, shark people. (Don’t ask me why shark people are slimy, just roll with it). Here are a few names that I, Suzanne Lahna, blogger, editor, reader and writer of Many Weird Things, can personally vouch for:
And that is not to say there are not many more lovely independent publishers out there in the world (there are!) but I can’t verify them all–that is for you to decide, dear reader. Find the one that’s best for your genre, your style, your story, and not someone else’s. Find the one that fits your needs, and you could find a match made in heaven to move your book from the pile on your desk to published novel.