by Wilfred Bereswill
I want to talk about a subject that I’ve avoided like the plague; some of the disadvantages of contracting with a small press. Now I’ll say up front that my publisher, Hilliard and Harris is a small press and they’ve been good to me. I’ll just use a phrase that I use a lot to describe the situation, “It is what it is.”
What I want to chat about are things that I did not know about before signing my contract. Would they have stopped me from signing that contract? Probably not, considering how euphoric I was that I had been accepted for publication. For the record, I did chat with a few of the H&H authors that I knew and they had good things to say. In addition, I want to be clear that I’m not picking on H&H, because a number of small presses have the same or similar policies. So here are the issues you need to consider:
Returns. Or lack of returns really. This all starts with the way our book sales work. I’m speaking in generalities here so I’m sure there are exceptions. Most large book stores basically order books with the understanding that they are returnable. But there are a number of considerations with returns. First, there’s stripping. That’s the process of the bookstore ripping off the front cover and returning just the cover to avoid excess shipping charges. They throw away the coverless books. Believe it or not, that’s the most common type of return. If the shop does return the whole book, the condition of the book upon return may render it unsalable. Also, the cost to ship, unpack, restock, etc. makes it cheaper to just go the stripping route.
Because of the cost of returns, some small presses don’t allow returns through the distributors, like H&H. By the way, H&H does take returns if the books are ordered directly from the publisher, but the big chains don't want to order from anybody but the big distributors. I honestly can’t say that I blame them, but, if you don’t conform to the industry standard, you’re screwed. So what that means to the author is that you are now in a deep rut. Chains like Barnes & Noble won’t order your book. Books-A-Million won’t bring it in either. I found that by working with Borders stores individually, you can convince them to buy a few copies, but I’m telling you, it’s a lot of work to talk to each store manager and beg. Oh, by the way, I don’t patronize Barns and Noble anymore. I let my club card lapse and I won’t buy a book there either. Call it sour grapes, but a writers group I belonged to, The St. Louis Writers Guild has meetings at B&N stores twice a month. I’ve been a regular patron at a particular store for years. When I approached the manager about a signing, she insisted she couldn’t order my book due to corporat policy. Even when I was the featured speaker for the group, they wouldn't order in any books. I was forced to sell a few copies out of the trunk of my car to the members who wanted to buy it after the talk. You reap what you sow.
Indies will shy away from non-returnable books too. Several Indies in St. Louis have copies of A Reason For Dying, but for the BIG Indie in town I had to put books there on consignment. Meaning I had to buy the books and sign a contract. If they sell in six months, then they will reimburse my cost, not a penny more and no shipping.
So, that pretty much leaves internet sales, Amazon, B&N, BAM, Borders, and a lot of others have my book on their website, but not in their stores. Then you can find it on foreign sites like Booky.fi or even this AMAZON JP. I’m fairly positive my best sales are through Amazon.
And then there’s POD. Print on demand. Many people link POD with self publishing and vanity presses. It is NOT the same. In fact there was a discussion on Sisters in Crime Yahoo Group about the subject. A lot of people ask me what my print run is. That’s when I get this sheepish look on my face and say that my book is print on demand. Of course, the next statement is usually “OH, you’re self published.” That’s not true. POD is simply a technology that allows books to be printed quickly and delivered as needed. My books are printed by Lightning Source which I believe is affiliated with Ingram, the national distributor. I’ve never had any trouble getting books delivered. Ingram always keeps a enough in stock to supply the, albeit smallish, demand.
I’m telling you that the quality of my books, both paperback and hardback are top notch. No bad bindings, no bad covers, no errors besides what was my fault, never had a complaint.
So how does this affect you as an author?
Besides the common misconception of the association of POD with self publishing, if your publisher uses POD, you are not eligible to join Mystery Writers of America or International Thriller Writers as full members. You are ineligible for awards and programs those orgainzations offer. I believe it is incredibly unfair, but that’s the way it is. Rmember... It is what it is...
In my case, my small press did not send out ARCs (advance reader copies) for review. So, I was not able to get reviews printed in my book. I had to solicit and find authors to blurb me with only the MS Word copy of my manuscript. For me, it was uncomfortable enough asking several authors that I didn't particularly know that well to blurb my book. Add that I didn't have ARCs to send them, well, it didn't help the comfort factor. I owe the extraordinary author John Lutz my heart-felt thanks for helping a new author. John is an awesome writer and you should run out and buy one of his books. You won't regret it.
So to wrap this up, before you sign a contract with a small press, know what you’re getting into. There have been many instances of authors starting their careers with small presses and going on to sign with the big guys. There are instances where, despite self-publishing, authors have gone on to bigger and better things. Trust me, I know it’s tempting to sign that first offer, but take the time to understand the publisher and do what’s best for you and your aspirations as a writer.