Friday, February 01, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- New Publishers: To Query or Not to Query

Like brand-new agents building a client list, brand-new publishers looking for manuscripts can seem like a very attractive prospect, especially to authors who are burned-out on the agent hunt, or have decided to skip it altogether.

However, like new agents, not all new publishers are created equal. The advent of epublishing and the cheapness of print-on-demand technology has made it extremely easy for just about anyone to set themselves up in business as a publisher, whether or not they have any qualifications for doing so. Inexperienced new publishers may not have the skill or resources to acquire, edit, and design books. They may offer terrible, nonstandard contracts. They may have a poor understanding of marketing and distribution, and their small budgets may severely limit any publicity efforts they do make. The consequence for authors: tiny sales, minimal exposure, and, most likely, no professional credit.

There's another risk as well. The attrition rate for new publishers is extremely high, especially if (as many amateur publishers do) they start up without a proper business plan. Inexperienced publishers may not realize that it's best to start with a small list, rather than acquiring books by the handful (overcommitment is a common new publisher problem). They may not know how to evaluate printers or work with wholesalers or manage their budgets (leading to financial problems and logistical log jams). They may be running the publisher in their spare time out of a back room, increasing the likelihood of time management issues and the possibility of getting sidelined by personal or family problems (this is a depressingly common new publisher excuse for nonperformance).

The result: delays, mistakes, broken promises--and, ultimately, closure, often only a few months after starting up. Here's one example, a publisher that opened and closed in six months. There are many more.

Publishers' closures can be a nightmare for authors. While some do the right thing by their writers, formally releasing rights before shutting down (here's one that did this), the more unprofessional or unscrupulous companies may simply vanish, yanking their websites, terminating their email addresses, refusing to respond to letters and phone calls (here's one that did that). Even if a publisher no longer exists, having your rights encumbered by a still-existing, unterminated contract may make it extremely difficult to interest a new publisher in your book. Writer Beware has gotten hundreds of complaints over the years from writers left in this kind of limbo by collapsing small publishers and micropresses.

Also, while very small publishers may not have the assets or the debts to justify filing for bankruptcy, larger ones may. Most publishing contracts include a clause allowing for the return of rights in the event of insolvency or bankruptcy--but authors should not count on this for protection, since bankruptcy courts generally don't honor such clauses. Publishing contracts are considered assets of the publisher's estate, which can be liquidated in order to pay off creditors. If a publisher declares bankruptcy, its contracts are likely to be frozen until the court can decide whether to release or sell them. (This fact caught many authors by surprise when Triskelion filed for bankruptcy last year.)

Obviously, even established publishers can close or go bankrupt--Triskelion was in business for several years before it got into trouble. New publishers, however, are at especial risk, particularly if they're run by inexperienced people (and it can be hard to find the warning signs, since, as Richard pointed out in his last post, it's so very easy to jigger a website).

So unless you are absolutely, 100% positive that the publisher is staffed by people with substantial publishing experience--and maybe even then--it's a good idea to wait until a new publisher has been in business for at least a year, and has published a number of books, before submitting. Not only does this assure you that the publisher can take books all the way through the production process, it lets you evaluate important things like physical and editorial quality, how the books are distributed, and how they are marketed. It also allows time for complaints, if there are any, to accumulate.

Tempting as it may be to join the rush to get in on the ground floor when a new publisher opens its doors, watching and waiting is a much better strategy.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

As someone running an extremely small press, I cannot agree more with this post. I am continually surprised by how many people choose to query us who have never read one of our books.

Deb said...

The bankruptcy clause in the Triskelion contract is echoed in my five small-press contracts. Why, I wonder, do the contracts claim immediate reversion of rights to the author if the publisher ceases operation, if this clause is voided by the bankruptcy laws? Why bother having it in there at all? Or is it a comfort-clause for the author, based on a poor understanding of bankruptcy law? If there's a savvy attorney reading this, I'd love to know the answer. Because having worked with contracts in the construction business and publishing both, they don't tend to insert meaningless clauses in them...

Gregory Ludwig said...

This is all very interesting. I privately "published" one of my book manuscripts in 1999, even with its own ISBN (with minimal sales, let's say), and I avoided a whole lot of problems by not trying to publish anyone else's book as a sort of solo-practitioner small publisher.

And today, as things have developed, with the Internet, (semi-)scams are rife in this area too. In 1999 I did no advertising or the like on the Internet. And never would have considered fishing for authors--as I couldn't afford to publish someone else's book in any real sense of the term anyway.

Apropos of your remark "If a publisher declares bankruptcy, its contracts are likely to be frozen until the court can decide whether to release or sell them," I can say this: as I've felt from a more general perspective, when writers talk about being "partners" with the publishers, they should guess again. It looks more and more today as if you should consider yourself someone whose work of art, however valuable in and of itself, is being commodified by a company in a speculative venture that serves mainly that company, with all the (possible) compromises to you as an artist that that entails.

Gregory Ludwig said...

Over 20 years ago, a professor I occasionally met with and corresponded with (I had never had him as a teacher; an English teacher of mine had referred me to him) made the curious comment that it was an honor *not* to have my book published (at the time I had written my third novel, and he had been discussing with me my first, which of course was the crudest of the three). He said this "because of all the bad books that are out there." (He meant honor in the ironic way of Nixon's enemies list--it showed your good stuff to have the opposite distinction than you would normally have sought.)

I found this to be an odd, catty remark, but he was someone who had longed to write published work and had given up on it, though he could speak to a budding writer as an astute critic. He dealt with his urges to write, he said, as a sort of undulant fever, a lifelong affliction that just had to be tolerated and reduced away. I thought he was betraying a little jealousy or bitterness at my idea that I would try to publish one of my novels—-at the time he said this, I was in the earliest stages of trying to get a publisher, and had only begun to deal with an agent who turned out to be a red herring, Gene Lovitz.

In the years that followed, I stayed on my course of doing whatever I could to publish a first book, because I knew three things were usually essential to this: a sense of the quality of your work (if it is there), belief in yourself, and sheer perseverance in trying year after year. The amount of things I’ve found out about the publishing industry 23 or so years since have been quite enlightening, and no way I could have found these out if I hadn’t tried to publish a book. Certainly the glib information dispensed by various published sources over the years that make the process seem relatively simple aren’t much help to most writers; they certainly are gainsaid by what personal experience shows.

Today, I am surprised how much I would agree with that professor, that is an honor not to have your book published, given what is out there. One book I actually did a review on, John McManamy’s Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder, published in a health series by HarperCollins, is remarkably riddled with copy editing and proofreading errors. (My review appeared in the May 2007 issue of the journal Psychiatric Services.) McManamy’s book is related in type of topic, but not similar in treatment or main points, to a book I wrote that I have recently been seeking to publish. Obviously, given the psychiatric subject matter of his book (and mine), such books may be off-putting enough to a range of publishing professionals (who are laymen with regard to psychiatry), due to their squeamishness about psychiatric issues, that it would take only professionals with certain tastes to handle the books well. Having worked myself as a copy editor and proofreader for over 15 years, I would say that I would not welcome a publisher like HarperCollins doing the bad copy editing job on my book that it did on McManamy’s. And seeing how slow I am to get an agent for this book, it seems to make more sense for me to publish my book by myself, but then of course the big costs would be production, distribution, shipping, and the like.

This is just one example of how one may find that writing a book is like raising your pristine daughter, and then publishing it is like the producer of a dog-and-pony show tarting her up and dragging her across the land like a degraded and debauched Miley Cyrus. So what are we really talking about when we speak as if When a Book Is Ready, then a non-scammer agent takes it straight away to X Unimpeachable Publisher, and it enters the pantheon of Lasting Literature, and the great unwashed need not apply. This certainly is (close to) the set of implications of a lot of younger writers’ views of publishing when they are starting out. But having worked in nationally distributed publishing since 1990, and with my editing work perhaps having reached several times the number of readers that a trade book I could publish would, I feel that a healthy irony about publishing, especially about what a (tawdry) business it can be, is only helpful to your morale.

Lyrical Press, Inc. said...

My husband and I have recently opened a small press. Currently, we are still in the acquisitions stage with our grand opening on May 5th. I totally agree with this post and have been only honest and forthcoming with anyone who has any questions or concerns regarding Lyrical Press, Inc.

I'm an author as well, retired actually, with five books currently still in publication. I've worked in many areas of the publishing industry (currently, I'm also the art director for Dark Eden Press) and have taken what I've learned and what expectations I've had in publishers, and brought that to Lyrical.

Our contracts are solid, favorable to both parties. All of our authors have been treated with respect, and we continue to deal favorably with everyone contracted with us. We want everyone to succeed because, let's face it, if our authors do well, we do well.

My husband and I, through Lyrical, will do our part to help remove the stain on this industry.

Renee Rocco

green_knight said...

I'm currently evaluating whether to open a very limited small press (reprints, POD technology, with no ambitions to grow beyond micropress status) and I am getting a bit disheartened by how little advice there seems to be for startups. I want to make books available for which there is a proven-but-limited market; but there seems no way of testing it other than jumping into the cold water; and I want to do it with a fair contract (hey, I'm a writer, too), but I can see why so many places end up as well-meaning, but ultimately clueless :-(

Anonymous said...

Hi. I was wondering if you had any information on Still Waves Publishing. They left a message on the Verla Kay boards that looked a bit suspicious. I couldn't find anything on them when I "googled" them and they had a link to poetry.com which really set off the alarms.

Any info would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

Victoria Strauss said...

Anonymous 4:03, Still Waves is a "division" of Living Waters Publishing Company, which has been the subject of much discussion lately; you can see some of it here.

Still Waves is run by the 17-year-old son of Living Waters' owners. What qualifies him to be a publisher? Nothing that I can discover. (At least this is consistent: as far as I can tell, "nothing" is also what qualifies his parents to be publishers.)

Living Waters has recently been spamming Usenet, writers' forums, and blogs with calls for submissions. Some of their publishing is fee-free, but they also do vanity publishing and they have a kids' imprint that charges a $50 reading fee.

Anonymous said...

it's very easy to be trapped by a micropress that yanks the "we're all family" chain - if the royalties are late or the book releases slow down, suddenly there's a personal crisis that *must* take precedent over the actual running of the company.

I've been trapped by one of these and regret that I never clued in until it was too late. No distribution, no promotion other than having it on a website and the usual suspects and constantly-late royalties due to one crisis or another.

do your homework and don't be fooled by anyone who plays the "we're a PARTNERSHIP!" game - it's a business and should be run as such. If it's not, then they should get out.

terena said...

Very interesting post. I too am a publisher and owner of a small press (Medusa's Muse) with one book out and two more in production. Before the book debuted, I put in a year of research on the industry as well as how to run a business. I think some publishers forget they are also a business, and although the business part may be boring, it is essential to keeping your press alive. I spend half my time running the business of Medusa's Muse, and only 25% on manusctipts (the other 25% is marketing). That's the reality, and if you don't want to spend your time managing your inventory and keeping track of royalty payments, then you shouldn't start a press.

Dada X said...

Good work again writer beware the only true honest source of information to the on line publishing industry. Publishing on line and copyright law are governed by industry standards, so as an on line author I support writer beware for it's good work.
Well done!!!
akadada

Bren said...

Victoria, do you have any information about Fields of Gold Publishing in Brentwood, TN?

Victoria Strauss said...

Bren--I'm afraid I have no information on Fields of Gold, either positive or negative. Sorry!

Jim c said...

What's with small publishers like New Horizon Press, AMACOM, or Career Press? I am looking at agents and one has lots of titles with these. ranted, I want to get published and my name isn't Stephen King, but are these good deals? Fly by night? Advances? Worth waiting out something better?

Anonymous said...

Dear Victoria,
Thank you very much for your willingness to give advice to writers. I am a poet. Do you know if Kelsay Books is a subsidy press or a legitimate small press? Their website is unclear. They publish books of poetry in several imprints, including White Violet Press, Aldrich Press and Alabaster Leaves Press.
Thank you very much,
G.S. Crown