Thursday, March 8, 2018

No One Wants To Read Your Book

Note: If you believe that small presses exist to get new voices heard then this is a post for you. If you think that small presses and their writers should make money – and not just beer money – then you aren't going to like this post.

By David Nemeth

Yesterday a couple of writer friends recommended  J. David Osborne's podcast where he interviews Michael J Seidlinger, a writer and co-publisher of Civil Coping Mechanism. If you haven't heard of Osborne, he is also a writer and the publisher of Broken River Books. Osborne and Seidlinger's conversation meanders a bit in the beginning but then around the thirtieth minute, the conversation becomes a master class in small press publishing.

I'm a big fan of the small presses.1 I'd rather read a small-press book than a book from a big publisher. I appreciate the attention to detail as well as the fact that the owner is publishing a book they absolutely believe in.  Small presses exist to give a voice to unknown and little-known writers, writers who likely won't get closer to HarperCollins or Penguin than the aisles of their local Barnes & Noble.

It is the community of readers that allow small presses to survive. All small-press publishers need to release quality books to keep their readers interested which then allows the publishers to take chances on unknown writers. Readers are also a small-press publisher's mouthpiece, recommending writers and books to friends via social media and Amazon reviews. Small presses are much like the independent record labels of the 80s and 90s. If they keep on putting out a something daring and good, the community will keep on coming back.

What else makes a small press different from the bigger publishers? Lower costs. As Osborne explains in the podcast, his only cost is the cover. Everything else – editing, formatting, etc. – he does for free. He's not getting rich at this. He's doing this because he wants to get the book out and in front of readers. Osborne admits he won't be a public-relations machine for your book, nor will he guarantee you royalties that will allow you to buy a good bottle of bourbon.

The argument that Osborne and Seidlinger put forward is that a small press' job is to make a good book available. That's it.

The question all publishers ask is: How do you do that?

The answer: by experimenting.

A few weeks ago, Broken River Books released Seidlinger's Standard Loneliness Package which has one striking feature . . . okay, two if you count Matthew Revert's cover: its price. Osborne and Seidlinger agreed to sell in paperback at what they called "ramen money," or the cheapest price Amazon will allow them to sell a printed book: $5.99.

Their plan worked, as they immediately hooked me and I didn't realize it. When I saw Seidlinger's book on Amazon for $5.99, I bought it without reading the description – all I knew was the publisher and the odd cover. Hell, I had never heard of Seidlinger before, but a paperback for $5.99 was an offer I wasn't going to pass up.

It seems that ramen pricing is working. At the time of the podcast, two weeks after the book's release, they had sold one hundred paperbacks of Standard Loneliness Package. At the writing of this post, Osborne reported that they've sold two hundred copies, and that he expects to hit two hundred and fifty after a month of sales. This experiment is getting the book in the hands of readers. And isn't that what all real writers want?

In talking to other small-press publishers and writers, the sales numbers for Standard Loneliness Package are good (or, as one publisher said, "crazy good.") As a comparison, one crime-fiction publisher told me that they sell about five hundred paperbacks per title in a year, some as low as one hundred but others nearing two thousands and their paperbacks average around $11. One author told me that their titles have sold approximately five hundred copies each and that most sold at events rather than Amazon and other outlets.2

Why do small presses continue to emulated big publishers when the resources aren't there; it doesn't make sense. Osborne and Seidlinger say, and I believe rightly so, that small presses need to do things differently and that the most important thing is to get the books in people's hands. Writers and publishers should look to other arts, media and businesses to find new ways of delivering books and connecting with their audiences. There are things many of us already do: Noir @ the Bar, StorySLAM, podcasts, KindleUnlimited, blogs and Creative Commons licensing. But we mustn't stop there. We need to look at new marketing ideas, Progressive Web Apps, Portable Web Publications, new distribution channels and continue to search for new and challenging writers.

The advantage small presses have over their behemoth brethren is the ability to experiment and even make mistakes (hopefully small ones). This is where success is found; change is the strength of a small presses.3

1 In the podcast, Seidlinger says that a small press has one or two people editing and publishing books and an indie press may have a small staff on salary.
2 I've been focusing on paperbacks instead of e-books because, as much as I like the ease of ebooks, the activity of reading seems to be drifting back to the physical book.
3 One of the arguments I will hear regarding this post is that I don't want writers or publishers to make money. That's not the case as there are plenty of ways to do this with mainstream publishers.  If money is your concern, a small press is not the correct avenue for publishing.


Kristopher said...

I can think of few better champions for small presses than Michael J Seidlinger. I have known him for years and he never ceases to impress me. Just follow his Facebook page for a short while and you will see that he really is dedicated to getting books into the hands of readers.

Joe Clifford said...

Thanks for this, David.

Lawrence Maddox said...

Thank you for a great article. Any resources you'd recommend for new authors looking to promote their crime novels?

Thomas Pluck said...

As a writer at a small press, I don't like the implication that these books couldn't make it in the big leagues and that they should be priced bargain-basement style to get exposure. That makes small presses sound like they are stepping stones to get to be a "real writer." Which is insulting to all involved. And please don't say "these books are too wild for them!" It just shows you aren't reading broadly enough. The wild stuff is often not published by crime imprints.

I respect the editors who do it all, but some presses hire separate editors, cover artists, copy editors, who are paid. Should they all work for free so the books can be "ramen" priced? I won't even mention the writer, I know we're supposed to be happy to be read and anything else is hubris.

Inflation exists, for one. I wish books were as inexpensive as when I started reading--and publishing! If you only want to sell on Amazon, you can sell books pretty cheaply. If you want anyone else to read them, you have to price them higher or you lose money every copy in Createspace Extended.
I love the online crime fic community, I'm part of it, but we aren't the only people who read these books. Some go to bookstores like Farley's, who give an entire front-facing shelf to a different indie press every month or so.

I admire Stona Fitch, who gives books away for free if you donate to charity (and it's on the honor system) but not everyone can do this for free. Expecting writers and publishers to not scrape a living limits the voices you get to hear. If you're tired of crime novels that come from an upper middle class perspective all the time, that's a reason why. Not everyone can afford a "hobby" that costs them money and a full-time job. We see what internships have done to big publishing- you often need rich parents to pay your rent while you work for free, and then we wonder why there are so many novels about young New Yorkers who someone get by without working their butts off?

I am very grateful for the small presses in crime fic. But I would never complain about paying the same price as a "real" book from a "real" publisher. Because these books are real. I'm glad Mike and David can sell their book this inexpensively, and I hope Broken River can keep publishing for decades, at whatever price they put on the book.

PS: I hope the Sweet & Low people don't send a cease & desist letter. When that guy tried it on Jack Daniels he got some nice free publicity, but not every company has a sense of humor.

Gurdonark said...

I liked this post, because I found it thought-provoking. I agree with you that price point is one place in which small presses can differ from larger, more hegemonic presses.

A related but different tangent arises from one of my reading quests. I have had the various Nook, Kindle and Kobo apps. But for a few years I focus on reading primarily ebooks which use no digital rights management (DRM). My position has a little dogma involved, but is mostly pragmatic. I prefer buying ebooks to avoid having too many physical books. I prefer DRM-free ebooks so that I can read on any digital platform, and in particular on my Linux laptop.

With the exception of a couple of major science fiction publishers who eschew DRM, this path has led me to read a great deal of small, indie press work. I have discovered some great small presses whom I would have missed knowing about, simply because those small presses put out books interesting to me which I can read in .epub without the interference of the odious Adobe Digital Editions.
Some of these are watermarked to one reader, which is fine with me. I usually pay a little less than the price for a physical copy, which makes the lesser license a bit more acceptable.

I am puzzled, frankly, when the same small presses who bewail and decry the competitive practices of only offer their ebooks in Kindle format. Also, I deplore unauthorized coping of ebooks, music, and films. I license my musical works with liberal licenses, but insist they only be copied with the attribution or restrictions in the license. Yet I suggest that small press DRM does not solve the issue of piracy. It merely restricts the reader in a way that makes this particular reader less likely to buy. If I wanted to break DRM, I know which software does so--but I would never use that software to break DRM.
Instead, I only buy non-DRM works when I want to read on my laptop.

My practice of buying only non-DRM has led me to some wonderful resources.
User @Libreture on Twitter runs a great website of DRM-free publishers. Some great literary presses avoid DRM--like the UK's Salt Publishing, Canada's Invisible Publishing, or the 0s and 1s folks,, who release ebooks for 6 dollars each from a variety of small presses, all without DRM.

My simple proposal for small presses who hate what corporate megalith formats have done to ebook markets is "use DRM-free formats". It need not either be an either/or. I know that there are some readers, like me, who would be much more willing to buy if a DRM-free version were available.

So I suppose my point is price point is one place small presses can vary from the norm. But another place which is important not only for marketing but as a kind of moral mission is to eliminate ebook DRM.