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.
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.↩