Thursday, July 16, 2009

Small Press, Epress, Vanity--what are they?

There's been a great deal of controversy lately at RWA concerning "recognition" for publishers as well as what kind of books can be entered in the RITA contest.

While I'm not going into the controversy (I have my opinion, but it's being discussed very well elsewhere), it occurred to me that newer authors might not know what the heck they're talking about. What is meant by "non-vanity, non-subsidy" press? What's an e-publisher? What's the difference between small press and e-press, and what does it mean when people talk about "New York"?

Vanity press: Vanity publishing is different from self-publishing. In vanity publishing, you send your ms. and a sum of money to the publisher, who then does all the editing (if any), creates the cover, prints the book, and sends you back a carton or twenty of published, bound books. There is no "acquisition" process--anyone can publish at these presses as long as you pay (some are fairly inexpensive; some can run into thousands and thousands of dollars.) Vanity press can be useful if you want to publish your great-grandmother's diary or your child's picture book as a gift for family members (some presses specialize in "gift books"). If you dream of becoming a big-name, NYT novelist, this is not the way to go.

Subsidy press: Subsidy is much like vanity publishing although the press might pick up some of the costs (e.g., it pays an editor but you pay for the cover and the printing.)

Self-publishing: Self-publishing differs from vanity press because you are essentially becoming a publishing company. You pay for everything, yes, but it's in your hands to hire an editor, hire a proofreader, hire a printer, design the cover or hire a cover artist, and decide how to market it. Self-publishing works well with books that will sell to niche audiences--regional cookbooks, regional histories, how-tos, etc. (mostly nonfiction). Self-published authors have been quite successful, although I think it's a rare author who is successful in self-published fiction. It can be done, but it's rare. Most readers looking for fiction hit Walmart or B&N.

In these three types of publishing, self-publishing is the most respected. Tip: If you have vanity-published a book, never mention that in a query letter to an agent or editor, unless it's become an NYT bestseller (which is not very likely).

Note also that with these types of publishing options, you must distribute, market, and sell the book yourself. If you are fantastic at hand-selling, love to get out with the public and press your book into as many hands as you can, you go for it. It's not for me, but some people are good at it.

E-press: E-publishing has been around for ten or so years now, and now every major publisher has started putting out their list in e-. When someone talks about an e-publisher or e-pub, they mean publishing houses who release e-book originals, bringing a print copy out months later in a secondary process. They sell the e-books from their own website or partner with distribution points like Fictionwise, Sony, Kindle, and the like.

Examples of highly successful e-book publishers are Ellora's Cave, Samhain, and Loose ID (pronounced "Lucid"). I submitted a ms. to an e-publisher about five years ago to see what it was all about, and was pleasantly surprised at both the income and the quality of the press. (The submitted book is still selling, btw). Please note that all e-presses are not created equal. Before you submit to e-presses, purchase their books, look over their website, talk to authors who write for them, ask questions about their contracts. Object strenuously to contracts that pay royalties on "Net Receipts". Or get an agent and let her object strenuously for you. Stick to your guns on this or don't be surprised if you get ripped off.

Small Press: When most people say "small press," they mean presses that print a limited run of nicely bound hardback books. Small presses can be quite prestigious. Poisoned Pen press, a mystery publisher, has produced novels that win top mystery awards and have been optioned for TV mini-series. Avalon press and Walker are well-known in the library industry, and produce quality titles. Small presses don't pay very high advances ($1000 is typical), nor are their print runs large (2000-10,000 is typical). However, small presses can then sell mass market rights to a larger house, getting you more distribution and more $$. Small presses usually cater to a niche market (e.g., the mystery genre; library market; nonfiction only; etc.). I've not published with small press, but authors tell me they have a homey, intimate atmosphere.

NY House: When people refer to a "NY House" or simply "New York," they mean the big dogs of the publishing industry with big offices in New York City: Random House, Penguin, HarperCollins, HQ/Sil, Simon & Schuster, as well as a few independent houses like Dorchester and Kensington. NY pubs can pay million dollar advances and get your book shelved in every supermarket, bookstore, library, and mass merchandiser in the country and around the world. Note that they can also pay you $1000 and send 20,000 books to a few bookstores only. The NY House is where the big distribution happens, where the big money rolls around, and where authors get famous. My biggest advice about NY: Get an agent. You can sell a book without one, but please have someone by your side after that!

Another thing to remember: While small press and e-press (and even self-publishing) can be a stepping stone to a NY House, please realize that vanity/subsidy press is not. It's a rare, rare, rare, rare occurrence for a vanity author to make it. I'm sure everyone can point to one instance where it's happened (that's what "rare" means). Point to twenty or thirty, and I might start believing.

And one more thing:

It's perfectly fine to want a career in small press or e-press! I know authors who are happy as clams writing for two or three e-presses or sticking with their small press. Writing isn't always about money and glamour. And you can make money at an e-press (Hint: The key is backlist.)

I think I've covered the bases here--if not, or you have questions, let me know!


Robert said...

Good posting and thanks for the mention. One minor addition I'd make re. self-publishing is that, with respect to fiction, it is generally a very poor stepping stone into a career as an author with a conventional publisher. It does sometimes happen, but rarely. I gave some of our logic on this issue at

Robert Rosenwald
Publisher & President
Poisoned Pen Press

Jennifer Ashley/ Allyson James / Ashley Gardner said...

I agree. Very, very rare. Self-pub is good I think when you have a narrow niche audience you know well (and nonfiction usually does best here). If we hear of a wildly successful fiction author who started as self-pub that's because it *is* rare, and the conventional press is using the story as a marketing tool.

Thanks for commenting, Robert! PP Press is fabulous.

Anonymous said...

Question: Is iUniverse subsidy or small press?

Jennifer Ashley/ Allyson James / Ashley Gardner said...

iUniverse is considered a POD (Print on Demand) publisher, but can be considered "subsidy" because the author pays part of the costs.

See: for some thoughts on POD and iUniverse.

I try to be very neutral here, but my opinion is: Don't pay to be published. Publishers should pay you, not the other way around.

Jennifer Ashley/ Allyson James / Ashley Gardner said...

And I should add, iUniverse is NOT the same as small press. Small presses don't charge the author.

Robert said...

There's nothing wrong with iUniverse or Alibris or any of the POD publishing services as long as you know what you want and know what you are getting. If you are a public speaker or consultant and need someone to manufacture collateral materials for you to sell or hand out, iUniverse and its ilk are fine. But if you want to become a published author with books for sale in independent and chain bookstores you need to very carefully consider the ramifications of signing up with one of these services.

Alexis Walker said...

I always wondered what the difference was between vanity and self-publishing, not that I have the interest in either, but this helps me understand when someone says I self-published. I have a whole new respect for that now.

I'm going to stay focused on New York and E-publishing. There's only so much time in the day :-)

Libby said...

Jennifer -- do you think even authors writing Harlequin series romance should have an agent? Why/Why not? Thanks for all the great information!

Jennifer Ashley/ Allyson James / Ashley Gardner said...

Libby: This is just my opinion, but I think yes, even category authors should have an agent. I heard an author once say: "If a publisher says you don't need an agent, you do!"

Agents do so much more than sell your book to a publisher. They help you understand your contract, sell foreign rights for you, talk you up to every editor they meet, maintain a relationship with the publisher to help you move up in or move out of that house; basically they keep selling you to the industry long after you've signed the contract. Plus, if you decide you want to change houses or write single-titles, you already have someone in your corner.

That said, having an agent who does nothing is not beneficial to you or your career. When you work with an agent, you should have a relationship with them beyond them putting a cover sheet on your ms. and submitting it.

Finding an agent you can work well with is worth the time and effort. You will be investing in your career as a whole, far beyond just getting a book published.

Laurie Schnebly Campbell said...

Jennifer, this is such great information! Anytime someone asks "so where should I send my book to get published?" I'm going to refer them here.

Laurie, impressed with how clearly and cleanly you've laid it all out

Anonymous said...

Should you try to keep your Secondary Rights with a small publisher? Or do you think giving them away does more good?

Jennifer Ashley/ Allyson James / Ashley Gardner said...

"Should you try to keep your Secondary Rights with a small publisher?"

Always a tricky question, so I'm going to hedge and say "It depends."

First, never let a publisher of any kind have ALL your rights without you getting a cut. If they retain secondary rights, you should get at the very least a 50/50 split. You can negotiate a better one.

But whether to keep rights depends a lot on the publisher and you. If they're a great press with the repuation for selling the mass market rights for good money, or getting audio deals, or movie/TV deals, it can't hurt to let them do the work (but make sure you've split the rights with them!)

If you know you can get out there and sell audio/ebook/etc rights yourself, or you have an agent that's gung ho about doing that, keep your rights and do it yourself. You get all the money! (with a cut for your agent if you have one).

So it really does depend. I'm at one publisher who is good about selling foreign translation rights, and I have a split with them. I like that arrangement. However, at another publisher, I've retained rights to much of my work, and whenever my agent has sold those rights, it's a much bigger cut. But that pub is not as gung ho about offering secondary rights, plus not that many offers have come for these books.

So you can see it's to your advantage to keep them; however, if you don't have an agent who can help you, and you don't know anything about making money from these rights, you might want the publisher to do it for you. But if the publisher rarely, if ever, sells secondary rights, then no, don't give them away.

IMHO, it really does depend. There are people who advocate never, ever giving a publisher secondary rights, but I really think it depends on the publisher and your situation.

As always, this is just my opinion. One reason I advocate having an agent is because they can answer questions like this. I'd personally be leery of negotiating secondary rights agentless, but that's just me.