Quick Look At Small Press Publications

 [This was originally written for the SAWC magazine, was accepted, and then… nothing. But I think this should be out there, so here ’tis for everyone…]

I first joined the SA Writers’ Centre in 1988 as a teenager, not long after having my first short story published in a national magazine. And then came a period of roughly twenty years where publications were few and far between: they happened, but at a rate so slow that glaciers were laughing at me.

 In the early 2000s I managed to get a position writing for a United States pop culture website, submitting a weekly column on Australian sport. This led to a position writing for the professional wrestling section of the site – by far their biggest and most popular section. Then came a week in 2009 when I had nothing to write about that others hadn’t already commented on ad nauseam. And so I put out a short story. One of my fellow columnists liked it so much he put me into contact with a small press publisher. At about the same time I joined a local critique/writing group called Ad Astra, which helped me hone my craft a little more.

 Suddenly, with the help of small press websites, Duotrope (http://www.duotrope.com) and the Horror Tree (http://horrortree.com), I was selling stories. Since 2010 I have sold over 30 short stories – two to magazines and the rest to anthologies: two in Australia, three in the United Kingdom, the rest in the United States. While I have only had rejections for my novels (apart from Relick), I have around a 50% success rate for short stories.

 Publication in the small press market can be as cut-throat as any of the large publishing houses, maybe more so when it comes to larger works. They may only do two or three novels a year, and so they have to make sure that what they select is not only of the highest quality but also the highest marketability. A small press cannot afford to have a publication not sell: they simply do not have enough product to support a work with flagging sales.

Guideline # 1: Check their websites for length of time of open submissions.

 It is short stories and anthologies where the small presses come into their own. Some presses receive so many submissions for their anthologies that the resulting work is of amazing quality. On more than one occasion I have wondered how on earth my story was included in an otherwise outstanding work. Then again, at the other end of the scale, some receive so few that the anthology may take a couple of years to fill, and it ends up being half ‘filler’, with stories that are unfortunately substandard. This does not mean that everyone who submits gets their story in, it just means that quality control may not be as high. Check their websites to see how long calls for submissions have been open for all their anthologies because I’ve seen some that go some considerable time – the longest being three years.

Guideline # 2: Check how much they pay.

 When it comes to payment, there are some small presses that don’t. You don’t even get a copy of the book. These are the ‘for the love’ or ‘exposure’ markets. But they are still publications and they add to your writing CV. Most, though, pay a token amount – some money, a free e-copy (or hard copy if you’re lucky) with discounts on further copies, while a few add a percentage of royalties based on word count. A few have started paying a per word amount – 1 to 3 US cents a word seems to be the norm, though up to 5 or 7 cents is becoming more common.

Guideline # 3: See where the company’s books are available.

 There are some other things to be wary of when dealing with small presses. The first is the availability of their books. There are a few small presses where the only place to buy the books is their own website. While this is fine and keeps all the money in the company, for an aspiring writer this is not really the way to get noticed. How do you get publicity when the book is available in one place? That said, with more and more appearing online at Amazon, Amazon UK, Book Depository and Barnes & Noble there is a much greater chance of casual readers seeing the book and buying it, making this a better avenue for the writer. This is especially applicable to Amazon, where it is possible to set up a personal writer’s page that can then be used to link all your works together on the one page.

Guideline # 4: Read the small print and understand what it all means.

 The next serious consideration is the small print in any contract you may enter into. Asking the hard questions is a good idea at this point. How long do they have the rights for? What rights are they asking for? Most small presses are quite good and have a standard 12 months exclusive print and electronic rights, after which you get the rights back, even if the original book is still in print. However, a few have 12 months or until the book is taken out of print, which ever is the longer period. This can prove to be an issue because e-books are, notionally, never out of print. A fellow writer, with whom I have become online ‘friends’, is having an issue at the moment with this very topic. He has been asked to put his previously published short stories together in a single anthology. But there is a problem: four of the stories he has no access to because, according to the small press involved, they are still ‘in print’ as e-books. If in doubt, I would say seek professional advice here.

Guideline # 5: Understand the policy of editing and editors.

 Another small print issue is one that has received a little bit of online comment of late – the concept of ‘editing’. While some editors do marvellous work (Gerald Costlow of Pill Hill Press edited one of my stories in small, subtle ways that improved it exponentially), there are a few horror tales out there. There is one doing the rounds (http://mandydegeit.wordpress.com/2012/05/14/when-publishing-goes-wrong-starring-undead-press/ – careful: strong language warning) where the story was changed, had scenes added and the tone changed. The editor is claiming he did just that – editing. But the author is understandably not happy. (And here is another tale about the same small press: http://www.booksofthedeadpress.com/2012/05/jonathan-maberry-slams-undead-press.html) You have to read the contracts carefully (here is a nice blog post about just that http://accrispin.blogspot.com.au/2012/05/editing-clauses-in-publishing-contracts.html).

Guideline # 6: Research the press and don’t be afraid to ask the opinions of others.

 Finally, be prepared for some disappointments. A friend of mine had a novel published by a small press. Despite going over the galley proofs beforehand, when the novel was finally printed, a large number of typos were found. And the thing is none of those typos were in the galley proof. So, yes, she has that first novel but it may not look as professional as it could. This is something to be aware of; there is nothing that can be done about it, but some small presses have this reputation. Ask questions, find out what the reputations of the presses in question are. And sometimes you may end up being the source for some negative comments regarding a small press based on your own experiences.

 Please note, this is some small presses, not all. If in doubt, do an online search. Preditors and Editors (http://pred-ed.com/) is an excellent source, plus I recommend reading the many writing forums. Nothing like listening to the people involved at the ground level – the authors with previous experience.

 Having said all of that, one huge positive is that after a while, and after a few publication credits, you may get yourself known in the world of small presses. I have been published by eight different small presses and recently two of them asked me to contribute to specific anthologies. While that is not a guarantee that the submission will be accepted, it does mean you are considered worthy to be considered for inclusion (for what it’s worth, both of mine have been accepted). It is a nice ego-trip, and is a way of telling yourself that your writing is on the right track.

 So, all in all, what it comes down to is this: small presses can lead to legitimate publication credits. But you have to be aware that the pay is less than the established publishing houses or magazines and that ‘exposure’ or ‘for the love’ may be all that is on offer.

 Small presses are not for everyone, but they are out there and give a nice entry into the world of being a published author. There is a little bit of money out there, there are opportunities to hone your craft while getting published and there’s always the chance to make a small name for yourself. And we are, after all, in the business of writing, so why not make the most of the available opportunities? Read the contracts carefully … and make sure you have a thick skin.

 I think nearly all of my own small press experiences have been positive. I will recommend them to anyone who asks.

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