Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

Axes of Thought on the Independent Press

Axes of Thought on the Independent Press

We had a panel on breaking in through the small press at Norwescon. During the course of things there, I did a riff on publishing that I liked enough to attempt to reproduce here. I even took notes on my own comments. I have since lost track of them, naturally, so my crystalline wit and stunning insights of last week will be hereby transmogrified into plebian drivel for your amusement.

Nonetheless, here goes.

The discussion was around how aspiring writers evaluate markets. Do you want to be in the independent press?(My term of choice, as "small press" is misleading. See below for more discussion of this.) How do you tell what are good markets and what aren't?

There's several of ways to look at publishing, axes of thought as it were. One is the market factors of a press. These can be boiled down to three things.

  • Pay rate
  • Print run
  • Prestige

"Pay rate" is self evident. For example, SFWA sets $0.05/word as the qualifying standard for short fiction pro rate.1 As a practical matter, if you had a $5,000 advance for a 100,000 word novel, you'd be at the same pay rate.

"Print run" (or its close equivalents in periodical circulation or Web page views) is also self-evident. SFWA sets a print run of 1,000, or equivalent, as the qualifying standard for pro circulation. This distorts the impact and value of POD titles, but they had to quantify it somehow, and since I very much have a dog in the POD fight, I'll leave that argument alone.2

"Prestige" is of course unquantifiable, and very much in the eye of the beholder, but it is a factor. A micropay, relatively low-circulation market can be very well respected. For example, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. One very casual way to evaluate market prestige is to look at what writers they publish, and whether stories appearing there show up on YB recommended reading lists, as reprints in YB volumes, or on award ballots.3

These factors can be applied to both short fiction and novel outlets.

Another is production processes.

  • Traditional print production
  • Print on demand
  • Electronic

"Tradition print production" is offset, etc. This includes periodicals such as the digests, Realms of Fantasy and Weird Tales, as well as mass market paperbacks, trade hardbacks, etc. This process front-loads the capital investment, but significantly reduces publishing cost per unit. That in turn significantly increases risk to the publisher due to the commitment of funds, warehousing and fulfillment resources. This is effective at larger economies of scale, and a great deal of effort goes into forecasting demand and managing budgets in order to manage the risk.

"Print on demand" (a/k/a POD) is the one-button publishing process where books are printed and bound as needed from electronic master files via digital process. Lightning Source is one of the big commercial providers of this, while lulu.com offers this at the retail/individual level. There's a lot of confusion out there about POD, with numerous articles and essays criticizing it as if it were a business model. This is because people confuse POD with vanity publishing or subsidy publishing. In fact, POD is merely a production process, which is sometimes used even by the largest, most reputable houses as well as wide array of independent presses. What POD does is back-load the capital investment, pushing publishing cost and risk largely onto the retailer or end buyer. Cost per unit is much higher in this model. This allows for much smaller commitments on the publisher's part, which in turn enables more risk taking for projects of unknown or marginal marketability, or narrow demand.

"Electronic" is a catch-all for a number of models, including open Web publishing (Strange Horizons, for example), subscription-based Web publishing (Baen's Universe, for example), e-book publishing (Æon, for example), .pdf publishing and so forth. Capital investment is modest to negligible, and there isn't really a cost per unit concept here.

Finally, sizing is a way to look at independent presses.

  • Trade press
  • Large Independent
  • Small Independent
  • Micropress

"Trade press" is a term of art, and I may be misusing it somewhat here, but I'm referring to what writers often call "the New York houses." These novel publishers -- Tor, Bantam, etc. -- and their periodical equivalents -- Analog, Asimov's, F&SF -- are generally considered the big boys. They get full national distribution, have mature marketing programs, sales reps, the entire apparatus of professional publishing.

"Large Independent" refers to publishers such as Wildside/Prime and Night Shade Books. These are publishers with multiple titles a month, often paying advances that in some cases are equivalent to trade press advances, and good distribution and marketing.

"Small Independent" are publishers such as Wheatland Press and Fairwood Press that do one or two titles a month or less, with smaller or no advances, and more modest distribution and marketing.

"Micropress" are the one- or two-person operations that put out one or two books a year, often with little or no pay, for the love of a topic or an idea. This includes presses like Whortleberry or Two Cranes.

The lines between these sizing levels are fuzzy at best, and markets constantly grow and contract, both in short fiction and in novels. I've seen some interesting analysis recently about the growth of independent press titles with trade distribution, but it wasn't in a public forum, so I'm not prepared to cite it here without permission.

These issues of pay rate and distribution also play into the "long tail" concept. I didn't invent it, far from it, but I talked about it in my Locus interview last year. Basically, the idea is that the gross number of units sold remains steady or even rises, but the net units per distinct unit falls off ever more rapidly as production costs shift the investment risk. Think about indie music in the last decade, or the POD and electronic publishing changes in our field in this decade.

There's no right answer here. Every publisher fits in some combination of these factors, and many fit in multiple combinations depending on how you look at them. I'm also leaving off a lot of elements which might be important considerations, from response times to the nature of the contracts to compatibility issues.

The advice I gave the room about independent press was that they should look to see what other writers were being published in a given venue. I've had certain bellwether writers I've followed, such as Bruce Taylor, Jim Van Pelt and Ray Vukcevich, essentially using their appearances in certain markets as a form of endorsement. Who do you want to be seen with? Whose writing do you resemble? When it comes down to the business side, what kind of rights are they seeking?

Depending on your goals and your audience, you can have a great career at any level of press, or indeed at all of them.

1. - See http://sfwa.org/org/qualify.htm#qualnew for details, if you're curious.
2. - Let the flame war begin here.
3. - Oops, the flame war erupts again here.
Tags: links, process, publishing

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