Picking your small indie publisher

Most of my books these days are published by the main houses, Penguin and Random House. But I started off dealing with some small indie houses, and I thought I’d share those experiences with you today.

It seems to me that indie houses are becoming more important these days as the nature of the publishing world changes. I’ve had good and bad experiences which I’d like to share. First, the good – and it’s really, really good.

The Good Experience
In 1994, Dunmore Press published my book Hawke’s Bay – The History of a Province. At the time they were essentially the academic press for Massey University. Not large, but solid and with a repute for their quality intellectual products. My book won an academic award. It sold out. It was reprinted. The reprint sold out, apart from some residual stock which shifted one or two copies a year. Years passed. The owner retired and sold the business. I lost touch. Last year I was contacted by the descendant of the company, a new indie press in Wellington. They had a royalty cheque for me – miniscule, and I figure it must have cost them more to administer and issue than the royalty was worth. But they wanted to make sure I got it. Brilliant stuff.

The Really Bad Experience
The bad experience I had was the exact inverse of the good one. Back in the early 1990s I wrote a series of travel books for a small publisher. It was a significant programme, and the first few came out OK. But then the cheques stopped coming.  My suggestion that I should be paid triggered a succession of abusive phone calls, often at peculiar times. An odd way of dealing with a creditor. I kept sending in accounts, but heard nothing from the owner/publisher until I discovered he’d published one of the books I’d written for him, minus my name. I wasn’t invited to the launch and found out it was in the market by accident. Then I discovered he’d given the rest of my material, which he hadn’t paid for, to another author for sprucing up and publishing under their name. The upshot? I wasn’t the only creditor. One of the bigger fish took him to the cleaners. I got two cents in the dollar.

The lesson…
Publishing is a business like any other – it demands professionalism. Are there small publishers who know the business – and conduct themselves with integrity? Who know how to focus on core business, are familiar with the nature of it – including what sells – and have skills in marketing? Absolutely. Absolutely. There are some amazing small publishers out there – successful, sharp, professional and focused on the enterprise. But you have to know how to pick them. For me the criteria are:

1. Professional conduct. Publishing is a business. It has to be run as one – with a business plan, outputs, costings and proper evaluation of the work. For publishing, the key criteria is the marketing, distribution and sales. Anybody can walk into a printer with a wheelbarrow full of money and have a book made. Anybody can upload stuff to Amazon. The trick is getting the market to pay attention. Being found.

2. Professional attitude. Are they sufficiently abstract? Have they figured out intangibles such as repute, integrity, managing business relationships and so forth?

3. Professional knowledge. Do they know the publishing world? It is a beast of its own, with its own quirks and wrinkles. What is their background in it? Have they spun out of the mainstream business and are setting up on their own as a boutique publisher – or are they an enthusiast who thinks they can pursue their hobby interests – meaning they have a skewed emotional involvement?

4. Professional product. What is their existing list, sales record and general relationship with the business?

There’s a common word there, and that’s for one reason – I conduct myself professionally and I reasonably expect the publishers I deal with to do the same. Not much to ask, really.

Have you had any experiences with indie publishers? Do tell.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012


8 thoughts on “Picking your small indie publisher

  1. Definitely some great advice! I’ve always been intimidated by publishers, which is why I plan on dipping into self publishing before traditional, to at least gain some form of experience to test out the other waters.

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  2. I’ve found the main houses have been fine – very professional and excellent to deal with. Good luck in your hunt for a publisher, it’s definitely worth shopping around.

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