10,000 Words: 1669-3143

I’m disgusted by many of my fellow small presses. Running a small press is difficult and expensive. It’s also a calling. You start a small press because you want to champion literature. Now, every book is a gamble. It’s a gamble if you’re running Random House! But they can survive a failure. A small press could be broken by a failure. I’ve run mine for 20 years and am only now comfortable enough with the earnings to cautiously take the pistol away from my temple.

But I’ve learned quite a bit in those 20 years. I’ve learned that, if you want to be passionate about literature, you need to make sacrifices and be serious about your passion. The role of the small press is to take fine work and mount it as a book available to the masses. Over the last two decades, I’ve built and built on this. Each book I publish follows a traditional, old school publishing schedule. It may take a year from signing the contract to releasing the book, and that year is spent editing the manuscript, printing galleys to go out to reviewers, and developing a cohesive and effective marketing platform. The result is that I beat the sales expectations of a small press. Whereas most small presses can expect to measure book sales in the hundreds, I’ve started to measure them in the thousands. For about 10% of my titles, they’re clocking into the tens of thousands. Extraordinary shit that I should be proud of. It was a hard road getting to this point… But it was a road. Anyone can follow the path. There were no happy accidents along the way. In fact, there were just bad accidents.

The formula, besides being patient and developing a book over the course of a year (a mark self-publishers and most small presses miss every time) is that I treat my authors as if they are ambassadors of my publishing company. I encourage them to be engaged with their books and their readers. I try to let them know that I’m dying for them and always will be dying for them and all they have to do is work with me to try and sell as many copies as possible to people other than their parents. With about half of my authors, this has worked beautifully. Everyone beats the street, keeps their books alive, and shit is really doing well. I’m quitting my hideous day job in part because I can afford to do so thanks to my idiotic small press which shares office space with the spiders in a corner of my garage.

One thing that’s made forward momentum possible is that the technology of manufacturing and marketing books has changed dramatically. It used to be you had to do a standard offset print run for each book – print 500, 750, or 1000 copies or more at once and ship them off to a distributor or warehouse (or your basement). Marketing involved trade ads, sending shit out to bookstores, and the traditional stuff. Banners and popup bullshit. All in, a book project would end up costing close to $10,000. If you were cheap.

But now Print-on-demand style printing has caught up with everyone. Publishers can create a “digital short run” that’s usually between 25-250 copies on demand at a very low and reasonable cost. Thanks to social media, marketing is more grassroots-oriented (and free) these days. Where once a book project cost $10,000, if you were cheap, now the same book project costs $2500, if you’re being generous.

And, yet, as the price of mounting a book project goes down, and as doors open to give small presses a real fighting chance to make scads of money, it’s become a trend for many small presses to rob desperate debut authors blind. A few years ago, I started to unofficially provide consulting services for debut authors trying to demystify their contracts with small presses, pointing out the red flags and explaining their rights. Again and again and again, I saw clauses that would result in the publisher stealing all of the royalties and the author never seeing a dime. The below is an example. And, for the record, it does not count towards the 10,000 words! I’ll discuss the problems with each clause:


8. The expenses directly associated with the commercial exploitation of the Work shall be recoupable by the Publisher against the Author Royalties.

We start off terribly. The “commercial exploitation” of the work is…selling it. So the author’s royalties are docked for everything involved in selling the book. We’re talking monthly warehouse fees, general inventory fees, shipping fees, any costs associated with having someone maintain the social media and webpage, web hosting fees, travel fees for those conventions and the convention fees….and on and on. This is so vaguely worded, they could say they spent $10,000 on the book on the “commercial exploitation” alone.

Except for the $1,000 Author’s cash advance, no payments of Author Royalties will become payable to the Author until the following expenses have been fully recouped by the Publisher:

a. The reasonable, out-of-pocket cost for any changes or additions made by the Author to the typeset proofs other than to correct factual or typographical errors. Costs associated with printer’s errors or correction of the Publisher’s errors are expressly excluded, and

This is actually fine. By the time the book is typeset it’s, presumably, been through copyediting and there’s been a robust back and forth discussion where the author and the publisher should have caught all the dumb shit. So this is watching out for the publisher in case a stupid author says “I want to remove that chapter where I wax poetic about my sister’s vagina.”

b. The reasonable, out-of-pocket Production and Marketing Costs, up to a maximum of Five Thousand Dollars (US $5,000.00) (the “Production and Marketing Cap”).

“Production and Marketing Costs” include but are not limited to: Printing, public relations, marketing, advertising, promotional materials, web promotion, art work, editing, copy editing, tour stipends paid for or reimbursed to the Author for book signing and any other tour stipends, e-book, ISBN fees and all professional fees paid to publicist, attorneys, accountants or other professionals in connection with this contract.

Hoooooly shit, you dirty, cheating, child-raping motherfuckers. Stop. Right. There. The author does not pay for printing. Why should they? The whole point of a publisher is that the publisher is taking a risk on a book and producing it. If you’re charging me for printing, I can just self-publish with Amazon. Why do I need you? Likewise for public relations, marketing, and promo! You assholes are paying me a 15-20% royalty! You’re getting at least 80% of the profits. Why should I be paying you for your efforts to earn those profits?

They’re even charging the author for ISBNs! They’re literally charging the author for every single aspect of producing a book. Why, then, would any sane author have anything to do with this?

Oh, but they do…

Now, a word on royalties and book costs. It’s a funny money business. So let’s say you publish a book with a $15.00 list price. This book typically sells to vendors (like Amazon and your local book store) at a 50% discount. So the vendor pays the publisher $7.50 per unit. Now, most contracts offer a royalty on the publisher’s net earnings. So let’s say, on average, that a $15 book costs $2.50 to produce. That now gets the net earnings per sale to $5.

Of that $5, let’s say the average typical royalty is 20%. I’m simplifying some things to get to that number, royalties can be complicated. But, on average, it’s fair to go with that percentage.

20% of $5 = $1. That’s what the author takes home for each book sale.

So, let’s look at those contract terms above. To sell your book, the publisher says they’re going to spend at least $5000 dollars. Let’s call it $7500 when you factor in whateverthefuck that first part above is talking about.

That means, before you see a single penny in royalties, you need to sell 7500 books.

Remember above when I said most small presses measure sales in the hundreds? And that my small press, after 20 years of building a massive platform and reputation, measures sales in the thousands?

Authors want to work with small presses. It gives them freedom, flexibility, and that special attention. Like going to a groovy small college where you make friends with the professor. But what actually happens is that small presses are stealing the author’s work and making a quick profit. That extra $1 per book adds up if you do sell 500-1000 books. And if you do get a hit on your hands and sell 7500 books, you’ve made your 80% fortune AND the authors 20% cut. LOL! I’ll send you a postcard from Bermuda, dummy!

And let’s not forget that the actual cost of the book was not $7500. Many of these small presses cut every corner they can. The actual cost of the book for the small press will be between $1000-$2500. So the small press that issued that contract above would make their money back with, at most, 500 books sold. So that means that every sale over 500 copies is pure profit. And, still, the author is out in the cold till sales hit the impossible figure of 7500.

Of course, the small press who issued that contract will defend themselves by saying, oh, well, of course it won’t cost $7500. We’d never charge that high. This is just in case. Just to cover the bases.

I don’t care if they dock the author $1000 in royalties for production and marketing costs — this is wrong. It’s criminal. And if you trust any publisher to be honest about the costs, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. DM me.

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