by Sandra Parshall
“Readers don’t care who the publisher is. All they care about is getting a good book, regardless of the publisher’s size.”
That’s nice to hear—and I hear it a lot.
But is it true?
For some readers, undoubtedly. But all the evidence—sales numbers—points to either a bias against books published by small presses or a complete ignorance of/indifference to their existence. As a crime fiction author with a small/medium size publisher (Poisoned Pen Press), I’m most interested in my own genre. But aside from romance, it happens to be the most popular genre. Why don’t small press writers snag more of those readers?
Recently I asked friends on Facebook, “Why don’t good small press books find a wider audience?”
The question generated a lot of responses from readers, writers, a couple of small press publishers, and a current and a former bookseller. The answers all boiled down to two points:
Small press books don’t get enough promotion, so most readers never hear about them. (“If few people hear of a book—even a great one—how can it sell?” asked Jean Harrington.)
Small press books are not available in most bookstores, so for bookstore browsers they might as well not exist. (“If they don’t see the books, they won’t buy the books,” said Dru Ann Love of the popular blog Dru’s Book Musings. “It’s all about placement and signage and word of mouth.” Author Karen E. Olson commented, “It’s all about distribution. If a book is going to succeed it needs to be everywhere.”)
Lack of availability was a problem for many who commented. Book buyers are accustomed to going to a store and finding a book the day it’s officially released, or finding a pre-ordered book from Amazon in their mailboxes on publication day. This often doesn’t happen with small press books. If readers can’t get a book right away, they’re likely to forget about it.
Avid crime fiction readers who spend a lot of time online, reading DorothyL, review blogs, and authors’ blogs, may know about small press books, but the average reader never sees those sources of information.
MARKETING AND AWARENESS
Pamela Mains, a former bookstore owner and avid reader, said, “I found out about the books at conferences by talking to authors and other readers. The average person does not have (or take) this opportunity. Also, I follow the mystery award circuit for new authors I may not have read before. These could be large or small presses. Unfortunately, the public at large follows the big news publications. They don't do the digging. I would hand-sell the books I loved to people who 9 out of 10 times would come back and thank me for introducing them to a new author. With the demise of the independent bookstore, this is rarely done anymore. In my opinion, for small press books, it's still word of mouth and book clubs. It's a slow burn.”
Tony Burton offered his perspective as publisher of Wolfmont Press: “Marketing budgets are tight. REAL distribution is expensive. If you use mass offset printing, there is a large up-front expense and then you have to pay for storage, and pay taxes on the books left at the end of the year. But, if you use print-on-demand, it is two to three times as expensive as offset printing, so you either can't offer bookstores the desired discount, or you have to overprice the book in order to do so. Small presses can't bribe chain bookstores to put them into the choice places. No co-op from most small presses.”
Author Susan Froetschel added: “Marketing is now national and international. The population is expanding. But each person can only read so much and there is more competition to reading as an activity. Internet and other broad marketing efforts hit all. So much of our audience is reading the same 20 or 50 or 100 books, more or less, each year. So despite the increased population/audience, the need for new books has held steady or even shrunk even as the supply has increased.”
Small press books are “hard to find… through the clutter,” said bookseller and small press publisher Jim Huang. “I say that even as a bookseller who's eager to offer a diverse and interesting selection, including books from all kinds of presses. (Come visit the Kenyon College Bookstore some time and see for yourself.) It IS all about distribution -- it has to be possible for stores to easily obtain books on competitive terms, something that many small presses don't get. But it starts with awareness, even at the store level. The reason the St. Martin's first novel has a better shot with us [than a small press book] is that there's a sales rep walking in our door to encourage us to stock that book.”
“What it comes down to,” said mystery author Timothy Hallinan, “is a) marketing money that can be spent on more review copies, a more personalized review approach, a bigger first printing, representatives to call on bookstores and one or two who specialize, 24 hours a day, on Amazon or B&N, a regional sales force, often free-lancers, who can be mobilized behind a book the company particularly cares about, the budget to buy special placement on Amazon or on front tables at B&N, etc. And b) I also think there's a New York advantage; publishing people in the Big Apple are more likely to know or have worked with some of the gatekeepers at the few remaining print review outlets. Finally (and it's a slender advantage if it even is an advantage) most big pubs still hew to the hardcover/paperback model, meaning that there are two chances to work the same title, and once in a very great while a successful PB follows an ignored hardcover.”
BOOKSTORES STILL MATTER
Although market figures show that only a third of book sales are now made at brick-and-mortar stores, and some of those who responded to my question said they never set foot in bookstores these days, placement in stores is still important. Barnes & Noble may stock some literary fiction from small imprints, but it stocks very few genre books from presses that aren’t part of the big conglomerates. Yes, they’ll order a book for you, but you’re not going to see it on the shelf when you’re browsing and making impulse buys. Independent bookstores, with less space and less ability to take chances, may not stock many small press books either.
People often ask me why they can’t find my books in chain stores, and they seem to think less of me as a writer because I’m shut out of that market. A couple of things are at work here, and the average reader has little understanding of or interest in the economic realities. First, small presses can’t afford to make the upfront investment in printing tens of thousands of copies of every book, so they can’t distribute widely. They can’t afford to pay the co-op money that chain stores demand — basically, payment for shelf space and special placement within the store. Those books piled on the table just inside the door or packed into end-of-aisle displays are there in your path because the publishers paid to put them there.
THE PROBLEM OF REVIEWS
As for promotion, major publishers can run big ads for their books and give away hundreds, even thousands, of advance reader copies to generate buzz. They employ fulltime publicists to send out a ton of review copies. When the few book review publications still in existence choose books to present to their readers, the choices are overwhelmingly from large imprints. “Most reviewers get covered over with books from major publishers,” Tony Burton said. “If you work for a big newspaper or something like that, your boss will want you to review the book that will probably show up on the front page of Amazon or the end cap at B&N... we all know that the major news will be about books that are talked about in People, Time, and the NYT, and usually NOT about a book that was published by a company with 30 or 40 active titles in print.”
Mystery Scene and Crimespree magazines and numerous blog reviewers do a great job of covering small press crime fiction, but they reach a relatively small audience of dedicated readers who care enough to spend time looking for new-to-them authors.
The industry and library magazines — Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist, Library Journal — do feature small press books, bestowing praise and starred reviews on many. Those reviews help library sales, but the average person never sees those magazines and may be unimpressed by the review snippets on book covers or Amazon. Many people want to read what everybody else is buying, so a book that starts out with a bang, getting newspaper reviews, flooding the stores and selling thousands of copies in its first week of publication, may continue to sell for weeks, months, a year or more because a lot of people reading it equals a lot of people talking about it. No small press can afford the kind of push that the Big Six (or is it Five now?) can give the books they’ve decided to turn into bestsellers.
SMALL PRESS WRITERS AREN'T ALONE
But they don’t give that push to every book. The problem of under-exposure and lack of publisher promotion isn’t limited to small press authors, Tim Hallinan pointed out. “The vast majority of books published every year, by small presses and large, vanish without a trace. I've written some of them, and they were all published by the so-called big six. My six novels in the 1990s, which got stars in (literally) all the trades and all that, never made it into B&N, nor were they in most specialty/ independent stores. No book I EVER wrote while Borders was in business was on the shelves in their stores, including one that was nominated for a Edgar. Very few small-press authors are much more invisible than a great many big six writers; we labor in identical obscurity.” (Tim was dropped by a major publisher just before his Edgar Award nomination was announced and is now published by Soho.)
Digital versions of major print bestsellers also dominate the e-book bestseller lists. But in this realm we’ve seen some startling breakthroughs by self-published authors who have risen out of nowhere to outsell the Pattersons and Grishams, at least for a while. So e-books, you might think, are the great levelers, and this is where small press and midlist authors can find their audiences. But no. I have yet to see the digital version of any small press book break out on the paid e-book bestseller lists. My first novel, The Heat of the Moon, had an impressive run in the top spot on the mystery and popular fiction bestseller lists when the Kindle version was briefly offered free. It “sold” tens of thousands of downloads. But none of my books has come close to selling that well for money.
If it were just me, or only some small press authors, whose books consistently meet this fate, I wouldn’t have a mystery to solve. After all, not every book will please a large audience. But when almost none of the small press books published make much money for their authors, despite starred reviews and heaps of praise from readers who have discovered them, I have to wonder if a general bias exists.
Do readers, consciously or unconsciously, feel that a small press book is of lesser quality than one published in New York? That there must be something wrong with a writer who can’t get published by a huge conglomerate? That the story, the characters, the writing, must be substandard?
What do you think?
And how do you hear about small press books?
If you want to use the comments section to name some small press writers/books you believe deserve a bigger audience, feel free!