And by that, of course, I mean go into business for oneself. It’s great to say, “I have an idea and some start-up money – I’m going to start my own publishing house!”, but there are some things that a lot of start-up small presses get wrong, and from my observations – it’s a lot of the SAME things from publisher to publisher. It’s also the reason some small presses can’t keep authors and end up on “Beware” lists across the web.
I consider myself a bit of an expert on this subject for several reasons. Over the past ten years not only have I ran a successful small press, but I have friends who run successful small presses, and I’ve seen my fair share of not-so-successful small presses. I’ve even signed with a few.
What I often see are readers or writers starting their own small presses because they look at writers (or other writers) and see a cash-cow.
So these people do a little research, buy a block of ISBNs, open a checking account, line up a printing service, call on their friends, spouse and their mom to agree to help with distribution, cover art, and editing, convince (or try to convince) writers that they can’t succeed without them, and they open up their publishing business. If they’re really ambitious they might even set up a marketing strategy and line up retail distributors, or they’ll do it after the fact (or not at all). This is often as far as the business plan goes.
Never mind taking that business accounting course, or taking into account that if the publisher pisses off their authors (i.e. the content producers that MAKE the publishing company), they’re going to lose the good writers and gain such a bad reputation that no self-respecting, intelligent author will work with said publisher again.
There’s a lot more to running a publishing house than manufacturing books, collecting money, and sending the books out. No, seriously, there is.
To be successful the first thing any aspiring publisher wants to do is set up a business plan. Yes, you want to attract good authors. Yes, you want to put out good books that customers will want. It all starts with authors and how you treat them and how you run your business.
Here are the 10 biggest failings I see with unsuccessful small presses time and time again:
1. The publisher erroneously believes the author NEEDS them, is desperate for publication, and is nothing without the publisher. Then tries to convince the author of this. No, get rid of that idea right now. In our modern era – a lot of successful authors have self-published. Without authors, a publisher doesn’t have books to publish. Surprise. Not only that, but for every publisher who treats an author badly, there are four other small presses who will treat them like the asset they are. Basically – there are other fish in the sea and authors who are treated badly will soon realize this.
2. Bad publishing contracts or contracts that are not fulfilled on the publisher’s end. Sure, some small presses may find naive, unsuspecting authors who will sign their life away, but rest assured one of those authors is bound to start speaking out, bringing the publisher’s name up on writing sites to warn other authors away, or sending their contracts to their attorney. I have seen more small presses sued over bad publishing contracts or contracts that weren’t honored more than anything else. If there isn’t a contract – guess what? The publisher may end up screwed because the author, as the content creator, may have the upper hand. So aspiring publishers take note — give your authors a good contract and FULFILL your end of it!
3. No sales reporting, withholding sales reports, or giving irregular sales reports. Successful publishers are ORGANIZED. They give their authors monthly or quarterly sales reports. This is not hard to do if the aspiring publisher is organized. I give all of my authors a monthly statement showing them how many books they sold through which distribution areas and I give them a running total on their unit sales per book and their royalties, which are paid quarterly. I always have this report out to them within the first week of the month.
4. No royalty payments, withholding royalties owed, or irregular royalty payments. Again – successful publishers are ORGANIZED and they run their publishing house like a REAL business. Real businesses pay their employees and vendors at regular intervals. For publishers, royalties are often paid quarterly. That means that sales from October-December are paid in January. Sales from January through March are paid in April and so on. Not only does this keep your authors happy, it also makes your accountant happy.
5. Poor bookkeeping. By this I don’t just mean how many books are in stock (if you keep stock) vs. how many were sold, but also long term sales reporting per title, receipts for money in and out, etc… The last thing any author wants to hear is, “Hey, do you remember how many books I said you sold last August?” Or, “Yeah, how much did I pay you last year?” The last thing an accountant wants to hear is, “Oh, I was supposed to get a receipt for that? I can’t find it.” Seriously — a publisher should know this. They’re a business!
6. Fudging tax records and/or not sending out 1099 Misc for royalties. Publishers should beware because if they aren’t paying taxes like they should be or aren’t sending out the proper tax forms in the proper time frames, their authors are likely paying taxes like they should be and the IRS is going to eventually catch on. This means publishers will be fined penalties and possibly interest for not doing what Uncle Sam expects from a business. Remember that for each author or contracted employee (including editors, artists, etc…) the publisher has to send out a 1099 to anyone paid over $10 in royalties to in a single calendar year. That 1099 has to be postmarked by January 30, just like one would do with W2’s if one had employees, otherwise the IRS can fine the company. This is where aspiring publishers need to be careful and why they should at least take a business accounting class before going into business. They screw this up and they could put themselves out of business. Ignorance of the law is not a viable defense.
7. Poor book production. Bad cover art and bad editing are two of the biggest complaints authors have about poor publishers. Real publishers try their best to put out the best possible product they can.
8. No marketing support. Good publishers find ways to market their books whether it’s regular posts to a FB Page or a Twitter account, or a blog. Whether it’s excerpts or book trailers, or supporting the author by mentioning the author’s events on a homepage. Marketing is a two way street. Authors can only do so much. Publishers have to try, too. If they rely on the author to do it all, they’re only shooting themselves in the foot.
9. Poor communication. Yes, publishers get a lot of mail. Yes, it can be overwhelming. However, the line of communication needs to be open with existing and contracted authors as well as editors, designers, printers, and customers (if the publisher does their own distribution). If an author asks an important question and their publisher never answers them, an author may choose to dissolve the contract or find another publisher for their next book if their contract allows for that. Yes, some authors are divas, but if an author is asking an important question about whether the publisher wants the next book, for example, and the publisher never answers or answers six months after the fact — you’ve pretty much given that author a NO and really have no room to be pissed when you discover they found another publisher (provided the contract allows for this).
10. Poor planning/scheduling. Lack of deadlines on the publishers part not only pisses off prompt authors, but it pisses off readers, too. Nothing is more frustrating for an author or reader than the publisher who says a book will be out in January, and the book doesn’t manifest until June. This is where time management and learning to schedule come in. Time has to be calculated in for author and/or editorial hiccups as well as printing mishaps. Authors must also be given deadlines. If an author misses a deadline and they’re the one holding up a book, then it’s on them and the publisher can dissolve a contract. However, running your business with schedules will go a long way to making it more profitable and to making your readers and authors happy. Also, authors need release dates to coordinate marketing, release parties, giveaways, live events like signings or workshops, etc… Never underestimate the importance of scheduling. Consistently missed deadlines and poor scheduling can wreak havoc on your bottom line.
So if you’re considering starting your own publishing house take note! Don’t fall into any of these poor practices. If you already run a small press, double check yourself. How many of these poor business practices are you guilty of?
***DISCLAIMER*** All of the above said, I am in no way saying there aren’t horrible authors out there. I know some authors who are terrible about hitting deadlines, who have poor communication skills, who give their publishers crap at every turn, and who expect publishers to deliver the impossible. But there are hundreds of articles out there focusing on the author end of the relationship. It’s high time we had more articles focusing on the publisher’s responsibilities. This article is also not meant to beat down traditional publishing because there are a lot of good, sincere publishers out there. Some sincere publishers may even be making these mistakes not realizing how big the mistake really is. I am only attempting to educate.