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Monday, March 23, 2009

J.A. Konrath forum

In 2003 I signed a three book deal with Hyperion for the Lt. Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels thriller series. Since then I've sold over fifty articles and short stories. I also wrote the horror novel Afraid under the name Jack Kilborn. There's a word for a writer who never gives up... published.

My name is JA Konrath. I'm the writer of six thrillers in the Lt. Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels series, all of them named after drinks, the newest, Cherry Bomb, comes out July '09 from Hyperion. I'm currently on a blog tour, appearing on different blogs every day in March, to promote my new horror novel, Afraid, which was written under my pen name, Jack Kilborn. It's being released March 31, from Grand Central.

On my blog, A Newbie's Guide to Publishing, I talk a lot about the writing biz. A question I get asked a lot is: Should I submit my book to a small press?

Before I respond, you need to know a bit about my background. Before I sold my first novel in 2003, I'd gotten over 500 rejections, and had written nine books that never sold. The rejection were from agents, and publishers. Big publishers.

My two current publishers, Hyperion and Grand Central, are both big publishers.

I chose to only submit to big publishers for two reasons.

1. Big publishers pay more.
2. Big publishers have wider distribution.

As you may know, the money you're paid when you sign a publishing contract is called an advance. It's money the publisher gives you, assuming you'll sell a certain number of books to cover the amount.

For example, an advance of $10,000 means your hardcover publisher hopes you'll sell at least 3333 copies. A $24 hardcover at a 12.5% royalty rate means each book sold earns $3 for the author. If you sell 3334 copies, or more, you've then earned out your advance, and each book you sell earns you another $3.

If you received a $10,000 advance for a mass-market paperback, your publisher hopes you'll sell at least 15625 copies. A $7.99 paperback at an 8% royalty rate means each book sold earns 64 cents for the author.

In each of these cases, you're going to have to sell a lot of books in order to break even. That means libraries have to buy a lot of copies, and as many bookstores as possible need to stock you on their shelves.

Big presses are very good at selling to libraries, and to bookstores. They have large marketing and sales departments, they make deals with large distributors, and they offer bookstores discounts and coop for ordering their titles.

In short, a large publisher gets your book out there, meaning you have the potential to sell a lot of copies.

But does that mean you should always go with a large press? Aren't there also disadvantages?

It's said that sometimes large presses are more hands-off in regard to authors. This hasn't been my experience, but we've all heard stories about authors who are picked up by a large press and then lost in the shuffle. Large presses publish a lot of books, and they might not spend a great deal of time or money promoting yours, or nurturing you as an author.

Small presses, on the other hand, often have a rep for being very involved with their author's careers. Calls and emails are immediately answered. Less money is involved, but a small press has higher stakes in a book succeeding, so there tends to be more communication, more collaboration.

Or not. Any press, no matter the size, can be terrific to work with, or a nightmare. And this is often on a case-by-case basis, as one author can love a particular press, while another loathes it.

Ultimately, because this is a business, it comes down to numbers.

Are there excellent small presses? Yes. I edited an anthology called These Guns For Hire, and it was published by Bleak House. They have a lot of clout in the mystery genre, and their distribution is good enough to get their books into the bookstores. The experience was great for me.

But there was a smaller print run, and a smaller marketing budget, which meant fewer sales.

If both a big press and a small press want your work, it's a no brainer. Go with the big press. You'll sell more books.

Are there exceptions? Sure. But do you want to base your career on exceptions, or go with the average rule?

I write horror. I love the small press horror market. I wrote a novella with Jeff Strand called Suckers for Delirium Books, and they're a great publisher to work with. I recently had a novella in Like a Chinese Tattoo, for Dark Arts Books. I've got a Jack Daniels novella, co-written with Henry Perez, in the Echelon Press anthology Missing.

I'd be happy to work with any of these publishers again. Not only that, but as a fan, I've got a few hundred small press novels on my bookshelf. I love small presses.

But ask any small press author what their dream is, and it's usually to be picked up by a large press, so they can get that large print run. After all, writers want to be read by as many people as possible. A limited print run of 500 is great, and nothing to look down your nose at. But a print run of 60,000 is better.

That's why agents always start by submitting to the largest publishers first. That's why some agents don't even bother submitting to small presses. This isn't snobbery. It's a numbers game. If an author's first book is sold to a small press, who prints 1000 copies, those numbers will forever be associated with that author. So when the agent tries to sell book #2 to a big press, that press will look at the author's prior sales figures, see small numbers, and take a pass.

Unfortunate, but true.

Leisure Books is an exception here. They take a lot of small press horror, and give it the big press treatment. But Leisure published only a few dozen books a year, many of them reprints from known authors. Your small press book getting picked up by Leisure has even longer odds than submitting to big presses in the first place.

So if you're an author, what should you do? Is it better to go with a small press, or not publish at all?

It comes down to your goals.

If your goal is to see your book in print, have a cult following, and be on some panels at writing conferences, then submit to a small press. Many of them are terrific, they'll do their best to sell your book, and you'll be a legitimately published author. You won't make a lot of money, but it is tremendously satisfying, and a lot of fun.

If you want to get into chain bookstores, or even better, non-bookstore outlets like Wal-Mart (non-bookstore outlets sell as many as 50% of all books), and perhaps make a living as a writer, then hold out for a big publisher. You'll sell more books.

Of course, I recommend listening to your agent (if your book is good enough to find a publisher, you should be able to find an agent.) I also recommend asking a lot of questions before signing any contract with any publisher. At the very least, talk to a writer who is with that publisher and pick their brain.

In the meantime, I'm heading over to and checking out some small press horror novels, because a lot of them rock.

Joe forum


Anonymous said...

I appreciated your article and advice very much, J.A. - I have 3 books pub's with small presses and you're right, the sales are small and although I am gaining a bit of a "cult" following, there' no "houselhold name" in the immediate future for me with those pubs unless I can get a big pub to pick up one of my next books, get known for that, and then perhaps people will want to dig up my earlier works as well.

With the novice ecstasy of seeing ANYTHING of mine in print out of the way (smile), I think I'll hold out for a bigger deal in the future. Just so danged hard to get the Big Boys and agents to take a good look at you.

Marvin D Wilson

jane, candid said...

Very helpful information on small vs. large presses. Thank you!

JA Konrath said...

Thanks for having me here today. :)

Karen from Mentor said...

"For example, an advance of

Joe, is this just a "for instance" number or is this good (or great) money for an advance on a first book?


F. M. Meredith, author said...

Good blog and advice.

For me though, the small presses have been great for me. I started with a big press--the editor left, new editor didn't like the way I wrote and I was stranded. Small presses allowed me to see my books in print.

Love your books--Afraid is chilling. Couldn't put it down.

Marilyn a.k.a. F. M. Meredith

Robert said...

There's been great stuff all tour, but I found this to be very much informative. Thanks, Joe.

Michelle Muto said...

I look at it this way - why not start at the top? Good advice.