Small press vs. large press, a question for the ages

ConDFW went off without a hitch last weekend. A modestly attended con, but still an attentive one, it left me with ample opportunity to talk with readers and other writers. Most of my panels were well attended, and I picked up several new blog and twitter followers.

All in all, a big hooray.

Except…

There were lots of small presses in attendance as well as authors (like yours truly) that publish through other small presses. There were some indie authors as well, and quite a few set up tables in the dealer’s room alongside bookstores selling the wares of larger presses. I did not join them as I hate sitting still for hours, and for someone who only has two books available, I don’t think I’d see the sales needed to justify the cost. Some of those who had several published books seemed quite busy.

Except…

Even to someone like me who loves my small press and has had a wonderful experience, there is a whiff of legitimacy about books from large presses. Their authors don’t have to hawk their own books. (But they do have to do all their own marketing online.) To a lot of people, this makes them seem more…real.

Never mind the fact that I know for certain that my books are sold at major bookstores around the country. They’re just not sold at those stores in the south, where LGBT prejudice is still very easy to stumble upon. But it was because my books weren’t available at the con that I think many people automatically equated me with “not as good.”

We all know this is shit. As the big houses continue to coalesce and falter, small houses rise. And you can get stories from the small houses that you can’t get from the large ones. (Like lesbian princesses, for example. As a side note, there are definitely other gay fantasy main characters, but their stories are usually tragic in some way because of their gayness. Finding a no-big-deal tale like mine is a little harder. Just throwing that out there. ^_^)

Many small presses continually put out quality work, and people know this, they acknowledge it, and still that legitimacy stench comes creeping out. One person at the con (who I know is in favor of small press) expressed the opinion that small houses must be easier to “get into” than larger presses, like they’ll take anything that comes along. When is the last time you ever heard of a publisher being desperate for things to publish? Yet small presses seem a healthy target.

I fell into the trap myself, watching people pass over small press tables in order to spend their hard-earned cash at the bookstores. People had told me many times over the weekend how entertaining I am. They loved my buttons and my cover postcards. I can hope they’ll buy the ebook or order the paperback online. But they ambled right up to the stores and handed over their money.

I suppose some of it could be subject matter. Though my books aren’t graphic sex-wise, some people get weird about two women falling in love. But I have to wonder how much is that legit-vibe. I even thought, Gee, I have to try and sell something else (something non-LGBT) to a major publisher again, which means trying to get an agent, which means boarding the rejection train, a pit of despair from which many writers never escape.

It would mean throwing all my hopes and dreams and hard work at the feet of a crumbling industry, all for the hope that a bookseller in Texas would deign to carry me at SF cons.

Well, when I put it like that…

Writers, if you’re published through a small press or if you publish your own work, do you ever feel this way? Readers, do you pass over indie or small press books because you assume the quality is lower, despite what your own experiences might be?

As another aside, my time with Bold Strokes is and has been fabulous, and I hope to keep publishing with them for a long time to come as I have many many LGBT stories to tell. And they are one of the largest LGBT presses and one of the largest small presses there is. I guess I’ll just have to form a thicker skin when it comes to comments thrown around at a con. 😉 And I’ll have to turn more people on to LGBT fantasy stories, one reader at a time.

Another another aside, this was one of the first times at a SF con (as opposed to a lesfic con) that someone showed up to see me. Thanks @shadowriver, you made my day. ^_^

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17 thoughts on “Small press vs. large press, a question for the ages

  1. It’s a weird dynamic. I mean, in one sense, self-publishing (or even small-press publishing) is one of the last forms of independent media that’s still kind of looked down upon. No one says of an independent film, “Oh, I heard it was good, but it’s not distributed by Columbia or Universal, so it can’t be *that* good.” No one bases their opinion on visual art based on whether a big corporation has bankrolled it. Hell, independent video games and music are sometimes considered inherently *more prestigious* because they don’t have to “sell themselves to the man” or whatever. It’s curious that self-published books seem to be lagging behind as far as public perception goes.

    But I’m not sure that’s all of it. Those dealers rooms — and cons in general — can be high-pressure situations, especially when you have to buy someone’s book at their table while two other authors (whose stuff you’re not buying) sit nearby and watch. It’s awkward.

    • I agree, Matt. It is very awkward, even more so if you read mostly ebooks (like I do) and have to just gather info for buying later. Even if you assure the seller that you’ll buy it on ebook, they don’t believe you. Sometimes, I don’t believe when people say it to me.

      Maybe the perception thing stems from the fact that you can publish your own ebook singlehandedly, but it’s harder to do that with an indie film, game, or album. And artists have been doing their own thing so long that people expect them to be solo.

  2. I wish I could’ve made it into Dallas last weekend. I just had too many deadlines hanging over my head.

    Re: small press/indie
    Everybody was looking down their noses at small presses ten years ago. And you were lower than lint if you self-published. The stigma is nowhere near what it was from back then.

    The only difference between big publishers and small ones is that they can push their titles to more reviewers and book stores. It all comes down to visibility.

    As for peddling books at sale tables, even though I might be more aware of the bigger name due to prolonged promotion, I don’t like to buy books directly from authors. I tend to take my time reading excerpts and a few pages–and most authors have a desperate look on their faces. It makes me uncomfortable.

    Wait the naysayers out, Barbara. The wheels are already in motion.

    • I agree with you about the uncomfortable part, Maria. I hate buying from them too, but I also hate their eyes watching me as I continue past their table. It’s one of the reasons I don’t sell at cons, at least with a table. I have made a few sales to people who approach me directly.

      I’m glad things are changing, but it’s weird to see the old prejudices still trotted out.

  3. What Matt and Maria said. The authors that get tables at cons give me the wiggins. Lets never do that, please. They are lonely, bored and desperate just to sell enough books to recover their costs. It’s a losing proposition, a bad business decision. Even the small publisher’s tables and groups of authors like the Broad Universe table we manned at World Con have a similar if much less pungent air – the main difference being we were not lonely, bored or desperate.

    I think the issue is the understood motivations. Booksellers want to sell you A book. Authors, groups and publishers want to sell you THIS book. When a bookseller is choosing what stock to purchase for resale – or lug into a con dealer’s room – they are going to tend toward the books they feel they can move. There is a certain amount of vetting inherent in that, and you can reasonably be assured that the books or authors that book seller is offering have had critical acclaim and success in the market such that the bookseller is willing to take a chance on them. You get a lot of that same gatekeeping with small press, but none of that what-so-ever with authors and author groups.

    Maria is right about those wheels turning. People have relied on big publishers to serve as the first-line gatekeepers. To hire underpaid interns to read whatever garbage anyone sends them, pick out the most promising ones, send those to higher-ups who winnow it down to the best of the promising, who send it up, etc. That is the air of legitimacy of which you speak, and while it is a time-honored institution, they’ve become too stingy with it. They may be pushing out more books than ever by volume – I don’t know – but as a share of the works available to readers, their market share is clearly dropping fast.

    As a result, that stamp of legitimacy is becoming less of a requirement for more readers (and sellers), and becoming increasingly devalued. They are being overrun by small-press and self published work that more and more readers are finding can be just as good or better than some of the swill the big guys have been peddling. And, this is great news for work that has been repressed by the establishment, such as anything LGBT that is not implicitly or explicitly derogatory.

    But how readers adventurous enough to go outside the 20th century publishing system are vetting the vast number of books available has yet to be universally decided. I think it is definitely not decided by who sets up a table at their local con. But keeping an eye on how to progress, what do y’all think is filling the legitimacy vacuum?

    • I think people are trusting independent review sites more and more, especially as big ones like Amazon and Goodreads can be either unfair or easily manipulated. That’s why blog tours and the like are pretty effective. The more people see your name, the greater the chance they’ll check out your work.

  4. I cuncur with the awkwardness aspect of buying books from their authors in dealer rooms. It’s like trying to pass someone selling Girl Scout cookies without feeling like you’re a heel for not buying them. (Which I do, just not from every one I see) I confess that I sometimes browse the covers, trying not to make eye contact. (hangs head in shame). Still, I have found new-to-me authors that way. Better yet though is meeting them in con panels, which is much less pressure both ways it seems to me. It’s indeed a funny dynamic, because if I turn out to like what I’ve bought it’s extra special to have actually met the author in person, something that just doesn’t happen on-line or through the big chain stores. As to the big press/small press issue, the difference to me is exposure level. The quality I’ve experienced so far with the writing from authors I’ve found at small presses seem at least as good as big press, and frankly their stories seem fresher too. That’s just how it strikes me, though. You’re mileage may vary.

    • Good points, David, and it’s why I’m not giving up on cons. I like meeting new people and sometimes new fans. ^_^ I get that head-hanging shame in the dealer’s room, too. I want to support my fellow small press authors, but I really do only buy new books on Kindle, and they never believe me when I say that.

  5. The main points have been mentioned and elaborated upon so well by previous commters that I’d merely be an echo, but speaking as a self-published author, change is afoot. It’s just sometimes slow-going.

  6. Personally, I don’t give a hoot for “legitimacy,” whatever that is. I want to read a good book. Right now, I’m reading Vivian Versus the Apocalypse, by Katie Coyle, and I have no idea who published it (when you order from Amazon, who even looks at the publisher?). Looking at it now, it appears to be published by a company in England. I have no idea if they’re big or not. What I know is that I read the description, and I said, “I have to read this book.” (Which also happened with The Pyramid Waltz, by the way.)

    If Bold Strokes Books is working for you, as it sounds like they are, and they understand what you’re doing and who the market is — stay with them. I’ve known bands who signed with major labels and the labels fought them on everything — their sound, their marketing, their clothes, etc. They’d have been better off with an indie label who wouldn’t have had so much power, but who would at least have been pushing in the right direction.

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