Extinct, but not forgotten.

Everything I learned too late about small press publishing.

Anne and I started our own small press - Jurassic London - about ten years ago. A clever publisher spotted Anne after a few years, and yoinked her up into the major leagues. I floundered around without her, but it wasn’t nearly as much fun, and Jurassic eventually went ‘extinct’, after almost fifty books.

I still crash the occasional event to talk about my brief experience. Last week I took part in a (virtual) panel at a (virtual) convention on Reddit - it was a (very real) pleasure. The benefit of this particular session: being a virtual panel is that everything comes pre-transcribed.

I’ve edited my contributions into a slightly tidier Q&A below, about lessons learned from being a tiny publisher. All, of course, with the benefit of hindsight.

The other panelists are below - please take the time to read about their experiences as well, and, more importantly, check out their excellent books:

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How did you get started as a small publisher?

We started as bloggers - Pornokitsch (the site is defunct, but still live - and safe for work, honest).

The more we paid attention to how publishing worked, the more we thought there were opportunities left un-seized: events, partners, authors, themes, and more. Eventually, we saw an opportunity that seemed ripe for a book - but that book didn’t exist, and was never going to unless we made it.

We got stuck in because - why not?

What made you different?

Jurassic London was established as a not-for-profit from the outset. All our profits (when/if they occurred) would go to charity. This meant we could be more experimental, as our goal was simply not to bleed too much money.

This relative margin of freedom allowed us to:

  • Work with partners

  • Experiment with formats - from free digital chapbooks to luxury limited editions, with unicorn-hide binding

  • Try different 'back-end' processes - different ways of handling submissions, royalty models, distribution, etc

  • Fail (occasionally)

More broadly, those are all the reasons that small press publishing in general is such an important space. They sit at the sweet spot between experimentation and structure. If our dilettantism took it a little too far towards the former, well… with a name like Jurassic, extinction was always inevitable.

Would you rather publish an established or popular author or an unknown?

The answer depends a lot on your business plan.

As the publisher, you’re not making decisions based on any single book, but across all of the books you're trying to juggle for that year (and beyond) - that means accounting for what each possible project means in terms of time, money, and emotional reward.

Having an author that has an existing and well-established fan base does means you can count on more sales. That 'higher floor' means you’re assuming less risk for the project. And since that project is now lower risk, you can afford to be more experimental with another book.

However, beyond risk, there's much more to consider:

  • Established professionals understand the publishing process, and they will invariably have [high/low] expectations of what is required from you.

  • Unpublished authors do not often understand the publishing process, which means they will invariably have [high/low] expectations of what is required from you.

  • It is nice to work with a seasoned pro, who will introduce your books to their readers.

  • It is nicer to find someone completely new and introduce them to readers.

  • Working with someone kind is far preferable to working with someone famous.

And, ultimately...

None of the above matters.

You read something and you fall in love with it. When that happens, all of your careful planning and your rules and your strict principles are out the window. There's really no rational decision making at all. 

What do you wish you’d known before starting?

I didn't appreciate how much of publishing isn't commissioning, editing, and marketing. From previous work, doing marketing for publishers, I knew those - and, more importantly - I knew I could do those tasks. But there's also everything else.

There’s so much that goes into publishing that no reader ever sees - just like any business, really. There is legal wrangling, financial processes, metadata, distribution, design, licensing, copyright, ISBNs(!), dealing with printers, booksellers, wholesalers, Amazon, etc. Building, hosting, and maintaining a website! Ecommerce?! Social media! Publicity! Sales! Outreach to bookshops! Ebook conversion! InDesign?!

Even basic questions never occurred to me advance: where do we store the books? How do we physically get our books to stores or to buyers? (Once you make five round trips with 20 hardcovers each on the Tube because a single taxi would push your already-diminished margin into the red, you start to realise that this fiddly stuff matters.)

Once you get an idea of the entire process, sit down and be really honest with yourself.

  • What can you do well?

  • What can you do well enough?

  • What do you want to do?

  • What can’t you do?

Then, factor your timelove, and money against all of those.

It may be that you could do the cover yourself, but it would be really bad. Or you can proofread for two weeks, or pay someone £100 to do it in an afternoon. It may be that you’d save a month by getting a freelance editor, but you adore editing. Or you could invest in a little training for yourself around, say, ebook conversion, and save yourself time and money in the long run.

Personally, I loved doing page layouts. Fiddling with margins and typefaces definitely sparked a particular sort of compulsive joy. I always did those, even if they could’ve been done more efficiently (or better) by others. I hated proofreading and ebook conversion. I could do both myself, but they took me too long and I did a crappy job of it. As time went on, I learned to build out-sourcing those tasks into the budget, so I had the time to play with fonts. Similarly, when Anne moved on, I had to revisit our model - she was, by far, the better editor, so it meant I needed to rethink the projects I took on, and which aspects I could do myself.

Small press publishing is not a get ‘rich quick scheme’. Do it because you want to, and make sure you’re doing what you want to do.

Why should an author look into small press publishing versus self-publishing?

Much of this comes down to risk again. If you work with a publisher of any size, that publisher is assuming all the risk for you. They're also doing all the work that isn't writing. For a lot of authors, that's a huge advantage. The author can focus on being an author. Publishers do the rest.

A good small publisher also has its own brand and reputation. That extends beyond readers. Reviewers, bloggers, bookshops, awards - they know that a book from, say, Unsung, is a book that that comes with a guarantee. It will be published to a certain standard of both production and content. An awards jury would never dismiss it out of hand and a bookstore wouldn’t think twice about stocking it.

What are the advantages that small presses have vs big publishers?

The primary advantage of a small press is agility.

Small presses simply don’t have the bureaucracy of large ones, and can move swiftly and decisively to advantage of opportunities as they arise. That applies to cons, events, publicity, and partnerships.

They’re also more agile throughout the process: as small press you can crash a book to market incredibly quickly. It is why, for example the bulk of the various new Covid-19 charity titles are from small presses, while the big publishers are stuck pushing to get David Walliam’s Coronaviral Cuz to shelves for Christmas 2022.

However, you only have a finite amount of resource: you can't be everywhere at once, and you have to learn to prioritise your opportunities.

Do small presses have a different audience?

On one hand, and from a business perspective, I hope not.

The goal of the small press is to be functionally indistinguishable from the big ones. You want your book on the same shelf as Penguins and Hodders and Stoughtons and Simons and Schusters, and to receive the same treatment. If you’re in a position where the reader is judging the book solely based on its cover, you've got the same shot as everyone else.

I think that, in your general bookshop context, over 90% of readers don't notice a book's publisher at all. Which means making your book ‘normal’ is critical to your success: you really want your book to work for that 90%.

On the other hand, there’s still that perceptive 10% (these numbers are arbitrary), for whom the publisher is really means something. Small presses are where they go for books that are bolder, fresher, newer, etc. Think of them as the independent cinema types, deliberately seeking entertainment before it goes mainstream.

There's also the luxury and collectibles market. Big presses don't really cater to collectors, outside of the occasional retail partnership - ‘A limited edition of 1,000! With endpapers!’). Small presses are the ones doing the sexxxy limited editions, the signed/numbered runs, and the ink-quill art and rhino horn stamping and all that. That's not necessarily 'readers', per se, but they're certainly book buyers, and they pay close attention to the small press scene.

(Plus, seeing your books trade hands for prices like this is pretty satisfying.)

How do you get attention for your books?

The practical truth is that small presses don't need to have the same volume of sales as a large publisher for a book to break even (or, better yet, ‘break out)’.

For Jurassic, we worked a lot in partnership. For example, our books would be published with specific museums or galleries. That helped us by giving us a 'unique' story to help us stand out, and allowing us to tap into new audiences, who would already have a certain positive predisposition to buy.

Similarly, we realised that it was more valuable to have a loyal, if small, core than broad, but shallow, attention. Once someone bought from us once, we tried really, really hard to make sure they kept coming back. We tested newsletters, loyalty programmes; special treats and pre-order bonuses. Again, it is about risk: having that ‘high floor’ of regular buyers helps you grow and expand.

It comes back to resources. A small press doesn’t have the time or the money to be shouting all the time. Strike at peak moments - launches, awards, events, conventions, the rare 'big' reviews - to acquire in new readers. But don't bother running 24/7/365 acquisition campaigns. Retention costs less than acquisition, and contributes more.

What other small presses do you admire, and why?

Hard Case Crime, definitely. I have always loved the style and the chutzpah; the dedication to art; the combination of new and classic titles. I think they're stunning.

There’s a clear editorial and artistic vision: you know what a Hard Case book is.

Valancourt Books, for similar reason. I'm not even a huge horror fan, but I really like what they do. They experiment with unusual models, they’re quietly inclusive, and they have a very clear vision of who and what they are. Like Hard Case, you know what a Valancourt book is, and that strong brand is really admirable.

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Further hijinks:

Stay well, enjoy a good book, and hope to see you out in the sunshine soon.