April 23, 2017

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Fringe Factor: Small Presses and Self-Publishing

Illustration By Jacob THomas

Illustration by Jacob Thomas

Beth Revis, author of the New York Times bestselling YA “Across the Universe” series (Penguin), joined a wave of established authors when she decided to self-publish her most recent book, The Body Electric.

“I wrote a book. I loved this book, I felt that it said exactly what I wanted it to say, but it didn’t fit in the current market,” says Revis, who produced The Body Electric in ebook and paperback format. “Twenty years ago—maybe even 10—I would have let it die a quiet death. But with self-publishing and my own career on the rise, I was able to get this book out into the world.”

Revis’s path illustrates an ongoing diversification and disintermediation in the publishing landscape, as more authors take advantage of self-publishing options or sign up with small presses. E-publishing has enabled individuals to easily and inexpensively self-publish ebooks, yielding a vast amount of titles.

Bolstered by technology, self-published writers, novice or seasoned, are carrying on a tradition of DIY self-expression outside of traditional publishing that has also given rise to blogs, fan fiction, and earlier, zines. This movement dovetails with libraries’ embrace of participatory maker culture: In addition to being readers, young library patrons are makers, writers, and doers, flocking to events like National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) hosted by libraries.

Decades of consolidation among larger publishers has also driven authors to self-publish and seek small presses. Because the “Big Five”—Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster—often pay enormous sums for fewer books that they target for best-seller status, competition there has increased, and talented authors are finding homes at small presses.

It’s a win-win situation, small publishers say. “The benefits of the consolidation are pretty huge in some ways for indies [small presses]—and for authors being published by [them],” says Meredith Barnes, senior publicity manager at Soho Press, a small publisher whose unconventional 2014 YA novel The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone by Adele Griffin has garnered critical praise. “The bigger [the largest publishers] get, the more valuable independent presses become.” Like some small presses, Soho is distributed by a larger house; theirs is Penguin Random House.

Small presses producing gems

Several small presses’ titles were selected as SLJ 2014 Best Books (slj.com/best-books-2014). Included were Isabel Quintero’s epistolary novel Gabi: A Girl in Pieces, from Cinco Puntos, along with The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone, a work of fiction presented in a collage, documentary-style format, chronicling a young woman’s vivid life and early death. Canadian children’s publisher Annick Press’s Dreaming in Indian, a compilation of essays, drawings, poems, artwork, and photographs by teenagers, also made SLJ’s list. “It’s beautiful and complex and was likely rather expensive to create,” says SLJ reviews editor Kiera Parrott. “I’d wager that many publishers would have wondered about the audience and worried about not selling enough copies.” Nobrow, a small press with offices in London and New York City, is also gaining recognition for producing unconventionally formatted books.

“There’s this whole stream of independent publishers that have an amazing passion for children’s publishing, and they’re getting books out there,” says Tim Ditlow, vice president of content for Epic, a children’s ebook subscription service. Ditlow cites William Grill’s illustrated Shackleton’s Journey from Flying Eye Books, a division of Nobrow, and a 2014 New York Times best illustrated book, as a standout. “Up until now, they have not had a really solid way into the library market other than through print,” Ditlow adds. “Although that’s changing, as digital has helped.”

SLJ1502_SelfPub-CS-PQ1rMany small outfits seek to fill perceived gaps in mainstream publishing. “In an era where #WeNeedDiverseBooks has become the rallying cry, indies are where you’re actually finding the diverse voices,” says Barnes, who also cites Adam Silvera’s More Happy than Not (Soho, June 2015), about a Bronx boy questioning his sexual identity, as an example. “There can be a temptation to chase the blockbuster mentality,” she adds. “That’s best left to the big guns.”

“We publish books when we know there are sales opportunities,” adds John Byrd, marketing director and CFO at Cinco Puntos, based in El Paso, TX. “This might end up looking like a creative risk, but it really is the result of an indie press knowing its market and community.” A good example of this, says Byrd, is Rudolfo Anaya’s Elegy on the Death of César Chávez (Cinco Puntos, 2000), which, according to Byrd, had been shopped to New York publishers with no success. He also points to Joe Hayes’s La Llorona, the Weeping Woman (2014), among other titles.

“Authors are starting to realize that a more modest advance at a great small press is worth the chance of being published well and making royalties on the other end,” Barnes adds. “It’s a shift in thinking that’s really opened up a lot of opportunities.”

Reaching libraries

Quality and content matter most to librarians, not who the publisher is, says Parrott. Though librarians tend to be “publisher agnostic,” small presses must do extra legwork to get noticed.

“Getting into a library if you’re not with a big publisher is a little bit tougher,” says Miral Sattar, CEO and founder of Bibliocrunch, an author services marketplace. “If you’re with a small press, you have to submit your book similar to the way a [self-published] author would”—with additional effort and, often, a personal approach.

Creative marketing helps. “For Addison, we not only made a trailer, we also created five mini-documentaries, plus a Tumblr page, imagined as a sort of tribute to the main character,” says Barnes.

“Libraries spend their very limited budgets wisely on things that [circulate],” notes Todd Stocke, vice president and editorial director at the independent publisher Sourcebooks. To get their attention, he says, small publishers should ask themselves these questions: “Do you have compelling packaging readers will pick up? Does it fit both in terms of subject needs and its physical, or digital, package? Are you providing all the metadata they need to help it get found in their systems?” Library wholesalers, Stocke adds, “provide libraries with invaluable services for selection, cataloging, physical title prep, and much more. Listen closely to what advice they give you.”

It’s time consuming for librarians to find the small gems, Barnes says. “Indie presses often have smaller staffs, and they can get stretched thin. Librarians are, too, and just pouring over the Big Five catalogs has to be so much work. But we know that more and more indie catalogs and lists are getting their attention—we see it in our own orders, and our buddies at [small presses] Quirk, Seven Stories, and all the rest are reporting the same. Also, librarians love discovering debut authors, and we love that, too.”

“We submit our new titles for every possible library award,” adds Cinco Puntos copublisher Bobby Byrd. “In this way, we’ve become personally acquainted with many librarians.”

Self-publishing: DIY growing pains

“If you look at self-publishing from a teen’s perspective, many of them are already publishing online—short stories, poetry, novels, fan fiction,” says Elizabeth Bird, youth materials specialist for the New York Public Library and School Library Journal “A Fuse #8 Production” blogger. “It’s like with so many other things—the generation gap gets more and more apparent as teens and kids become willing to explore options that get snubbed by their elders.”

While the time may be ripe for libraries to accept self-published authors, hurdles remain. “Self-publishing gets a bad rap, and I’m not sure why,” says Bird. “Most people point to a quality issue, but the game is different now than it was even a few years ago.”

Librarians need to “let go of the idea that self-published works are all terrible,” agrees Amanda Fensch, adult services manager, Pickerington (OH) Public Library. She points to YA and children’s authors Amanda Hocking and Hugh Howey, “massively popular authors who became famous when they were self-published.”

“We’re seeing more self-published content than ever, meaning a lot more people are bringing it to us,” often in person, says Amy Martin, children’s collection management librarian at the Oakland (CA) Public Library. Martin’s post “Self Publishing? Format Counts” appears on the library blog (http://ow.ly/HcGHo). “There’s also a lot more turning up in our professional sources, and we’re hearing more about it online. We’re as open as we’ve ever been, but we don’t necessarily include more of it.”

Multiple professional reviews are usually a criterion for Martin—and most librarians—to consider a book, and much self-published material has not been reviewed. Martin does make exceptions, however. “We do consider patron requests,” she says. And “there are other reasons to [consider] self-published material than pure literary or artistic quality. We might look at whether the person who published the book is a member of our community, if the [authors are] persons of color and we need more representation, which we always do; things like that.” She adds, “I’ve seen some beautiful self-published books.”

A dynamic landscape

Rochelle Logan, associate director of support services, Douglas County (OR) Library System, says that her library bought some 9,000 ebook titles from the self-published ebook distribution platform Smashwords, which has partnered with OverDrive and Baker & Taylor for library distribution. What moves the most among these e-titles for young people? Ones about Minecraft, the popular online gaming platform. Overall, Martin adds, “Probably half of the books haven’t been checked out at all….Whether it’s self-published or small publishers, certain materials don’t seem to move as much in ebook form,” including younger children’s materials. “I think it’s because [kids] don’t have an iPad, and their parents have to find it and show it to them.”

In general, “People come and look for books by authors that they know,” Logan adds. She advises librarians seeking to vet self-published ebooks to ask Smashwords for a list of “the top 1,000 most purchased titles, and whatever your criteria is.”

Smashwords is just one of a rapidly growing field of self-publishing support and distribution services for authors, in ebook and print form. Among them, the self-publishing service Lulu.com offers support for ebooks and print, while Blurb specializes in visual books. IngramSpark, from the distributor Ingram, and Author Solutions are self-publishing platforms that make their materials available to libraries. Libraries also look to platforms such as CreateSpace, providing services for print and ebooks, and Wattpad for digital content. Distributor Biblioboard primarily serves schools, public libraries, and academic libraries; their newly announced Indie Rock Stars Module will highlight self-published authors. Services such as Vook and Bookbaby distribute to online bookstores. Authors are also signing up with Kindle Direct, NOOK Press, and iBooks for exclusive Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iTunes distribution, but those companies don’t serve the library market.

PressBooks offers simple online book-writing software that libraries could potentially use as a platform for community publishing programs. With capability to create both print and ebooks, it works with multiple ebook platforms and print-on-demand systems.

Amid the vast array of tools and services, savvy self-published authors work hard to get noticed. “I follow as many libraries as I can on social media. If I see a library has liked my previous works, I ask if they’d like to read a free copy of my self-published work,” says Revis. “Pickerington tagged me in a Tumblr post about YA sci fi where they talked about how much their patrons liked my ‘Across the Universe’ series. Within minutes, I contacted the library asking if they’d like my newest book and a stack of bookmarks.”

For best-selling YA author Rysa Walker, self-publishing was a path to getting picked up by a publisher—and attention from libraries. Walker won the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award for her self-published sci-fi/fantasy novel Timebound. Since then, “I’ve had a good deal of success … in public and in school libraries,” Walker says. “There is now an Accelerated Reader test for Timebound,” along with a teaching guide and a teen-oriented video lesson about writing with primary sources. Walker has also spoken at a school library and writing workshops with young people at the Wake County (NC) Library system.

NYPL’s Bird encourages self-published authors to join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, which can provide publishing tips.

Local author appeal

Libraries are also including local self-published authors in their catalogs. “We’re fortunate to have a vibrant community of authors in central Ohio, and we try to incorporate their books as much as we can in our catalog,” says Fensch, whose library has hosted author fairs highlighting local and Ohio authors with traditionally and self-published works. Some libraries have “special sections for local authors in their stacks,” she adds.“Big author names are great, but libraries are and always have been havens for their community.”

The Pickerington and Douglas library catalogs aim to encompass self-published work by local teens. During NaNoWritMo, Fensch brought in authors to lead writing workshops with young people. “The end goal is that teens will complete short stories,” says Fensch. She plans to compile those into an ebook anthology, publish it on Wattpad, and include it in the library’s OverDrive catalog.

Douglas County has e-published the adult and youth winners of its NaNoWriMo events and included the novels in its catalog. “Our graphic designers in Community Relations design cover art for each winner’s book,” says Logan. “We purchase ISBNs to assign before we load their ePub onto our Adobe Content Server. The book is cataloged and made available in Vufind.”

Curation tools

“There are few reviews of self-published ebooks for this market, so this presents a challenge of curation” for librarians, says Mark Coker, CEO and founder of Smashwords.

Coker is trying to help librarians navigate the vast offerings of self-published works. “Smashwords has been experimenting with using its retail sales knowledge as a measure of title popularity, and [we’ve collaborated with] OverDrive to create recommended buy lists of popular genre fiction titles,” he says. He expects to create a similar list for children’s books.

SLJ1502_SelfPub-CS-PQ2rAnother curation tool for self-published material in development for 2015 is SELF-e, announced in May 2014, a joint venture between the digital content delivery platform BiblioBoard and SLJ sister publication, Library Journal. Self-published authors may submit their work for inclusion in a curated collection of ebooks on the Biblioboard platform. Editorial staff from Library Journal read all submissions, and ones that meet the selection criteria are added to a Biblioboard module available to libraries that subscribe to the service. Libraries may also offer a local SELF-e module and choose self-published ebooks with appeal to their patron pool—for example, works by local authors or on a community-specific topic. SELF-e is focused on titles for adults but may consider children’s material in the future.

Looking ahead

Perhaps the most important thing for libraries is to remember that innovation is the key to remaining relevant, both in regard to hands-on services and the format and content of what they offer patrons. What does the future of self-publishing look like? Fewer authors producing better books, Coker says. “Many [authors] will quit, but the number of titles will continue to increase,” he says. “The number of high-quality books [will also go up].”

Ditlow forecasts positive developments in children’s self e-publishing. “There’s a pretty vast tool kit [for digital products] that didn’t exist even two years ago,” he says. “What we’re seeing now is picture books are starting to look pretty good, on the iPad in particular.…Almost all the conversion platforms are improving. I don’t think it would be unusual to say that at some point in the future, the next Caldecott would come from this marketplace….The tipping point is there.”

It’s there for small presses, too, in his view. Ditlow says that over the last year, “hundreds of independent publishers had just kept their heads down and were producing beautiful picture books for children and middle grade novels.” He adds, “I cannot think of a more exciting time.”


Mercy Pilkington is a senior editor with Good e-Reader, the CEO of Author Options, and a former English and science teacher in a maximum security juvenile correctional facility.

This article was published in School Library Journal's February 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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Comments

  1. I’ve been thinking about this issue lately: ordering materials from small presses. What are some good resources for finding titles and a list of small press publishers for children’s books?

  2. Sarah Bayliss Sarah Bayliss says:

    Hi Deborah,
    Thanks for your question. We don’t know of one comprehensive list, but our reviews team suggests these resources:

    Newpages.com list of independent publishers and university presses: http://www.newpages.com/books/publishers

    Independent Publishers Group: http://www.ipgbook.com/ipg-bookstore-pages-30.php

    Publishers Group West: http://www.pgw.com/home/publist.aspx

    The Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s “Small Presses of Color” resource: http://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pclist.asp

  3. There really is a big shift going on. Self-publishing is finally starting to break free of its negative reputation. This is opening the doors for so many new authors.

  4. Some libraries are trying some truly innovative ways to reach out to the indie-author community. I’m lucky enough to live in Illinois, where the libraries have launched the Soon to Be Famous Illinois Author Project (http://soontobefamous.info), aimed at choosing a self-published author to market and promote each year. (Full disclosure: I’m a finalist this time around. I’d love the idea anyway, but I’ll admit that makes me love it even more.)

    Also worth noting: authors should do their research and compare pricing and reviews for the publishing platforms named above. Most are respected and worth your time, but others are extremely expensive and, according to reports from knowledgeable sources, not worth the considerable rates they charge.