Sep
4

Small Press Benefits

Q&A with Publisher Promontory Press

A few weeks back, when I interviewed Bennett R Coles at the release of Ghosts of War (his latest release with Titan Books), I was fascinated to learn that in addition to being an award-winning author, Ben was also Publisher/CEO at Promontory Press, a small press publishing house run out of Victoria, Canada.  As Ben describes it, Promontory is a traditional publisher which isn’t afraid to break a few traditions.  The publishing industry as a whole has more than a few quirksmany of which are disadvantageous to the authorand as an author himself, Ben's intention was to try to make Promontory more author-friendly, particularly to new authors.

I realized that a second interview was needed, just to dig a bit deeper into the small-press publishing side of things.  I was fairly confident that I had a clear understanding of the self-publishing options out there, and I was actively chasing the big NY publishing route, but I didn't really understand what a small press could offer.

Lingo in PublishingThis past week Ben and I sat down again, to focus on the realities of small press publishing in today's market, the types of publishing that his company, Promontory Press, focuses on, and what goes into publishing a successful book.

NOTE: for an explanation of the various forms of publishing (self-publishing vs traditional publishing vs hybrid publishing) and their individual pro's and con's, please refer to Ben's recent article, "A No-BS Tour o Modern Publishing—Making sense of the lingo," linked via the image above.

ALR: Ben, thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions again.  In our last interview, you mentioned that, as a new author, you had gotten to a point where you felt essentially disenfranchised by the traditional publishing process—that few agents/ traditional publishers were willing to take a chance on a brand new author unless they happened to fit the mold of what was expected to be hot for the next publishing season.  Now that you’re on the other side of the fence, as the CEO of a small press publishing house, do you still agree with your earlier view of trad publishing?

Ha! Have I “become one of them”? Not really. In the early days of Promontory, I vigorously fought against the idea of playing the trends, which led to some truly unique books being published by us. I think over the years there has been a certain amount of pull-back from our “anything goes” attitude toward publishing, because unique books are a real financial risk, but I still don’t pay too much attention to hot trends. If a book is top quality, I’m willing to take a good look at it.

ALR: What are the tangible differences (from an author’s perspective) between a small-press publisher and a larger publishing house?

The biggest difference up front is that, as an author, you can contact a small press directly with your submission, and you will get a reply from a real person. With the big houses you have to work through an agent, which means you, the author, probably don’t even speak to anyone at the publisher until after the deal is signed. Even if your submission is rejected you will likely have more personal contact with a professional if you deal with a small press.

Once you’ve signed your book, your interaction with the editor will be much the same at either a big or small press. The timelines may be shorter with a small press, but we all work to the same long-lead schedules of the industry so that part really comes down to how organized (or overworked) the editor is. At a big house there will be a marketing team: you will likely hear from them about six weeks before book launch and they will mostly be just following their own standard procedures. A small press may not even have a marketing team, but if they do they’ll likely be relying on you for heavy support so your communications with them will be more substantial.

You need an agent to contact a big publisher

ALR: How many submissions does Promontory Press receive in a given year?  How many of those submissions result in an offer and what percentage of those offers are traditional publishing contracts vs your shared-risk hybrid model?  Has that ratio evolved over the years or remained constant?

We receive several submissions every week on average, but starting in 2014 we implemented submission “seasons” where we’d be open to receiving new manuscripts for only a few months, in order to let my editorial team focus on their editing jobs the rest of the time. This has concentrated our submissions into several rushes but it’s actually more manageable.

In the beginning, we only offered hybrid contracts, but as we’ve grown we’ve been moving more and more toward traditional contracts. Of our 60 titles published to date, about a quarter of them are traditional, but moving forward I expect that ratio to change considerably.

Interestingly, there are half a dozen examples of authors to whom we’ve offered traditional contracts but they’ve specifically requested hybrid—because the rights and revenues are more favorable to the author. This is a nice validation to me that the hybrid publishing model serves the author well.

Authors have specifically requested Hybrid Contracts Because the Rights and Revenues are more favorable

ALR: When you’re assessing a submission, what are the criteria you use to evaluate whether to make an offer (and what type of offer to make, if any)

The most important criterion is always the quality of writing. I don’t care how famous an author is—I’m not publishing junk under Promontory’s name. The next consideration is marketability of the book, and this is where the business side of publishing comes into play. Essentially, we need to assess whether we think we can sell enough copies of this book to make it worth the financial risk of signing it. Elements we assess include genre, length, author platform, and regional or niche focus.

Every submission we receive is considered as a potential traditional contract. If a manuscript doesn’t make the grade for a traditional offer, we’ll politely decline it. Once we’ve got a good selection of finalists we’ll have detailed discussions about whether each book is worth the full risk of a traditional offer, or the somewhat-reduced risk of a hybrid offer.

It’s important to understand that it doesn’t matter if we sign a book to a traditional or a hybrid contract—we, the publisher are still undertaking considerable financial risk to produce the book. We need to sell a lot no matter which publishing model we use.

ALR: When you’re interested in a book, is there a standard contract you start all negotiations from or do your offers vary substantially from book to book? And how would what you offer differ from what an author might hope to eventually get with a big press?

We do have a standard contract. The traditional and hybrid contracts are almost identical—the only differences are in initial investment, royalties and rights. Otherwise, we’re starting from exactly the same place. Every contract is open to negotiations with the author and we reach an agreement with the author most of the time.

The major difference between any small press and a big publishing house is the size of the advance—small presses can’t afford to offer big advances. This is one of the reasons agents focus almost all their attention on bigger publishers, while we small presses deal mainly with the authors directly.

ALR: What volume of sales would you (as the publisher) hope to achieve in order for the book to be considered a success for all concerned?  What type of sales figures would allow a book to break-even, vs earn a small profit, vs become a hit?  And how often/how long does it take for a book to actually earn out the costs associated with bringing it to print?

10,000 would be champagne and chocolate cake all around

Every book is different, of course, but in general, we’re aiming to sell 2000 copies of every book. At this level of sales, any book will have broken even, and many will be profitable by then. 5000 copies sold would be considered a nice success, and 10,000 or more will see champagne and chocolate cake all round. Books can take 2-3 years to earn out. Some are faster, of course, and some never do. That’s just one of the risks of the business.

ALR: What percentage of your book sales are generally sold in bookstores vs online?  Given the tools and online selling platforms that self-publishing authors now have at their disposal (such as Amazon and CreateSpace) what are the key benefits that a small press publisher like Promontory Press can offer above and beyond what an author can do on their own? 

Like many small presses, we struggle to get good bookstore exposure so we use guerrilla selling (opportunistic hand-selling such as at local fairs, university talks, coffee shop readings, and private author functions) and online selling to augment our “brick and mortar” sales. That said, however, 60-75% of our sales revenue comes from bookstores. This is mainly because Promontory’s sales focus has always been geared toward the traditional market.  Now that it’s established, I’m turning more of our resources toward online and event selling.

Why did we focus so much effort on getting good bookstore exposure? Because the best way to sell books is still in bookstores, since the only reason consumers walk into a bookstore is because they’re looking to buy a book. All the nifty tricks and tactics of Internet selling cannot duplicate this simple fact: the bookstore serves as the single most effective method for gathering your target market in front of your product at the precise moment they want to buy. At Promontory, we do our very best to make sure our books are there when consumers come looking.

60%-75% of our sales are through bookstores

Bookstores will keep a title on the shelves for at least three months, often longer. Many of the big publishers have a three-month return policy, meaning stores can only return books up to three months after launch. What this can result in is a lot of books being returned at the three-month mark, so Promontory’s policy is an unlimited timeline on returns. Yes, it means we may get returns on a book we published last year, but it also ensures that our books get a long shelf life in stores.

Of course, online selling is a very valuable tool as well, and it needs to be a part of our sales strategy, both for paperbacks and ebooks. Access to this market is much easier than to brick and mortar stores, but achieving large volumes of sales is just as hard. So it takes a dedicated team working constantly to bring success.

Since you mentioned print-on-demand (POD), I’d like to make a quick comment on how we print books. We don’t use POD as the cost per unit is much too high. For a self-published author, POD can be very useful as it saves them the risk of printing large batches of books that may not sell, but as publisher, we can manage this risk much more effectively. We pitch our books to the national booksellers months in advance of release date and based on the orders we receive we then do a large, offset print run to match the existing orders (plus some extra) to keep unit costs to a minimum.

Promontory's policy is unlimited returns to ensure a long shelf life

ALR: Describe the normal marketing work-up and follow-through for a novel’s release with Promontory Press. Does this work-up vary depending on the genre or for traditionally published books vs hybrid books? 

Marketing begins very soon after contract signing—often even before editing—because of the very long lead times for selling in the trade market. We sign our books 10-15 months before publication, and this is actually quite short for the industry; 2-3 years between signing and launch date is typical.

First the title and sub-title need to be finalized, and cover design begun. A publication date is set and a marketing plan is laid out based on a fairly well-defined schedule of professional reviewers, endorsements, contests and channelling the author’s efforts into building a pre-launch following. The traditional industry puts all its marketing focus into the weeks leading up to book launch—and then stops. At Promontory we keep the marketing efforts up, particularly for 1-3 months after launch (depending on a number of factors, not least of which is author engagement) and then we continuously promote the book, basically forever, as opportunities arise. These opportunities can be something relevant in the news, an important date or holiday connected to the book’s subject, local events which we can attend, or ebook promotions offered by Kindle, Kobo and our other partners.

There is no difference in this process between our traditional and hybrid books.

We keep marketing for 1-3 months after launch

ALR: Does Promontory Press have a Manuscript Wish List (MSWL) currently?  Are there any specific genres/age categories that you would like to see more of? Or anything you would prefer to see less of?

One of Promontory’s founding principles was that we would always be open to all comers. We don’t discriminate based on genre, age range or subject matter—with two exceptions: no hate literature, no porn. Because of this, it’s hard for me to say that we’re looking for anything in particular. I think over time we will naturally develop some biases, based simply on which genres consistently sell well for us.

One category of books in which we currently have no titles is YA, which is a shame because it’s such a booming market. I would be hesitant to sign a single YA book to our list, however, as it’s hard to break into a new category with just one title from a single, unknown author. A few years ago, I made the conscious decision to grow our line of children’s books and we were able to attract enough talented authors that we were able to enter both the illustrated and the middle-grade categories in force.

ALR: Any final words to authors who are considering whether or not to submit to Promontory Press?

We’re always looking for talented new authors—in fact, new authors are kind of our specialty. Promontory is run by an author, and I look after my own. Think of us as a traditional publisher first, as that’s how we first consider every submission. But, since we’re also a hybrid publisher…

Hybrid publishing is not self-publishing. They are completely different beasts. In self-publishing all the risk is on the author, and pretty much all the effort; in hybrid it is a shared risk, with the publisher still carrying the bigger share of that risk, and my team of professionals work extremely hard to see each of our titles succeed. We have to, because if we fail we lose our investment right alongside the author. But if we succeed, we share in that success equally with the author.

Hybrid publishing is identical to traditional publishing in every aspect of the treatment of the book—it’s just my attempt to try and drag my industry into the 21st Century by implementing an evolved business relationship between author and publisher. The traditional publishing model is a very archaic model that wouldn’t survive five minutes in a Business 101 class, but so few people understand the arcana of this world that it can be hard for an outsider to understand that.

Again, a huge thank you to Bennett R. Coles for taking the time to answer all my questions, particularly given his busy schedule at Dragon Con in Atlanta this week.  

For any authors who are interested in submitted to Promontory Press, their submission guidelines can be found on their website at their website (linked here).  You can also find them on Facebook (here), and on Twitter (here). 

Books by Promontory Press
[NOTE: background image used in header and quote blocks taken from http://retaildesignblog.net]

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