Starting Your Own Press: The Advantages of Being in Control
By Marshall Moore
I have less time to write these days, and I’m sort of okay with that. That opening sentence is certainly not something I’d have expected from myself when I made my first short story sale back in 1997. I had dreams, of course: like most, I’d have been quite okay with a million-dollar advance and a three-book contract. When I sold that first story, I had no idea what it would lead to. It wasn’t picked up by the New Yorker; it went to a small anthology five or six people bought. Since then, my books have all been released by indie presses, and I now own and run one myself.
I used to lament feeling tracked or trapped along the indie/genre route, but I now consider the path I’m on to be a stroke of brilliant good luck. My publishers came to me, instead of the usual vice versa, and my career began as the publishing industry was heading into the period of upheaval we’ve observed over the last few years. And that upheaval, with its effect on my third, fourth, and fifth books, had much to do with my decision to establish a press of my own. I’ve learned a few lessons along the way -- things that run somewhat counter to the usual advice established authors like to dispense.
New precedents are being set within publishing all the time now, even if the industry hasn’t gotten its collective head around them. At first, it was not my intention to publish my own work alongside the books (from other authors) we were already contracted for. I was concerned about Signal 8 Press being perceived as a vanity-publishing venture, which until recently would have been the kiss of death. While I was preparing to start the business, I was also newly under contract with another small press for my third book, the novel An Ideal for Living. The owner and publisher at that press has released several books of his own work, in addition to several dozen others. And in the course of my research, I found more author-publishers using the same model. With so many new options available, and zero interest in the humiliation and wasted time of further querying, why not publish my own books?
Although this might seem counter-intuitive, I think I might actually have a better shot at career longevity now. Here’s a not-so-glamorous little secret: major houses drop midlist authors like the winners in those Biggest Loser weight-loss shows drop pounds. If your second book sells fewer copies than your big debut, and your third book sells even less than that, may the Force be with you.
Here’s another not-so-secret secret: self-publishing your work does not automagically make you Amanda Hocking. Where’s the sweet spot, then? In my case, it’s been my own press. Although I didn’t have the opportunity to build up a bigger readership via a major house before going solo, it may not matter: the creative types (writers, artists, musicians, etc.) who stick around the longest and are consistently good get noticed. I now have the means to stay in it for the long haul, something that wouldn’t have been feasible had my work been published elsewhere.
Before you make your first sale, the hunger for publication can be overwhelming. I’ve been there and it’s a trap I’ve seen others fall into. Writing ought not to be driven by desperation for a byline. Of course, these days, self-publishing makes it easy, but my point is that the mindset persists. I try to adhere to a more old-fashioned (and possibly radical) view: it’s something I’m doing over the course of my lifetime. Everything about publishing is slow. That’s the nature of the industry. Despite the immediacy of e-publishing, an author’s readership and body of work are built up over a period of years, or decades. If you’re feeling frantic about publishing, don’t. Easier said than done, I know, but the books will be around long after you are gone. Why rush?
No matter how many times established authors hold forth about the need to follow a daily writing routine, life intervenes. We’re told to value persistence, but I think there is more than one way to conceptualize that. If you can’t write every day, you can at least be consistent about taking time to write when you find it. If there isn’t much time, it doesn’t mean you’re not committed to your work; it’s just that there isn’t much time. But you owe it to yourself, and to other people in your life, to look at your priorities. Will the children go hungry if you spend the afternoon writing and do other chores later? Will the sky fall, will anybody die, or will you get fired? If the answer is no, then it just might be safe to spend a few hours writing... and if the ideas aren’t there, or if the process feels repellent, eschew masochism. Suffering for your art is not a good idea when your art is not your livelihood.
It’s easy to get the impression that writing -- or success as a writer -- is a meritocracy. It’s not. Nor does success always result from completing an MFA from a prestigious school. While I’m all for studying creative writing as an academic discipline (why not, when you can study the visual and performing arts at university?), I’m also aware that the degree is basically a Bally-loafer-clad foot in the door: while the program and the networking may lead to a first sale, that’s not the same thing as having a career. No matter how delicious your prose may be, publishing is at least partly about timing, marketing, and sheer dumb luck -- not to mention continued huge sales if you’ve signed with the major houses. A lot is beyond your control when you’re an author.
My final lesson has been the importance of control. For me, it’s a priority. Every author with a few books out has at least one horror story: a cover that’s resulted in embarrassment and lost sleep, a publisher whose marketing department failed to grasp what the book was about, a mortifying lack of copyediting. While some of my own early-career disappointments are my own fault, others aren’t. This is a thing of the past now. I’m working with outstanding designers; I know what kind of marketing is being done, too, and some of it even appears to be working. I’m not implying that all my previous publishers were underwhelming (An Ideal for Living’s also excellent inside and out), but now I have the means to impose my own standards and thus shape the way my work is presented to the world.
Is starting a small press the right step for everyone? No, it’s not. It takes time, money, organization, leadership, research, and a modicum of business sense (don’t even consider not incorporating!). If you don’t have the requisite skills, you’ll need reliable help. So far, it’s worked out for me pretty well, and I hope to go on growing and learning in this business. Of course I’d like more time, without the demands of a day job -- wouldn’t we all? But sometimes taking the scenic route allows you to avoid a wreck on the highway.
Marshall Moore is the author of several short story collections and novels including An Ideal For Living, The Concrete Sky, Black Shapes in a Darkened Room, and his newest, The Infernal Republic. His website is MarshallMoore.com. He is also the publisher of Signal 8 Press, an imprint of Typhoon Media Ltd., a Hong Kong-based publishing company. The press focuses on East Asia and the Pacific Rim, publishing engaging novels, short story collections, and nonfiction written in English.