So, before I get into what happened with the Feast Kickstarter, aka, how to lose $20,000 without even trying, let me pause and talk about why you might or might not want to go big press vs. small press vs. indie. Here are some factors to consider:
• how fast do you write?
• do you write in easily marketable genre categories? (will matter to both big presses and indie, possibly less so for small presses)
• speed of publishing / desire for instant gratification / frustration at rejections
• bottlenecks in traditional publishing / unwillingness to take chances
• how fast you need money to start flowing in
• how much you want the (slim) chance of going HUGE
• global reach (possible with both trad and indie, in different ways)
• how good / professional a product are you willing to put out? (do you want an editor? willing to pay for a good one? do you want your cover to look like you did it in five minutes on Canva, or like it was done by a professional designer? etc.)
• just wanna write vs. do-all-the-publishing-tasks
• respectability (important for academic jobs, grant applications)
• where your writing community lives (what do you read? where do they publish?)
• award visibility
SO WHAT SHOULD I DO?
I don’t have any easy answers for you on any of this. For myself, I grew up in traditional publishing — I’m 50 now, and have been publishing since I was about 20; I’ve published books with multiple large houses (Random House, Penguin, HarperCollins), for good money — a six-figure advance at HC, for example.
I’ve done books with various small presses, generally when I didn’t think those books had a good shot at the big houses because they weren’t very commercial — small presses are great for supporting weird projects, marginalized writers, etc. Mostly for much, much less money — sometimes a $500 advance, often no advance, and I’d have to go back and look, but I think I’ve likely never made more than $5000 on a small press book. (There are some small presses that do better than that for their authors at least some of the time, I think, but I haven’t had that experience, alas.
I’ve also done indie, in various ways, where I’ve mostly either made a little money, or possibly lost a lot of money (unclear, TBD, more on that later). These days, I occasionally make more selling a short story (I was paid $2200 for my latest Wild Cards story, for example, a story that took about three days to write) than I do on a small press book-length work. (Most short stories I sell for more like $500 – $750.)
For me, some of the decision-making on where to try to publish is complicated by having an academic job; it’s hard for me not to think about which kinds of publications “count” towards my c.v., even though in some sense, it doesn’t actually matter that much at this stage. (I’m about to go up for my final promotion next year, so after that, although I won’t have tenure, I also won’t have much reason to worry about this question of respectability. I expect it to be freeing. Much experimenting!)
WHAT CATEGORY ARE YOU?
Another critical piece that makes this hard for me that I am EXTREMELY ECLECTIC. Agents hate this. Publishers hate this. Book marketing people especially hate this. And yet, here I am.
In my 20s, I wrote erotic short stories and either sold it directly or published with small presses. When I was grad school in my 30s I was able to focus on Bodies in Motion and mainstream literary fiction for a few years.
When my novel with HC crashed-and-burned (long story), I sank into a pretty intense writing depression, and what brought me out of that, finally, was deciding to do a fun, very low-stakes, erotic science fiction short story collection, funding it through Kickstarter — I set an $8000 goal, with half budgeted for printing and distribution costs, and half to pay me, or rather, to pay for childcare, so I’d have time to write the book — my kids were small then. (The project is listed as Demimonde there, though the title eventually changed to The Stars Change).
I mean, it’s sexy sci-fi, but also, ended up being about Black July in Sri Lanka and attempted genocide, oops. Apparently I couldn’t keep away from seriousness entirely. TSC ended up getting picked up by a small press (Circlet), which was nice — I asked the Kickstarter backers if they wanted their money back, and one person asked for their $10, but the rest said they were just happy to see the book published.
(NOTE: The small press didn’t pay me an advance to live on while writing the book, but I didn’t need one, since I’d effectively gotten one through Kickstarter. This is an interesting model to think about for both small presses and indie publishers, I think. Kickstarter also is effective publicity for books; while you’re running the Kickstarter, it gives you a good reason to talk about your book a lot, and generate a lot of pre-orders. It also lets you gauge community interest — if you don’t get many takers on the Kickstarter, maybe you shouldn’t invest a lot of money and/or time into the production of the book.)
And then after TSC was the cancer romance and the cookbook, and somewhere in there, I wrote some children’s picture books (must remember to find that contract for Fingers and Spoons and SIGN IT, get it into calendar), and I’ve always written poetry, which I sometimes include in the books, and then there’s the Wild Cards superhero fiction for George, and I’d love to design a game — basically, I’m the despair of everyone trying to sell my books, including me.
BOOKS = WIDGETS?
Books are not widgets, they’re art, but the truth is, the more you can make them look like widgets, the easier they are to sell.
For example, a hot new genre right now is college bully romance (which honestly squicks me even to think about), and if you can write books in that genre, and especially if you can churn them out quickly and put the right covers on them, covers that signal VERY CLEARLY to the audience what they are, you can make yourself a nice steady income, enough to live on, very quickly.
Or at least this is what I gleaned from a recent conversation in 20Booksto50K, a FB group about writing 20 books quickly (usually genre, usually in a series) in order to get a steady income of at least 50K / year.
I don’t think I’m that kind of writer, alas, although I am regularly tempted to try it, maybe under a pseudonym (see ‘respectability’ above), just because the money sounds so good. If you can write like that, more power to you, and if you’re interested in that kind of thing, head on over to that group for lots of marketing and business advice.
(If you write nonfiction, that’s often easier to market — cookbooks, for example, fill a clear niche.)
DISCOVERABILITY IS KING, QUEEN, and EMPEROR:
Don’t think that small presses and big presses are immune to these marketing pressures, by the way. The big problem right now is discoverability — you could write the best, more literary, more page-turning novel in the world, but if readers don’t find it, you’re hosed. We’re all struggling to figure out, in a rising tide of much, much more publishing than we’ve ever seen before, how to put our books in front of readers.
And this is where I rant about FB a little, and social media in general, because for a long time, social media was a GREAT way for little authors to get their work in front of people, but capitalist pressures mean that now FB is tightening the screws, using their algorithms to choke visibility, and therefore, discoverability. They want you to pay for ads, and the ads may or may not reach your readers, but they will surely suck up as much money as you’re willing to throw at them.
I find myself deeply resentful of the whole thing, and maybe that’s unfair, maybe we were just lucky for a while and got a free publicity ride on social media and now we have to just accept the new reality, but I don’t like it.
I guess this is where I say it’s all about organic reach, and if you have a friend, or just see someone whose work you like, and they have a small business of any kind, PLEASE pimp their work. Likes / comments / shares do a TON to make posts more visible, and if you tip over a threshhold, then the algorithms kick in and suddenly you’re a LOT more visible. Thank you.
ADDENDUM: KIDS TODAY!
Also, if you don’t have young people around (your teen kids count) showing you how to use TikTok, Instagram Reels, etc., you probably should look into finding some, because the effective ways to do outreach are constantly changing, and this is why you want to hire a social media person who knows what they’re doing…more on that later. If you are relying on an e-mail newsletter alone in 2022, you are probably dramatically underselling your potential audience.
Okay, so next post, we’ll come back to Feast, the Kickstarter, the decision to invest a lot of money, and how I suddenly gained two more staff people…