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43: Should you start a publishing imprint?

This week, authors J Thorn and Crys Cain discuss why indie authors may be interested in starting a publishing imprint, what challenges they may face, and tips on how to get an idea of what it would be like.

Transcript

Crys: Welcome to the TASM podcast. I’m Crys Cain with my cohost, J Thorn. Hello, sir.

J: Hey, Crys. What’s up?

Crys: How is it nearly the end of the year?

J: I know, right? Where did 2021 go?

Crys: I don’t know. But I really liked 2021, so that at least counts for something.

J: I did too. It wasn’t too bad for me.

Crys: No. I know that you don’t really hold much stock in like the turning of the year. But definitely at the end of 2020, I was like, I am ready to kiss this year goodbye and just bring on the next year. And of course everyone’s like, you know the pandemic is not over yet, don’t get your hopes up. Like, there’s just a whole bunch of Negative Nancy’s being like, it’s just going to be the same shit, different year.

And I was like, I don’t care. I just need it to feel different. And it did. And I’m very happy about that.

J: That’s excellent. I think we’re going to do reflection episode where we talk about 2021. And I’ll talk about my accomplishments journal. I think that will be of interest to people and how I do that. I do it before I finish anything. So that’s the teaser.

Crys: So what have you been doing this week?

J: This week, I’ve been working on my fiction project, my serial fiction project. I have July and August drafted. So I have to go September, October, November, December, but I’m a third of the way through.

And I know that Stephanie writes it as she goes, but I’m not as confident on this first go round. And so I want to have the whole thing written by July 1st. I feel like I’m in a good place there.

Crys: That makes sense. That’s exciting. I have not been writing still, but I have been playing in world building and the world.

I sat down to write the other day on my serial, and I realized that because I know the end of this story, I needed to have the beginning fairly fleshed out, like scenes-wise. Especially with as long as I intend this story to be, there’s going to come a point at which this is published and I can’t go back and change the beginning.

So I needed to know what the beginning was going to look like before I sat down and started writing it. I couldn’t just write into the dark. And so I did that. And I opened up my map and I figured some stuff out. And I have 15 scenes planned to start. And now I feel like I can sit down and get words done.

J: Nice. That is exciting. I have a very similar situation with my fiction thing. Like I want to write the whole thing, so I can go back and make sure it starts in the right place.

Crys: Yeah. It’s hard when you’re writing something. And this is going to be a daily release?

J: This is a daily serial.

Crys: So yeah, you’re like, I want to know that it’s going to go smoothly from start to finish.

Our question this week came from our slack group, and it was more of a really cool discussion. Because this is something that you have experimented with, I kind of halfway dabbled in it with co-writers, but that is: indie authors who are interested in opening a publishing imprint, like starting their own publishing business, publishing other people’s stuff.

And someone in our group asked about it and we have strong feelings about it. Strong cautions, rather, if I can paint the sky a little gray. But I think that you have to know like what the cautions and dangers are to not burn yourself out going into anything new. It’s just like parenting, you know what’s ahead of you, but you don’t know it until you get in. But at least you’re like well, they kind of did warn me.

J: Yeah. Yeah. I think too, like as the conversation was going in slack, I didn’t pose it there, but this is a great place to talk about it. My first question is, why? And I don’t mean that in a judgmental way, and I don’t mean that in a cynical way. I mean like seriously, why would you want to start an imprint?

There’s sort of like, oh, it would be cool versus I want to start a community in this particular genre and we want to be able to cross market. And like, okay. That’s like a different kind of why. That’s where I would start out is asking yourself why you want to do that.

Crys: Now with Molten Universe Media, what was your why when you and Zach started that?

J: I think what I mentioned is what we were thinking we were going to do. We were going to create a community of post-apocalyptic readers and writers. We were going to have a centralized place where those folks could gather. This all goes back to our completely missed assumption about the post-apoc reader wanting community. They didn’t. This was another stumbling block there.

I think the other problem we had is that we had too much diversity within. Because we started publishing other people under Molten Universe Media, and we stopped. We had too much diversity. And I know that sounds weird, but like we had sort of like this futuristic tech post-apoc, we had zombie post-apoc, we had EMP. It was too wide, too broad. And it sounds crazy, but I feel like to be successful with an imprint, you have to be like super targeted on like, this is the kind of story we’re going to publish.

And I’ve never talked about this and I’m not going to mention the name because I don’t know if it matters, but I was working as an outline editor for a small imprint and some folks might call this a fiction factory where they hire out all the elements, all the pieces of the publishing process, and then there’s a centralized management that takes care of it and publishes it. So there might be a pen name, but that pen name isn’t a real person, it’s this conglomerate.

Their outlines were super templative. They were like, here’s what happens in like scene seven, and here’s what happens in scene 14. And basically you’re swapping in and out like settings and characters. But the reason I’m mentioning that is because I think that’s the way you have to do it if you want to be successful. If you’re too wide, if you’re too diverse within a genre, there’s nothing holding it together. I don’t know if that’s making any sense.

Crys: Yeah, I would say that my little twist on that would be, if your readership doesn’t jump sub genres then you need to be super focused. Because I think that if you’re an epic fantasy publisher, you might have a little bit more wiggle room than like post-apocalyptic. Because your post-apocalyptic folks are like, I want futuristic, or I want zombie, or I want near future. You know, this is going to happen tomorrow, Russia’s coming, or China, or whoever. But other genres might have more flexibility.

Now romance wouldn’t. Romance would be like, here’s your super niche sub-genre. Like we’re not just going oh, it’s small-town romance. No, it is small town, midwest, rancher romance. I don’t know, something like that tight. Maybe you don’t have to go that deep, but maybe you do.

Now when I flirted with it, I was like, oh, this is an easy way to make some extra cash.

J: As you laugh. There’s nothing easy about it.

Crys: And it’s so different. Because I was like, it’s so easy to do it for my stuff, it’ll be easy to do it for other people’s stuff. But it’s so different when you intuitively or very consciously know what your books are about and what you want to do with your books. The moment you bring in someone else with other goals, it’s way more complicated.

J: I think you and I are going to have the same recommendation. I know where this is going and I know you well enough to know what you’re going to say. I think I’m going to say it too. But before we get to the recommendation part I do want to say, the caution flag that we’re waving right now, I think what we’re talking around is this idea that being a novelist and being a publisher are two totally different skillsets. And just because you are really good at writing books and publishing your own books, even if you’re self-published, that doesn’t mean that translates to publishing other people’s work.

Then you’re getting into areas that editors and book coaches function in. And you’re talking about like a feedback loop with an author, you’re working with cover designers to get the right aesthetic, and you have to have some familiarity or expertise with book marketing, maybe that’s paid ads or social media. Like those are all very different skillsets than I can sit down and write a good story.

Crys: Yeah. If I were to ever do a publishing imprint myself now, knowing what I do know, is I would want it to be a prestige imprint because I think it is really hard as a small press to make enough money to be worth your time.

Now that’s not true across the board. There’s always outliers. There’s always people who are doing it for different reasons than just money versus time. But if I were to do it again, the two presses that I think I would kind of emulate are Subterranean Press, which is a fantasy publisher, and they have a quarterly magazine that I adore, and Small Beer Press, which is Kelly Link, I believe. And it’s mostly her own work, but I think she started branching out. And it’s a retail online store and they do chapbooks. It is its own niche thing. And I think they do it more for the love of anything than the income. Though, they do have to be making enough income to make it viable to keep going.

J: Here’s another interesting wrinkle to this. Imprints, years ago, were the middle ground between vanity press and selling books out of your trunk and traditional publishing. It was like, okay, whether you bought a package, whether a small imprint published you, it was that middle ground. It wasn’t quite self-publishing and it wasn’t trad pub.

And the reason that looked attractive to authors is that, well, I’m not going to fight through the slush pile of trad pub, I don’t want to go the agent route, I don’t want to give up that much of the money. And then the other side of that is, I don’t have the skillset to self-publish. It’s too technical, it’s too challenging. But in 2021, 2022, are there still authors who feel like they can’t trad pub, but they can’t do it on my own and therefore an imprint is the right fit for them? What percentage of authors would that be a really attractive proposition?

Crys: And when I think when you say imprint you mean small publisher, because imprints were often arms of the big publishers.

Yeah, surprisingly to me, as a really independent, like entrepreneurial, love-the-business person, surprisingly to me, with all of those biases understood, there’s a lot of people who still really like working with a small publisher. Even though, if you were to look at the qualifications of most small publishers, they are not going to be able to give you anything extra that you would not be able to give yourself other than they pick your editor and your cover for you and you don’t have to do the administrative work.

I know lovely people who run small presses and this is nothing against them because I do think that there’s a certain kind of author that finds that really valuable. I just happen to look at that and think it’s crazy, given my own biases.

J: So I’m going to tee this up for you really nicely, because I know what you’re going to say. You’re listening to this conversation and you’re like, okay, how do I get a taste of this? How can I set something up that gives me some idea of what it would be like to start a small press?

Crys: Yes, this is my recommendation in our group. And that the best way that you can do this is by putting together an anthology. You are working with much shorter works, so you’re not committing to five novels, you’re committing to probably less than the length of one novel, but maybe the length of one novel.

You’re working with multiple authors. You’re going to hire an editor. You’re going to hire a cover designer. You’re going to go through the promotion, the publishing. You’re going to get the whole shebang of publishing something that’s not 100% yours and really getting a taste for how it’s different.

J: Yes. That’s exactly what I was going to say. I think we need to be just completely transparent here, and at least in my experience, anthologies don’t sell. I think you have to understand that if you do an anthology, which is what we do for world building weekends. And we tell the people who come into the world building weekend, you’re doing this for the experience. And the anthology, it’s going to be a charity anthology, but it’s also going to be a keepsake for you. It’s a souvenir of the experience. We’re not going to make money on it. There are very few anthologies that sell well.

But you’re right. You can get the experience and what that feels like. And I think having done it many times, I think what I can say definitively is, that when you publish an anthology, you’re not doing much writing. I mean, unless you’re writing a story for the anthology. It’s not about writing at all. It’s project management. It’s running a business. It’s all of those things you just mentioned and it’s not writing. It’s putting contracts together.

And some people are like, ooh, that’s exciting, I’d like to do that. And other people are like, oh, I don’t even want to think about that. So the caution flag that we’re waving is just know what you’re getting into. Like if you love writing, then starting your own small publishing company is not necessarily the next logical step in that transition or that evolution.

Crys: Now I have run a couple of anthologies that made quite a fair bit of money. But the reason they did is the woman who was my first co-writer was just a very social person. She had some very high up in the romance, like huge followings, friends or acquaintances who were willing to join us for the anthology. And they basically sold the book. It wasn’t anything that we, as the publisher, did. It was the name of that big author sold the book.

J: Right? The point is people are not going on Amazon searching for anthologies. If they are a fan of someone in it or they see a name attached to it that they like, they will absolutely buy it. Or if it’s a list recommendation, they will. But they’re not going and looking for anthologies to read, at least not in my experience.

Crys: Yeah. I think the only time when you really get a following for an anthology is when you have something like “the year’s best sci-fi.” Like Gardner Dozois, he is a known anthologist in the sci-fi fantasy community. And so, that was started by trad pub and followed year after year, so people go to that for the taste of the thing for the year.

Another person that does it on an indie and much smaller scale, but it gives him enough that he keeps doing it, is Blaze Ward with The Boundary Shock Quarterly. And I think he does like themed anthologies. But he has a small enough readership that he distributes it through the Draft2Digital or BundleRabbit. I think he does it through BundleRabbit, distributes it through there so that any money that is made, it’s automatically distributed to all of the members whose stories were submitted. And so he cuts down a lot on his overhead by doing that. And he serves as the editor, so he’s not hiring out editing costs. And he does it four times a year.

J: The other thing you can do, and this is something I did seven years ago, it’s really how I got my big start in indie publishing, is I put together multi-author box sets.

Now I don’t know what the reader demand is for those anymore. I mean, at one time readers were snapping them up. I think they’re not as sexy as they once were. But that’s even easier than an anthology because essentially what you’re doing is you’re bundling up book one of a series from all these different authors. And so they’re just giving you the source files and you’re just compiling them. Now you still have to do the marketing and the royalty distribution and all that kind of stuff, but you’re not necessarily working on the craft side with the stories themselves.

And back in 2014, that was in post-apoc, we made five figures on a few months from multi-author box sets. But like I said, that was seven years ago. I don’t think the reader demand is the same. But again, if you’re looking for the experience, if you’re looking to get a feel for what it might be like to be a small publisher, multi-author box set is another way to do it.

Crys: Yeah. The main thing is to start small. That’s what we’re trying to say. It may be something that you absolutely love. And if so, start small. I would say that if you do plan on becoming a publisher, it’s gonna take you a few years to get profitable as you build up, because you’re going to have to build up. You’re not just building up fan bases for your authors, you’re building up fan bases for you as a publisher.

J: Yes, just know what you’re getting into. We’re not saying you can’t do it, you just have to know what you’re getting into. And so coming full circle here, if you just think it sounds cool, I’d warn you about that. If you’re like, I want to create a community around this specific genre, then it might be worth experimenting with it.

Crys: Yeah. My question this week would be if anyone has played around with publishing other people and what their experience has been? And specifically, if you think we’re dead wrong on everything, I’d absolutely love to hear from you because I didn’t do it the right way and I’d love to hear how you do it.

J: Yeah. I’d love to, too. I mean, like I said, I’ve never been able to sell an anthology worth anything. Maybe there’s some secrets out there that we don’t know about.

Crys: If you would like to join this conversation in real time, we’d love for you to pop over and check out what The Author Success Mastermind is all about.

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