10 Important Things I’ve learned about Indie Publishing

Alisa Krasnostein is editor and publisher at Twelfth Planet Press, an Australian indie press for fresh, new speculative fiction. She is also Executive Editor of the review website ASif!, member of Not if You Were the Last Short Story on Earth and part of the podcasting team at Galactic Suburbia.

In the latest episode of Galactic Suburbia, we were talking about the recent apology to writers from Nightshade Press and their subsequent suspension from the Science Fiction Writers Association (SFWA). An excerpt of their apology is quoted below:

Night Shade has grown faster and more uncontrollably than we had any idea how to handle. What started as two guys shipping books out of a garage now consists of a full staff working out of an office in San Francisco. We’ve shuffled around a lot of our responsibilities, but in many ways, we’re still figuring this out as we go.

This has led to some major miscommunication, and sometimes flat-out lack of communication, with our authors, sometimes, even amongst ourselves. We screwed up: Details were missed, one of us assumed another was handling a situation, or a reluctance to deliver bad news turned into an unprofessional excuse to procrastinate. The issues that have come up today, at their core, are really ones of communication. All this could have been avoided through simple phone calls and emails, through us letting people know what was happening.

That said, this has been a wakeup call for us.

This struck a chord with me as I have struggled managing growth in my own, still new, indie press. On the podcast, I mentioned how I think it’s hard for emerging publishers to find mentorship and guidance compared to that available for writers. There’s a lot of information out there to help writers set themselves up for writing as their career. But I’ve found it much harder to find similar formal assistance for the establishment of a small press and for guidance to grow my small press into a more professional business. Probably that’s because there are far fewer major success stories and because those that have been successful have used unique, and specific to their business, models.

In establishing Twelfth Planet Press, I have been very lucky to have had support and guidance from many small press publishers in Australia as well as more recently, elsewhere in the genre. But I thought, for my guest blog post, I’d share ten of the most important things I’ve learned so far and that I give as advice to emerging publishers when asked.

1. Treat your small press like a business from the get go.

I learned this the hard way and to be fair, I’m not sure you ever really know at the point that you begin your first project what you are going to need or how your press will grow. It starts out innocently with one project, which you can quite clearly remember all the costs of – they came out of your own pocket anyway. And then the sales come in, other projects start up, you have authors and writers to pay and advertising and postage costs, ebook sales across three different online stores, other people might invest in particular projects with you, you split catering costs with another small press at a book launch once, you need an ABN or Tax File Number (in Australia) and then you need to register the name and have a bank account to attach your paypal to and the next thing you know is that you have to trawl through three years of 6 different bank account transactions and paypal receipts and figure out what you lost or earned and what you do or don’t owe the tax man. And where your business stands, financially…

This happened to me. It was an excruciatingly painful experience. It made me cry more than a few times. And it took me months of solid weekends and one three week holiday between day job contracts to forensically audit about 5 years worth of records across 2 paypal accounts, 7 bank accounts and 9 publishing projects. I wish that on no-one.

Just recently, I applied through my bank for an eftpos machine to take electronic payments at Aussiecon 4 in September. It was only in this process that I finally had banking advice on the kind of products and packages I should have to manage my finances. But even in that process, the kinds of questions asked – what proportions of sales come in this form or that form, what turnover do you expect – were ones I could only now really confidently answer. I would have had no idea when setting up Twelfth Planet Press and I also would not have had a transaction record and cash flow through the accounts to show the bank.

My advice though is to set up a unique paypal account for your small press and record your transactions as they happen. Don’t take my approach of “having a paperwork trail” that you can fall back on later. Trust me, that way leads only to pain.

2. Communication is more important than everything else.

If nothing else, always be polite, honest and prompt. Reply to your email, no matter how much you get and how much of your time this takes up. Be available and be open to contact. Writers want to be sure that you got their submission or rewritten novella and want to know they can talk over book decisions or contract changes. And customers want to receive their goods as soon as possible or be in the loop to when preorders will be filled.

Beyond email, there are so many free and easy to use tools to increase your presence and to interact with readers and writers. As communication means increase and expand, people want to engage and be part of the process – they want to be feel invested in the outcome of products they love.

3. Seek and take advice

Even if you want to turn the entire game upside down and do something completely new and radical and break all the rules, it’s still important to learn about what happened before you and why. There are lots of reasons why small press models don’t work or haven’t worked before. Learning about the obstacles that prevented other presses from doing certain things will inform you before you throw money and time at an idea that might not ever have succeeded and for reasons you would never have realised. There are lots of models that work now that could never have worked before because of technological limitations – like Print on Demand, digital printing, ebooks, podcasting and web publishing. But there are also things that will not ever work for other, more ingrained reasons. More established publishers know the lay of the land and the history and can tell you why some projects or approaches will be unsuccessful. Also, more established presses have contacts and know who the right person is to ask for advice or help and can introduce you to these people. Knowing the right people makes things that seemed insurmountable suddenly achievable.

4. If you can’t make it work, figure out how to go round the obstacle. It’s the product or result that matters, not the model that you used to produce it.

This one mostly refers to what I heard a lot when I first embarked on Twelfth Planet Press: “You can’t make money in small press.” Others include, “Collections don’t sell”, “Female collections don’t sell” and “Green book covers don’t sell”. Having said what I did in point 3, sometimes the reasons something didn’t work before is because the planning was flawed or there was an obstacle that can now be moved. One example from my experience is the “You can’t make money in small press” – before digital printing was readily available (and it was only becoming so just as Twelfth Planet Press was entering the field), you had to print in at least 1000 to 1500 print runs to reduce the per unit cost to a viable number. In Australia, selling 1000 copies of a small press book is a pretty tough job and so … the figures seemed to be doomed to failure. Of course, I was lucky enough to be starting out just as digital printing was being offered and so the models of printing in a viable way were completely new and different and changed what I could do. My approach is always to look at what the limiting factors are on pulling off what I want to and figuring out how to remove them.

5. It’s only a cheaper per unit cost if you sell the entire print run.

Following on from point 4, it’s still cheaper to print 1000 or 1500 books on a print run. But it’s not cheaper for the overall cost of the project, you have to cough up with more cash up front for more books. It’s cheaper per unit, which means you get a bigger chunk of profit per book sale for a bigger print run. But that maths only holds if you sell enough of the 1000 print run. The maths are completely different and far more gloomy if you have to store 700 books in your shed for 10 years. In fact, it works out far more profitably to only print 300 books at the higher per unit cost, with a lower overall cost for the print job, and to sell the books for a higher per unit cost but to sell all of them. And you don’t have to find storage.

6. Beware of spending money to make less money.

This one is a bit tricky as sometimes it’s hard to track direct sales from a promotion. And sometimes it’s worth the money to invest in branding and product recognition and wait for those sales to come back to you – even if they are for a different project down the line.

At the same time, it’s important to evaluate advertising opportunities for what they are worth to you. As you gain market share, more opportunities will find you than you can afford. Some experimentation is worth trying out what works and what doesn’t. But I’ll never forget the time someone explained to me how happy they were with what they saw as a successful advertisement that cost them $X and brought them Y new subscribers who paid in total new subscriber base, ¾ of X, the cost of the ad. In other words, the ad cost them money to bring in new subscribers. And that model only works if those subscribers renew their subscription at the end of the year and tell their friends who also subscribe etc. That particular product is no longer on the shelves.

7. The most cost effective advertising is word of mouth. And it’s also the most potentially lethal.

I’ve spent a lot of time researching and gathering feedback on why and how people buy books or subscribe to magazines or read online material. By far the majority will use a filter system to find what they want to read and the most important of these filter systems is buzz, or word of mouth. It’s also the most reliable because it’s the least open to manipulation. People have to read the book, love it AND tell someone else about it. But if you get all those three, you get … well, the Harry Potter or Twilight phenomena. Obviously you can’t aim to create that (but oh if you could!). But on a much smaller scale, the speculative fiction scene has its own word of mouth and popular works do become so through it. Firstly you have to create an awesome product. But then you have to be sure to get it into the hands of people who read and who are vocal about what they like (and don’t like, see the second sentence for this point). And the best way to do that is to be generous with your review and buzz copies. And then cross your fingers.

8. Listen to criticism. But choose wisely when following advice.

I take the approach of doing the best I can with what I know and have available to me with each book. And then I try to do better with the next book. I ask for feedback on what I did right and wrong. I don’t always agree with what comes back but I still listen because ultimately, this is what people will be saying about my books to other people. I might like something that others find fault with – for example the pink spine on our first double novella Roadkill/Siren Beat. But I have also learned a lot about where I can improve design and layout or editing. One of the most valuable sessions for me happened in the dealers room at a convention last year where a few other publishers and designers sat down and went through a new (then) book, worked though all the tiny details with me and discussed what was good and what was bad. I took notes! Not everyone would have seen the details they focused on but different consumers will see different things. At the end of the day, I want my books to “look like real books” and the elements that go into making such a thing are often hard to specify until you see them executed badly.

9. Learn to use all the tools at your disposal.

Small presses have small, and often no, budgets so anything that can be done to create, promote or brand a product at no cost is not only a bonus but essential. The internet is your most valuable tool. You can sell books direct to customers without needing a bricks and mortar venue. You can work with editors, writers and artists on the other side of the world. You can reach out through websites, blogging, email, podcasts, Twitter and Facebook to find your market. And all of this at very little to no financial cost.

10. Pay attention to what else is happening in the genre.

If you want to produce new and cutting edge works, you need to know what is currently being produced and do something else. If you want to ride on the back of a current phenomenon (vampires, darhling) then you need to know what is currently being produced and what is about to be released. If you want to know where the products you produce factor in terms of quality, theme or production value, you need to know what else is currently being produced.

Ultimately, you need to read and read broadly and widely. It’s important to stay on top of both what other leading presses are producing but also on what the review outlets and critics are saying about what is being produced. I read a lot of fiction as part of the Not if You Were the Last Short Story on Earth project and I also keep track of online nonfiction and review outlets and Locus magazine.


11. Take every opportunity. You cannot predict where any will take you.

As your business grows, it gets harder and harder to do this because there are limits on your time and budget. But I still try to answer every interview request, enter every award process, send a generous number of review copies, attend as many conventions as I can afford and participate in as many opportunities as I can, no matter how busy I am. Several of the key moments in my business growth have occurred serendipitously due to taking an opportunity that was randomly offered to me. You can never guess who might see your interview, who might like an ad for a forthcoming book at the back of your current one, who might read a review in a paper and contact you or who you end up having a drink with at the bar at the end of a long day at a con. You just never know. And ultimately, the more exposure your press gets, the better chance it has of making a sale. Many, many opportunities will be dead ends but you can never predict the ones that won’t be.  And maybe one of those might just be the break you were looking for.

13 comments on “10 Important Things I’ve learned about Indie Publishing

  1. Sue London says:

    Thanks for the great advice, Jeff! Have considered doing a small press at some future point and this will be my bible.

  2. This is a great reality-check, Alisa. Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences. It sounds like we’ve learned a lot of the same lessons at Gameplaywright Press, which makes us feel less lonely. :)

  3. krasnostein says:

    Hey thanks Will – that makes me feel less lonely too!

  4. This all sounds so eerily familiar from by bookstore days.

  5. Ah, the point about procrastination-never a good thing. XD

    it is good to see that you are pushing through and approaching your business with a very open mind. I don’t think anyone can stress enough how important being aware of your surroundings and opportunities are, but you do a great job convincing. ;)

    Here is to Twelfth Planet’s ongoing survival and success.


  6. Great post, Alisa! Having been there for most of the ups and downs while you were figuring some of these lessons out the hard way, I am impressed at you managing to express them so clearly now without having awful flashbacks, requiring hard drugs or naps at the very least, between bullet points…

    Oh and congratulations on your Ditmar nominations!

  7. Nick Mamatas says:

    Good advice for starting out, but issues like Night Shade’s have more to do with growth—many small businesses falter a bit when they grow too quickly for their existing structures and norms. What got them to the dance didn’t teach them to dance.

  8. Alisa says:

    Thanks Nick – yeah I haven’t been at the size of Nightshade Press to be able to reflect on that scale of growth. I do though wonder at what point you need to have mechanisms in place before you get to a 150 back catalogue which is unmanageable without one.

    And I guess more that there are not very many examples out there to teach small presses to dance at the dance.

  9. krasnostein says:

    Thanks all

  10. I’m sharing this publish on Facebook as I could not agree a lot more.

Comments are closed.