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The Small Traditional Publishers (2017 in Review)

13 January 2018

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

[M]y traditional publishing posts are focused on the U.S. because I’m not as well informed about traditional publishing companies in other countries. Still, if you live outside of the U.S., you might find some similarities to what is happening in your country. If so, please feel free to comment below.

Initially, I planned to handle traditional publishing as one big lump in the industry. That’s how I’ve been doing it since I started blogging on the industry in 2009. But that way of dealing with non-indie publishing no longer works, and it took me until December of 2017 to make that realization.

I have known that a change was coming in traditional publishing for years now. The way that the Big Five (who were bigger and more than five nine years ago) were running their businesses inevitably meant that they would be too slow and too large to make changes in their publishing model quickly enough to capitalize on the new world of publishing.

I did not expect them to screw up as royally as they did—hating their biggest customer (Amazon) and essentially getting into a war with it. Nor did I expect the Big Five to so completely misunderstand the market that they ended up cutting their real cash cows. I also didn’t expect the Big Five to price their ebooks so high that the books sell to regular readers despite the price. That does not invite new readers to sample authors, so it’s hurting the future of the Big Five book lines.

In fact, most everything the Big Five have done in the past two years have hurt their book lines, rather than help them. Other factors will keep those publishers in business, factors that I explored in the previous post, but those factors make the Big Five a place for any savvy writer to avoid.

. . . .

Once I separated out the Big Five from all of the other traditional publishers in the U.S., I came to a happy realization. There are a lot of good publishers doing the kind of work we readers want publishers to do—curating books with a voice and an attitude, so that we know what to expect from the company, marketing those books to the best of their ability, and making the books available in all formats. In many cases, the ebooks are priced at under ten dollars.

Realize when I’m talking about small traditional publishers, I am not talking about corporations inside the umbrella of the Big Five. So even if your favorite “publisher” has a clear voice and an attitude, but is part of a Big Five corporate entity, that publisher is not the small traditional publisher I’m talking about. For example, Harlequin moved from a small traditional publisher to a corporation wrapped into HarperCollins, a Big Five company, in 2014. So Harlequin is not part of what I’m discussing here.

Neither is Tor, which is part of Holtzbrinck, (MacMillan here in the U.S.), which is also one of the Big Five. At any point, these smaller corporations can be shut down, reassigned, changed, or focused in a brand-new direction, based on what the conglomerate wants.

Rather than ask me if your favorite company is a small traditional publisher, Google them or look them up on Wikipedia. Follow the corporate trail, and you’ll learn quite a bit.

When I talk about small traditional publishers, I’m talking about family companies or companies that are not part of a bigger conglomerate. These small companies are run by a single owner or by a small board of directors, but the company is notpublically traded. Many of these small traditional publishers have distribution deals with the Big Five. Distribution deals mean that these small publishers use a Big Five’s sales operation to help sell their books (at some kind of percentage or fee; I’ve never seen one of those deals, so don’t know the financial details).

But, even with those distribution deals, these small traditional publishers are not part of the corporate entities that compose the Big Five.

And when I talk about small, I’m talking about their size in the industry, not what most people think of as small (like a little local company).

Small traditional publishers generally bring in at least $10 million in revenues annually and often have between fifty and 100 employees. Compared to the Big Five, these companies are tiny.

. . . .

The small traditional publishers have many advantages that the Big Five do not have. These small traditional publishers have a corporate vision that is usually enforced by the owner or the board of directors. Most of these small companies name the CEO or the owner of the business, and much of the direction of the business comes from the top down to the employees.

There’s an actual vision in these places, and one essential part of that vision is a love of books.

Publishing for these smaller companies is not about IP valuation (see last week) [link] or about a global market strategy—even if the company has an international vision. It’s about publishing good books that fit with the company’s business.

Sure, those books need to be commercial. And they need to earn a profit (large or small) for the company or the company will eventually drop the author.

But for the most part, these small traditional publishers are still what we romantically think about when we think about book publishers—people who love books and do their best to get them to the marketplace.

. . . .

I’ve seen the contracts for many of these small traditional publishers. Like every other business, some of these small traditional publishers are great. Others are awful.

Of the three I’ve done business with in the last decade or so, two of them have been forthright and easy to work with. They don’t have the gotcha clauses in their contracts that the Big Five have, and they’re really not out to own the entire IP.

. . . .

The third company that I’ve worked with started with the best contracts in the business—the most writer-friendly—and in the five years I worked with them changed their contracts to the worst contracts in the business.

That company is a complete mess. It has at least one editor who is well known in the business for verbally abusing her authors (and who has told more than one author to ditch characters of color because characters of color will “interfere with sales”). This company is doing its best to hang onto every single dime that the writers generate.

I suspect the company lost a lot of money in the digital revolution, didn’t move quickly enough, and didn’t have enough ready cash to handle the change, so it squeezed revenue from everywhere it possibly could. That became a habit, and the company will not change. The contracts confirm this.

I don’t know if the company will survive the next five years, despite its high reported annual revenue. If it does, it will do so on the backs of its authors rather than working with its authors.

So, as you can tell, just because a company is a small traditional publisher, privately owned, doesn’t mean it’s a good place for writers. Doesn’t mean it’s a bad place for writers either.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

3 Comments to “The Small Traditional Publishers (2017 in Review)”

  1. More evidence that the big divide in publishing isn’t traditional vs indie but rather BPH (and apologists) vs everybody else.

  2. I don’t know if the company will survive the next five years, despite its high reported annual revenue. If it does, it will do so on the backs of its authors rather than working with its authors.

    That happens when the supply of manuscripts is so large that one author can easily be replaced with another. “Take what’s offered or get out. Next!”

    • Short term it works beautifully…
      …as long as you have your tentpole big sellers propping up the cash flow.

      But how replaceable are those big sellers that are “aging out”? Those Dixie Cup replaceable authors don’t grow up to be big names very often if at all. That approach relies on clueless dreamers remaining clueless forever. Which may happen. But it’s another form of vanity publishing. Validation by association. That could end without the big names.

      Will they go with the Tom Clancy approach and buy the name for ghostwriting book mills?

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