Scott Pack @meandmybigmouth Editor at Eye & Lightning Books. Question writer for TV quiz shows. Baker of fine cakes. Jul. 08, 2018 11 min read

Here is a thread about what it is really like to be part of a small independent publisher, both the good and the bad.

It is going to be a massive thread, I warn you in advance.

And before I kick off, I want to point out that when I mention the bad stuff it is not meant as a complaint. We know the score, and knew it from the outset, I just wanted to share the reality with you as I think you'll find it interesting.

For the past couple of years I have been acquiring and helping to publish fiction and non-fiction for Eye & Lightning Books, sister imprints that have a 20-year history between them.

And lasting that long as a tiny indie is a remarkable feat. 

I'd like to think – no, I know – that in my time there we have pulled together an amazing list of books. Some wonderful writers with books that deserve to be read, and we have given them great covers. They really are the business.

We want to give our books the very best chance of finding readers, aware of the fact that we don't have the clout, financial or otherwise, of bigger or better-known publishers. So making them look great is very important. We don't skimp on production values.

But, of course, it is hard for anyone to make money from publishing so we have to be prudent in other areas.

So, no one in our core team of six works full time. We all have other jobs to help pay the bills.

We don't have a bricks and mortar office. We all work from home, using Slack for day-to-day communication, and meet in-person once every six weeks or so, usually at RIBA in London, which is quiet and free and has good wifi.

This allows us to spend more money on the books.

I could certainly earn more money if I spent my time on other things. My freelance editing work makes me more money than this job does, both on an hourly rate and overall. I reckon that is the case for everyone else in the team.

But, of course, we do it because we are passionate about the books we are publishing and we all believe that if our list takes off, if even just one or two of the books sell to their full potential, then the investment will have been worth it.

But it is really hard for small publishers to get heard, to get their books in shops, to get their books reviewed, to stand a chance of getting their books into the hands of readers.

A reminder, these are observations, not complaints. Honest.

For example, every time we sign up a new book we issue a press release to the UK trade press. It doesn't serve a huge purpose, I guess, but it can at least get a forthcoming book onto the radars of people within the industry, especially retailers.

I reckon about 70-80% of the releases we send out about new acquisitions don't make it into the main UK trade magazine, either online or print. They can't feature everything. They have to be choosy. Small publishers are lower down the priority list. We know this.

But, obviously, that makes it harder to make booksellers aware of our books before they have to decide whether or not to buy them.

Now, if we signed up a book and paid, I don't know, a £150k advance for it, then I am 100% certain it would be featured. More than once I have pondered just lying in a press release, with the agreement of the author, and putting in a massive advance just to test that theory.

We have signed books that have won prestigious international awards, authors with massive prior sales histories, books that have been huge bestsellers in other countries, and not made it into the trade press. A big advance is seen as more of a news story than any of these things.

But, of course, we don't pay big advances, so we can just celebrate and pat ourselves on the back when one of our small-money signings does get a trade press mention. I suspect many other indies experience the same.

Shortly before we publish a book we send out review copies to literary editors at newspapers and magazines, to websites and bloggers, and to people who we think might like it and be in a position to tell people about it.

90% of those copies, perhaps more, will remain unread.

Most of these people received dozens, perhaps hundreds, of books every week. They cannot possibly look at them all, let alone actually read them or consider them for review. Small publishers have to do what they can to get their books noticed.

Over time, it can be possible to build up a relationship with a particular journalist so that they at least check out the stuff you send. Sometimes you have a book that is highly topical so you can use that as a way to get further up the pile.

Most of the time you just cross your fingers. It is not a policy that has a massive strike rate, to be honest. Sometimes I wonder if we'd sell any fewer books if we didn't send any out for review at all, and just concentrated on social media and bookshops.

But, of course, every now and then you do publish a book that the press really wants to cover. One such example was Self & I, published earlier this year. It is memoir about the time Matthew De Abaitua spent as Will Self's amanuensis. 

We were confident that the broadsheets would want to feature it and review it and, by and large we were right. The Sunday Times serialised the book with a nice chunky feature and it was reviewed in nearly every newspaper. There was also some great radio coverage.

It was pretty much everything we could have hoped for, and it gave us the opportunity to go to retailers and say, 'Hey, look, we have a book getting mentioned all over the place, would you like to order some?'

And they did order... some.

We were grateful for those orders. But we aren't talking thousands here. We aren't talking copies in every branch of the leading specialist retailer. We aren't talking piles front-of-store across the country.

Sunday Times serial and lots of review coverage, positive review coverage, does not generate massive orders for a small publisher. That's the reality.

And, for a small publisher, when you have a book getting lots of press you want to shout about it. You want to drive people into bookshops to buy it. You want to take advantage of the publicity.

But if you know most branches of a particular retailer, and sometimes most indies, do not stock it, then you face that terrible dilemma… we link to Amazon?

The honest truth is we are more likely to sell a book from Amazon when it is featured in the press that we are to pick up a sale from a bookshop. We hate that fact, but it is true.

Of course, readers can ask their local Waterstones or indie to order the book in if they don't stock it, but very few people actually do that.

And getting bookshops to stock your books in the first place is far from easy. They have thousands of books to choose from every month and cannot possibly stock them all. They prioritise the things they feel their customers will want to buy.

However, the big publishers have far more access to the retailers, so have a better chance of convincing bookshops to stock their books in the first place.

Most small publishers rarely, if ever, get to sit down face-to-face with the big chains and tell them about their books. Big publishers get to do it several times a year.

(Again, honestly not a complaint, we know that's how it works.)

At Eye & Lightning Books, we are lucky in that we have built up a good relationship with Smiths Travel. They do actually see us semi-regularly and, as a result, they often order ten times more than the other leading retailers.

Which does make us wonder how many books we'd sell if we did manage to sit down with some of the others, but we know we are fortunate to have this particular foot in the door. We shouldn't get greedy, but we can't help it.

Most of our 'presentations' to retailers are done via email. We send them details of our books, with as many reasons as we can for them to get behind them, and then nudge them for orders. These orders, if they come, are often in the dozens rather than hundreds.

We then have to go back to the retailers after a book is published if it is starting to take off elsewhere, or if it is receiving lots of positive press coverage, and see if we can get them to take more. This sometimes works.

It certainly worked with The Antipodeans. Smiths Travel bought hundreds, Waterstones bought one copy. Smiths Travel sold hundreds through merchandising alone, just by putting it prominently in their shops. 

And then, having seen those sales going elsewhere, a month or so later Waterstones came in with a decent order. Huzzah!

Indie bookshops are great, and very supportive of our books, but they have even less room than the big chains so also have to be picky and selective. And fair enough too.

I realise this all sounds pretty negative, and perhaps it is, but there are loads of positives too.

As a small publisher we are able to make decisions quickly, and not by committee. I get lots of individual freedom on editorial decisions, although there is also lots of useful support and advice available if I need it.

We don't get bogged down in stuff. I remember cover meetings at one large publisher I worked for. Sometimes we'd spend weeks debating and tweaking a book cover because one person, often not closely connected to the book, had an opinion they wanted to share loudly.

I could list loads of bestselling books that I wanted to publish but had to turn down because of pointless debates in acquisitions meetings or because the boss wasn't in the right mood that day. None of that shit at Eye & Lightning.

Also, because so many big publishers are set in their ways in terms of how they acquire, we are able to pick up some amazing writers from overseas that the big publishers have ignored. Just a quick look at our list to see a wealth of talent from Australia and New Zealand.

And our working relationship is far more collaborative with our authors, if they want it to be. They get lots of input on covers, pricing, promotions and all sorts of other stuff.

I spent the best part of a decade working at one of the big five publishers, and I loved lots of that time, but I much prefer the job I am doing now.

And that is despite the fact that it is harder to get the trade press support, harder to get media coverage, harder to get books into shops, harder to sell books. Despite all of that shit above.

But, to be perfectly honest, it is a more precarious role I have now. At a big publisher I had a salary, a pension scheme, lots of perks, job security. I have none of that stuff today. But I do have more freedom to publish the way I want to.

I just wish we could sell more books.

But you can help with that, if you want.

This weekend we are offering 50% off all books bought direct from our website, and that includes free postage within the UK. Just include the code SUMMERSALE at checkout. 

That may seem like a massive price cut, and it is, so take advantage of it, but it is actually less discount than we have to give to retailers to stock our books. We, and our authors, will make more money from these sales.

But, if you'd rather buy our books from a bricks and mortar bookshop, be our guest. They need your support too and we'd love you to give them some money in exchange for one of our books.

Or if you would like to borrow one of our books from a library, be our guest. You may have to ask your library to order in a copy, and we'll get some money from that. And our authors will get money every time the book is borrowed.

And don't feel bad if you prefer to shop from Amazon. They do have all of our books in stock, after all.

Buy books from wherever you want!

Even a RT or mention of our 50% offer will help us out a lot. You don't *have* to buy something to help us out.

Or if you have previously bought one of our books, why not recommend it or review it online? That helps loads too.

Anyway, there you go, some of the realities, both good and bad, of life as an indie publisher. I suspect most other small indies have similar experiences.

I am happy to answer any questions you may have about all of the above.

And forgive me if I plug some of our books for the remainder of the day as the 50% offer ends tonight and we want to try to sell as many books as possible before then.

Just pop on over to our website for half price books galore. 

Thanks to everyone for their amazing response to this thread by RTing or interacting or by buying some of our books.

This thread was meant as an honest reality check, more than a plea for help, but obviously I knew some of you would want to help and that is wonderful of you.

These are our bestsellers this weekend, if you want to follow the crowd :-)

You can follow @meandmybigmouth.


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