Small Beer Press

The Lovely BonesI’ve long been interested in setting up my own small press, mostly because I’ve seen the way the industry is heading and at least partly because the free tools now exist to largely go it alone. I’ve been even more mostly interested (if you get my meaning) because I’ve admired how the uber-talented Dave Eggers has maintained control of his creative output and his profits, which is what I see as being key.

When the Queensland Writers Centre announced it was going to host award-winning indie publishers Small Beer Press as part of their industry talks, I figured it was the perfect opportunity to find out more about the practicalities of setting up and running a small press, as well about its long-term viability. I mean, really, does anyone ever make a living from running their own press? Or are they just in denial about/staving off the inevitable monstering of all publishing and sales outlets by behemoths like Amazon?

I’m not sure I have the answer to the above, despite the fact that Gavin and Kelly’s talk was interesting and that it I took copious, scrawled-in-haste notes. What follows, in no particular order, are some quotes and thoughts that emerged from the session:

  • Kelly won a round-the-world trip by answering the question ‘Why do you want to go around the world?’ with ‘Because you can’t go through it’. Damn. Wish I’d thought of something that clever.
  • Gavin started the zine and, subsequently, the publishing house because he realised he was never going to reinvent the world.
  • The couple went to pubs in New York and quizzed friends who worked in the publishing industry. It was smart because they both got to drink beer and find out which pitfalls to avoid purely because their friends were willing to fess up to their own, hard-learned publishing errors.
  • Amazon is not our friend (but we already knew that, right?). Gavin referred to it as ‘intrinsically evil’ because they want to be and control absolutely everything everywhere. Kelly referred to it as ‘evil, but very, very smart, which is the worst combination’. I’m inclined to agree, with Amazon taking cuts left right and centre—including a cut per book sale for marketing/advertising, even if they’ve effectively done none.
  • Working in the industry is ‘a bit like working with a manic depressive’.
  • You wake up and go: ‘Oh look, Amazon has eaten somebody else’. Sigh. I can even recall where I was when I heard Amazon had absorbed The Book Depository.
  • Technology has made a lot of things possible. The question is whether the large publishing houses will be able to adapt and take advantage of these fast enough (yes, indeedy it is).
  • The ‘small beer’ in the name was a reference to ‘small beer now, large beer later’. Were they to start again, they’d probably name the press something to do with super heroes.
  • Random House have a sneaky clause in their contracts that says if they sell your books at a discount, they get to halve your royalties from those sales.
  • Mentors are key.
  • Aim for ‘covers with narrative’ when designing cover art.
  • The emergence of lots of similarly looking covers might be a subtle effort to group like titles together, e.g. the iconic (yes, I just used that to describe the following) Twilight and Lovely Bones covers were incredibly successful and spawned a whole raft of similar designs.
  • Nobody reads a manuscript in the office. They read it on public transport or at home.
  • Gavin and Kelly are experimenting with the submission guidelines, asking writers to send in just three pages. You know, they say, whether the writer knows what they’re doing within the first page. You know if you want to maybe publish them within the first three.
  • Disappointingly, they’re not in any way across social media. That’s perhaps the part I most wanted to know—how they’re utilising free online tools such as these to promote their press and publications.
  • I get the sense that they’re living a bohemian lifestyle on a ramshackle farm in Massachussets. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it signalled to me that they’re not quite making enough money to make it viable financially. Which is not the answer I wanted. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t have to be a goldmine, but it does need to pay its own way.
  • If one person likes and publishes your story, that’s enough—it’s all you’ve ever really been looking for.

TwilightClear as mud? Yeah. Gavin and Kelly were pragmatic and witty and insightful (I laughed often and loved their way of looking at and framing the world), but the talk wasn’t quite as inspiring as I’d hoped.

I’m still keen to start my own small press, but I also want to find out more about viable business models that enable you to balance creative fulfilment with earning enough to pay your mortgage. I’d like to hear how Eggers has made it work…