Hope everyone had a great weekend, and I’m especially hoping that you recovered from fainting with joy upon seeing Phil’s dad on the Amazing Race last night. Oh. Um. Maybe that was just me.
Reader Kathryn Born wrote in…. uh… when was it Kathryn? A while ago. She had a pretty simple but deceptively challenging question: Say you’ve been published by small presses. How do you make the leap to a big publisher?
I sat on this question until it was begging for mercy.
I have some things you can do and things you probably shouldn’t do, but what you’re not going to find is a silver bullet or a handy-dandy map from Point A to Point B. Because honestly, it’s not easy.
THINGS TO DO
First, the most important way to make the leap is to write really really good books. This sounds obvious, but what I mean is not just good-for-small-presses-good, I’m talking about getting nominated for awards and breathless reviews and and ecstatic word of mouth and getting blurbs from famous authors good. Every awards season there are a few books that manage to get nominated for some bigtime awards even though their publishers are not household names. It helps to be one of those.
But even if you aren’t getting nominated for Nobel Prizes, it helps to sell a lot of copies. Again, this sounds obvious, but you’re working on an uphill playing field. Chances are a small press is not going to have the distribution, advertising budget, and resources to really promote your book the way a major publisher would. So you’re going to have to do a lot of that legwork yourself. This could involve hiring an outside publicist or banging down doors yourself, but demonstrating sales figures that are stunning for a small press is a great way of proving that you’re ready for the leap.
Basically, what this boils down to is that you have to position and present yourself to an agent and/or to an editor at a major house as an up-and-coming author and someone that a major publisher might be able to make into a star. Your audience is growing. You’re ready for a breakout. It’s absolutely essential to both cultivate this attitude as well as have the books and sales figures to back it up.
This is really difficult, because you’re going to be working against some institutional difficulties. If you have a small-press sales track it could pose some challenges for a publisher hoping for a good sell-in. A big publisher may have to work double-time to break you out. If they’re going to make that investment, they’re going to want to be confident that there’s a very good chance of success.
But it does happen! Tom Clancy’s first novel, a little number called THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, was originally published by the US Naval Institute Press. Sure, that was a while ago, but let’s not forget the modern examples of self-published novels (smaller than a small press!) such as ERAGON and THE SHACK that were picked up because they were a) really good and b) selling very well.
WHAT NOT TO DO
Making the leap from a small press to a big publisher is hard. Making the leap with a sequel is really, really, really hard. Unless your series has broken out in a major way, chances are a publisher is going to shy away from an orphaned sequel.
Now, that goes for serial plots. But if you have a recurring character and the books stand alone, it’s possible to continue to build the audience for that character as you move to a major publisher. But a new series or stand-alone entirely is often best of all.
So think very carefully and strategically about the project that you are going to focus on to make the leap. It should build off of your past success and be really good, really smart, and something that leaves little doubt that you’re primed for a breakout.
Consult with professionals as necessary. This all assumes you have an agent.
Now, I know full well that waving my hand and saying, “Go write tremendous books, do all the promotional legwork, defy the odds with your sales, win some awards, find an agent, and oh yeah, think of a mind-numbingly brilliant idea for your breakout book” is not the easiest list to pull off. But, as the recent New York Observer article pointed out, as the big house publishing industry moves to a blockbuster model, small presses will increasingly fill the gap of really good, riskier books that the big houses are overlooking, particularly debuts. And inevitably, those small presses are going to be testing grounds for bigtime talents.
So it’s not an easy landscape, and it requires talent, self-promotion, luck, self-promotion, talent, and luck. And talent. But this is the direction the industry is moving, and the only thing to do is to go with the flow, rise with the tide, and any other water metaphors that are applicable.
Tomorrow will begin an incredible, indispensable, inspiring, inseriouslyawesome two-part guest blog by a very successful published author on what you can do to promote your books. Definitely, definitely stay tuned!