About twenty years ago, when I was a literary agent, I picked up a new client who had previously signed a book deal with a small publisher. The client and I had bigger ambitions for his work, so the next book would be something more commercial, we hoped, but he had this prior deal and he was determined to see it through.

The book was non-fiction, somewhat lighthearted, with a strong title, but the author was unknown and the subject matter probably a bit niche. (I won’t share the title or the author’s name, in order to protect the guilty.)

To make matters more challenging, the author soon realized that the publisher, to be kind, had limited prior experience in the book business. That’s when the author had the idea to ask me to talk to the publisher. He said, “I know you don’t have a financial interest in this project, but maybe you could steer this guy in the right direction, just as a favor to me.”

Well, sure, I said, have him call me. And an hour later the phone rang.

The publisher exuded enthusiasm and good cheer. He had convinced himself that a book with such a wonderful title would probably sell itself and that “Good Morning America” (then No. 1) would jump at the chance to cover it, thus launching the project onto bestseller lists.

I didn’t want to seem like a stick in the mud, so I tried gently to talk the publisher down from his self-induced high. I noted a few things: First, that based on the numbers he’d shared with me, he would have too few books in distribution to make an early bestseller, almost regardless of all other factors. Second, that while the potential crossover market was huge, the identifiable core market was very small indeed, a tough base to start from. Lastly, that GMA was unlikely to leap at a non-fiction author who was far from an expert on this particular subject.

The publisher didn’t want to hear any of this, of course. He kept coming back to how great the title was, as if that meant more than everything else combined. The man had his delusions and he was sticking with them. I figure he easily lost a six-figure sum on that project, maybe even a quarter million dollars. I wonder whether he thought back to our conversation when reality set in.

Fast forward to 2011. We’re deep into the Information Age, and declaring oneself a publisher is easier than ever. So easy, in fact, that I have declared myself one. And though I don’t intend to blunder forward as blindly as the chap I mentioned above, who ever does intend to blunder? We all think we’re coasting along brilliantly until we run through the sign that says “Bridge Closed.”

Before that happens, at least let me attempt to evade Seven Pitfalls of Micropublishing.

1. Undercapitalization.

Not long ago, in response to a post I wrote about publishing, one person commented that the micropublisher where she worked had more than once run into cash-flow problems as a result of a surge in demand for one of their projects. A book would take off and they would not have the available capital to reprint in adequate numbers. In this way, the publisher was unprepared for its own success.

In a more egregious example, an author friend who was published last year by a micropublisher did not have an electronic edition of his book available because the publisher didn’t have the money to make the conversion. More opportunities lost.

Lesson: One shouldn’t be too easily seduced by the rapidity with which barriers to entry have fallen in book publishing. It still takes more capital than one might think to publish right.

2. Letting enthusiasm trump experience.

I sometimes get the sense that micropublishers hold mainstream publishers in contempt. Before getting into the game, they sat on the sidelines and watched the mainstreamers make one mistake after another — or, as authors, perceived that the publisher had screwed up publication of their own books. Now they see a better way and expect their enthusiasm to carry the day where some perceived vast bureaucracy failed.

This is akin to people looking at all the crap that gets published and concluding that their own book must be a shoo-in for a major book deal. (A wise and very successful agent once confided to me that he looks at most of the books reviewed in Publishers Weekly and thinks: “These agents must be geniuses. I never could have sold that book!”) But just because a bad book got published doesn’t mean your book — good or bad — will get published.

From the outside, everyone else’s business looks easy, but once you get inside you realize that all those misfires had a reasonable rationale at the time. More to the point, if you’re not paying attention, you may easily make similar mistakes.

Lesson: Micropublishers should remember what Warren Buffett said: “You want to learn from experience, but you want to learn from other people’s experience when you can.”

3. Thinking authors owe them.

This mistake is common to all publishers. But you’d think micropublishers, who by virtue of their size are more empathically aligned with their authors, would know better. Yet the most unfair contracts I have ever seen came from the smallest publishers.

Many (not all) small publishers, it seems, have calculated their business on how much they can extract from authors instead of asking themselves how they can add value to what those authors create — and how to do so in a way larger publishers can’t.

Lesson: Large, small, micro…no one is anything without the book’s creator.

4. Neglecting the package.

Newsflash: the dust jacket’s primary purpose isn’t to keep the dust off!

Most people get into publishing because of their affinity for the written word, but micropublishers too often allow that affinity to develop into a fetish. Yes, a novel should be about the words inside, but who’s going to know what words are inside if the book cover looks like it came from your kid sister’s eighth-grade design class?

Just because you profess not to be moved by anything so crass as the packaging doesn’t mean that ethic applies to most of your potential readers.

Lesson: In the perfect world, it only matters what’s inside the box. Here on earth, use the package to your advantage.

5. Thinking too small.

No doubt there can be danger in thinking too big. You wouldn’t spend $2 million on a Super Bowl ad for a book of poetry, right? But in my observation most micropublishers err in the other direction, focusing on the smallest of niches. It’s the old story of wanting to be a big fish in a small pond, but when the pond is a puddle, sometimes there’s no room even for a single fish.

Because of the Internet and other factors, the publishing playing field is as level as it’s been for a long time. By allowing yourself the possibility of a hit, you may end up in a position to cross-subsidize some works that you care about more than the marketplace does.

Lesson: Small can be beautiful, but don’t resign yourself to publishing only the smallest of the small.

6. Going off the scale.

On the other end of the spectrum, micropublishers forget who they are at their own peril. Better to publish fewer books well than to publish a lot of books badly because you didn’t have the resources to follow through.

My friend Richard Nash, who knows whereof he speaks, contributed this point and fleshes it out succinctly: “To be a good micropublisher you have to continually guard against the temptation to solve problems by getting bigger. Always admonish yourself to look for smaller solutions. If a particular approach isn’t working, say in design or in production or in marketing, always ask yourself is there a way to do less of this.”

Lesson: Don’t forget what you are or you’ll give up your advantage.

7. Over-relying on taste.

Micropublishers often see themselves as tastemakers, but good taste (whatever that is, anyway) has its limits.

I recall that my father — a CPA at the time — once visited a client who was a major manufacturer of children’s clothing. The client held up an outfit and asked my father’s opinion — love it! “That’s our worst seller,” the client noted. He held up another outfit — not so nice. “That’s our bestseller,” the client said.

Lesson: We all want to publish books that make us proud, but we must be careful not to confuse that judgment with what people might actually wish to read.

A small prayer: Lord, when the time comes and the firing starts and I’m tempted to run off into the weeds, let me not forget these lessons so that I may avoid these pitfalls.

Last Week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 6: People Smarter Than Me

Next week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 8: Four Non-Obvious Aspects of the E-book Revolution

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J.E. Fishman, a former Big Six book editor and former literary agent, is author of the thriller Primacy, which Publishers Weekly called "appealing" and Kirkus called "good, boisterous fun." His mystery novel, Cadaver Blues, was serialized in 2010 on TNB and you can still find it here if you dig deep enough. It's now available in ebook and paperback. His financial thriller, The Dark Pool, was published this year, and his new series of police thrillers, Bomb Squad NYC, will be published in February 2014. He blogs here and at the Huffington Post. Please visit and follow him at his very fancy and expensive official author website.

8 responses to “Publishing Primacy — Folio 7: Seven Pitfalls of Micropublishing

  1. jonathan evison says:

    . . . you’re the voice of reason, fishman, thanks for always illuminating the vagaries of publishing in such a cogent way . . .

  2. It is still a crapshoot…I am still learning how to promote myself and am fearful of working with a small press if I ended up with an editor who is anal retentive. I would love to work with an editor who would suggest to move it around, or let’s try this sentence that way or that way rather than ‘Hey, hey, I’m the editor here! And what I say goes!” How do you pick your editors? Does the small presses just assign you with one or do you meet them at a social event and happily discover that both of you are of a same mind?

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      If you are being published conventionally, you don’t pick your editor unless you’re very big or very lucky. If you are bootstrapping, pick one you respect and listen to them. They have something you’ll never have with regard to your writing: distance.

  3. I was studying publishing years back (sorry. I don’t mean to keep sounding off as if I’m some kind of expert, because, categorically, I am not. It’s just relative ground to some of the stories I have) when my lecturer told us the story of a publisher who’d come unstuck because the book they released – some unlikely hit about a certain aspect of shipbuilding – was too successful.

    We were all taken aback, and the lecturer explained that the publisher, small in scope, couldn’t possibly hope to match the unexpected demand, and made a hash of things by desperately trying to catch up.

    Interesting stuff, Mr. Fishman. I’m loving this column.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      As the saying goes, the best way to land a small fortune in publishing is to start with a big one.

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