10 Lessons from 10 Years Running a Small Press
Colleen Dunn Bates on a Decade of Prospect Park Books
When I first began Prospect Park Books ten years ago, not for a minute did I imagine it would still be in business today, let alone have grown from a regional guidebook publisher into a national house focusing on fiction, cookbooks, and gift titles. Sure, I cranked out a business plan or two along the way, but it’s mostly been a seat-of-the-pants ride. We’ve survived some intense challenges (cancer, gaining and losing a business partner, running out of money) to reach some wonderful highs (bestsellers, awards, critical acclaim, and, most of all, working with exceptional people).
This milestone has had me reflect a lot on the journey. In the process, I’ve come up with ten lessons I’ve learned after ten years of running a small press.
1. What the Hell, Let’s Go For It
You’re going to have failures anyway, so you might as well own it. I’ve had a number of what-the-hell-let’s-go-for-it ventures—mostly books, but sometimes book-related apps/websites/schemes—that weren’t budgeted for and might have seemed crazy. Some failed spectacularly (I’m looking at you, guidebook app). But we never would have had our #1 bestseller, the debut novel Helen of Pasadena, if I hadn’t said, impetuously, passionately, and (at the time) foolishly, “What the hell, let’s go for it!”
2. Ignore the 80/20 Rule
This everlasting gobstopper in the business world says that you get 80 percent of your revenue from 20 percent of your products, and that’s certainly how it works in Big Publishing, where salaries are mostly paid by J.K. Rowling, adult coloring books, and Captain Underpants. A few years back, I went to the Yale Publishing Course armed with one essential question: Can a small press make it with singles and doubles but no home runs? I was told “yes” by some experts, but as I struggled to grow the press, I decided they were lying. Just in the last year, however, I’m finally seeing it start to work, thanks to backlist growth, a more carefully considered title mix, and a whole lot of trial and error about what kind of books and authors we can sell and what kind we can’t. I now believe that a good, well-run small press might even be able to flip the 80/20 rule to at least 30/70. Which leads me to . . .
3. It’s a Long Game
Entrepreneurs are not by nature patient people, and as my ever-patient husband will attest, I’m no exception. I’m just now truly understanding the extent to which publishing is a game of patience. It takes years to build a backlist, to find and build relationships with talented authors, designers, and staff, and to learn how to make budgets and forecast sales with at least a shred of realism. (Don’t even get me started on mastering contracts and royalties.) My learning curve didn’t really spike until year seven. By year twenty I might just be getting the hang of it.
4. Authors Rule
I come from being a big-house author, so I know what it’s like to have a publisher not give a shit about your opinion on cover design, the editorial process, or the marketing plan. Our authors are our partners in all those things—yes, even cover design. I decided to give authors cover approval before I discovered that 96 percent of all publishers think it is lunacy to do that. But if my authors aren’t happy with their covers, they’re not going to do their best to market their books. Likewise, when mistakes happen (I’ve made a doozy or two myself), I do my damnedest to fix them and make amends to the authors, because we are nothing without them.
5. People or Words?
The answer: both. Warehouses are full of masterfully written books that will end up getting pulped. As much as I wish that superb writing and a lovely cover were the only ingredients needed today for a book to succeed, they’re not. It breaks my heart that some richly deserving older authors, introverts unschooled in Twitter and lacking in Yaddo connections, can no longer find a publisher. But I’ve had first-hand experience with this, and it is so very difficult to get attention for a book, especially fiction, by an author who is unable to help in the marketing efforts.
6. Test of Friendship
A small press is an intimate business. Collegiality is first on the list of Prospect Park’s core values—personal relationships are essential to both my business and me. I never expected, however, how much the realities of this business would test those friendships. Some authors were friends before they published with me. Some became friends after I published them. Both kinds of relationships have faced the strain of editorial and production mistakes, budget constraints, and differences of opinion. A few have been through some rough spots, but I’m grateful that none of these friendships have ended.
7. Just Say No
This is the only thing I hate about this business: saying no to writers I know. It’s torture for this people-pleaser, and it isn’t getting one bit easier. Every single time I fear that they’ll be deeply hurt by the rejection, and sometimes I’m sure they are. Will they believe me when I say that the book is excellent but just doesn’t fit our mix? Or when I say that we’re truly full up for the foreseeable future? Or that we wouldn’t be able to market it properly? But if I know one thing for sure, it’s this: If I hadn’t learned how to say no, we’d be out of business by now.
8. Filthy Lucre
This is not an issue at the Big Five, but in the world of small-press publishing, I sometimes feel like a philistine for acknowledging that my company is, in fact, a for-profit business that must operate in the black to survive. I partly blame the huge increase in nonprofit presses. I love my friends in the nonprofit world, and admire how they bust their butts to chase grant money and publish deserving works that would otherwise never get out there. But all it takes is one day with the cool kids at AWP for a for-profit press with a (necessarily) more commercial mix to feel like a poseur, a hack, a sellout—basically, a pursuer of filthy lucre. I have just had to make peace with this worry.
9. I Am Trying to Break Your Heart (apologies to Wilco)
The early days of a book deal between a small press and an author are akin to the early days of a romance. The author is giddy with love for the editor who fell in love with her book. She relishes every moment of the editorial process, she stares adoringly at the final cover, and she’s breathless to unleash her book onto a waiting world. And then it is published. It may sell decently for a debut, or not so well for a sophomore effort, or it might even be a hit. But no matter how clear the publisher/editor/publicist is with the beloved author about what’s realistic to expect, all too often her expectations and the reality clash. When we’re lucky, the romance deepens into a mature, long-term relationship. I always fear, however, that I’ve broken every author’s heart at least a little bit, because we couldn’t get that review in the Los Angeles Times, or that mention in People, or that appearance at the literary festival, or that longed-for second printing. Which leads me to:
10. It’s Never Enough
I don’t know any small-press folks who ever think they’ve done enough for any book. I know I’m not the only one who sits at my desk till 11 pm trying to finish editing one book while remembering that we still have to make a readers’ group guide for another, and then realizing that we really should set up some more tweets for upcoming events for two other authors, and then seeing a mention on Facebook of a literary festival we’d never heard of so our intern had better research that, and then . . . Every book is our baby, every author is our family member, and there will never be enough hours or dollars to do everything possible to make it succeed. But we try anyway. Because we cannot imagine doing anything else.