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Small publishers v large publishers – which is best?

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Last Tuesday evening, I went to a CBC meeting. The title of the panel talk was “So You Want To Be A Publisher”, and I was speaking with Sarah Odedina of Hot Key Books and Barry Cunningham of Chicken House.

The meeting was held in the Penguin offices on The Strand. On the few occasions these days when I walk past the vast security desk, through the glass electronic-tag-activated gates and along the marble corridors, I always think how different an experience it would for an author to visit Penguin and to visit Nosy Crow. To get to us, you travel to Southwark, go through a cobbled courtyard past the bike racks to an old, brick tea-warehouse and then you climb up two flights of steep cast-iron external steps (past the geraniums) to get to our always-open door. Yes, Penguin and Nosy Crow are both publishers, but that’s a bit like saying that a platypus and a zebra are both mammals: they really are quite different.

So it was interesting that a member of the audience asked what we, as a panel, felt were the advantages of being published by a small publishing house.

These are some of the advantages, I think.

As an author or illustrator, you know everyone involved in the publishing process – quite possibly you know everyone in the company, in fact. I said that, to me, the publishing process should seem to the author more like a choral performance in which everyone is involved for the duration of the singing, than a relay race in which individuals hand off a book to the next person or department in the supply line and then stop running. When Lyn Gardner, author of the Olivia series dropped by on Friday evening to sign some books for a prize-winning child, Tom, whose direct involvement with the publishing of Lyn’s books is making sure that everything about them on the website is up-to-date and accurate, was one of the people who sat down for tea and almond biscuits, and they planned a trip to the theatre together before she and I confirmed our plans for her time at the Hay Festival. Her editor, Kirsty wasn’t there, and nor was her publicist, Dom. But that didn’t matter. We all knew her and what she was there for.

As an author or illustrator, if you are published by a smaller publisher, you’re almost certainly part of a smaller list (you definitely are at Nosy Crow) so you’re less likely to be lost or overshadowed by many and “bigger” books. When I ran bigger publishing lists, the publishing schedule was carefully annotated, dividing books into “superleads” and “leads” and “everything else”. That doesn’t happen at Nosy Crow.

As an author or illustrator, you should feel that it’s a matter of our own success – even of our own survival – that we do the best for the books that we publish that we possibly can. Not every book can or will be a bestseller, and we buy books based on a range of sales expectations, but we can’t lose focus on a single one of them.

As an author or illustrator, if you’re published by a privately-owned company (like Nosy Crow, but unlike Hot Key Books which is owned by Bonnier, or The Chicken House, which is now owned by Scholastic, though it was an independent company for many years), the bottom line is that people who work in the company are choosing to spend money on acquiring your books and selling and marketing your books rather than spending it on the mortgage, or their children’s shoes, or cheese in Sainsburys.
We are, quite literally, invested in your success.

As an author or illustrator, you shouldn’t feel that anything gets seriously stuck in the works. Of course there are delays, and of course we get busy, and of course some decisions are harder than others. We can’t always respond immediately, but we try to be quick and decisive whenever we can. By contrast, there’s a major publisher we do business with who hasn’t responded to the contract we sent them since September.

As an author or illustrator, you should feel that you and your book are unique. In big companies, it’s generally necessary to establish rules and processes to which books have to conform: they may have to be printed in particular formats; the costing on the basis of which they’re acquired probably has to achieve a particular projected profit margin (or “computer says no”); if they sell fewer than x copies in a particular period of time, they may have to be allowed to go out of print… In a small company, each book – and therefore each author – can be treated on their own merits.

As an author or illustrator, you should feel that every book is being dealt with by someone with the appropriate expertise and experience. At Nosy Crow, the editors and designers are pretty much all old hands: to be honest, there just isn’t a junior editor to delegate to. Many of the senior people who choose to work in small publishing companies have made a decision not to work in big publishing companies. There are, of course, people who have huge skill and expertise in big publishing companies… and over time many of them get pushed up the ladder to become managers. Some of the profit from an author’s books goes to paying the management salaries in the various layers of the hierarchy in a big publishing company.

Which brings me to the final point: as an author, you should know that it is slightly easier for a small publisher to take some kinds of risk: it is, quite simply, easier for us to make a profit because our costs are lower than those of a big publishing company. When I walk along the marble corridors of Penguin, the other thing I think about is that our per square foot rental costs are probably about a third or less of Penguin’s… and we don’t have that many square feet in our open-plan office anyway. So it has, perhaps, been easier for us to take a gamble on “slush pile” debut authors like Paula Harrison and Helen Peters who are currently being promoted in major UK retailers and in whose books we’ve sold rights.

There are counter arguments, of course.

It could be said that a big publisher provides prestige, and there are a few big publisher names (not many) that it’s hard for a small, new publisher to compete with… but most readers and parents don’t buy on the basis of the publisher name.

It could be said that a big publisher has a bigger pot of money… but Nosy Crow pays (at least) market rate advances and royalties and we don’t hesitate to spend on appropriate marketing and retailer promotions. We tend not to spend huge sums on acquiring and marketing one or two “big books”, but that ties into the idea (above) that every single one of our books has to work to the level that we expect of it.

It could be said that a big publisher has a big infrastructure to maximise sales opportunities… but Nosy Crow has managed to get its books sold in pretty much every appropriate UK retailer, regardless of size, and has sold rights to or done distribution deals with publishing companies that are brand names in their territories. Publishing infrastructure (and this is the subject of a different post) is less relevant now than it’s ever been.

Authors and illustrators should – and, given the opportunity, will – do what feels right for them, often with the guidance of an agent. And every publisher is different: there are duff small publishers and very good big publishers. And there are publishers that look like small publishers but they’re actually part of big publishers.

But if I were an aspiring author or illustrator, I know, having worked in both kinds of organisation, what I’d choose.

What’s your view?

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15 Responses to “Small publishers v large publishers – which is best?”

  • “When I ran bigger publishing lists, the publishing schedule was carefully annotated, dividing books into “superleads” and “leads” and “everything else”. “
    This really shows in the way big publishers do their promoting, and I have never felt that was the case with Nosy Crow. In fact I think it is obvious how much you care and how passionate you are about every single book and app on your list.
    As a small publisher though, do you feel you are at a slight disadvantage when it comes to new release promotions, such as book tours, or in store promotions? I guess big publishers must have quite large promotion budgets for some titles? I don’t particularly buy books according to what Waterstones promote for example, but I guess a lot of parents would.

  • I wrote a long and meaningful respone to this earlier, but my phone deleted it! The gist of it was that, as Nosy Crow’s first published author, I will always be grateful for the risk that this (at the time) four person company took on me, a complete unknown from the slush pile.
    Sure, being with a small publisher means that I don’t get some of the fancy things which some of my new author friends get, but as Kate says, I know everyone, and I know that they care about my books. If any authors out there are debating whether to give a small publisher a go, I can heartily recommend them!

  • Thanks, Library Mice, for commenting. Where retailers like Waterstones are concerned, all the publishers that they see at head office (and we’re in that category, though some small publishers are not) get to present titles for promotion (and while this is an old post – on which you commented at the time! – it’s still sort of relevant: nosycrow.com/blog/it-s-that-time-of-year-when-you-present-highlights-to-key-accounts). So they see all the new books and then they put forward their suggestions of books that they think are suitable for promotion.

    As a publisher, you then have to decide if you want to spend your marketing money on that particular promotion. I have to say that I cannot think of a single example when a retailer has come to us with a promotional proposal that we’ve turned down.

    I think we have a really, really good hit-rate for retailer promotions, actually.

    In May, we published two titles. One was promoted by three retailers (WH Smith, Waterstones and Sainsburys) and the second was promoted by two retailers (Sainsburys and Blackwells) and two wholesalers (Bertrams and Peters).

    And in June, we will be publishing four new titles. One is being promoted by four retailers (WH Smith, Waterstones, Sainsburys and Blackwells) and by three wholesalers (Bertrams, Gardners and Peters). The second is being promoted by three retailers (WH Smith, WH Smith Travel and Blackwells). And the third and fourth are being promoted by two retailers (WH Smith and WH Smith Travel).

    As for book tours, Tracey Corderoy has just done a blog post about her experience of events here: nosycrow.com/blog/living-with-a-witch-for-eight-months-a-guest-blog-post-by-tracey-corderoy-author-of-hubble-bubble-granny-trouble and Paula Harrison wrote about her first author event here: nosycrow.com/blog/paula-harrison-author-of-the-rescue-princesses-guest-blogs-about-her-first-event.

    And the next big book event that’s on the horizon is the Hay Festival, where audiences will be turning up for events with Axel Scheffler, Nikalas Catlow and Tim Wesson, Leigh Hogdkinson, Lyn Gardner and Helen Peters (and I’ll be talking about the future of publishing on a panel with James Daunt, head of Waterstones). All of these events have been chosen by the organisers of the festival, and we have chosen to fund the attendance of the authors/illustrators. Again, that’s a pretty good strike rate for a publisher in its second year of publishing!

    In the end, retailers promote the books they think will work for their audiences, and bookshops and festivals feature authors and illustrators they think will perform well and delight their readership. The size of the publisher is, I really think, irrelevant: as a small publisher, if you publish a good book or author/illustrator well) with a clear vision, a real sense of audience, good packaging and a sensible price) and if you are willing to back it financially, you’re just as much chance of getting the promotional slots and events as anyone else.

  • Thank you, Sue, for commenting. It’s lovely to hear that you are happy and are willing to say so! I am very intrigued by the notion of “fancy things” that other authors get: you’ll have to tell me about them when we next meet!

    Some of the unusual, individual things that we’ve done with/for you and your books include making the bracelet (http://nosycrow.com/blog/small-blue-thing-made-real) and having you at the printers to see your books off press (http://nosycrow.com/blog/an-author-s-view-of-the-printing-process-perfectly-reflected-gets-real).

    And, of course, there’s http://www.smallbluething.com and the trailer.

  • In this case, you are most definitely perfect in every way ;0)

    What I meant was that some publishers have huge budgets for marketing, particularly in the young adult market (for example posters in the Underground, or in cinemas). But how much of this has an impact on sales, I do not know as I know nothing about marketing (as my first comment proves :0))

  • Thanks for replying, Library Mice.

    I think that this is probably the subject of a different blog post, but data that we have from Book Marketing Limited suggests that advertising isn’t a huge driver of children’s sales.

    Publishers tend to advertise books that are already big (because they’ve already taken off, or because they’ve been made into a film). I haven’t ever, I think, seen a publisher, of whatever size, spend £100,000+ advertising a new, and unknown children’s book

    Sometimes, a publisher buys outside advertising as a sort of symbol of its conviction about the book – a symbol that it uses for retailers (to make them take the book seriously) and for authors (to make them think that the publisher is taking the book seriously). The bottom line is that the kind of money most publishers spend on an outdoor campaign (£20,000 – £50,000 – a big spend for every publisher I know, and one that’s spent on a small proportion of books) is simply not enough to make any kind of real impression on the public, and certainly not enough to create awareness of something new (it may reinforce awareness of a big property of which they’re already aware).

  • Small but mighty, I think! As someone who has visited the Penguin offices on the Strand when I used to work for Pearson, I must say I prefer the Nosy Crow office – much more bijou and chic!

    Ken Segall, the Creative Director at Apple, was interviewed on Today on Radio 4 this morning, and he said that “Steve used to brag that Apple ran like a start-up – it didn’t do those big company things.” I think that’s what I love about being a Nosy Crow author – it’s really exciting to be part of such a nimble and forward-thinking company. It may not do the ‘big company things’, but it does the things that matter with passion and style!

  • Thank you, Christopher!

    Lovely comment from you. Yours is, actually, an example of a book where we did spend advertising money in a very targeted way (see my response to Library Mice): Twelve Minutes to Midnight is on every current secondary school Readathon sponsorship form. And, in a different way, we are paying to raise awareness through the inclusion of Twelve Minutes to Midnight in Bookbuzz (about which we blogged last week).

  • Apropos of your comments about marketing spend, Kate and Melanie: rather amusingly, agent Jonny Geller has just tweeted “oh no. Just been told by a publisher that one of my author’s books is prize worthy. That means no marketing budget.”
    Rather cynical, but I suspect there is a large degree of truth in this!

  • As a small publisher I am guessing everyone has to pull their weight. I love the Facebook feed from Nosy Crow and will add you to my twitter account to follow

    However, care should be paid to replying to all submissions even when they are rejected. It’s just good manners.

    Keep up the good work :0)

  • Hello, Mark, and thank you for commenting.

    I am guessing that you’re waiting to hear from us about a submission. I am sorry, but we get so many that we are often behind and don’t answer as promptly as we would like to. We do buy from the “slush pile”, and of course we’d be sorry if our delay in processing submissions meant that we missed out on something great, but the thing is that we very much see our first priority to communicate with and publish well those authors and illustrators to whom we have already made a commitment and with whom we already have a relationship.

  • As a Nosy Crow debut author who was plucked from the slush pile, I’d like to say how wonderful my whole experience of being published by a small start-up company has been. Communications with everyone at the company are fast and friendly, and I’ve been kept informed and consulted at every stage of the exciting journey to publication and beyond! I’ve been delighted with the care and attention to detail that have been given to the production and promotion of the book. I would (and regularly do!) heartily recommend any author to submit their work to a smaller publisher.

  • It’s interesting to read this again 5 months on from its original posting. One of the things which I find interesting as a reviewer is the feedback I get from people who buy books and apps.

    At a time when most people have to think even more carefully than usual about how they spend their money, parents seem to be saying that they will still buy quality products for their children. One of the strengths of Nosy Crow books is that they know that the product will be good. It might not match their child’s reading interest, but they don’t need to worry about the quality or suitability of the content.

    In a crowded market place where a high percentage of books published for children are either stereo-typical of the publisher or just mediocre in quality, reliability is a significant factor. The other irritation in the current climate is the willingness of big publishers to haul out something from the backlist and republish it in the hope that it will replicate its earlier success.

    I’ve watched the Nosy Crow reputation for reliable quality grow over the last few months – it’s no small thing for a parent to be able to completely trust a publisher. As a reviewer, its good to be able to define a publisher by content quality rather than font, graphic design or layout.

  • Following the announcement of the Penguin Random House merger on October 28 2012, Amanda Craig, critic and author, wrote this blog post: http://www.amandacraig.com/pages/blog_01/blog_item.asp?Blog_01ID=282

    We also covered the merger here: http://nosycrow.com/blog/penguin-random-house

    If you want to feel gloomy about large-scale publishing – and, in fact, publishing in general, you might find this interesting: http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/2012/10/26/mergers-alone-wont-save-book-industry/

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