Monday, June 16, 2008

The Grumpy Dragon vs. The Rejecter

I finished my first novel over a year ago. I've spent time sending queries to agents with no result. By chance last week, a friend of a friend, referred me to a small, brand new publisher, who wants to read my book. My question is, do you think going with a small, new publisher is a good idea?

Before I address the name she actually sent me, which is kind of hilarious, I will address the question at hand.

So I work for an agent, which means by all rights I should say no immediately. Agents don't like small presses. Their advances are minuscule or non-existent, and their profits are in the crazy land of "don't check the mail for a check anytime soon." Agents don't make money because authors don't make money. Also your book doesn't get a lot of distribution, meaning it has next to no chance of earning back the non-advance on royalties or becoming a bestseller. Ultimately, it's better for your career and your wallet to be with a major press.

On the other hand, maybe what you've written is very experimental, or isn't so great, or is great in a way no one can appreciate (meaning it's very experimental), or you just want to get published, damnit, and you don't want to self-publish. And small presses are legitimate courses to take at this point if you've failed to get an agent. It will count on your publication record more than a POD book. It's not the best of stepping stones but it is one.

Now the press she mentioned was The Grumpy Dragon, which has a worse page layout than the small press I started last year to republish one book, which means the layout is really, really terrible because I started the bar pretty low. I'm not great at .html at like, advanced levels. G-d, I think I even used the same color for the background. Still, I didn't have an MS Paint logo, and I had frames, so I'm up on these people in the realm of creating web pages meant for 1998. They also have an amusing "Where does the money go?" .pdf, which is more basic than anything needs to be. My first "this is sketchy, even for a small press" alarm that hadn't gone off based on the web page design went off in their royalty section. The royalties are way too high. From the looks of it, they seem to be about 35% but vary based on the sale price, which they shouldn't.

The way it works in a major publisher, your royalty rate is a set figure (usually between 7.5-10%) based on a set retail price. Whatever price they choose to set the actual price of the book at - whether it's in the discount bin or it's in pre-order or they're spending $4000 a week to put copies on the front tables at Barnes & Noble - your royalties per book remain the same. The time your royalties change, which will be carefully stipulated in the contract, is when the book starts selling in higher numbers, at which point there will be what's called an "escalation." That means the company has made back it's initial investment and at some pre-set number, usually 10 or 20 thousand copies or so, the royalty rate will jump from 10% to 20%. Other editions - audio, digital, etc - will have different rates entirely.

Without looking at my contract, I'm gonna estimate that for the first 30,000 copies of my book (if it were to ever sell that much) I'll make about $1 a book after I earn back my advance. I think my escalation was at 30k; not 100% sure, just remember it was bad because the press was an independent (but huge) publisher and cried poverty despite all those nice articles in PW about how well they're doing.

ANYWAY. The last, and more terrifying alarm was that there's one book out by the company and it's out through Lulu. Meaning, they didn't actually publish it. They might have looked it over and edited it (I suspect they did), but they didn't publish it. The real work of putting together a bound book and distributing it was done by another company, so going through Grumpy Dragon means you really should have just done it yourself and gone through Lulu yourself unless you are really a horrible editor and want Grumpy Dragon to edit you. Hopefully they won't do your cover art in MS Paint.

(This little tangent was for the general public, not the person with the question, who had a legitimate question and yes, it can be a difficult decision)


Elissa M said...

An acquaintance of mine went with a "small press" that used a POD publisher to print the books. She lost scads of money (I never got the entire story, but she went bankrupt). She sold maybe 12 copies of her book, but now that it's "published" no other agents or editors want to see it. Based on her experience alone, I would never go near a "small press" that doesn't print the books themselves.

Don said...

I read the blurb on the book that they've "published". It's perhaps some of the most flaccid prose I've ever read. There are small presses and there are small presses. This is one that I'd pass on. On the other hand, a writer who doesn't see why to pass on this, based on that blurb... perhaps this is the press for them after all.

Anonymous said...

So what do you think of the contest they're holding for teen writers?


green_knight said...

This is one of those small presses that makes me ask why someone would *submit* to them. I mean... where did they hear about this press, and how did they decide that this would be a good outfit to sell to? *That's* where the writer went wrong.

And Grumpy Dragon seems to be more intent in selling hideously overpriced workshops (with no proof of qualification) than producing books. If you plan to give workshops and ask $$$ for it, I want a solid archive of writing advice on your site so I can read your articles and think 'this person really knows what they're talking about, I want to learn more from them.' Instead we get Science Fiction and Fantasy: Learn how to create magic systems, alien races, believable realms, and more! at $150 for three hours.

Etiquette Bitch said...

whoops, my comment went to the wrong post. anyway, yeah, grumpy dragon's font is eye-hurting and beyond painful. that alone makes me run screaming in the opposite direction.

Anonymous said...

elissa m: Nothing about small presses or POD necessarily results in the author losing money. POD can be a great way to print things that are expected to have a small, continuous market, or a specific niche. Your acquaintance's mistake was paying to be published. That's a different animal and it takes all kinds of forms.

Anonymous said...

I'll have to mention here that not all small presses are as bad as rejector is saying. I currently work at a small press who has distribution all over the country in major bookstores. Even though our staff consists of nine people, we do really well for ourselves. We may not have the same money as one of the larger corporations, but we have several titles that have ended up as best sellers. And we do not print through POD.

I think the thing with small/independent publishers is a case by case basis. You need to look at what they've sold and how well these books have done. Look at their methods (obviously this grumpy dragon is very suspicious) and if they have a website that looks professional. There are also a lot of ways you can find out if a company is legit, just by doing a little bit of research.

The Rejector is coming from an agent's view on small presses, and not all of them are disasters.

Also, how many agents have you queried? 10? Not enough. If you have queried a lot, then maybe you need to change your query letter or (gasp!) your story, because something is not working. Don't get so desperate that you fall into a scam like this grumpy dragon nonsense.

Anonymous said...

On second thought, I don't know that grumpy dragon is a scam, but rather someone who has no idea what the hell they're doing and decided it would be fun to start a small press.
I looked at the website of Spring Lea Henry, and she's a creative writing teacher (if you look at her resume).
Whatever the situation, this "publisher" seems to have people who don't know what they're doing and didn't take the time to find out what it takes to run a publishing house before they decided to claim they do.

Salahare said...

I feel like I must leave a little bit of defense for the Grumpy Dragon. I've known Spring Lea since she was a librarian in my hometown and she only in the last two years started making the effort to manage her own small publishing company. I've contracted with them once in person, and legality wise they try very hard to cover all bases. Their focus is to help younger aspiring writers and artists get a bit of publishing under their belt.

I do agree that the website leaves much wanting, but I believe they are trying their hardest.

Anonymous said...

I think that your friend needs to look into all that a publishing house entails if she wants to be taken seriously, then. I did look at her homepage and I saw that she wants to encourage teens to write, which is great, but I no one is going to take a business seriously if they go through POD and claim to be a publisher. The author could easily just go to Lulu themself. If your friend really wants a legitiment venue, they need to do things the right way. She could be the nicest person in the world, but no one will respect her as a publisher if this is the way she's going to go about it.

The Rejecter said...

I never felt the Grumpy Dragon was a scam. They've obviously very honest about their intentions, but as to them being an established small press, the answer is no.

Elissa M said...

I'm sorry if I gave the impression I thought all small presses and/or POD equal money loss. It was the particular publisher (now defunct) that caused my acquaintance's problems. She didn't pay to be published, but she was required to do all her own promotion, and then was sent a carton of books to sell (or pay for) and one thing after another. As I said, I don't know the entire story. The writer's biggest mistake was ignorance and believing the publisher's lies.

A small press (or any publisher) should make its money from selling the books it prints, not from the authors who write them.

Anonymous said...

Elissa: I was replying to what Rejecter said, so don't worry.

Marian Perera said...

I like how the submissions page for Grumpy Dragon ends with, "You sit back and watch the money roll in from royalties."

Considering that the page also calls manuscripts "precious children", the press doesn't come off as very professional.

Rob said...

Question for "anonymous."

You mention you have a small press that has distribution. What is the name of that small press?

I agree that there have to be some decent small presses out there and I'd like to find out more about them.

Anonymous said...

Wrong again, Ms. Rejecter. 35% of net is standard for small and e-presses. They set the royalty high because there is no advance.

And Lulu is not the publisher, they're the printer. Several small houses use them that way.

Check facts, first.

Anonymous said...

I thought maybe as the publisher in question I should step up and set some of the facts straight about our business. I probably would have responded sooner, but I only found out about this blog entry today via an email from the original author with the question. It is not my intent to fan a flame war here but to clarify on some facts and respond to some of the opinions of The Rejector.

Who I am:
I am Spring Lea Henry, 1/2 of the partnership that runs The Grumpy Dragon. I have 11 years of experience as a librarian, 20+ years experience as an instructor, and 4 years experience as an editor. As far as my role in The Grumpy Dragon, I am the editing department, the go-between for authors and artists and most other business contacts, 1/2 of the design department, and many other things besides. We tend to say that the other partner, Ray Henry, is numbers and I am people.

The Grumpy Dragon:
We are a publisher that has been in business 1 1/2 years. We have one title in print so far but several more that are very close to going to press. We also offer writing workshops mostly aimed at teens. We have a business license, all appropriate tax licenses, and an annual report available upon request, as it is a matter of public record. We do not now, nor will we ever, ask for a single penny from an author or artist to get their work published through us. We offer contracts for publication that pay out royalties. And our workshop fees are the institutional cost for a library or school to hire us to present to a roomful of teenagers (although I do admit this could be more clear on the website), and our workshop schedule is pretty full through the end of the year. Our annual contest is a great way for teens to get their names in print, and the first year's winning anthology is one of the next three books we will release. In short: we are new, but we are not a scam.

My relationship to the author with the question:
We have a copy of her manuscript and are reviewing it for decision to offer a contract or not. The content of this blog will not have any bearing on our decision.

The Rejector's advice to the author about using small publishers:
Even though I agreed with your sentiment about small presses being a step-up from self-publishing, I felt a little bristled at the words, "stepping stones," applied to small presses. Maybe an author or artist chooses a small press because it is the best fit for his or her work. Our own house tries to attract work from teens, who may find it intimidating to deal with a larger press. We also focus on people with really original ideas, as I'm hoping our next few books will demonstrate.

Our website:
I agree that this is far from being the most sophisticated website on the Internet, but it was never intended to be the final version of our site. This site is a placeholder whilst we evaluate professional business software and design something with more elegance and aesthetic appeal. This site clearly puts function before form, but it's working for us so far, so we're not really willing to put more energy into a stop-gap measure when we would rather focus our energy on other aspects of the company.

The "Where does the money go?" document:
We are working very hard to help publish teen authors and artists. This clientèle (and their parents) are very new to the publishing world. We developed that document specifically to meet the needs of that audience. As for the amount of royalties, this was our business decision, and we are aware that it is not "industry standard." That, too, was intentional. The book Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand is one of my core philosophies, especially providing a "fair exchange of values." As both an author and publisher, I know how much work each side puts into the production of a successful book. I thought our authors deserved 50% of the sales after manufacturing costs. I also thought that providing a better deal than the competition might make us look more attractive to folks willing to take a chance on a new and growing company. Also, since we do not offer advances on royalties, it seemed a way to make it more attractive to prospective authors and artists, as someone has already noted here.

Our one book in print:
Jacob's Legacy was given a very thorough editorial treatment before going to press. We did all the layout and PDF production ourselves as well as the cover design. The cover was designed to have a consistent look and feel with other books in the genre and was, in fact, produced on The Gimp, not MS Paint. We purchased the ISBN for the book, as we will do for all our books. We did the cataloging for the tp verso ourselves. And we arranged to have it printed. These are all things that a typical author might find difficult to arrange when self-publishing but that a publisher does as a matter of course. We made the book available through Lulu until we are able to get our own retail site running, and we also had the printed through a private printer to build our own inventory for wholesale orders. It is a very niche market book, which made it ideal for cutting our teeth on the whole publishing process. We have had a pretty good success for a book with a niche market, but we hope our more mainstream titles will do better. I have many years experience as a book buyer for library systems, so I am quite aware of the methods by which people come to find out about books. Review copies will be sent. Promotional copies to select organizations will be sent. Other methods of marketing will also be employed, and I would be happy to elaborate for anyone willing to send me an email request. Additionally, we are looking towards moving towards using Ingram Lightning Source, as this seems to be a better fit for the wholesale process.

To sum it all up:
We are a legitimate business, although we choose to do things a little differently than other small publishers. This is our prerogative. Given the amount of work in our inbox, there are quite a few authors and artists are willing to take a chance on us and grow with us. Frankly, if we got much more work right now we would have more than we're capable of handling. As it is, resources are still tight for us being so new. You did point out a couple of things about our image that we may need to tweak, but I found your post to be far more venomous than it needed to be. Before reading your post, I was feeling pretty proud of the work we are doing, particularly in becoming such a strong advocate for teen authors and artists. After reading your post, I first I felt pretty embarrassed about how small we are and how far we have to go before we're to be anything close to successful. But then, I just need to keep telling myself a multitude of platitudes about large oaks growing from tiny acorns, etc. I also need to remind myself that one person's opinion is not the whole world's, and hopefully there will be many more folks who find our approach a good fit for them.

Anonymous said...
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Mad Scientist Matt said...

I got as far as "'Dream big. We'll help.' The Grumpy Dragon is dedicated to helping aspiring authors, artists, and artisans of all ages bring their dreams into reality." At that point, alarm bells were ringing in my head so loudly I'm surprised my wife didn't walkin in asking what the noise was. Putting that on the front page is never a good sign. Real publishers' websites usually are plastered with books they want to sell you.