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MWA: Small Press Publishing and Future of Electronic Publishing

This started out as a series of panels for Norwescon in 2010. In 2011, I was invited to speak on a very similar topic for Mystery Writers of America. What is obvious is that the world of books hasn't changed so fast since a guy named Gutenberg figured out how to mass produce books.

MWA authors asked:  How is the Northwest publishing scene expanding?

There are a number of enthusiastic souls launching publishing ventures in the Northwest. The advantages (for me) of working with a small press is that they are generally a bit more nimble in their schedules, more enthusiastic about promoting their authors, and often more informed about social media marketing. However, they are also less well-financed than New York. It's generally a "pay-as-you-sell" royalty model rather than upfront advances.  

The more established Northwest publishing houses (i.e. those who have been around for ten years or more) tend to be niche publishers or part of a larger concern. They do pay advances. They do work with agents. They are just like "real NY publishers" (as one East Coast agent once said to me). Think Sasquatch, University of Washington Press, Parenting Press, Mountaineers, or Wizards of the Coast. Working with these folks can land you on the New York Times bestseller list. Like all publishers everywhere, take time to read their websites and learn about their submission process. Some are willing to work you without requiring an agent, but many have very small windows for blind submissions.

Local resources for publishers
Every publisher in the Northwest started with some wild-eyed soul saying "Hey, I can do that!" What follows were suggestions I made at Norwescon and, later, at MWA for those souls brave enough to Do It Yourself (DIY).

Here’s some of the resources that I’m recommending that you check out before you launch your own  publishing venture.  Even if you’re already publishing books, these might be helpful.  If nothing else, you will meet like-minded folks navigating the choppy waters of small press and independent publishing.

This is a friendly trade association of very small, small, medium-sized, and large publishers working in Washington state. The group meets once a month September through June, usually in the Seattle area.  They also do joint displays at the Northwest trade show: PNBA Fall Trade Show (once a year, usually in Portland). While there are not very many e-book publishers in the group yet, there is definitely an interest among most members to experiment in this field. 

This nonprofit trade association is based in Oregon.  Like BPNW, they hold regular meetings, offer some display opportunities at local shows, and provide additional educational resources to members.  If you’re closer to Portland, Oregon, than Seattle, Washington, this is the group for you.

IBPA is a national organization that offers marketing, education, and other help to members. Both BPNW and NWABP are affiliates of IBPA. This means if you join your local group, you can receive a discount, usually $30 off your IBPA membership.  Here’s their mission statement:  “IBPA serves book, audio, and video, multi-media and ePublishers worldwide. With a mission to advance the professional interests of independent publishers the Association's programs and information benefit all member publishers, regardless of their size or experience.”

This is the Northwest trade association that serves independent bookstores. They stage one trade show per year (closed to the public, open to bookstore and library staff as well as publishers). If you are looking to market to the independent bookstore market, this is the place to meet people. PNBA also has a Holiday Catalog and other marketing opportunities for publishers and authors to reach their constituency. Note: all regions have similar groups and regional. Some authors even plan their travel around these shows. You can find a complete list of all regional associations here.

The largest trade show in the United States devoted to publishing, bookselling, and all things related.  Held annually in New York, this is not a cheap event for any publisher, but it is still seen as the place to make national, high profile book launches.  Most people in the industry refer to it as BEA.

The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is a 13-digit number that uniquely identifies books and book-like products (including e-books). Without an ISBN, most traditional and online booksellers cannot find your title, let alone sell it.  While a number of groups will let you buy into their ISBN for publishing, you can also go directly to Bowker to purchase your unique numbers.  If you are publishing a traditional book, you will probably also need a “barcode” with your ISBN. This can also be purchased from Bowker or other third-party providers. 

The number one question that I hear from people considering publishing is “Why should I pay for an ISBN? Can’t I just sell without it?”  The answer is “yes, you can, if you only want to handsell your book.” If you want to distribute through bookstores (outside of your hometown, where they know you and will probably stock it if you beg), you need an ISBN. You probably need an ISBN for most bookstore websites too! NEW IN 2011: Many of the e-book "stores" are letting you go around the ISBN requirements, which is a little odd for a traditionalist like me. However, if you are interested in selling through just one or two major outlets, like a Kindle version on, you can safely skip the ISBN.

Is Electronic Publishing the Future?
My personal opinion is the clock has already ticked to the future and electronic publishing is here to stay. Embrace it, enjoy it, and check out an e-book from your local library or buy one for download. There's dozens of readers out there, but the biggest players in the game are Kindle ( and Nook (Barnes & Noble). The advent of color at end of 2010 for devices makes a new range of publishing possible, such as graphic novels, picture books, and anything that needs color illustration to work or what Craig Mod calls formed content..

I expect the e-book to replace the paperback as the “testing” ground for new authors and certain types of genre fiction. In January 2011, announced that Kindle versions of novels were outselling paperback versions on their website. In February 2011, the New York Times revamped their best seller list to include e-books.

Electronic publishing seems ideal for the midlist titles, instant titles (think Sarah Palin biographies in September 2008), and reprints. In short, everything once published as solely as a mass market paperback.  

There are many e-book only publishers* out there and many operate on the traditional royalty-paying model, handling submissions and sales reports to authors just like a print publisher. Websites like Preditors & Editors can help you find them.   

More and more large print publishers are releasing both print and e-books. My publisher Wizards of the Coast started releasing titles as e-books as well as mass-market paperbacks. My Mom bought City of the Dead for her Nook the day it appeared online at Barnes & Noble: thanks Mom! Shortly after that, I got a note from a friend in Hong Kong that he'd bought my book for his Kindle -- he had never ordered the print edition due to the cost of shipping from U.S. to his home.

A number of authors are beginning to mine their backlist by grabbing back rights to out-of-print titles and making them available as e-books.  Some small publishers are even forming around such an out-of-print backlist, working with the author to secure rights and distribute through the e-book outlets. 

*Many of these e-book publishers will make their e-books available as “print on demand” trade paperbacks if sales warrant.

DIY resources for turning your backlist into e-books
If you have been writing for many years, you probably have material that was published but then went out-of-print. If you still control the rights for those works (and it varies contract by contract), you might consider becoming your own reprint house. Sell those stories desired by the fans as e-books or even e-shorts or e-novellas. Length doesn’t matter in this format. 

Even if you are sure about your rights, be polite and drop your former publisher a note stating your plans to reprint your works yourself. You might be surprised by the response: I had a publisher decide that they would bring out the reprint and pay me for it! Much less work for me! [And to update this story, when the same publisher sent me a notice in 2011 that they were going to start releasing e-books and selected one of my titles as their first trial, again saving me the effort of format and distributing!]

If you do decide to go the DIY route, here’s some resources for electronic publishing and sales. Before you commit too much time and effort to any one group, chat to other authors publishing through them and check their experiences. Sites that were working wonderfully six months ago may suddenly be folding and, vice versa, former dogs are now doing fantastic business. This is definitely an industry in upheaval and you owe it to yourself to stay informed.

Smashwords converts your book into formats that can be sold through the majority of e-book sites as well as their own affiliates.  Smashwords will work directly with authors who own the electronic rights to their work or with publishers of two or more authors.

2011 update:  Digital Text Platform is now Kindle Direct
The unsexy name of Amazon’s own DIY service, Digital Text Platform, is now the more sensible Kindle Direct Publishing.  Amazon also has CreateSpace for print-on-demand projects.  The “preferred format” for Kindle conversion is a HTML file although Amazon claims to support other formats. 2012 update: keeps improving this and newer versions of Word translate nicely into e-books using their online software. However if you want illustrations, charts, or other additions to the text, you may want to work with a professional for conversion.

Barnes & Noble jumped into the DIY market for the Nook and this is their website. Like Kindle, the Nook has its own demands and needs. 2012 update: Like Amazon's KDP system, the online tools allow conversions from Word docs or similar files to e-books without having to buy any additional software.

This large e-bookstore was bought by Barnes & Noble -- so having your titles available here means having your titles available for the Nook. 

This large independent e-bookstore was recommended by Neelan Choski of Lexcycle (the company that invented Stanza for the iPhone). Books on Board say “e-mail us” for information on how to distribute through their site.

EPIC (Electronically Published Internet Connection)
The EPIC Awards formerly known as “Eppies”
I’m not a huge fan of contests for marketing, but my friend Phoebe Matthews won the urban fantasy Epic Award and subsequently saw more reviews and sales.  So check these out. These awards are only for books originally published in e-book format.  EPIC, the group, started when romance e-book writers and publishers  decided to separate from RWA (the national organization for romance writers). Since then, the group has grown to embrace all genres and types of e-book publishing. 

If your books came out several years ago, you may or may not have an electronic version available. If you don't feel like typing your entire manuscript again, you can scan your paperback and hardback and then convert to electronic format with OCR (optical character reader software). Want to spend more time writing your next novel and avoid this? There are a number of services available.  Phoebe Matthews recently used Blue Leaf Book Scanning Service and found their service very good.

For any book converted via OCR, expect to spend considerable time line editing. The scanners aren't perfect and words will be misread, odd characters will be popped into text, and line breaks don't always occur where they should.

Printing your e-book
Want a real book, i.e. paper copy of your work? Many e-book/small press also give readers the chance to purchase print-on-demand copies. Typically, these are available for order online but you may be able to do this at a bookstore near you. The Espresso book machine manufactures books instantly. There are currently three of these in western Washington at University Book Store, Third Place Books, and Village Books.  

copyright 2010, 2011 Rosemary Jones - feel free to share using the tools below.