Last year, an entity called Skin Horse Press grew up in my office here in Austin. I chose the name of this independent imprint based on a favorite book, The Velveteen Rabbit, as well as a nod toward my spot in a writing career. I’m 40 years in on my professional writing and editing, so that means I’m past 60. In the book, the Skin Horse is old and wise and tells the Rabbit that you become Real when you’re old.
I’d like to believe I’m becoming Real at my age. Skin Horse Press, though, is not a real press yet. It takes a lot more than 40 years of publishing experience and unbridled ambition to start a press. It takes the talent and drive of other pros, as well as money.
The more of these you have, the better chance your ambition grows into a press. You only have to self-publish a book professionally to see how a press gives a book a wider audience.
Distribution and wholesaling are the steepest parts of the publishing ladder. A publisher trusts other companies to sell the books that are published. Not list them, like Amazon and a raft of other places do. Not stock them, like a bookstore may do if you get a consignment space. Distributors sell your book by getting book buyers in retail stores to pay attention to the book’s goodness.
The buyers look for a press, a catalog, and finally a familiar voice that assures them they won’t be wasting their shelf space. The need for retailing space is being debated now, but even Amazon prefers books from real presses. The presses get real with advertising and marketing plans, plus budget to back them up.
There’s a need for more presses. This month a Big Book got in trouble because an Anglo author wrote the experience of a Latina in a novel. The Latino community, amplified by other hovering social media readers, cried foul. That Big Book, Dirt, got a big advance for its author. The big advances come from the big presses, known as the Big Five. They’re all headquartered in New York and they’re not much good at taking chances on under-represented authors.
They try, but then an Anglo author gets a big advance for a Latino story in Mexico and people cry foul. To be accurate, the author of Dirt is part Latina, and so it gets more complicated from there.
So why not start a press to help correct this? This morning I read a letter from a Midwest publisher, far outside the New York orbit. She said, “Want to have more diverse voices included in books, and tilt publishing away from NYC, which is too expensive to live in anyway? You could… start your own press! To amplify overlooked voices! It’s been done ;)”
Yes, indeed, presses have been started for such noble and needed reasons. Just be aware, if you have such a dream, what goes into creating a press. It’s an entity that has several masters to serve at once. The authors, who create the magic. The readers, who supply the revenue. The founders, who need to be paid, and to pay their talent at the press.
The best list of what goes into a fine press — although it’s a long study, with too much detail — is the latest book from Microcosm Press. Joe Biel founded that indie press and has written The People’s Guide to Publishing. From Title Development to Money, the 14 sections of the book cover everything a publisher must consider. There’s much more under the surface of book publishing than might be apparent to an author. Some editors know how much, and every agent knows the pieces, too.
A press is a business. Nobody has to explain that businesses require talent and money to succeed. The drive and mission is important, too. Those first two very real elements determine which press is going to sell books, and which ones will only create them.