Umm, excuse me ABC, don’t mean to be rude, but WE publish Australian sci-fi!

 

An article published recently by the ABC caught the attention of some of us at Odyssey. It’s about sci-fi’s representation by the Australian publishing industry, (you can find it here: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-09/australian-science-fiction-authors-let-down-by-local-publishers/8336308). Sarah L’Estrange writes that sadly Australian sci-fi authors often feel they’re “let down” by local publishes, and find they have to look overseas to get published. It outlines how difficult it can be as a sci-fi author and paints a pretty bleak picture for those trying to get published.

While the article is focused mainly on the big publishers and their refusal to represent authors, it’s tackling the issue of sci-fi publishing in Australia as a whole, and reading it from a small press perspective a little voice in my head kept asking, “what about us? What about all the small publishers?”

My question was briefly answered. L’Estrange writes that authors often “resort to self-publishing – or go to smaller publishers.” It seems a little harsh to suggest that small publishers are a “resort” rather than a choice, but it’s okay, we’ll just assume it wasn’t meant like that. I held back the tears (just).

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But secondly, the mention small press does get is only very brief, the article then moving straight into looking at the young adult market. The actual influence and role of small press in publishing Australian sci-fi is left unknown. It seems silly to simply skirt over all the “smaller publishers” who might well be the very answer to the genre’s publishing issues.

In response I wanted to write about the contribution that small press can and does bring, and from an interns perspective, the role I think Odyssey plays in publishing Australian sci-fi.

Like many small publishers, Odyssey specialises in specific types of literature. Small press fills the niches that larger publishers can ignore, sci-fi, as we’ve seen being one of them. Odyssey looks to publish works that are about adventures, far away places and new ideas. So one such genre that Oydssey tends to specialise in is, you got it, sci-fi. It’s our thang.

And as part of my work as an intern I look through the submissions. My mission, if I chose to accept it (I do), is to discover new, original and exciting stories; to find sci-fi that we can publish. So while large publishers may be hesitant to publish Australian sci-fi, small publishers like Odyssey actively seek it.

Moreover, not only does small press look to publish the genre, it takes a vested and educated interest in it. Because small press is so specialised, the genres it publishes are specialties of the staff, they cater to that genre.

For example, part of the work Odyssey and their author’s engage in is attending and organising stands at relevant events. There’s a surprising amount of events on all the time, throughout the country, that encourage like-minded people to come together and talk about sci-fi. Odyssey has a Facebook group where everyone involved can post about such events. At least a couple times a week a new event is posted and suggested, an event where authors and publishers alike can attend, an event where they can network, engage with fans and promote their work. This engagement with the sci-fi community allows for better publicity and impact. Put simply, it means better sales.

Small press that specialise in their genre bring to authors a knowledge of, and genuine engagement with, that genre. Moreover, small press bring a fierce passion that major publishing houses cannot so easily boast. They may have more twitter followers, but do they even go to Gamma.Con?

Another massive advantage that independent press can offer to sci-fi authors is the ability to be very closely involved with the publication of their work, every step of the way. Well small press offers that to authors of any genre, but arguably with something like sci-fi where the concept, the world, the characters are so unique and original  it is even more important that the creator of the novel can be involved as much as possible to make sure that the final product is how the author envisioned it; that the cover art, the formatting, the language conveys exactly what it was meant to.

Perhaps small press is often overlooked because it exists in a different space to larger publishing firms, having a more small scale approach. But what it brings to author’s wanting to publish their sci-fi novels is a specialty in that genre, a keen interest in their area, skills and understanding of the sci-fi industry, and an inclusive publishing experience. Perhaps when the article mentioned above referred to small press as a last “resort”, what it really meant was a rescue. Small publishers, like the super heroes they are, are rescuing underrepresented Australian sci-fi authors one novel at a time.

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The Forgotten Readers

We’ve all been inside one. For many, including myself, our love of reading was grown and cultivated in a building absolutely bursting with books. You could stroll through the seemingly endless rows of towering shelves, trying to find that perfect book. Especially as children, libraries seem to house never-ending possibilities for reading. Across the country, indeed, across the world, libraries are institutions that open their doors to thousands of avid readers every day.

Whilst the library is the main source of reading material for numerous individuals, it is a commonly overlooked vehicle for increasing promotion and awareness of your book. This is largely because many don’t consider an institution that buys one copy of a book and then lends it to as many people as possible an opportunity for substantial profit.

However, if you look a little closer, you’ll see that there are far more opportunities for promotion than first meets the eye.

It has been suggested that libraries purchase as much as 12% of all books sold in Australia. Although many towns no longer have bookstores, especially rural ones, many of them still have a library, or have access to a travelling library – yes, those still exist! All these libraries need to be stocked, and librarians are always looking for new and interesting titles to attract readers to their shelves.

The fact that libraries only buy one copy of a book, and are therefore not worth spending time marketing to, is a common argument. However, not only is this not always true, even when it is, that’s no reason to discount the library. School libraries in particular are known for ordering class sets (usually around 30 copies) of books they are interested in acquiring. If a book proves popular, libraries may buy multiple copies in order to cater to demand.

But even if they only buy one copy, that copy is one more sale you didn’t have yesterday. In a 2011-2012 report, Australian Public Library Statistics recorded 1,505 public libraries across the country. If every library in Australia bought only one copy, that’s still a significant sales count.

Additionally, the report noted that there were approximately 9 million visits to libraries every month. Consider the exposure that one book could get if it was seen 9 million times a month. Nowhere but a library will you have that kind of potential for people to see a book, and quite often pick it up and read it. If they love it, not only do you have a loyal reader, but they’re very likely to spread the word to all their friends, who can easily access your book from their library.

For the small press author, libraries, especially your local library, can be a great support in getting your book talked about. Many regularly host events with authors, including talks and signings. Others may also support the idea of launching your book right there in the library. Events like these not only open up more opportunities for sales, but also make sure your book is exposed in a place that has regular and dedicated traffic – and they ALL read books!

As many libraries purchase largely through library vendors, this can limit the opportunity for small press and self-published authors to get their books on the shelves. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a chance. Local libraries in particular love supporting authors who reside nearby. And once the word spreads about books that are popular, other libraries may begin to show interest.

Nowhere else in the world can you regularly attract such a concentrated group of readers as you can in a library. Those who are focused on the bottom line in the short term can dismiss those non-paying individuals who grip tightly to their library card. However, increasing the number of people who see and read your book is never a bad thing, in the long term it will contribute to an increase in sales. Especially if those library patrons are all as impatient as I am and, when faced with their desired book being on loan, goes out and buys their own copy because they cannot bear to wait. The book industry forgets about library patrons at their peril.

The Shelving Game

In some of our marketing blog posts, you would have heard Brendan or I talk about the need for small publishers to look at alternative ways of selling and advertising books, other than bookstores. What you small press aficionados may have already noticed in your search for the perfect indie novel is that you will rarely find a small press book on the gleaming shelves of a shiny bookstore, particularly if that bookstore is a chain.

You may have bemoaned this fact as you drag your feet away from the rows and rows of choices, back to Book Depository, Amazon, or even the publisher or author’s own website to find what you’re looking for. It’s definitely a pain, but many people don’t generally question why. What is it about the organisation of bookstores that prevent small press from getting a real foothold?

Start by thinking about your favourite bookstore. Picture it in your mind. Whoa! There’s SO MANY BOOKS. I always find it a bit overwhelming when I walk into a bookstore. There’s a multitude of choices, and that’s the reason very few people are still brave enough to venture into one with me.

But step back for a moment. That choice that we’re all confronted with, those who own the bookstore are confronted with that decision on a far larger scale when they are considering how to stock their store. Those seemingly endless shelves hold only a small fraction of all the possible books a store could stock. There is so much choice; bookstores need to find a way of cutting through them all.

Obviously, part of what they decide to stock is based on demand. If five customers a day come in and want a particular book, then it makes sense to start getting a few on the shelves. Customers are notoriously impatient people, and will be far more satisfied with their experience if they don’t have to wait a couple of days for their book to be ordered in.

But another key part of the decision making process are distributors. These are companies that act like sales executives for books, and liaise with bookstores to get books on shelves. They often provide promotional material for bookstores, and have large selections that sellers can choose from.

Like everything else in this world, they cost money. Often a lot of it. Therefore, those with the most books to sell, and who usually publish books in high demand, have the most to gain from a distributor. If you’ve only published one book, or even only ten, the cost of a distributor will be far more prohibitive. So once again, we have a means for accessing consumers dominated by the large publishing houses.

If you aren’t with a distributor, your chances of getting on the shelves are much lower. Distributors are respected companies, and the fact that they accept a book, author, or publisher into their repertoire is a vote of confidence. A distributor with a nice shiny catalogue will always be considered more respectable than an author who can’t afford such resources off the bat, but is still passionate about what they have produced.

Unfortunately, getting your book into a bookstore isn’t as simple as just sending them a bunch of copies. It involves a complex mix of ordering, permission, returns policies and sales figures. Distributors can smooth this process, which is why they are an important part of getting a book on the shelves. But small press are often left out as big companies and bestsellers take the place of lesser-known books. The fact that small publishers have such difficulty getting into bookstores is often something that prevents their growth, as you can’t make sales if no one sees your product. It’s unfortunate that, although it seems like we have so much choice in a bookstore, the decision on whether to read small press books or not has already been made for us.

if you’re keen to explore what small press has to offer, think about exploring the websites of small publishing houses. Odyssey conducts sales through its own website, as well as on Amazon and Book Depository, as do most other small presses.

Starting Small

You there! Want to crack the oldest game in town? The Book Trade, I say!

Step right up! Publishing is not an easy industry to get a start in. Sometimes it seems like there’s either a feast or famine in the job market, and for entry level positions it’s a particularly ravenous existence. This is where internships help. Often people perceive the best internships or the most desirable internships to be those with the big five or other suitably large publishing operations. I disagree with that and would argue an alternative view: the best experience for an internship you can get is at a small press.

Why intern at a small press? Comparatively you might meet less famous authors, work on less high-profile books and have a less stylish office to frequent. But you will also meet local authors, most of whom are incredibly friendly and happy to talk shop and share their advice from their perspective of the industry. You will probably get to do a more diverse range of tasks because frankly, many small presses need more hands on deck than they can afford. You will be assigned projects that are important to the press as opposed to tasks that no-one in the office has time for or is particularly keen on doing. Essentially, you become part of the team.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved interning at a big publisher. It was a wonderful experience and I did learn a lot. For example, how to use Adobe Bridge, the ins-and-outs of the restaurant scenes in both Melbourne and Sydney and what it’s like behind the scenes at a cookbook photoshoot. It was brilliant and the team I worked for were a fantastic bunch of people who I couldn’t be more grateful to.

But my time at this small press has been really different (but equally as brilliant). I’ve been everywhere, and I’ve learned so much. The internship here has been one of the most versatile experiences I’ve had so far in my life. And one of the most flexible.

Work from home? Mandatory. Pyjamas? Hey, it’s your house. You can only work 8-10pm? That’s fine.

In a big press, from my own experience and the experience of those I’ve spoken to, interns tend to be placed in one area and work exclusively on a set of tasks within that area for their whole internship. This is not true of all big publishers of course, but in many there are set lines which interns, like the staff they are attached to, do not cross.

At a small press, there are no such lines because there are often not more than a handful of employees. This is great! You get to do a whole lot of things, sometimes all at once. Look! Two hands! I’m typing with two hands! Marvellous. Due to the significantly smaller size of presses, you will often find yourself in direct contact with the publisher, if not interning directly for them. This is also great. You get the full experience of what it means to be a publisher by working so closely with them. The stress, the victories, the excitement at finding a good book to publish.

Anyone looking to start out in publishing will probably find themselves doing more than one internship. Or should, because really, where do you get that competitive edge? So why not do the big press internship that everyone seems to drool over, and ALSO do a small press internship. My own small press internship has been an absolute blast and has skilled me up for the publishing industry unlike any other internship. It’s inspired me to continue in publishing, even when it seems I’m going against the odds.

Doing it for the Little Guys

Small Publishers – What are they and where do they fit in the publishing industry?
by Jenna O’Connell

So, one of the first questions I inevitably get asked after mentioning this internship is something I dread: oh, cool! How small is the publishing house? Because, how do you describe something like that? Do I measure in square feet of office space? In the weight of all the books Odyssey has ever published? The number of people who are employed in the company? All these are different measures of people’s perceptions of small and large, but none of them really sum up the difference between small publishers and large publishers. As I’ve progressed through this internship, I’ve realised that very few people, and almost no one outside the publishing industry, can adequately define what exactly small press is. So, with my limited experience and the searing overconfidence of youth, I’m going to attempt to give it a go.

The Small Press Underground Networking Community (now Small Press Network) examined this problem in a report commissioned back in 2007, designed to figure out exactly what small press is, and why it is important to Australia’s publishing and literary industries. One of the clearest distinctions between the two was that small press are mostly separate from large corporations. Another is in their engagement with alternative modes of bookselling, rather than just a reliance on bookstores. From there, most of the criteria is far less definitive, as the nature of small, growing companies is that they can flow within and over these categories as things change. But the most common factors that appeared were a release of less than 12 books a year, and a print run for each book no larger than 5,000, and usually far less than that, somewhere around 1000-2000 copies. But all these numbers are pretty arbitrary. What I find to be the defining feature of small press is the personalised attention they are able to provide. Michelle, our publisher, is involved in every stage of the process for the books she publishes, from submission, to cover, to promotion. She also interacts personally with all of her authors, something that blew me away when I first started working here. Wait, I get to meet HOW many real life authors? Sometimes, it’s almost too exciting to believe. This kind of interconnectedness is something that would be impossible in a larger operation. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it highlights that both small and large publishers have their place, and provide vastly different services.

Small publishing houses are admirable for their ability to take risks where large publishing houses will not. Indeed, many larger publishers will not accept unsolicited manuscripts, meaning it’s a lot harder for new authors to grab their attention, especially if they’re doing it completely on their own. Usually, an author will get their start with a smaller publisher, and move to a larger one as their fan base and sales grow. I can’t speak for other small presses, obviously, but a lot of our focus here at Odyssey is on trying to find the stories that are clamouring to be told, rather than the ones that fit a generic model that may be guaranteed to sell, but lack that something special. And often those are in mediums that have faded from the public consciousness. Small press publishers overwhelmingly represent short fiction and poetry production. Many of us are a bit blah about these modes of storytelling nowadays. When was the last time any of us read a short story that wasn’t written by someone who has been famous for at least 50 years? I know I’m certainly guilty of it, but I would be devastated if suddenly these ways of writing were phased out. Small publishing houses are the cornerstones of targeting niche and speciality markets that may not attract the attention of larger publishers, but still have their devoted audiences. For example, Odyssey is about to release a book about the journey of whiskey! Talk about a niche market there! How many books really cater to the whiskey lovers out there?

Large publishers like Penguin or Harper Collins are ones that, inevitably, the mind strays to when I mention I’m interning in publishing. They are undoubtedly the biggest kids on the block, and their contributions to the publishing industry have been enormous. But learning how publishing works from a small press perspective has been infinitely more enriching, as I’ve been exposed to so many different facets of the industry, in a way that I could never have done in a larger company. More details of those experiences to come in later posts!