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January 26th, 2012 / 12:00 pm
Behind the Scenes

Lessons I’ve Learned Starting a Micropress

I started a micropress, Tiny Hardcore Press, and it has been an awesome but very challenging adventure. The best part is getting to work with writers I respect to publish awesome books that practically fit in the palm of your hand. There is no worst part but every single day I learn something new. Most of these lessons have risen from my own ignorance. Who just decides to start a press? A press is a small business. I should have done more research. I had put out two books already via PANK, but that’s not really research. My first mistake was diving into the deep end when I should have been in the kiddie pool with my floaties. I offer these observations in no particular order.

1. No matter how much money you think it’s going to cost, running a press will cost more, like, at least twice as much more and then a little more on top of that. Sure, you can run a press on the cheap, but it is pretty hard to avoid spending a lot of money.

2. ISBNs are a total racket but go ahead and buy that batch of ten for $250. You’re going to need them and buying them individually is insane. One costs $125. Also, the Bowker website is not good and by not good, I mean it is absolutely terrible. The site runs slowly and seems to use some kind of satanic Java script. I’ve almost lost it dealing with that website on several occasions.

3. Many people do not want to pay more than $10 a book. This has been really frustrating, just keeping it real. If a book costs me $8.50 to print, I cannot sell it to you for $10. People love to talk about paying the writer but don’t seem to understand that in order for writers to get paid, customers have to be willing to pay for the book. Where do you think the writer’s money is going to come from?

3a. People do not want to pay for shipping. I charge for shipping anyway. The reason Amazon can offer free shipping is because they are willing to lose money. They are willing to lose a whole lot of money.  Micropress publishers are not Amazon. Just pay the $2.50 or the $4.00 or whatever. That cost is postage + supplies. The bigger the book, the more the shipping will cost. There’s no secret profit in shipping fees.

4. What really breaks your spirit is shipping. I have learned about shipping the hardest way possible. If there is a shipping related fuck up, I have done it. The first envelopes I bought were some paper envelopes at Staples. That was a huge mistake and I paid for it dearly. I don’t rightly know what I was thinking at the time other than, “Fancy envelopes are so expensive! I’ma go with these generic envelopes.” I also got envelopes that don’t self seal, so, yeah, that sucked.

About three and four weeks after my first mailing of Normally Special, I started getting these curious scraps in the mail, often in larger envelopes, from the USPS. Sometimes, I would see an address or a partial address.  I had to CSI the envelopes to figure out who did not get their book and then send out a new copy. USPS also included with these curious scraps, a totally asinine note about how sometimes things happen and things get lost or damaged. I have a drawer full of this sadness and their pointless claims forms I don’t have the patience to fill out to get my postage back.

I have decided that what the USPS does with mail is take your envelope into some sadistic room of destruction where postal workers gleefully jump up and down on your envelopes with their muddy workboots. When they’ve exhausted themselves, they put those beat to hell envelopes in a burlap sack on the back of a donkey who then slams into a wall about a hundred times burlap sack first. When the donkey tires of this, a postal carrier then delivers your mail by kicking and otherwise abusing it, thoroughly. It looks something like this.

I respect the USPS and the work they do at the price they do it at but they are also the worst. They are hell on mail.

Still, this was my fault. I used the wrong envelope. The second envelope I tried was a Tyrek envelope. These envelopes are very durable but they offer no protection at all, so while the USPS won’t “lose” the contents of your package, the book will probably arrive looking worse for the wear. Finally, last week, I broke down and bought these poly bubble envelopes–strong and there’s great protection. If you ordered Steal Me For Your Stories or Shut Up/Look Pretty (shipping Tuesday), you will get your book cozily nestled in these awesome envelopes. I’m sorry it took me so long to get my envelope game correct.

If I had just paid the money up front for the good envelopes, I wouldn’t have lost, literally, hundreds of dollars being a cheap ass. My point is, just buy the goddamned fancy envelopes up front. You can’t game the system. You’re welcome.

5. The guy at the post office hates me and I live in a really small town so there aren’t other options. When he sees me coming with my neatly addressed and sorted envelopes, he just glares. One time he pointed at me and said, “No. Absolutely not.” To be fair, it was like ten til but I have a job and sometimes late afternoon is the only time I can get to the post office. He freaks me out. When I’m really scared, I drive 50 miles and ship from Champaign. I’m looking into printing my own postage but it feels more expensive than I can cope with right now. I have clearly learned little from Item 4.

6.  Mailing labels are your friends. Just buy them already. Your handwriting sucks anyway. I’ve finally settled on Avery 8163–one sticker and done. Mailing labels are SO EXPENSIVE. Everything feels expensive these days but doing things right takes money, and slowly but surely, I am trying to get to a place where I do things right.

7. People will lie about buying the books you publish as if you don’t have access to your own sales records. This fascinates me and sometimes I just want to ask–why did you pretend to buy this book?

8. Get a big stack of those Customs Declaration forms from the USPS. They are free and you’re going to need them. Fill them out before you go to the post office and attach them to the envelopes so the scary man won’t growl and send you to the back of the line. You need one for every international package, including mail sent to Canada.

8a. International shipping is ghastly. It’s probably best to have two tiers of shipping rates–Canada, Europe, and the UK, and then the other side of the world. Shipping to New Zealand and Australia can cost up to $15 or more. Whenever I have a stack of international envelopes, I close my eyes and go to my happy place while the postal clerk rings them up.

9. My overall mantra is, “What would Adam Robinson do?” I try to channel him a lot. I don’t know how well I succeed with that but if you’re looking for a model of how to run a small press, he is a good spirit animal.

10. Writers will submit even when you are closed to submissions. Sometimes, this is absolutely wonderful. I just accepted two manuscripts this week from such submissions. Mostly though, it’s not great. I do not know when, if ever, THP will open to submissions again. I have projects through 2013 and after that, I cannot say but I am a writer first and I know I will not be a small publisher forever.

11. Writers don’t often realize what it means to work with a micropress. I think it was Peter Cole who said, maybe on Facebook, that there’s nothing he can do for you as a publisher that you cannot do for yourself. When it comes with working with a micropress that’s mostly true. What you get with a micropress is, hopefully a personal experience, an editor who cares, and you get to put your book out into the world without the (unfortunate) stigma of self-publishing, without the cash outlay of self publishing, and hopefully, you will also get someone who will put some time and effort into making your book look good. You’re also going to get someone who isn’t publishing books as a full time job, so they are stretched and they will sometimes be terse in emails because e-mail requires triage–critical patients first.

You have to be prepared to hustle. You have to be willing to promote your book, and do readings, and plan your own events because there’s no support staff at the micropress to do it for you.

These days, you have to do this kind of hustle when working with a major publisher so as you can well imagine, when working with a micropress, there’s even more responsibility on the writer’s shoulders.

So far, I’ve published books by extraordinary hustlers. Brian Oliu made his own book trailer. Then he made another one with Brandi Wells. Roll Tide.

12. Writers are generous enough to gracefully, patiently work with a micropress. They are generous enough to let you publish their work for little or no money up front. These presses would not be possible without writers being great. I’ve heard horror stories about writers but have not experienced any yet. I hope to never be a horror story as a publisher.

13. I am terrible with the bookkeeping and business end of things. Math is the worst. Thankfully, PayPal can generate various reports so I can figure out what I’ve sold to pay royalties, if applicable. I need to be better about this by a factor of at least 100. I had absolutely no plan in this regard and I needed a plan. How are you going to track sales? How are you going to track various price points if you offered sales or other discount offers? How are you going to track direct e-book sales? Are you going to charge tax? If not, how are you going to pay The Man in April? How are you going to generate royalty statements? What information do you need to include? How are you going to track order fulfillment? The questions are endless and you need to be able to answer them, or you can, like me, just learn the answers the really hard way as you go–your choice.

13a. I kind of hate PayPal as much as I appreciate PayPal. The website is slow and their evil just lurks waiting to bite you. The information hierarchy is also counterintuitive. I don’t know who helped them with their information design but they are not good. They also take a cut of every sale. Everyone has their hand out, man.

13b. I do appreciate the ease with which you can handle transactions on PayPal. If you need to issue a refund, it only requires the click of a button.

13c. In terms of sales, Normally Special is in it’s 5th printing, So You Know It’s Me is in it’s 4th printing, and Please Don’t Be Upset is in its 2nd printing. We are not talking print runs of 10,000 or anything, you know, manage those expectations, but it’s great that these books are staying in demand. One of my goals for the summer, is to really get my books in order so I can share exact sales figures with a breakdown of sales versus comps etc.. I have gotten things in better shape so I can share info with the writers but there’s a lot of room for improvement here.

14. However much time you think it’s going to take, running a press will require several times as much. If you do not truly have the time, do not bother. I do not have as much time as I would like to devote to the press. I get everything done, but I’d like a couple more hours a week to focus solely on THP. In addition to overseeing the production process, doing the interior design, working with designers if you so choose,  and all that, you also have to do absolutely mundane things like stuff the envelopes. That’s one of the main reasons I’m not open to submissions. I could not possibly read unsolicited manuscripts right now. Before starting this post, I stuffed 127 envelopes which was actually the most relaxing thing I did for the day. I made neat little piles and tore off adhesive strips and it was really rather pleasant. I also spent a couple hours creating the labels (mail merge can bite me). Then my goddamned printer broke trying to print the labels. That POS HP printer, one of those awful All In One printers, is now an expensive brick that should work but doesn’t. The printer thinks it has a paper jam but it does not. I was all up in that printer with a flashlight. Dr. Google told me this is a known problem, but HP doesn’t care so, yeah, I’ll be printing those labels at work tomorrow, trying not to think about how much a new printer might cost. I went back to stuffing envelopes to cool my rage which was significant.

15. If you want to start a press, and need some pointers on who to work with, you should get to know the following people (and feel free to add other suggestions in the comments):

David McNamara at Sunnyoutside/Cloudyoutside is your man for printing. He also does design and such, if you need those services. He is helpful and a good and fast communicator. I have never had a single printing problem and I’ve done four books through him. He is, in fact, the only printer who has never sent me a flawed product. He quality checks the book at every stage. If something looks jankity, he gets in touch and explains his concerns an offers options for fixing the problem. Spend the money on printing! The customer service is worth it and his prices are very reasonable. You can order in quantities as low as 25 which makes it easy and affordable to keep books in print. I’m not a big fan of POD because I like more flexibility in terms of trim size and other printing options (like a color inside cover) but I understand why people use that option, and there are good POD choices out there.

Alban Fischer will help you with all your design needs.  I had him design the cover for two projects and will be working with him again. He is creative, a good communicator, works fast, and offers multiple design options. His rates are also reasonable. He can do both covers and interiors. It’s worth the money. If you’re going to publish a book with a crappy cover, like Mike Meginnis discussed in his post, and with an interior that looks like it was done in Microsoft Word, then why bother? Are you respecting the work? Are you really bringing something into the world that needs to be in the world if you’re not willing to invest (either the time, if you have design skills or money, if you don’t) in presentation? It’s something to think about. I designed the first two covers myself, and then realized, I cannot do everything and I am not a cover designer! I am not a Swiss Army Knife! I do, however, design the interiors. I know how to do document and book design and also, keeping it real, I can’t afford to pay someone to design the interiors.

Steven Seighman also does great cover design and is worth looking up. He designed the cover for Shut Up/Look Pretty and I love it so much.

Alicia Kennedy is a great copy editor. I’ve worked with her since Normally Special. She has reasonable rates, can work in PDF, Word, or InDesign, and is very thorough. Yes, you do need a copy editor. A “friend” who is an “amazing proofreader” is probably not going to do as good a job as a professional. Everyone thinks they’re a good proofreader or copyeditor. No one catches everything, not even a professional, but when you work with a copy editor, they will catch most of what needs catching and that, again, is showing some respect for the work and for the customer who buys your book. When I get a book back from the printer, it is pretty stressful and I kind of read it with my eyes covered, praying I don’t see anything glaring. So far, so good!

Other publishers and editors will answer your questions an offer you tips. Indie people are great.

16. Invest in Adobe Creative Suite if you can or, you know, acquire it via other channels liberated from the clutches of capitalism. The educational discount makes the shocking price a little more palatable and most people know someone who is affiliated with a university who can hook them up. I bought the suite for like $300 when I was a graduate student and it was the best investment I’ve ever made in software. It will save you money in the long run. To build anything, including a press, you need tools and it is beneficial to invest in good tools. Also, I repeat: invest in good envelopes. I can’t say this enough.

17. Having an e-book is pretty important. Creating e-books is the circle closest to the hottest part of hell. Vaughan Simons created the e-books for Normally Special, So You Know It’s Me, and Please Don’t Be Upset. He also turned me on to Jutoh, the program I use to create e-books, which I have now taught myself to do because it needed to be done. I hate creating e-books. And for the record, InDesign supposedly has an ebook export function. That is an outrageous lie. The only thing that “function” does is shit the bed. Once you accept that, find something else to get the job done. I don’t enjoy coding or anything along those lines. I am not naturally suited to e-book creation but I also can’t afford to outsource it so I create the ebooks, and simply hate everything about it. That said, it’s awesome when the e-book is done and it actually works the way it is supposed to. Amazon makes it really easy to upload the ebooks and I also sell direct from the website.

18. Publisher’s Weekly is not kidding about the three to four month advance time. They are really quite nice and will take your books if you send only a month or two before the release date, but the books won’t get reviewed. This lead time makes it very difficult for micropress books to make it into Publisher’s Weekly. Hopefully, they’ll be able to accomodate e-galleys at some point so they can feature books from smaller presses who lack the resources for physical galleys and sending copies three to four months in advance.

18a. I definitely need to create a publication schedule. Thus far, I have basically done a book every three months but it’s not that regimented beyond that and it needs to be so I can get books reviewed in places requiring a lot of lead time. I have ten books in the queue and that should take me right through 2013. This spring/early summer books from Tadd Adcox and Frank Hinton will be released, as well as a surprise book coming out very soon! Then I’ll just let things breathe a bit and have a firm schedule for the remaining books.

I’m going to shamelessly show you the covers for the surprise book, The Fullness of Everything (Cover by Alban Fischer)Frank’s book, Action, Figure (Photo by Mariel Clayton, cover by Alban Fischer), and Tadd’s book, The Map of the System of Human Knowledge (Cover by Alban Fischer).

 

I’ll share one more neat thing, I can’t resist. The table of contents for Tadd’s book (designed by Jeffrey Calway, who did the cover for Please Don’t Be Upset, and is looking for design work to build his portfolio) is going to look like this (spread across a couple pages so it can fit the trim size):

18b. This is the really fun part–working with great artists and pulling wonderful creative ideas together so that a manuscript becomes a book. Sometimes, I caress the books when no one’s around. They’re awful cute…I mean, hardcore.

19. There are people out there who will support your press unconditionally. It’s amazing. That kind of support makes me extra committed to publishing books that are beautifully written, look good, are well edited.

20. I don’t like giving physical books away for free. This is a press not a library. If I could print and ship books for free, I would happily give books away for free. If you can’t afford a book, though, and really want to read a THP title, I will likely give you the e-book for free because great writing deserves to be read and a lack of money shouldn’t get in the way of that.

21. At first, I thought I could give advances (see: no plan). That only lasted for the first book, which totally earned out  and then some and then some (as I knew it would).  I was glad to be able to pay a writer for their writing, which is as it should be, but offering an advance was not sustainable. I changed my model. I havent abandoned the advance idea forever, though. I would like to figure out how to pay an advance to every writer while also meeting my own obligations like, you know, rent, student loans, gas, coffee, whatever. My current thinking is to have a model where the advance is a percentage of pre-sales but I have to think it through more. Once production costs are recouped, I do pay royalties, though. And writers get lots of copies of their book they can then sell to make more money.

22. I do best when I can sell books to people in person. I love the books I publish so I love talking about them and my favorite parts and introducing people to new writers. I absolutely got into doing this because of Christopher Newgent and his Vouched Books. Whenever I take books to events, I sell out. There’s a lot to be said for personal, face to face interaction when it comes to bookselling. A webpage can be informative but it is also pretty cold and impersonal. It’s also a great way to meet people. At the Mission Creek Festival last year, I represented PANK at the bookfair. The woman next to me was from Black Clock. She saw my little stack of Normally Special, and we started talking about it. I evangelized. She bought a copy, started reading it right there, and ended up loving the book. The festival ended and we went our separate ways, didn’t even exchange contact information. A couple months later, that same woman reviewed the book for Bookslut which was a wonderful surprise and it all happened because we had a great conversation about the book in Iowa City.

23. The first website I created was serviceable but not good. It was mostly a generic WordPress template, which was the best I could do at the time. I am not a web designer! (See also: not a Swiss Army Knife) I quickly realized that I needed to have a real designer (Steven Seighman) design a real website to best showcase the books. I’m really glad I did that. I totally used part of my tax return for this. Thanks, Mr. President!

23. Things I would like to do in the future: get set up with SPD, sell physical copies via Amazon, improve on publicity and getting the books reviewed in more places, book launch parties (?), do something with the website’s blog which is mostly dormant, and just, be better about everything.

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