Signing up with a small press publisher can be risky for an author. However, if that small press has a proper distributor in place, the close working relationship between publisher and author can bear fruit. It is likely the author will deal with a small group of publishing professionals who know their business and the industry intimately. A niche market book might be accepted for publication, but passed up by a larger publisher because it is considered not to have commercial value that will bring a return on the publisher's investment. Small presses can sometimes be more adept at maximising sales at provincial and local level for an author and helping an author connect and build a readership community. While large publishers are also capable of doing this, and do — despite contrary opinions and headlines that publishers are not interested in new emerging authors — the landscape and role of authors is changing.
The days of authors retiring to the shed at the bottom of the garden or a windswept beach house for six to twelve months to write their next book are long gone unless you are Stephen King, JK Rowling or Jodi Picoult. The reality is that most authors hold down a full time job and try to snatch as many quality hours of writing as they can. Marketing departments at a publishing house require the involvement of an author to build branding platforms and engage with the reading public at an intense level never before considered. Discoverability and awareness are critical elements a publisher needs for their books in a world where we are bombarded with information and enticement to capture our attention every second of the day — whether it is via tweets, TV, radio, billboards, email, text messages, junk mail in our letterboxes or the latest celebrity's face glaring at us from the newsstands of the local store — they all demand a tiny piece of our time and attention.
Social media and the explosion in self-publishing has helped to level the playing field for authors and small presses over the past few years, and while independent and traditional fraternities in publishing have learned a great deal from each other, neither appear comfortable to openly accept and easily acknowledge this fact.
Let's get back to signing up with a small press and why there are some things an author needs to be aware of before committing a book to publication. One thing authors will often complain about with a large publisher is how often personnel and in particular editors can change at large houses. This is not normally a problem with a small press, and often the editor is in a very senior position, if not the owner of the press itself. It's also a common denominator I find with small self-publishing providers as well. The real problem lies with small presses where the editor is not only the owner, but, sometimes, the only full time staff member. Running a business as a sole proprietor is no easy task, and when your business is you alone, no one is there to bail you out when things get hectic or you need a holiday, or worse, personal issues take over your work time.
Two and a half years ago, I responded to a post on AbsoluteWrite, an author forum, about a small press based in Virginia, USA, called Ridan Publishing. I was the first to respond to a query from Canadian author, David Burton, about the company. My reply was limited because I had not heard of Ridan until then, but a quick look at the company's website suggested it had limited distribution beyond what many POD self-publishing providers offered, but it certainly had no immediate red flags. This was the only time I posted to the AbsoluteWrite thread on Ridan but since then it has become one of the most visited Bewares and Background forums. In fact, as an exercise in following the rise and fall of a small press, and the surgical attention to detail a small press can come under on AbsoluteWrite, I'd suggest every writer considering this route of submission should read right through the full thread.
Like some newer small presses, Ridan Publishing began life as a self-publishing imprint for author Michael Sullivan, but soon expanded and began offering other authors non-fee traditional publishing contracts. By all accounts, Ridan Publishing did a pretty good job for its authors and sold many thousands of books building up a respected niche market in fiction. Ridan was run by Robin Sullivan, wife of Michael Sullivan, and she spent some time explaining the rigours of running a small press on AbsoluteWrite for quite a time, fielding many probing questions from posters. Month by month, it became esssential reading for me, and, clearly, many others interested in the world of a small press. I only posted once to the thread on Ridan, because I felt most of my expertise was better suited to the AbsoluteWrite forums on self-publishing. What did interest me most about Ridan Publishing was that it had transitioned from a self-publishing imprint of one author to a small press for many authors.
I'm not going to recount the full story of Ridan Publishing here. I think the AbsoluteWrite thread linked above does that perfectly, and it should be a cautionary tale for any author looking at submitting to small presses, in particular those run by a sole propietor. Perhaps it would be an idea for anyone reading this article to pause and go to the thread and read it in its entirity. By late 2011, Ridan Publishing's Robin Sullivan was banned from posting on AbsoluteWrite. I felt the decision to ban her was utterly appaling, and, combined with an experience I'd had on another thread previously—when I and several others were described as 'you Brits' by a moderator (never a wise think to say to two Irishmen) —I pretty much decided to curtail my postings on AbsoluteWrite to postings I felt added value or information rather than those that engaged in prolonged discussion about publishing and self-publishing.
There is no doubt in my mind, for whatever reasons—and I judge no one for allowing personal matters in their lives to completely consume them—that Robin Sullivan neglected her professional responsibilities to the authors of Ridan Publishing, and there is much reason to beleve she only acted positively and faced the music in the face of a serious Internet rebuke, and the fact she was a sole proprietor of a publishing company with absolutely no plan B to fall back on in her absence. Robin Sullivan gives her side of the story here on PodioMedia Chat.
If there is one thing I would have liked to hear Robin Sullivan say in the above interview; it is that she is done with Ridan Publishing. Telling everyone she would be happy if another book never came in the door of Ridan simply was not enough. You are either in the small press publishing business or you are not.