June 13, 2013

Need to Decide on a Path? Know Your Goals

Separating railroad tracks with text: Our Goals Dictate Our Path

I’ve written several posts about how we have to figure out our goals. Do we want to be famous? How can we prioritize fast, cheap, and good? How important are bookstores to us? I touch on the subject a lot because we can’t figure out the right publishing path for us until we know our goals.

Recently, I’ve had several conversations with friends about the pros and cons of epublishing/small presses versus self-publishing. (I’m not trying to leave the Big 5 traditional publishing out of the equation. However, these conversations were about what to do after traditional publishing is a no-go.)

I know how I’d decide for their circumstances, but I’m not them. My goals aren’t their goals. And that makes it impossible for me to give specific “here’s what to do” advice.

Research Takes Us Only So Far

Last year, my friend Susan Sipal shared her advice about finding a small press partner. One of the things she mentioned was checking out the publisher’s listing on the Absolute Write Water Cooler forums. And that’s a great tip, but in a place like that, we’re always going to find people saying negative things about a publisher.

I think I’ve heard bad things about every publisher out there. The simple fact is that no matter how good the company, not every customer (author) is going to be happy. With small presses, the smaller numbers involved can make every complaint more obvious. That’s good for knowledge, but bad for getting an overall impression.

Many small presses struggle with keeping good editors (affecting perceptions of their editing quality). They often also struggle with growing their sales and providing marketing support.

Some on forums like Absolute Write will say those problems make small presses unprofessional—or worse, a failure. And certainly some epublishers/small presses are nothing but trouble, with fraud and non-payment issues.

On the other hand, some small presses have been around long enough to grow past those issues. But when they first started, those now-successful small publishers struggled too. It takes time to build up any company.

Big or Small, Every Publisher Has Issues

Whether we’re considering a smaller or bigger publisher, we’re going to see both good editors and bad editors. The question comes down more to the quality of the editor we’d work with, and the company’s track record for being able to hold onto their good editors.

Sometimes, the chances of a small press being able to keep their good editors depend on sales. Publishers need sales to be able to pay their people, either with a decent-or-better salary or with sales percentages/commissions.

That brings us to the second common complaint about epublishers/small presses. Just like with editors, we’re going to see questionable marketing support with big and small publishers. Obviously, big publishers have more clout, but most of their authors are teeny fish in a very big pond. That clout often won’t go toward helping them as much as they’d hope.

At a small press, we can swim in a smaller pond. However, if a small publisher hasn’t made a name for themselves, they struggle to be heard just as much as their authors. No matter how good their marketing intentions, they simply don’t have the platform.

It takes time to build up a name brand reputation. And the only thing that’s going to build that reputation faster (in my opinion) is quality. Just like we say with building our author name brand, write a great book, write a second great book, etc. Or in the case of a epublisher/small press, release a great book, release a second great book, etc. Yet even with quality, it will still take time.

Some are willing to be patient or to get in on the ground floor of new opportunities, and some aren’t. No doubt there’s risk involved with many newer publishers.

What Do You Think Is Important?

So when I talk to people about their options with epublishing/small presses, I first ask them questions to help identify their goals. How important is…:

  • Quality (overall reputation)?
  • Name recognition (readers have heard of them)?
  • An established publisher (already past growing pains)?
  • Editorial support (good editing)?
  • An attractive book cover?
  • Sales figures (check out Brenda Hiatt’s listing)?
  • Marketing support (promotions and publicity)?
  • The size of their platform (programs to reach new readers)?
  • Broadening readership (their platform reaches readers we can’t)?
  • Being able to say you have a publisher (rather than self-publishing)?
  • Being able to say you have a “name brand” publisher?
  • Percentage of royalties?
  • Control over pricing?
  • Control over release dates?
  • Quick release turn-around?
  • Having print copies (digital only vs. digital first vs. print publishers)?
  • Being in bookstores (some have full distribution, others don’t)?

How Goals Dictate Our Answers

Personally, I’d look first at quality and their plan to reach readers. If a small press isn’t high quality, how could they build up their name? Without the name, how will they have a platform to provide sales/marketing support?

But my goals dictate that attitude because—just like my thoughts about traditional publishers—I want to know what they could do for me over and above what I could do for myself by self-publishing. I want a publisher who will add value. That’s my goal.

Yet even knowing that, my goals vary for my different projects. My novella is more likely to end up with a epublisher/small press than my novels. Self-publishing requires upfront money that might not be balanced out by a novella’s lower sales price and traditional publishers don’t usually work with novellas, so my goals for that project are different by necessity.

For novels, I’d want the selling platform of any potential publisher to be significantly larger than mine (implying they could trigger more sales than I could on my own) to make up for the difference in royalties. But for novellas, maybe the savings in upfront costs would outweigh the royalty issue.

Likewise, others will come up with different answers because their goals are different. There’s nothing wrong with having different goals. If we don’t, maybe we haven’t thought through our choices well enough.

So while forums can be helpful in our research for learning about specific problems or complaints for publishers, forums shouldn’t be the end-all-be-all of our decision process. Some commenters are sure to say that everyone dealing with such-and-such small press (or any small press, or self-publishing, etc.) is “doing it wrong.” And that’s simply not true.

Only we can know what path is right for us. And before we can decide on that path, we have to know our goals. The right path for us will help us meet our most important goals. No matter what anyone else says. *smile*

Have you seen negativity or bashing of a publishing path or company caused by the person’s attitude? What other questions help you decide what’s important? How do you form an overall impression of a publishing path or company? Under what circumstances would you choose a new/non-established epublisher or small press? Do your goals change from project to project?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Linda Adams

Bear in mind though that a lot of writers have gotten burned by “well-intentioned” publishers who didn’t know what they were doing. That’s one of the purposes for the AW listings — and a lot aren’t really that negative. It can come across that way because the publisher is being put in the spotlight, but everyone is posing reasonable questions. There are too many people who jump into a small press with good intentions and end up going out of business fast because they don’t know what they’re doing. Plus there’s a tendency for writers to feel sorry for them or buy into the fluff — and then the publisher dies and the writer is stuck with a story he can’t sell because of the contract. Years ago, I was accepted for an anthology from a small press. There was a small warning sign on the contract that should have been flag and I dismissed it: There were typos in the address of the company. The house had the cover already designed and it looked really good. Then they inexplicably got into a fight with the editor, claiming that she’d stolen the title of the book and used it on a store she had. I saw the name of the store and the book title and didn’t understand what they were talking about. They weren’t similar at all! It seemed like the publisher had a problem behind the scenes — like not enough money — and was looking for a…  — Read More »

Todd Moody

Hi Jami! My goals have remained fairly steady despite the changing publishing environment. I want to get an agent and sell my novels traditionally to start. From everything I’ve read a good agent will pay for themselves basically in the form of higher royalties. Plus they may get you into some places you hadn’t even thought of.

If I’m not able to do that I may go down the short story path and try to sell directly to a few magazines. I may even submit my novels to a few editors directly.

If all that fails I will self publish. The trick is coming up with the money for a good editor and cover artist. I will publish.

It may seem stupid, but I want a membership in SFWA. Under their current rules I have to go through an established publishing house or recognized magazine. If those rules adapt then my goals may as well.

Warm Regards!


I keep submitting short stories to SFWA markets myself, Todd. Even if I ultimately decide not to join, I want to have the option of joining. I’ve gotten some personalized rejection letters, so I should get there. Eventually. 🙂

I’m not keen on agents, in part due to the nebulousness of who they work for. (In the event that they have to burn bridges with one side or the other, who will have the bridge burned? In light of the agent’s client list as a whole, probably the author and not the publisher.)

For self-publishing, some folks manage quite well with work swaps or with crowdfunding their up-front costs.

Todd Moody

Good luck, Carradee! The whole short story thing is still a bit elusive to me.

I am only going to take on an agent that has a good track record and that I feel comfortable with. That might mean I won’t have one. Swapping is great and I am 100% behind that, but I don’t knw any cover artists. =) I am okay at making covers, but I really want something great, not just good.


My endgame goal is simple: Make money doing what I enjoy, and make enough of it with passive royalties that I can pay the bills even when life emergencies kick in. (Ideally, I also want to be capable of supporting family members in the event that they get laid off. But that’s probably a ways off.)

I’m not anti-publisher. I’m anti–bad contract. If offered a mutually beneficial contract, I’ll definitely consider it.

I started in self-publishing because that seemed the best choice for the titles I started with, due to my plans for the two series involved. I have some WiPs for which I’ll seek publishers, because they seem like good fits. One novelette is currently scheduled to come out in October.

Suzanne Johnson

Great post, Jami! There is SUCH a complicated publishing climate out there these days…and it’s constantly changing. Like others have mentioned, I’m trying the “three-legged stool” approach with traditional, small-press, and eventually, self-pubbing on different projects….all with the goal of eventually having a steady-enough income stream to do this full time without the day job. Seems like diversification is a good tactic these days!

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Ill be honest, Jami, there isn’t any circumstance that I’d choose a new/non-established epublisher or small press. Not at this stage in my career. I guess my confidence level is pretty high right now. I feel good about my writing, great actually, and I truly believe that Nicole can and will sell the heck out of it. For me, it’s very important that I see my book on a shelf. I’ve signed an e-contract before…now I want a big 5 contract.
And I’m looking forward to achieving that goal.
This was very interesting.
Thanks for posting.
Have a great evening,

Taurean Watkins

Tamara, I used to feel the same way, I really did, but I chose to go with a small press for my first book, and it was part of how I feel I can get my foot in the door with publishers that have large reach, distribution wise I mean.

My very professional author friend who’s got multiple books under belt now recommended this press to me, and I trust her judgement, and now I’m being published by this press as well, but I still understand your selectiveness.

I’m still selective, too, but since I don’t yet have an agent, I did what I thought was best for me right now. I can’t have a writing career of any kind if I NEVER publish anything outside my blog, which is important to me, but not the same as wanting a book of mine published, and I personally still prefer print books overall, but I would NOT be at all averse to ebooks alongside print.

You need to balance personal goals with some flexibility to achieve long-term goals. It doesn’t have to be “Big 5 Publisher” or nothing, you can still have a positive, and professional, experience with a small press. The only issue is finding them, even the not-new ones are hard to find without insider connections.

Taurean Watkins

While I managed to sell my first novel (But is the THIRD novel I wrote) to a small press (One of the good ones, IMHO) I STILL want an agent long term, and have yet to attract one, and hope my new WIP will do for agents what my first book couldn’t, for whatever reason. Despite what some well-published authors have told me, it’s becoming HARDER to publish professionally without an agent, and when you can’t afford to self-publish in a professional, smart way, or are willing to take chances with a small press, especially when it’s new, having an agent is becoming more necessary in the U.S. I know some authors in other countries who can still submit queries and/or partial manuscripts to their country’s big publishers that have national or international clout and reach. That rarely happens in the states, and I understand why business-wise, but it doesn’t make it less hard on the author. While I don’t want to villanize anyone in any way, I do feel some (NOT ALL) authors who published prior to “The Digital Revolution” don’t always understand that getting published for authors is FAR harder than it was when you started, at least in terms of having to be pseudo-famous and multi-faceted businessmen and women before we even get published (Which in this context I mean, with a traditional publisher with a good editor and marketing to AID in marketing you’re ideally already doing) whereas you had your solid rep for publishing quality…  — Read More »

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

About having people edit your stuff, one thing I hate is when people want you to make X happen, or make Y happen, or make character X be A instead of B. Argh. Don’t they understand that my story is not a matter of “creating/ making things up” or pasting things together? The story is about the “real lives” of “real people” (in that world). You can’t just make the characters do things that they just don’t want to do. I’ve even had an experience where one reader suggested I change the gender of my protagonist. -_- Really??? Anyway, that’s my rant. It’s okay if they want me to show more of X, or show less of Y. But it’s not okay if they want me to make X happen when it didn’t! I can’t change history! If you know what I mean. 🙁 Similarly, I can’t “make” character A turn into something that she’s not. For instance, Alice is a very shy and self-effacing girl. Then the reader says, why don’t you make her a loud and ebullient extrovert instead? (For whatever reason.) -_- I can’t do that! Alice is the way she is. I can’t change who she is, or else it’s not her anymore! Also, she has control over herself–I have no control over her. In fact, if I try to turn her into a different personality, then that’s…immoral. Or it’s just not right. What the reader can do, is to ask me to show other sides…  — Read More »

Taurean Watkins

Serena, I know where you’re coming from, but I think since you are self-publishing for more personal reasons as you mentioned many times before, you might be reading some of those “Deamands for changes” in the wrong way. I’m not saying you’re wrong, but I’ve been there, and I know you can sometimes read something the opposite of how it’s intended by the beta-reader(s) involved. Think how many times Jami and I misunderstand each other with our blog comments? Or more often, I misunderstand Jami, but even she admitted in an earlier reply to a comment of mine here, that she recognized her use of the word “Control” could easily be mistaken for the way I thought she meant it. As someone who has to work at not being overly self-critical at myself, I saw what she was saying at first to be assuming failure with NO hope of success just to not inflate her ego in unhealthy ways. I now know she was just trying to mentally prep herself for hardships that can happen, not that she’s having a writer’s paranoia episode, which is why I was worried when I first read her blog post about “Does Good News Make You Worry?” I was truly concerned that was the case at first. Like how she felt when her cat died last year around this time. I reached too much into that….LOL But I’ve been there myself, and trust me, Serena, it’s not pretty. Had I been right, I just…  — Read More »

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Oh haha, I didn’t really mean criticism in general. I just meant specific instances where I think making those changes would be violating my moral principles, lol. I don’t know if you get what I mean. ^_^” You see, I’m a…strange kind of writer as in that I have a very different philosophy from everyone (or almost everyone) else. I don’t believe that characters are created, or designed, or they’re just puppets or lego-figures that can be tweaked however you want. I believe that characters are real people living in our heads that need to be loved and respected for who they are—they’re not robots or dolls that you can break down and rebuild and mould however you like. So, instead of writing a “story”, I feel more like I’m writing a biography, or a history about those people. 🙂 That’s why, as I’ve told Jami already before, I’m not “creating” characters; I’m “discovering” them. I don’t know if that makes sense, haha. Tell me if I’m not making sense, because I don’t know if I’m explaining clearly enough—it’s such a weird and wayward philosophy anyway, lol. But that said, I do understand that the vast majority (if not all) people believe that characters are created and designed. So I certainly should be more sympathetic because they’re coming from a different philosophy. 🙂 And just for convenience, I’ve named the two approaches the Creating Theory or the Discovery Theory, lol. Yeah, I know. I’m just a weird person. XD Yet,…  — Read More »


[…] Today, it is often hard to know if you’d be better off self-publishing. trying to get traditionally published, or doing both. Jami Gold advises looking at your career goals in order to find the publishing path that’s right for you. […]

Taurean Watkins

I do get what you mean, Serena, I don’t think it’s strange, at all. I just had to get on my soapbox a moment. I wasn’t aiming all of what I said only at you or Jami, it’s just a piece of what I learned the hard way, and hope others in the middle of your process and Jami’s could feel less alone. That said, I am more of the “Creator” mindset when I first WRITE the characters. BUT, like you, I also have a discovery process with my characters, and I don’t consider them “puppets to do my bidding” for some of the same reasons you do. This is why a lot of my male characters are NON-alpha types because aside from my own personal experience, there is a serious LACK of non-traditional men in books in general, and you don’t have be “Gay” to be a non-traditional male, and no offense intended to the gay community is meant in any way. I just want to see more non-tradtional men in fiction, without a gay or romantic bent, in general, is that so wrong?! (Insert “Sad Violin Music Here”) I would write an alpha-type if that’s truly who that character is, but then and only then, so I do agree with you about not making characters what they are not for petty reasons readers or even publishing insiders give. But it can be hard to show that to the lay reader, especially if your straddling genres and age groups…  — Read More »


[…] spoken a lot here on my blog about how we need to know our goals. So I thought I was well-versed in my priorities and how those combined with my values to create […]


[…] to provide information so everyone can make the best decision for them. I encourage others to be aware of their goals so they can choose the best strategies to reach those goals. Informed decision-making is my […]


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