Thursday, March 28, 2013

A careful juggling act: the small publisher in genre fiction, a guest post by Evan Ostryzniuk

Evan Ostryzniuk's detailed and informative essay examines small press publishing from the author's perspective.  His post should be of great interest both to writers contemplating a move to smaller publishers and to readers curious about about the publishing industry.  His novels Of Faith and Fidelity and Of Fathers and Sons, both from London-based Knox Robinson Publishing, are books 1 and 2 in the English Free Company series set in the late 14th century.  Welcome, Evan! 

A careful juggling act: the small publisher in genre fiction
Evan Ostryzniuk

I will start this guest blog post with an equivocal statement. Being an author of a small publisher offers certain advantages and challenges, most of which stem from the limited scale of operations. Of course, I have not had the opportunity to work closely with a large publisher, so any implicit comparisons I might make may not be wholly accurate. That said, I have enjoyed my fair share of adventures with the start of my writing career!

When I went in search of a literary agent for my first novel, having been warned against submitting directly to a publisher of any description, I ran up against a polite and well-intentioned editorial wall. Despite having done a load of research on the publishing industry and how to present myself and my work properly, I could not find anyone to bite on my genre novel. Most responses, when I did receive genuine letterhead from the office of a literary agent, were generic and left me with the impression that they were looking for an instant hit or hoping to latch on to an already hot property, as opposed to cultivating unknown but ambitious authors. True, the genre I had chosen to write in is not at the very top of bestseller lists, so I was not discouraged by the experience, but it became clear to me that I would need to gird my loins if I wanted to travel down this well-trodden road that was thick with competitors.

So, after seeking solace in one of the many forums dedicated to wannabe authors, I chose the path-less-taken and sought out a small press, under the assumption that it would be amenable to direct contact. I quickly found a new, genre-specific publisher that had big plans and was willing to give my series of historical novels a chance. What immediately appealed to me about them, aside from their acceptance letter, was the opportunity for us to grow together. This might sound sentimental, but I am the type of person who wants to have if not control, then at least a thorough understanding of the publishing process. Major publishers have established structures, and so the author must follow the path laid out. A small outfit, on the other hand, offers a more intimate degree of interaction, exchange of ideas, and access to senior personnel who are making the decisions.

A major worry with small publishers is the level of professionalism, usually because of smaller staffs and less experience. I am fortunate that from the contract to editing to design, my publisher is an exemplar of professionalism. Also, any number of them might be fraudulent. This is one area where working with a small publisher can actually be an advantage, since because they have fewer competitive levers to level the playing field, they must compensate where they can. A major publisher can get away with ignoring or poorly treating their authors (up to a point) – small publishers cannot.

The greatest challenge of working with a small publisher, for me, is physical market access, as opposed to virtual access. The big boys hog shelf space in brick and mortar shops, especially when it comes to genre fiction. This leaves the author and publisher in a catch-22 situation, whereby a book cannot make it to the buying lists unless it has solid sales behind it, but without exposure sales are difficult to generate. Also, the small publisher does not have much leverage to really champion a book by an unknown author. As a result, I have had to sometimes resort to consignment selling and making personal agreements with shops.

The flip side to this old-fashioned way of doing the publishing business is that it is being comprehensively challenged by e-books and online sales, and this is a place where a small publisher can outpace established behemoths. The absence of a large bureaucracy, long-standing business model and vested interests within the company means that the small publisher is more flexible in adopting the new virtual tools of the industry, which allows for greater independence and more flexibility in approaches to promoting authors. I deal with very few people during the process of getting my books to print and the interaction is more dynamic. I can appeal to the senior editor directly instead of steadily calling upwards through a long chain of command, and responses are usually swift and precise.

That said, I am expected to do a lot of the leg work in generating interest in the product. This is both advantageous and problematic, I find. Because the publisher expects me to create ideas, suggest graphic elements and generally approve the final product, I have more control over my novel’s image. At the same time, the absence of an established methodology or system allows for uncertainty to remain about the venture and many valuable hours spent not in writing.

A similar situation exists in marketing and promotion, which is where I feel the least amount of support. The absence of an experienced PR arm with a long reach at a small publisher results in this heavy burden being transferred to the author. A shared fate implies shared responsibilities, but it also means having to master a host of new technologies and applications, which costs more time than money, albeit, but also means having to be even more creative. Sometimes, it is nice to have the path laid out. Again, having control over promoting and marketing also means having control of your own image. However, having the name of a major publishing house near the author’s name does provide a lot of cachet. At the same time, there is little risk of becoming overexposed.

Another major challenge is getting ‘high-end’ reviews, although this may be more of a function of the author’s fame than the reach of the publisher. Nevertheless, in today’s increasingly consumer-driven venues, I find that the duty of getting books into the hands of readers is falling increasingly on the author himself or herself, with some support from the publisher, and that mostly of the technical variety.

To sum up, I would say that a small publisher offers excellent opportunities for the strong-willed author who really knows how he wants his readership to see him or her and has enthusiasm for mastering a great many aspects of the business. At the same time, the author must be fully aware of certain limitations involved and be creative in overcoming those challenges.

About the author

Evan Ostryzniuk was born and raised in Canada. After graduating from the University of Saskatchewan with a B.A. in History and Modern Languages and an M.A. in History, Evan crossed the ocean to do post-graduate work at the University of Cambridge, concluding four years of research with a doctoral thesis on the Russian Revolution. He then found his way to Eastern Europe, where he took up positions as a magazine editor, university lecturer and analyst in the financial services sector before rising in the ranks of the publishing industry to become Editor-in-Chief of a popular weekly. Evan currently resides in Kyiv, Ukraine near a large candy factory. He travels extensively, including to the locations of his novels.

About the novel Of Fathers and Sons: Geoffrey Hotspur and the Este Inheritance

Italy 1395. The Este lands are vulnerable. The death of the Marquis of Ferrara, Alberto d'Este, has left his eleven-year-old son, Niccolo, as sole direct heir. Though born out of wedlock, the pope himself has legitimized Niccolo’s birth, but in an age when great lords ruled by sword as much as by law, having a boy lead the family can be a sign of weakness.

Made unhappy by the father, some Este vassals want to humble the son, and they see their opportunity in Niccolo’s insecure minority rule. Championing their cause is the head of a reduced branch of the Este clan who is not only a famous condottiere, but also a captain of the ambitious lord of Milan. Fearing that the defeat of Niccolo will lead to a shift in the already fragile balance of power in favor of the over mighty Milan, the city-states of Florence, Venice and Padua have combined to try and keep the Este inheritance in the boy’s hands.

Of Fathers and Sons is the second book in the English Free Company series set in the late Middle Ages. The Company is led by the skilled but reckless Geoffrey Hotspur, an orphan-squire and ward of the mighty Duke of Lancaster, whose driving ambition is to become a knight. Before Henry won his miraculous victory at Agincourt, before the Borgias became infamous, before Constantinople fell to the Turks, there was Geoffrey Hotspur, a man as tall as Charlemagne and possessing a sword that rivaled Excalibur. Geoffrey and Niccolo are confronted by the same questions: How can an orphan find his place in a society informed by patriarchal relations? For how long must a son follow the wishes of his father? When does the boy become the man?

Publication date: March 7, 2013
Available From: Knox Robinson Publishing
Hardcover: ISBN: 978-1-9084831-5-7
Paperback: ISBN: 978-1-9084831-6-4


  1. Thanks for an extremely informative post!

    "Of Fathers and Sons" looks quite interesting...will it be available in any e-book format?

    1. Hi Linda, just checked and it's out on Kindle too, at $5.99.

  2. Hi Sarah:) The author shares great points- love this article-extremely insightful- thanks! The novel sounds interesting as well - taking place in 16th c Italy!

    1. Hi Lucy - I can understand why it caught your attention :) Glad you enjoyed the post!

  3. Anonymous3:19 PM

    What a beautiful, professional looking cover. I love everything about it; the images, the colors. Nice!

    1. Knox Robinson does produce great covers. I have a few of their books in hardcover, and they actually look even better in print.

  4. Anonymous4:06 PM

    I broke down and bought THE FIRST BLAST OF THE TRUMPET, another new Knox Robinson title, in e-book. Their list is small but interesting.

    I just read - well, skimmed - an ARC of Leonie Frieda's group biography DEADLY SISTERHOOD: A STORY OF WOMEN, POWER, AND INTRIGUE IN THE ITALIAN RENAISSANCE, 1427-1527. It's later than this novel, but was that a nasty place and time, even for the "privileged". And I got confused b/c there were a lot of shared names and they were all equally unhappy and nasty. NOT light reading, although I sure learned a lot.

    Sarah Other Librarian

    1. Their content has always been good, but their typesetting/layout/proofreading has improved considerably over time. My copy of Sarah Kennedy's The Altarpiece looks excellent. An earlier book of theirs which I'd downloaded via Kindle had more than the usual number of typos.

      Deadly Sisterhood is on the mental TBR.

      Ironically - as we discussed in another thread - my copy of Anita Seymour's Royalist Rebel arrived yesterday. Only three months after I ordered it... but it does look good.

  5. Wow, Evan's experience is so similar to mine I could have written this myself! Some key differences might be that my publisher doesn't specialize in historical fiction (which at times has been a minor issue) and they publish the e-book first, then print-on-demand. As a librarian I see these as wise business models, given the direction of the market; as an author, I am at times a bit disappointed. Ah well, the world is changing, and as Evan put it, a healthy approach is to "grow together." I like to think that there will always be readers and there will always be writers--it's everything in the middle may change. Blogs like yours, Sarah, are one of the best aspects of these changes.

    1. Glad you think so, Jack! Does your library buy many e-book originals? We get many through Overdrive, and many mid-list publishers have signed on with them, but we miss out on many titles from smaller presses. (Well, and many mainstream press titles, too, given the number of publishers that refuse to work with libraries altogether...)

    2. We do indeed...I work in an academic library, my wife in a public. They use Overdrive and have the same challenges, of course. Scholarly publishers are a bit easier to deal with for e-books (but not for periodicals).

    3. I agree... scholarly publishers generally have fewer restrictions on e-books. Less overall demand for them. I'm in an academic library as well, one of the few with a popular reading collection through Overdrive. The patrons enjoy it, although it's not all that intuitive.