Sunday, June 12, 2011

"Why Did You Go Small Press" with Eileen Kernaghan

1. Why did you go with a small press? Thistledown Press, for example, is based in Saskatoon; a long way away from the glitz New York publishers. Why go close to home?

Long story! Actually, I did start out, back in the early eighties, with one of those glitzy New York publishers. My three Grey Isles novels from Ace won awards and got good reviews, and the first two at least had decent sales.  But then came the Great SF/Fantasy Slump of the mid-eighties, when way too many books were published, sales plunged, and a lot of writing careers went into the doldrums, mine included. Although by then I had an agent, she couldn’t interest any of those New York publishers in my fourth adult novel (Winter on the Plain of Ghosts) She sent the manuscript around a few times, and as agents do these days, gave up and let it sit on the shelf.

So what to do? Well, I thought, New York isn't the world. There's England -- but English publishers were going through a major economic crisis.  And then there’s Canada.
At that time, very few Canadian publishers were interested in adult fantasy and science fiction. But a lot of Canadian presses, particularly the smaller literary ones, were publishing young adult fiction -- and that included fantasy. I decided to make a minor career adjustment. I switched from adult historical fantasy to YA historical fantasy, abandoned hopes of becoming the next Anne McCaffrey, and looked for a publisher close to home.   

My first YA was Dance of the Snow Dragon, about the travels of a young Buddhist monk in a magical version of 18th century Bhutan. Thistledown Press had accepted a short story excerpted from the book for a YA anthology, and that in turn led to their accepting the novel.

2. What benefits have you enjoyed since having your books go with a small press?

First off, I’d say the quality of the editing. I’ve worked with amazing editors for my four Thistledown books – all of them are writers themselves, and I think that’s one reason their editing is so astute, and so sympathetic.  They understood the book that I wanted to write, and helped me to make it the best it could possibly be. You don’t as a rule get anything like that kind of close attention from a Big NewYork genre publisher. There’s a real sense, with a smaller publisher like Thistledown, that you’re part of a team, with everyone cheering you on – not, as in New York, a tiny cog in an enormous machine.

Smaller Canadian publishers are more likely to support your career while you gain exposure and build your sales with subsequent books. As once upon a time, all publishers did.   Nowadays those big genre publishers give you one chance – if your first book, or your first series,  fails to live up to expectations, you’re out.

 I’ve had the luxury of deciding the kind of book I want to write, and taking a long time to write it. Thistledown believes in letting a book build in popularity over a period of time, and they won’t publish a book by the same author more than once every two years.

 Literary press books are nearly always issued as trade paperbacks, and for whatever reason, trade paperbacks have more cachet than the humble mass market format. They’re more likely to be reviewed, and considered for awards. They’re generally found on library shelves rather than revolving racks, and they tend to linger longer in bookstores.
Traditionally, trades don’t get their covers ripped off to be sent back to the publisher for refund while their insides are pulped (though I’m told that these days, sadly, that can happen).

And then there’s the question of staying in print. The average bookstore shelf-life for a mass market US paperback is not much more than a month. After that, unless it sells well enough to go into reprints, it vanishes from sight. Thistledown’s trade paperbacks stay in print practically forever. Even my 1995 book still sells a few copies now and again. 

And then there’s the boost to the literary ego that comes with being a Canlit author. I’ll get round to that in a minute.

3. If there was one challenge or thing to consider before going the small press route, what would you say it is?

Small press advances are low, or non-existent.  Do you need immediate writing income to support yourself and your family, or can you wait for your sales to build over the long term?

Small presses have small promotion budgets.  You won’t be getting colour ads in Locus or Quill & Quire, and you won’t be going on author tours unless  you organize and fund them yourself.  (Though in fairness, big New York publishers don’t spend much on their midlist authors either.) Are you ready to arrange your own launches and readings spend endless hours doing online promotion, introduce yourself in person to local booksellers – and be prepared for blank stares from clerks who’ve clearly never heard of you?  Are you prepared to do author signings in deserted malls, and interviews with local reporters who haven’t read your books?  (Though come to think of it, didn’t I do all that – except for the online stuff – for my Ace Books?)

4. You're in a unique situation because you have had books with a small press, as well as a large one (ACE). What was the main difference between them? Or, did you even notice?

Oh, I’ve noticed!  There are the differences I’ve already mentioned, like the quality of editing, and the personal connection with the publisher. But beyond that:

Back in the mid-eighties when my second novel came out as a mass market paperback from Ace Books, the Vancouver Sun did a full page spread profiling three local genre writers.  a mystery writer, who said she turned out a new book  every six weeks; a writer of romance novels, and myself, representing genre fantasy.  The headline read: “Paperback writers: a look at the unsung and unpretentious foot soldiers of fiction.” 

And Books in Canada’s very succinct review of Journey to Aprilioth said “I don’t like books about elves. (What elves? There are no elves in my books!)

Fast forward to 2004, to The Alchemist’s Daughter – a YA published as a trade paperback by a prestigious Canadian literary press with Canada Council support.  It received a long and glowing review in Books in Canada (with no mention of non-existent elves) and was shortlisted for several book awards.

Same writer, same style, same genre (historical fantasy) but a different critical perception. I’d made the jump from paperback foot soldier to Canlit Author.

5. And, the dreaded money question. How does it compare?

The advances -- Big New York Publisher vs Canadian Small Press -- were in no way comparable. However, that's not the whole equation.  If I add up the earnings from my small press novels over the life of the books, it comes pretty close to what  I received from Ace for the three Grey Isles books. With the  BNYP you get the money up front, but that's likely all you'll  get, because few books earn out their advance. With the small press,  provided the book sells, you get it in dribs and drabs over a period of years. Obviously, unless you have other sources of income, that makes it hard to buy groceries.  


The settings of Eileen Kernaghan’s eight historical fantasy novels range from the prehistoric Indus Valley to 18th Century Bhutan and Victorian England. Her most recent YA/teen novel, Wild Talent: a Novel of the Supernatural, set in London and Paris, 1888-89,  was shortlisted for a 2009 Sunburst Award.


  1. Excellent interview! But I'd add one other point about small presses-- these days, one can wait literally years to hear back from the large corporate publishers, unless one is already an established big seller, or have a personal connection with one of the editors. Smaller presses usually manage to turn around a submission in weeks or months. (Used to be the other way around, as professional staff at big publishers turned around material quickly while volunteer staff at small presses got to it when they could. But with the consolidation of the big publishers into a few surviving imprints, and the severe reductions in editorial staff, one hears horror stories of authors who waited seven and eight years to hear back from publishers who has ASKED to look at their work!) So if it takes ten years to work your way through the top six publishers, or you take less than 1 year to go through the same number of small presses before finding a publisher, one can start earning from one's book a lot sooner. A big advance a decade in the future may not be any improvement over starting quarterly sales revenues next year....

    Of course, one could self-publish immediately, but I think every professional writer needs the sort of editorial support that Eileen speaks to here, and the implicit reference/branding that comes from being published by a third party.

  2. Good to see the small press given the credit it deserves. I started with a small press. For me, it was the right decision from the start because I wanted a long-term relationship for a big project. And, I confess, I never expected to retire on the proceeds. I've worked with two small presses, and while there have been problems, I have never felt betrayed by either of them. They have ethics and were always honest. Personally, that means a lot.