“We are not farm teams”: Robert J. Wiersema on the small press/large press divide: UPDATED

March 18, 2010 by · 4 Comments 

The recent discussion about the relative merits and drawbacks of publishing with a small, independent press versus a large multinational got me thinking it would be interesting to hear first-hand from an author who has had experiences with both. Accordingly, I contacted Robert J. Wiersema, who has published a novel (2006’s Before I Wake) with Random House Canada, and a novella (last year’s The World More Full of Weeping) with the small Toronto-based press ChiZine Publications. The two houses could not be more different: Random House is a major multinational, part of the Bertelsmann media empire. CZP began as a two-person operation, co-owned and run by husband-and-wife team Brett Alexander Savory and Sandra Kasturi.

Wiersema was kind enough to reply to some questions about the experience of being a large press author who moved to a small press for his second book. (NB: Wiersema is back with Random House for his third book, a novel, due out this fall.)

TSR: Why did you choose to go with CZP for your novella?

Robert J. Wiersema: Well, you don’t get any smaller than ChiZine – at the time I signed with them for The World More Full of Weeping, I think Brett and Sandra were running the company off their kitchen table. Now, I think they might have a desk. Just one between the two of them.

As to why I chose ChiZine? Well, for starters, they asked.

It was never a matter of choosing ChiZine over Random House – I’ve been very pleased with my experience with Random (and I think that feeling is mutual, though I suspect there are days when I put it to the test). But I’m sufficiently aware of the realities of the industry to know that there was no way that Random was going to publish a novella as my second book. It wasn’t even a conscious knowledge, just one of those inherent truths: novellas don’t get published as standalone books (yes, there are exceptions, but they don’t make the generalization any less true). So it was a non-starter. Such a non-starter that it didn’t even occur to me to try for it.

I submitted TWMFoW (under its previous name) to CZP for their online magazine. Online magazines are great, because they don’t have the length restrictions that come with print mags, and there truly is an online mag for every sensibility. And some of them – like ChiZine – pay. I figured, “Why not?” It was either that or the drawer and the “stopgap collection of short fiction” down the road.

It was Brett who suggested actual, print publication. They had published two books at that time, and they were lovely – high-end production values, they felt good in the hand. When faced with the choice between having a manuscript languish in a drawer vs. having a signed/limited edition hardcover and a trade paperback edition, what would you do?

And Random House was terrific with it. They have the option on my next book of fiction (after the upcoming novel), but they were very generous in allowing TWMFoW to appear with CZP.

The money? Well, I was under no illusions there. I actually took my advance in extra copies of the signed/numbered edition (my son, Xander, refers to that stack as his college savings account – I’m not ready to shatter his illusions quite yet). But the first round of royalties are due to arrive just as I need to replace my computer – they’ll more than cover that, and a couple of dinners out, and a stack of new comics, so all is right with the world.

TSR: How did the publication process compare to that of a larger house?

RJW: The publication process with ChiZine was … different than with Random House, due largely, I think, to economies of scale. CZP published four or five books the season that TWMFoW came out (which was only their second year in operation, and marked a huge increase in output for them), and every one of them got a blinding level of attention. The books are labours of love, and Brett and Sandra have a hand in everything. They’ve put a lot of themselves on the line for this venture, so they stand or fall with their authors.

And they’re willing to take chances, and be a bit indulgent. When I had the brainstorm to include the essay “Places and Names” as a way of explaining (primarily to my mother and myself) that Henderson, the setting for the novella and a bunch of my other fiction was, in fact, not at all Agassiz (the town I grew up in) – except in the ways that it was – I sent Brett an e-mail, and within five minutes he had said, “Sure, what the hell.”

“Brett, I’d like to include notes for the novella and the essay.”

“Sure, what the hell.”

“What would you think of including an extra short story in the hardcover?”

“Sure, what the hell.”

There weren’t any levels or committees to go through, no one to run ideas past. It was all very easygoing.

That said, I realize that I’m writing from a position of considerable privilege. I wouldn’t trade my experience with Random House for anything – I’ve worked with great editors, a great publisher, great designers, one of the best publicists in the trade. I have no complaints whatsoever. The experiences are just different – steak and chicken, you might say. They satisfy in different ways.

TSR: Do you think it’s harder for a book from a small press to get noticed amid all the marketing buzz from the multinationals?

RJW: Definitely. Marketing budgets are smaller and, more significantly for a new small press, profiles are lower. It’s hard enough introducing a new house, let alone trying to get attention for the books on an early list …

Which means that you end up having to go different ways – lots of grassroots stuff. A week in Montreal at WorldCon (at the author’s expense). Online stuff.

TSR: You said that you thought the format of TWMFoW (i.e. a novella) wouldn’t fly with Random House. Might another issue have been the genre (i.e. psychological horror)? As a general principle, do you think the majors are more conservative in what they’re willing to take a chance on publishing?

RJW: I think the perception is that the majors are more conservative, and that’s true to an extent, but it overlooks Penguin’s very impressive sci-fi and fantasy lists, Random’s mystery titles, etc. And it overlooks … well, me, as the novel that Random House is bringing out this fall will attest …

[This post contains material that has been corrected: An earlier version of this post stated that ChiZine Publications was a two-person operation. There are now seven people on staff. TSR regrets the error.]


4 Responses to ““We are not farm teams”: Robert J. Wiersema on the small press/large press divide: UPDATED”
  1. Andrew S says:

    In discussing marketing buzz and the big houses, it should be noted that their large marketing clout doesn’t necessarily translate into much marketing on any specific title. The marketing and publicity budget for mid-list writers often appears to be approximately jack-shit. Without naming names. The fact is that it’s often difficult for a mid-list writer at a big house to get noticed amidst all the marketing buzz for the season’s big books.

    This is like carrying a new line of pipe fittings in your warehouse without telling your customers that they exist. Then, when they fail to sell, you drop the vendor. It’s a ridiculous situation to be in as a supplier, if I may wear, for a moment, my distribution consultant’s hat.

    I’d suggest that a firm commitment to publicity is more important than the advance. If this is what the big house brings to the table, what exactly are they willing to commit to up front?

  2. Steven W. Beattie says:

    Andrew, I couldn’t agree more. I made this point during The Afterword’s Canada Also Reads roundtable discussion. With so many books being pumped out each season and only a limited amount of resources (both money and personnel) to devote to them, only the A-list authors can expect to get much attention from the larger houses.

  3. Robert J. Wiersema says:

    While I agree, it should also be noted that marketing doesn’t begin with the consumer. A midlist title/author might end up with jack as far as a promotional budget goes, but they do have a significant advantage in that their title is catalogued and sold by a major. It’s impossible to overvalue how much time a bookseller takes with, say, a Penguin or Random House or Harper Collins rep compared to how much time they spend with a small pub’s catalog. It’s the rising tide lifting all boats thing, publishing-style.

  4. I don’t know Robert – we consider every catalogue equally. In fact, sometimes we miss things in the majors if they’re crowded with terrible titles. It’s much easier to adsorb each title in, say, a Porcupine’s Quill or Dalkey Archive catalogue than a Harper!

    We will not, however, look at a catalogue from a publisher without reputable distribution. So I suppose there is such a thing as “too small” in that sense.