10 Lessons From 10 Years of Running a Small Press

When I first began Prospect Park Books ten years ago, not for a minute did I imagine it would still be in business today, let alone have grown from a regional guidebook publisher into a national house focusing on fiction, cookbooks, and gift titles. Sure, I cranked out a business plan or two along the way, but it’s mostly been a seat-of-the-pants ride. We’ve survived some intense challenges (cancer, gaining and losing a business partner, running out of money) to reach some wonderful highs (bestsellers, awards, critical acclaim, and, most of all, working with exceptional people).

This milestone has had me reflect a lot on the journey. In the process, I’ve come up with ten lessons I’ve learned after ten years of running a small press.

1. What the Hell, Let’s Go For It

You’re going to have failures anyway, so you might as well own it. I’ve had a number of what-the-hell-let’s-go-for-it ventures—mostly books, but sometimes book-related apps/websites/schemes—that weren’t budgeted for and might have seemed crazy. Some failed spectacularly (I’m looking at you, guidebook app). But we never would have had our #1 bestseller, the debut novel Helen of Pasadena, if I hadn’t said, impetuously, passionately, and (at the time) foolishly, “What the hell, let’s go for it!”

2. Ignore the 80/20 Rule

This everlasting gobstopper in the business world says that you get 80 percent of your revenue from 20 percent of your products, and that’s certainly how it works in Big Publishing, where salaries are mostly paid by J.K. Rowling, adult coloring books, and Captain Underpants. A few years back, I went to the Yale Publishing Course armed with one essential question: Can a small press make it with singles and doubles but no home runs? I was told “yes” by some experts, but as I struggled to grow the press, I decided they were lying. Just in the last year, however, I’m finally seeing it start to work, thanks to backlist growth, a more carefully considered title mix, and a whole lot of trial and error about what kind of books and authors we can sell and what kind we can’t. I now believe that a good, well-run small press might even be able to flip the 80/20 rule to at least 30/70. Which leads me to . . .

3. It’s a Long Game

Entrepreneurs are not by nature patient people, and as my ever-patient husband will attest, I’m no exception. I’m just now truly understanding the extent to which publishing is a game of patience. It takes years to build a backlist, to find and build relationships with talented authors, designers, and staff, and to learn how to make budgets and forecast sales with at least a shred of realism. (Don’t even get me started on mastering contracts and royalties.) My learning curve didn’t really spike until year seven. By year twenty I might just be getting the hang of it.

4. Authors Rule

I come from being a big-house author, so I know what it’s like to have a publisher not give a shit about your opinion on cover design, the editorial process, or the marketing plan. Our authors are our partners in all those things—yes, even cover design. I decided to give authors cover approval before I discovered that 96 percent of all publishers think it is lunacy to do that. But if my authors aren’t happy with their covers, they’re not going to do their best to market their books. Likewise, when mistakes happen (I’ve made a doozy or two myself), I do my damnedest to fix them and make amends to the authors, because we are nothing without them.

Read the rest on Literary Hub here.

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