On Wednesday, May 17, 2023, Word for Word, Southern New Hampshire University’s (SNHU) online literary series, convened a panel of indie-publishing experts to explore nontraditional paths to publication. Hosts Jacob Powers and Paul Witcover, the associate deans of SNHU’s online creative writing programs, welcomed three distinguished panelists: Gavin Grant, Michael La Ronn and Terry Maggert.
The following is an edited transcript of the panel prepared by Paul Witcover and Jacob Powers.
W4W: A couple of years ago, we hosted a panel focusing on the traditional path to publication. In the two years since, nontraditional paths have become increasingly important. So tonight, we’ve convened a panel to explore some of them. Each of our panelists has built a successful career by exploring and creating alternate publishing pathways for themselves and others.
Gavin Grant is a writer and editor, and the publisher of Small Beer Press, a well-regarded indie press that he runs with his wife, the writer Kelly Link. Small Beer publishes a roster of award-winning authors any of the Big Five would envy, from Ursula K. Le Guin to Jeffrey Ford, Sophia Samatar, Sarah Pinsker, Elizabeth Hand and many more. Learn more about Small Beer Press at smallbeerpress.com.
Michael La Ronn is the outreach manager for the Alliance of Independent Authors, or ALLi. He has published over 90 science fiction and fantasy novels and self-help books for writers. Somehow, he also finds time for his award-winning YouTube channel, “Author Level Up”. You can find him at michaellaronn.com and authorlevelup.com.
Finally, we have Terry Maggert, the self-published author of “Halfway Witchy,” “Messenger,” “Starcaster,” “Shattered Skies” and the Amazon bestselling “Backyard Starship” series. Terry is a former instructor in the online MFA here at SNHU. We’re constantly trying to lure him back, but unfortunately for us, though fortunately for him, he keeps writing bestsellers. You can find him online at terrymaggert.com.
Each of you wears a number of hats in your current publishing role: editor, publisher, writer, designer. Tell us a bit about your journeys in the publishing industry. How did you end up where you are today? And what do today’s aspiring writers need to know about fashioning careers of their own? Michael, let’s start with you.
La Ronn: I got my start in self-publishing in 2012, almost 11 years ago. I was on a nice dinner with my wife, and I fell ill with what I thought was food poisoning. Turned out to be a little bit more severe than that. In fact, I had a near-death experience. Up until that point in my career, I had tried to look for publishers, tried to go the traditional route, but it just kind of wasn’t working.
So there I was in a hospital bed. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. But I thought, if I’m ever going to take the chance of being a writer, I’m going to do it now or I’m just never going to do it. And I jumped into it whole hog.
I was pretty fortunate, because right around that time was when I found the Alliance of Independent Authors, or ALLi. They are a nonprofit organization whose goal is to give good advice on self-publishing to authors who want to pursue the independent route for publishing.
I didn’t make a whole lot of money to start, but I slowly learned the process of what it takes to produce a novel that looks like a traditional publisher, what it takes to write a novel on the level of a traditional publisher and what the best-selling authors were doing that I was not doing.
You have to remember that back in the bad old days of self-publishing, things were a lot different than they are now. Authors had to do everything. I mean, there were cover designers. There were book formatters. But the authors that succeeded were the ones who learned how to do almost everything themselves. And so you kind of had to become a jack-of-all-trades.
Those of you in the audience who are just starting out are really fortunate to be coming into the industry at what I think is probably the most consequential and pivotal time in the history of being an author, at least in self-publishing, because of tools like artificial intelligence, because of advancements and different apps that allow you to basically format a book in the click of a button.
Five years from now, you may be able to type in what you want and get a book cover—maybe even sooner than that. The era of needing to do all these things yourself, I think, is over. And the hardest part today is really just writing the book.
W4W: Terry, what are your thoughts? Are we in a new golden era of publishing?
Maggert: As Michael said, this is the good days for self-publishing right now because you can concentrate on the thing that is most important, which is writing the book.
W4W: Gavin, what about you?
Grant: I was 26 and working at a bookstore. And I realized that no one cared about my writing, and I should start a zine and publish everybody else’s writing.
I kept doing that for a couple of years with my girlfriend of the time. And then we started publishing books, and we got a lot of help from people who were working for big publishers, small publishers, people who had run presses, published magazines themselves.
We would just go up to them and say, can we buy you a drink? Can we ask you so many questions that your partner will leave this bar in disgust?
W4W: We hear a lot of talk about hybrid publishing, indie publishing, self-publishing. What is the difference between these various terms, if any?
La Ronn: Self-publishing is also known as independent publishing. It just means you’re an author who is publishing independent of a publisher. So you’re still hiring people to help you. It’s a team effort. You’re hiring an editor, you’re hiring a cover designer, but you don’t have a publisher who is publishing the work. You might publish under your own publishing company.
A hybrid publisher, at least how we define it at ALLi, is typically a publisher that will help the author produce the book. The author pays an upfront fee, and the publisher helps the author with the cover design and produces the book, but the author keeps all the royalties and all the rights. At least that’s how it should be if you’re using hybrid publishing.
W4W: Gavin, what distinguishes Small Beer from a more traditional publisher?
Grant: Probably the lack of zeros on your check when we give you an advance and our address in Western Massachusetts instead of New York or Minneapolis or LA.
We’re a small press with two people: me and my wife. We work with freelance artists and proofreaders and so on. The indie press, as I grew up knowing it, was like indie music. It was coming from small bands, small publishers, that kind of thing, who were independent of the big seven, six, five, however many are left, the larger publishers.
Back then, the indie press and the small press were sort of the same thing. One thing they had in common is the idea that the money should flow to the author. The author should never pay for anything, which is the opposite of what’s known as vanity publishing, which still goes on and is very useful for when I am old and no one wants to publish my memoir. Then the vanity publisher in the next town over will print 82 copies of a very nice book for me.
And that’s great, but it’s not a useful thing for getting your book out any further than your family and friends.
So the small and independent presses, we are different from the larger presses in that you’re going to know exactly who to blame if something goes wrong; you’re going to know who to pick up the phone and email when you have a question.
I’m doing an event; will the books be there? Ask Gavin. Is the cover of my book going to appear on the Edelweiss bookselling website? Is it going to appear at the right time for booksellers? Ask Gavin. He will have the answer, yes or no. And it’s the same for a lot of the small presses.
Continue reading Part II here.