From the Publisher: Why Start a Small Press, Anyway?

Hello, I’m Jon Sealy, author and publisher of Haywire Books in Richmond, Virginia. This is the first post in what I plan to be a series of behind-the-scenes looks at starting a small publishing house.

I decided in August 2018 to launch this press, and since then I’ve been embroiled in an endless barrage of back-end business tasks, from finding a printer and distributor to understanding the rules around ISBNs and e-book formats. All necessary stuff, but not the glamour you might expect when you first declare, “I’m going to start a press!”

I’ve asked myself more than once, “Why bother? What am I even doing with my life?” Below is an attempt to answer where Haywire Books came from and what the press is about. 

My Story: The Mid-list Writer Blues

You can hear the full version of my story on James Scott’s TK Podcast here (starting around the 1-hour mark). The short version is that I decided about 15 years ago to become a novelist, and for an example of how to make it, I looked to successful novelists at the time.

Years ago, literary novelists had what seems like a straightforward career path: get an MFA, publish a few short stories, get a tenure-track teaching job, publish a few novels, and break out with a big book in middle age. Unfortunately for my generation, the market is flooded with MFAs, there aren’t any teaching jobs, and the publishing industry has been completely disrupted.

My first novel, The Whiskey Baron, came out from Hub City Press in 2014, and I toured extensively in southern independent bookstores. The book sold well regionally—very well for a small press—but I didn’t break out on any national level.

I landed an agent for The Edge of America, we revised the book together for a year, and he sent it out wide in New York. While the editors were generally complimentary, no one bit. My agent finally said he thought I was “caught between two chairs”: too literary to be a straight-up thriller, but too much plot for the literary presses. Then he told me he didn’t think he could sell my next book for the same reason.

I landed another agent, who had the same trouble with my third book. I was talking with yet another agent about a fourth book, and he finally told me the blunt truth that fiction just isn’t selling these days—even for hot-shot agents peddling hot-shot writers—and no one is interested in a mid-list writer with a modest sales record.

A Debut-Driven Industry

What I’ve gradually sussed out is that the New York publishing model for fiction—as far as these things can be generalized—is leaning heavily on debut novels and brand-name authors. There are exceptions, but generally the big bestselling books you see on prominent display are either established writers (hello, John Grisham and Elizabeth Gilbert) or debut novelists (hello, Delia Owens).

If I had to guess a reason for this, it would be that debut novels provide a media hook and stand a chance of breaking out huge. A publisher might acquire 10 debut novels in a given year. Nine of them will sell 3,000 copies apiece, and one of them will sell 200,000 copies with rights sold abroad and to Hollywood. The one breakout subsidizes the nine long shots.

Unfortunately, that leaves a ton of authors whose careers are in shambles. Maybe a few of those nine 3,000-copy debut novelists will find another publisher, but many of them wind up without a publisher. If you’ve ever looked at your shelves and wondered, “Whatever happened to…” Now you know.

The Multi-Book Path to Success

The death of the mid-list author has been written about for years. What industry people don’t seem to be taking note of is that it might take three to four novels for an author to find an audience and then break out big. Your first novel might sell 3,000 copies; book two might sell 6,000 copies; then 12,000 copies; and suddenly you’re a consistent 20,000-book seller. Ann Patchett wrote about this incremental growth in an essay called “My Life in Sales,” in her collection This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.

Novelists used to have the runway they needed with their publishers to build their audience. They’d sign multi-book deals and eventually find their groove and break out. Consider a few examples:

  • Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (third novel)

  • John Irving’s The World According to Garp (fourth novel)

  • Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (fourth novel)

  • Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (third novel)

  • Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto (fourth novel)

  • Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (third novel)

These are cherry-picked examples, but the general point is that it can take a few books for authors to hone their skills and find an audience, and a big breakout could be right around the corner.

My favorite example of this is Ron Rash. His first novel, One Foot in Eden, won the old Novello prize. Henry Holt picked up the paperback rights and signed him for two more novels and a book of short stories. For whatever reason, the bean counters decided he wasn’t selling well enough, and they dropped him—right before his fourth novel, Serena, became his bestselling book.

His new publisher, HarperCollins, did a nice job designing and promoting Serena, but they generally have the same distribution and marketing infrastructure as Henry Holt. Either publisher likely would have seen the same runaway success with the novel. I’m sure there’s more to the story of why and how Rash changed publishers, but my point is he’d raised his game with Serena, and he had an audience hungry for his next book. He’d picked up momentum on the runway and was ready to take off.

Haywire Books: Filling a Gap in the Market

I know big publishers are facing enormous pressures right now (that’s a post for a different day), but nonetheless there is a gap in the market where successful but smaller scale authors are getting lost in a big system.

The South in particular is teeming with world-class authors and a thriving indie bookstore community (hello, SIBA friends), but many authors don’t have a home. There are some great small presses already in business (hello, Hub City), but I can tell you first-hand it’s a ton of work to put out a book. Small presses by definition aren’t equipped to put out big lists.

That’s ultimately why I started this press. Haywire Books is here to give a select list of writers a home while they build their audience.

I can’t say exactly where the press is going, but right now I’m generally focused on publishing novels from writers with some connection to the South, and whose work would be of interest to southern indie bookstore customers. I’m also interested in books that are “caught between two chairs”—novels that combine well-written literary realism with a good story.

It’s too soon to say whether this project is going to work, but I’m here to try out a few things that big companies—with old legacy systems and demanding shareholders—can’t do. Thanks for joining me in this venture.

Haywire Books