Saturday, September 2, 2017


The book business is more complicated than my beginner’s enthusiasm permitted me to imagine in 2014. Enthusiasm, that bane of the 18th century (“What can we reason, but from what we know?”) does indeed invite flights of reckless optimism. If there are boulders in the road and a learning curve that would dizzy a gymkhana contestant, well, “Love will find a way,” my inner Eubie Blake retorted to my entrenched Alexander Pope.

However arduous or silly the process of learning by doing continues to be for me, one big thing has been indisputable from the start: Everyone in publishing wants a best seller. Certainly the author does: Fame and fortune should reward the years of dedication and craft sparked by fire in the belly. The printer is eager to keep the presses rolling. The distributor’s bottom line is to move as much merchandise as possible to bookstores and retailers who are eager to sell, sell, sell!

And the publisher obviously wants to turn out best sellers, right? If an Upper Hand Press title sells millions, the income will secure an immediate future in which I can expand my press and its reputation. Even one best seller will boost sales of all the books on our list; it will attract the attention of authors who may not have previously considered publishing here.

A best seller for one of my authors could reassure all my authors that I’m working overtime to support their efforts. Best sellers reflect not only the literary skills, but the nigh-full-time commitment to promotion by the authors themselves. But it requires successful, well-focused and well-funded marketing on the publisher’s part. Reaching influential reviewers and publicity-generators; making best use of industry-only sources; keeping up with the industry through conferences, newsletters, new products; selling to libraries and book clubs—these are the unpaid tip of the marketing iceberg, the part I can presently afford, even if I am deficient in time to execute.

Upper Hand Press is self-funded by this publisher-staff-of-one. Marketing budget comes after production budget, which leaves little to spend. (For the authors, marketing costs to supplement what the Press provides are as great as they feel they can invest.)

For established large publishing house with well-funded, dedicated advertising budgets, the possibility for creating a best seller is substantial, sometimes from even modest literary material. Add full-page ads in prominent media, signs and promotional items, pop-up ads on Internet sites, access to appearances on major media, and long-standing relationships with taste-makers, and one is on the way.

So it is that best-selling books are unlikely to have the imprints of small, independent presses. The promotion budget comes after the costs of book production are met. For me, promotion is the pursuit of reviews from low-cost and free opportunities, entering relevant competitions, and creating connections for individual titles and for the Press. What’s left to budget for paid advertising is not much once the designers, typesetters, printers, and distributors are paid. Persuasive prose is our most useful marketing tool.

The question remains, though, whether making best sellers is the ultimate goal? About this I write for myself alone in answering that it is not. I would be overjoyed were an Upper Hand title to become a best-seller, but I don’t believe that by selling millions I’d feel that the mission of my press or that my personal mission was necessarily accomplished.

As an editor I look for material that invites the reader to engage deeply with the writer—I am a matchmaker between writers I believe in and the readers they long for and deserve. I choose the authors to publish, the ones I believe will endure by virtue of their literary skill and significant themes.  While I understand readers’ love of stories about romance, adventure, speculative pasts or futures, my love is in invitations to stretch the mind and explore our humanity, whatever form those come in. I just look for books that don’t end with the last page.

Read the reviews: Excellent, unique, convincing books are published all the time by publishers large and small. They win awards from learned bodies with acute judges, and they receive the highest praise from the most thoughtful reviewers. What their sales are, though, one can only guess. The reviews help, no doubt, but reviews alone don’t make best sellers. Big budgets are the bedrock. It’s likely that you’ll get sales commensurate to what you pay. But the world is ennobled, enlightened, and advanced by all the authors that small, independent presses bring to us in small editions, whatever their business models.

Developing readership is an uphill task for a small, independent press in a world of readers and writers that loves best sellers. Upper Hand books are currently finding readers our authors are writing for, but there are many more we want to reach. I know we will find them with constant and steady--and someday expensive--promotion. But the dream of the best seller is a dream of winning the lottery; a dream of winning something for no more effort than a wish, and we all know that things don’t work that way without laboring masses and pots of money behind the curtain we'd like to pretend isn't there.