Small-Press Publishing in 2024

Picture of Vicki DeArmon

Vicki DeArmon

Vicki DeArmon has 40 years in the book publishing business as a publisher, bookseller, marketer, consultant, and author. She founded Foghorn Press at age 25, sold the business 13 years later with titles now residing with Hachette. As the Events & Marketing Director for Copperfield's Books independent bookstore chain, she created a nationally recognized events program that produced 300 plus events a year. After that she worked for the independent bookstore association in California as a consultant. A serial entrepreneur, Vicki has also headed events and public relations firms. All roads have led to Sibylline Press, a press she founded with three other book industry women in 2022, to publish the brilliant work of women authors over 50.

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Small-Press Publishing in 2024

Flashback to 1988 in San Francisco when I was the publisher of Foghorn Press, a start-up with no capital. We had big dreams—dreams that actually manifested in high sales. Each year, we shipped 40,000 copies of our lead title, the guidebook California Camping, the golden goose of our list. Our other guidebooks sold heartily as well (5,000 to 25,000). That was our reality.

Fast forward to 2022 and the launch of Sibylline Press. Imagine my surprise to hear that we should expect sales of only 2,500 or less per title. It seems books suffer from diminished expectations, by being fiction or memoir and having been written by debut authors. But also the Foghorn era was a different time, they tell me. I nod my head like this is acceptable, but inwardly the optimist in me rejects it completely.

Creating a book is a lot of work, more than anyone outside the business will ever know. There’s eight months of developing and finessing before a book ever hits the market. We labor over editorial, title, cover, price, production, marketing, publicity, each of those representing a hundred subsets of decisions. How do we justify bankrolling a publicity tour with expectations that only 2,500 will sell? We can’t actually believe that number or it will be obvious that we cannot afford to promote our books at all. We must delude ourselves and in deluding ourselves, we’ll promote at a higher level and therein the hope of selling more than that average can actually happen. It’s a publishing Catch 22.

Small Press

What baffles me more about this world of low expectations is that in 2024, we have a full arsenal of publishing tools. There are digital solutions to nearly every situation. Sibylline Press loads its metadata onto CoreSource and then a few days after “ingestion,” that data appears on Edelweiss (the bookseller portal) and retail outlets such as Target, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Walmart. In the covered wagon that was Foghorn Press in 1985, we set out across the prairie with our pot of beans, rope, and hope. We managed to get to our destination, but metadata, such as it was, wasn’t the reason. In those days, it was typed up, emailed at best, and reentered at the other end. This new lightning connection to the marketplace is thrilling. With Sibylline titles not pubbing until August, September, and October, our titles are available now for pre-sale in these outlets and in any indie bookstore that you care to order them.

Review copies no longer have to be sent via snail mail after painstakingly securing a reviewer’s address. NetGalley allows vetted influencers, reviewers, and media to download your digital review copy. All you do is hit approve. I approve and since we loaded our titles up, I have happily been hitting the approve button all week! How could a librarian in the North Atlantic otherwise find our title and request it? These are the miracles of modern-day publishing, saving the expense of print galleys and the cost to the environment.

Add to the mix all the tools of the last 30 years, Zoom, Mailchimp, website, Quickbooks, cell phones, social media, social media advertising, email, google docs, Canva, Asana, BookScan, and Filemaker, all designed to make our businesses more efficient and our outreach to customers better.

Today too, there’s the option to work remotely. This allows Sibylline to have our working partners on both the east and west coast. Rent, utilities, and phone costs no longer drag down overhead. You can have the best person in each position and that person can stay where they are, living the life they choose. Which means I can have some of my oldest and dearest friends with decades of book experience working with me too.

Then there’s Print on Demand. Decades ago, a lot like attending the horse races on opening day, we’d select our print number and then run along the fence the whole time hooting and hollering, hoping through some divine magic we were going to sell all of the books we had printed. If we didn’t or if they were returned to us damaged and unsalable, we ate that and it was bitter, believe me, often seesawing a profitable year into a marginal one. And the number of trees that laid down their lives for our miscalculations haunts me still today. Print on Demand is exactly that. An order comes in and books are printed for that order. The gambling guesswork is no longer necessary. If a book hits big, the book can be reprinted within 24 hours, rather than wait for a three-week turnaround because we know that books missing from the shelf do not sell. And ebooks of course now account for a big percentage of the sales and that is a tree-free enterprise.

Publishing in 2024

We’ve been operating with these tools for one season now and yet, when the season ended, the projections were closer to reality than my optimistic numbers. Why? Our titles are beautiful to look at and even better to read and written by women who, like me, are of a certain age, and have things to say. Last fall, our first season, we had three novels and three memoirs. Promotion was extreme. For instance, we had a Cabaret launch event in NYC for These Broken Roads: Scammed and Vindicated, One Woman’s Story by Donna Marie Hayes (who is also a singer and actor), and she appeared on Tamron Hall shortly after. Our author Maeve DuVally who wrote Maeve Rising: Coming Out Trans in Corporate America was named to the Out100 by Out Magazine for her LBGTQ+ leadership. Our historical fiction about the orphan train and the mothers left behind, The Bereaved by Julia Park Tracey, received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews and went on to be named in the top 100 indie books published in 2023. All huge wins in our inaugural season. And sales were good on all six titles, though not at the level in my optimism I had hoped. Part of the reason, my analysis shows, is that we were reliant on too few markets with bookstores as our primary, followed closely by Amazon. In 2024, you can’t succeed without multiple markets creating multiple streams of income. This isn’t new wisdom, yet it takes a while to develop those markets which we are in the process of doing. We received 70% of our bookstore sales in California, because we already are known to bookstores here. The tools are useful to divine what is happening it seems, but the remedy always seems to require more elbow grease.

This coming spring we have one memoir and four novels. They are all fabulous books with great covers and marketing plans already in motion. In March, we have the Hollywood memoir Rottenkid: A Succulent Story of Survival by cookbook author Brigit Binns, in April, we have a huge historical fiction, 1666: A Novel by Lora Chilton, author and tribe member of the Patawomeck people , who created a fictionalized retelling of how the tribe was decimated by colonists and managed to survive through the persistence of two Indigenous women.  I Never Do This: A Novel by Anesa Miller starts with the singular voice of a young woman, LaDene Faye Howell, in jail, explaining to the police just how she got there. The Goldie Standard, a novel by Simi Monheit, gives a hilarious present-day take on a Holocaust surviving grandmother trying to find her Ph.D granddaughter a yarmulke-wearing doctor husband. And at the end of May, we publish Suzy Vitello’s Bitterroot, a novel of a woman’s defense of her family and self against racist assaults in her hometown which is also MAGA country.

One of the most significant Sibylline Press tools is recognizing in our authors the creativity and drive to collaborate in the marketing and promotion of our titles. Women over 50 bring more to the table than their well written books, you also get a lifetime of experience. Engaging and directing that experience into better promotion for their book means better sales for everyone. So while we’re at traditional press with traditional distribution, we are also in a deep partnership with our authors which we know gives us a marketplace advantage. That’s why our titles garner great reviews and our marketing is focused and effective.

I sit in my publisher’s chair now at Sibylline Press with the vantage point of all my years in the covered wagon that was Foghorn as we meandered across undiscovered territory under a perilous sun (the high drama that is this metaphor is indicative of my young age at the time). Now I’ve got 40 years of publishing under my belt and so do my partners. We’re definitely  benefiting from these tools and the paved highways other publishers have laid in the last 30 years. I’m very grateful. It feels like science now, rather than directionless wandering peppered by hope. And this is one of the reasons I can’t accept that, with all this technology in place, that low average sales number as a projection. Are you kidding me? It’s 2024, we’ve got tools, man!

But here’s what I know and have known all along. The relationships in the marketplace and the full-frontal marketing are necessary, especially in the competitive and top-heavy publishing environment of 2024. You have to market with the best and biggest of them. You have to claim your place in the marketplace. And persistence and ingenuity are perhaps the best tools for that. At Sibyllline, those are our particular strengths. Accolades are great and appreciated, but ultimately sales matter more, because then authors’ books are read and publishers live to publish another book, another day. That’s why my attention continues to be focused on increasing sales as it always has been from the very beginning of my life in publishing. Using all the tools, new and old, I’m confident we’ll achieve it this season too.


Vicki DeArmon, Publisher, Sibylline Press. Publishing the brilliant work of women authors over 50

5 Responses

  1. I’d attach an image of my 1994 edition of “California Camping,” but the web form doesn’t permit that. The book is sun-faded and probably missing some incredible places to go, but I’m happy to consult it even so.

    I had an internship at a U.S. publishing company when most of our printing was in Hong Kong. I remember anxiety over what would show up later from the container ship cargo: was anything printed off register? Did the printer truly receive the last version of the materials? Like you, I’m haunted by regret for the trees needlessly cut down because we missed a typo on the proof.

    It’s bittersweet that the publishing model I grew to expect from 1980s writing seminars (brilliant, if novice, authors propelled into overnight success by a single “New Yorker” mention or the like) just can’t exist in this world of too many distractions. Perhaps the lesson from publishing’s new paradigm is that all of us are now responsible for our own publicity.

    1. Yes indeed, Melanie, we are on the hook for our own publicity these days! I’m just editing the Publicity and Marketing part of my next book, Write & Sell a Well-Seasoned Romance, and that is the central message!

    2. Thanks Melanie. Always good to hear from someone who has lived in the good ol’ days of publishing! I’m delighted you still have your old California Camping and it’s useful. Makes me happy.

      I think the expectation that the author is responsible for her own publicity has swept the industry, from Big Five publishers to smaller, yes. It’s better when we can combine our efforts though, publisher and author, and really make it result in something. This is the model we are pursuing at Sibylline Press and it seems to be working. Issues like these help everyone reinvent publishing to something that actually works.

  2. WOW! It’s wonderful to follow your journey and hear the hope you have for the little authors like me. I am full indie with low sales but living my best life in my own little pond. I wish you well!

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