On Publishing: The Balance Found In Small-Press Publishing


Maybe it’s just the time of year.  Maybe it’s the fact that Nooks and Kindles and the new iPad are making e-reading that much attractive and (with the exception of the Apple) affordable.  Whatever the reason, I am suddenly being inundated with questions about self-publishing.  Again.  As I was about this time last year.

So after a number of emails and FB messages, I thought maybe it was time to revisit the issue.  The last time I wrote about it here at MW, the title of my post was “Why I Still Believe In Big Press Publishing.”  You might want to read that post again, because much of what I say in it still holds true, at least in my opinion.  I think that I erred in the post, though, by giving short shrift to small-press publishing.  That was a mistake, one I would like to address now.

Before we go on, let me point you to a second post that I wrote nearly four years ago now.  It’s called “Business Realities For the Beginning Writer,” and it is still a fairly accurate description of what the business model is like for authors publishing a first novel with a large traditional press.  If you read that post along with the Big-Press Publishing post, you begin to get a sense for why people are so drawn to self-publishing.  The fact is that the money for beginning authors, even those who manage to land a contract with DAW or Tor or Roc, remains pretty poor.  It doesn’t flow so much as ooze — the process is terribly slow.  And, of course, it is fraught with uncertainty.

But on the other hand, unless one is tech-savvy AND already has a grasp on the publishing business AND has gobs of extra time to devote to things like finding editors, getting art work, formatting for various e-book readers, etc., the self-publishing model remains a difficult road to follow.

That’s where small-press publishing comes in.  The small-press route carries many of the benefits of both self-publishing and traditional publishing.  It also carries some of the pitfalls.  Let’s look at both.

On the positive side, the biggest benefits of small-press publishing (in no particular order) are that, as with big-press publishing, you have the imprimatur of an independent publisher saying that your work is worthy of publication.  When I say small-press publishing I don’t mean a house that takes your money and then publishes your book — that is old-time self-publishing or vanity publishing.  Small-press publishing means that a publisher is paying you for your book, sometimes with a small advance, always with royalties, or, best of all, with both.  Like the big New York publishers, a small press will offer editing, copyediting, artwork, formatting, binding, distribution (in some form), and other valuable services, all as a matter of course.  And they will do this at their expense; you won’t pay for any of it.

While the publisher will make many of the packaging and marketing choices — how to market the book to the correct target audience, what kind of art to put on it, how to phrase jacket copy, etc. — a small press is far more likely than a big publisher to seek and heed author input on these choices.  In other words, at least some of the freedom and creative control that draws many authors to self-publishing can be found in the small-press route.  Also, small publishers (as long as they remain solvent) tend to pay out royalties more quickly than the big presses do, and with fewer of the accounting gimmicks that authors find so very annoying.  (See “Reserves Against Returns,” an evil practice by which big presses withhold royalty payments, for months or even years, to offset anticipated bookstore returns.)  Again, this is one of those self-publishing benefits — quick payment of proceeds from book sales — that authors cite when choosing to follow that path, and that can also be found in the small-press world.

Finally, with technological advances making book production faster and more accessible, many of the production-value issues that once plagued small presses have vanished.  Physical books put out by small presses look great — every bit as good as their big-press counterparts.  And at this point, e-book readers generally have unfettered access to books from small houses.

All right, so far small-press publishing sounds too good to be true, right?  All the benefits of both forms of traditional publishing with none of the problems?  Well, not quite.  First of all, advances from small publishers are pretty low, if they exist at all.  If the average big-press advance for a first-time author is $7,500, the average small-press advance is probably closer to $1,000 or $1,500.  And that’s if an advance is given at all.  More often than not, there is no advance.  But small-press writers will see royalties much, much sooner, since there is no advance to “pay back,” and because those payments do come more quickly and reliably.

And, I also need to qualify that last bit.  Payments are “reliable” so long as the small press is doing well.  Small presses, though, are on less firm footing financially than their bigger siblings.  I went with a small press with one book several years back and the press went out of business, leaving me with some financial issues and leaving my book orphaned.  That happens in the small press world — I wouldn’t say it happens often, but I also wouldn’t say that it’s rare.  And significant problems can arise when the rights to your book are held by a company that has just gone bankrupt.  That danger is real in small-press publishing.  There is no way around it.

Some small presses might skimp on developmental editing and/or copyediting.  Before signing with a small press, you would definitely want to have the editorial process spelled out in detail.  And while we’re on that subject, small presses are more apt to buy books from authors directly, without demanding that they have an agent, which is good.  But that also leaves it to the author to interpret and renegotiate various clauses in that contract, which could be bad if the author doesn’t have a firm grasp of contractual practices.

Sometimes small presses find it difficult to place their books with large booksellers, although in the e-world, that is becoming less of an issue.  Still, small presses do facr challenges in distribution of their product that the big houses don’t face.  Small press books don’t always garner as much attention from journals and reviewers as books from the big houses.  And on the other side of the ledger, while small-press publishing offers an author more creative input on marketing matters than big-press publishing, authors who are drawn to self-publishing might still find that they have to cede more control than they would like.

Overall, I would say that despite its drawbacks, small-press publishing is a viable option for aspiring writers.  If I was starting out now, and I was having trouble breaking into the traditional market, or was growing frustrated with my search for an agent, I would definitely consider small press before I turned to self-publishing.  I would study my small-press options very, very carefully.  As with all things, there are good houses out there, and there are some that are less reputable.  But small press offers a balance — editorial guidance and the “vetting” of your work by publishing professionals on the one hand; more control over your own work and less bureaucracy on the other.

I am on the road this week, on the Thieftaker Summer 2012 Signing Tour.  But I will try to comment during the day.  And if you have read Thieftaker and enjoyed it, please, please, please go to Amazon and post a review.  You have no idea how much that helps raise the visibility of a book.  Thanks!

David B. Coe

13 comments to On Publishing: The Balance Found In Small-Press Publishing

  • Thanks for this, David. Very interesting. If you get a minute, could you offer some definition or general guidelines as to how a small press is defined? I understand that its “smallness” isn’t simply about not being one of the big NY houses and working on a lower operating budget, but I wonder if you can say much about about how print runs, distribution and profits compare to those big houses? As we know, many big houses produce small books (in terms of sales, advances etc.). Presumably some small presses do big successful books that get very wide visibility. Do you know of any instances?

  • AJ, I’d like to toss in my 2 cents. One way I think of small presses is they don’t buy shelf space in big bookstores. For those of you who don’t know, just as in grocery stores, all that shelf space in bookstores is purchased by the big presses, with the exception of the *local author* space, which is where many small press authors get slotted. And the only way to get your books placed there, is to do a signing in that store, make a personal friend there, and they will put your books up for you. *If* you are lucky enough to get them to host a signing. Many chain bookstores are leery of small presses. Getting shelf space is harder with small press books, though much easier than with self-pubbed books.

    Another way to define small presses is the number of books they have in print. Under ten is waaay too small. Anything over 50 is a good indicator of small press stability.

    Poisoned Pen Press is a small press that has done the upmarket climb right, and by number of books in print is pretty near a medium sized press: http://www.poisonedpenpress.com/ for the mystery market. BellBridge Books http://www.bellebooks.com/ has become a standard in fantasy circles for a good small press, edging toward mid-sized press status, by the number of books they pub a year. They have something like 150 titles out.

    As to those horrible contracts many small pubs use, here is a link on magicalwords to a good one that is used by several agents when dealing with small presses. I know of two who have sent the contract in whole to a small press and said, “This what we’ll sign.” (You might have to copy and paste all my *links*.) http://magicalwords.net/really-i-mean-it/the-business-of-writing-the-small-press-book-contract/?wpmp_switcher=mobile

  • Faith, thank you for chiming in on this. A.J.’s question is a good one and I felt somewhat under informed as to the exact numbers. If you hadn’t commented, I would have emailed and asked you to. As to the last part of A.J.’s question, I am sure that there are examples of small press break-out books, but I’m blanking on titles right now. Anyone?

  • I did a search and found some Inspriational and Christian examples, but nothing in our genre. Which is likely to be my poor search skills as anything else.

  • Thanks, guys. That helps.

  • Dev Love Press

    Thank you for showcasing the advantages of working with a small press.

    In general I’d say that small presses are founded with a lot of love and passion by people who are very excited to see their authors do well.

    We worked hard to have our contract be fair to the author and to take all the risk on the house itself. We are limited in budget, but we work very hard with what little money we have for marketing.

  • David, thank you for talking about this. I’m wondering – if we are so blessed as to get an agent, they focus on trying to place the manuscript with one of the big houses, right? Do they consider trying to place with small presses if unsuccessful elsewhere, or are those more something that is done by the author submitting directly, just because the advances and royalties are smaller?

    Also, do you think the success of small presses has been greater now that the e-publishing market is flourishing?

  • Mercury Retrograde Press is owned by my friend, Barbara Friend Ish, and Dragonmoon Press is a small press that works with many podcasters, including the recent Large-Press transitioners, Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris, so there are a few more examples. 🙂

  • Dev Love, thanks for stopping by and introducing yourself and your press. The more aspiring authors know about their options, the better for all.

    Laura, agents will certainly work with you on finding a small-press publisher for your book, and lots of authors with agents sign such contracts. My point in the post was merely to say that for authors struggling to find an agent, sometimes small-presses are more open to looking at and buying unagented manuscripts. Hope that helps.

    Scribe, thanks for the information.

  • Yes, that makes sense. Thanks! 🙂

  • Megan B.

    This was a very timely post for me. As I work on polishing my WIP and preparing to query, I’ve been considering all of the options carefully. I had a feeling a small press might be best for my needs and desires, and you just provided a lot of good info about it, in addition to confirming what I suspected. So thanks!

    For those of us who care less about the money and fame than we do about sharing our work through traditional means, small presses may be just the ticket. Also, I fear the multi-book contract and crazy deadlines, so hopefully smaller presses allow more freedom in that respect. Can anyone comment on that aspect?

  • StPat

    I admit that I was one of the emails mentioned above. I am new to the game and so have been avidly researching the writing industry from the ground up. So, David, I appreciate both your prompt response to my email and request for a MW post. Thanks for the new post, and the links to your old ones. I have learned a lot.

  • Megan, thanks. Glad you found the post helpful. I really can’t speak to the time frame that most small presses follow. Perhaps Faith can.

    St. Pat, thank you for the original email and for spurring me to write a post that seems to have been helpful to several people. Best of luck with your writing.