Selecting a Publisher

Authors have a lot of things to consider when deciding on the right path for their book. There is a lot of conditioning for authors to pursue an agent, who can represent their work and shop it to large publishing houses. After all, bigger is always better, right?

That isn’t necessarily the case, and there are some things to consider when shopping your manuscript so that you set reasonable goals for your work. There are also some important things that every aspiring author should know before using certain terms, such as ‘small press’. 

Small Press

The standard industry definition for a small press in the US is any publisher with annual sales below $50 million, or those that publish on average 10 or fewer titles per year.”

Yes, folks, $50 million or fewer than 10 titles per year. This means that almost all of the presses out there, including ones that agents are submitting to, are considered small. It is therefore not a knock against anyone to publish with a small press; the questions that aspiring authors should be asking themselves are different, and the things that should be considered do not include a small vs. large press comparison. Now that we’ve covered the definition of a small press, let’s look at some myths.

Small Press Authors Can’t Advance to Larger Presses or Get an Agent

This is a common belief that is incorrect. For example, Rob Hart originally published with Polis Books, which is a small press. His books were well reviewed and his sales were solid. Hart’s latest book was released by Crown, more than 20 countries picked up the rights to the title, and Ron Howard optioned the movie rights

Not every author may have the same success that Rob Hart is currently enjoying, but many authors have used small press deals to acquire an agent or advance to a larger publisher. I started out with a small POD press, before POD was commonplace. The book didn’t sell terribly well, but it received a lot of strong reviews, and I was able to get an agent to represent my next book, which sold to a publisher in New York City.

Small Presses Aren’t Respected

There are some small presses that are among the most innovative publishers out there, and many small press books are favorably reviewed and nominated for awards. 

Again, I’m going to point to Rob Hart. His Ash McKenna books were nominated for awards, including the Anthony Award, and won the Authors on the Air 2016 Mystery/Thriller Book of the Year Award. Many of the titles were named as top reads of the year by publications such as Crimespree Magazine and the Boston Globe. 

Is it High Concept?

High concept stories often sell better and have a bigger market. If you don’t understand what I mean by ‘high concept’ then there’s a strong chance your story isn’t high concept, or that you haven’t done writing research related to story concept. If that’s the case, you should do so before you start querying so that you appropriately tailor your query to emphasize the types of concepts that appeal to agents and editors.

Stories that aren’t emphasizing a high concept theme can still sell, but may need another compelling angle, or may be better suited to a smaller publisher with a specialized focus (genre, theme, region) that suits your manuscript.

Fish and Ponds

Authors who are with a smaller press may receive more attention than those who sign with large publishers. This will largely depend on the nature of the small press in question. Publishers that focus on releasing 10 books per year or fewer have a lot invested in each title, which means that they are motivated to ensure each release is a success. Those who are publishing multiple books a month may have a lower investment level, and less time to focus on individual authors.

Special Focus

Some publishers focus on a specific niche, and they do it very well. They know how to market to a very specific audience and they build their company around that focus. In cases like that, it may be best to prioritize a smaller press that knows the specific genre and market your book is suited for. An example would be bizarro. There are a select group of small publishers who specifically focus on this subgenre, and they know it better than anyone. New publishers entering that subgenre may be at a disadvantage, even if they are a larger publishing house.

One of the reasons for this is that larger publishing houses typically focus on mainstream book events, while subgenre readers may concentrate on attending conventions tailored to their specific subgenre focus. It may be harder for even large publishers to reach these readers without significant changes to their marketing strategy.

How Can You Know How Well a Small Press Will Do?

New Presses

With newer presses, it may be hard to effectively gauge their potential for success. The factors you will have to consider will be their contract and advance. A publisher that invests in paying an advance to their authors has put their own skin in the game; they are out of pocket for some of those funds long before the book is published. This means that they have a very clear motivation to see your book succeed. 

It also means that if they go bankrupt before your book is published you have still received payment that you won’t likely have to return.

Another consideration is the contract terms. Are they standard to the industry? Is there an ‘out’ clause for getting your rights back? Never sign a contract that bestows perpetual rights that cannot be terminated. 

Established Small Presses

One way to evaluate a small press is to visit a handful of local bookstores and see if you can find recent titles from the press in store. This will tell you if they have both the distribution and reach to get their titles in stores. Checking online will tell you if people can order your book, but it won’t tell you if readers can find it on shelves.

It’s also a good idea to check with local libraries and see if they stock books from the small press you’re considering. Library sales can add up, and it’s a good sign if libraries are willing to carry books by the press.

After you receive an offer the final thing that you should do is reach out to authors from the press. Are they happy? What was the editing process like? What did they like about working with the press, and what are some areas where the press can improve? You will be able to get a sense of the working relationship and dynamics the press has with their authors. While authors may not outright criticize their press, you’ll be able to detect a lack of enthusiasm. The more authors you talk to the more likely you’ll have a good idea of the potential strengths and weaknesses of the publisher.

Remember …

There is no one path to success in publishing. Self published authors have been able to make their mark, and become bestsellers. Case in point: James Oswald. With Spinetingler Magazine, I had the privilege of publishing James’ first Inspector McLean short story. When James couldn’t find a publisher for his manuscript, he eventually self published the work.

The book was so well received, with numerous positive reviews and high sales rankings on Amazon, that James received a six-figure book deal