The small press publishing path

There are three main routes to publishing. Though most people only mention two: traditional publishing, with an agent and a big 5 publisher; and self publishing, usually on Amazon. The middle route, publishing with a small, independent press, doesn’t get a lot of airtime.

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But, in many ways, it’s a path that avoids the pitfalls of the others, so I’ve been pursuing it for some time now.

Small presses are easy to start these days. They no longer have to pay for book printing up front: instead, each book can be printed on demand, and several different services will host ebooks cheaply as well. A small press only needs an acquisitions editor, a developmental editor, a cover designer, a copy editor, and a marketing person–and the same person can be wearing several of these hats at a time.

The result of this is that there are thousands of small presses around, often specialty presses dedicated to a single genre. What they lack in size, they make up for in specialization: by catering to a niche of the market, they can build up a loyal following that wants the exact kind of books they print.

This is a difficult path for the writer, though, because it comes without waypoints or directions. If you’re querying agents, there are several different listings to help you find the agent of your dreams. If you want to self publish, there are countless blogs giving you the exact necessary steps. But there is no universal listing of small presses. You are pretty much on your own in finding and vetting them.

Finding them is the first challenge. I scoured the internet, reading listicles and interviews. Query Tracker has a small listing, but it’s not very long and not all the publishers on it look very promising. I found a number of them by looking up books I saw in print or heard of on Twitter. Some, I encountered through pitch events. One possibly-useful place is Foreward Reviews, which reviews exclusively books published by small presses or individuals. But some of the “presses” whose books are reviewed there are actually individuals and don’t accept submissions. You just have to look up each one individually.

Vetting is another issue. Without an agent, doing your own research is your only safeguard. I ruled out publishers that expected any upfront investment by the writer (vanity or hybrid presses), publishers that advertised primarily to writers rather than book buyers, and publishers with sketchy looking websites or ugly covers. People absolutely do judge books by their covers, and I wasn’t going to put my words between hideous ones. I also took the time to google “pressname scam” and “pressname experience” to look for anyone complaining about them.

Later vetting will happen when you’re faced with a contract. I found the Author’s Guild helpful in learning what kind of contract I should be looking for. You can also get help from literary agents, who sometimes look over contracts for people they don’t represent, or a lawyer specializing in intellectual property. Just make sure you keep any rights they don’t intend to use, and it has a clause allowing you to get out of it if the press goes under or something awful happens.

Once you’re building your submissions list, you’ll have to prioritize the presses you plan to submit to. I used a combination of factors:

  • How big/ prestigious/ professional they appeared to be
  • How close their submission wishlist looked to my book
  • Their submission window and response time, as well as whether they wanted an exclusive submission

This last is unfortunately very common, especially in the biggest/ most prestigious presses that accept unagented submissions. Baen, for instance, wants an exclusive and doesn’t guarantee a response in under a year. I would do that for them, since they’re very successful, but I wouldn’t for most presses. (They considerately rejected me in much less than a year.)

To judge the prestige of a press, I looked over how many books they’d published, how long they’d been at it, and how well the books had sold and been reviewed. Here’s the thing: you can’t know how well a book has sold in the past, though you can find its current sales rank on Amazon. That sales rank can be converted into sales numbers, but that only tells you how well it is selling on Amazon at this exact moment–not how well a press’s last book sold four months ago. For that, I went to reviews. A book with a lot of reviews on Goodreads (or anywhere else, but Goodreads tends to have the most) is a book a lot of people have read. It won’t map perfectly to sales numbers, but books that were publicized well will have more reviews than books that weren’t.

What numbers are good? Well, manage your expectations here. A lot of small presses have reviews in the single digits! But you can rank your possibilities from most reviews to least, which can give you some sense of how many eyeballs they’ll get your book in front of.

Given all this, is it worth it? After all, you could self publish and have a chance at similar sales numbers.

To me, that’s like saying “well you could do an entire group project yourself, what do you need the rest of the group for?” I’m a writer. I do not want to spend too much of my time on not-writing, nor am I good at cover design, layout, or marketing. (I’m an amazing copyeditor, but even at work I don’t copyedit myself.) I don’t have a ton of money to lay out hiring all those people myself, and I don’t have the distance from my work it would take to judge whether it would be a good bet.

That last issue is a major problem with self publishing. I’m too close to my work. I don’t, honestly, know if it’s good, though I enjoy reading it. I don’t know if it’s marketable or if it’s ready. The main reason I wanted to be published was to get the affirmation from someone else that it was time to put my work out there. That I was good enough. Isn’t that a big part of what all authors want? The assurance that they’ve made it, that they’re good enough to get picked?

To some, getting picked by a small publisher isn’t “picked enough.” It isn’t being picked by the big 5, by the tastemakers, by the money bestowers. But, as I thought it over, I realized that I don’t respect the judgment of the big book industry more than I trust the judgment of someone printing books in a small way. We know the larger industry has huge issues with the books it picks: it prints mostly books by white people, it prints mostly straight romances, it gives tons of money to untalented people with MFAs and gives tiny advances to genius authors with less privilege.

We have power to change the kind of industry we support, to push money more toward creators and less toward the billionaires and megacorps that own the big 5. It means elevating small publishing as a legitimate goal and a legitimate place to buy books.

I also have read a lot of writers’ horror stories of being published with the big 5: marketing support that topped out at being listed in a catalog; rushed editors who wouldn’t communicate; a lack of creative control; losing out on future opportunities because one book didn’t sell well despite never being promoted. In small publishing, if you pick a good team to work with, you’ve got those people with you the whole way. Everyone on the team is someone who loves books and your book in particular. And since they aren’t releasing many books a year, they care about your book continuing to sell past its debut week.

I’m reminded of the birth of my second child. I’d tried a hospital birth for my first and hated it–it felt like an industrial, inhuman process. And I considered going it alone–studying what I needed to know and delivering the baby myself. But in the end, what I wanted was a human being who both knew what they were doing and could emotionally support me. So I chose a midwife, and liked that so much I did it twice more. Just having someone in my corner like that meant the world.

That’s what I’m pursuing small publishing for. For that person in my corner, knowledgeable about the business but also human enough to cherish me and my book baby. It’s not the path for everyone, but for me, right now, it’s right for me.

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