Friday, March 23, 2012

Traditional Small Publishers

After ten years of writing, polishing, submitting, and collecting rejections, I was thrilled to finally meet a small press publisher, Lee Emory of Treble Heart Books, who liked my work and believed in me enough to publish my first two books.

Even though self-publishing no longer carries the stigma it once had and is becoming wildly popular with the ease of computer programs and publishing sites such as CreateSpace, etc., I still wanted to be able to say, “Yes, I have a PUBLISHER.”

The small press accounts for $30 billion in annual book sales according to Writer Magazine’s “The Writer’s Guide to Getting Published”, and fills niche publishing markets, such as poetry, memoirs, gift books, even “westerns,” which the large publishing houses keep saying are “dead.” (If you believe that, take a look at the book lists from Women Writing the West and Western Writers of America.)

Advantages of working with a small publisher:
• Often, it is somewhat easier for new authors to break in, and you don’t need an agent first.
• The small press does not charge authors for publishing services.
• You can get smaller print runs, so neither the publisher nor the author ends up with thousands of books in the garage.
• You get more personalized attention. I was even asked for my input on the cover designs, something I’ve heard many horror stories about from authors with large publishers.
• My publisher works with a professional editor to make sure the product is a good one.
• As long as my books are selling, they will not go out of print. I don’t have to reach a “quota” within a three-month or even a 30-day period and face having my books remaindered.

Disadvantages to working with a small publisher:
• Small or no advances.
• No financial backing for promotion, entering contests, submitting for review or touring.
• Distribution. Many do try to contract with Ingram, or as in my publisher’s case, Baker and Taylor. But it’s still difficult to get your books into bookstores, because they don’t like to deal with more than one distributor or don’t like the return fees. I’ve ended up mostly consigning my books with bookstores. (But, ironically, in reality, you don’t sell many books in bookstores, unless your name is Grisham or Steele or Roberts, etc.)
• The “elephant” in the room: Amazon. It seems you don’t exist unless you’re listed on Amazon. But they charge the publisher to list the books, often discount the price, take 55% of the sale, and the author’s royalties end up mere cents. It’s also up to the publisher to put your book into Kindle or Nook formats. With today’s trend of “giving” e-books away for 99 cents or free, the author with a small publisher does not have that marketing option.

One of the arguments for self-publishing is that the author has more say over the entire process and actually can make more money from sales without the “middle man.” But again, how to get wide distribution is the question.

The publishing process is undergoing a huge paradigm shift and it will be interesting to see what happens in the near future with large and small presses and with self-publishing.

To find small publishers, see the Small Press database at the Poetry & Writers website to research publishers, editorial style preference, types of genre published, submission guidelines, and contact information.

A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently won the national WILLA Award. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.

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  1. Thanks for the info. Are small presses expensive though? I've thought about self-publishing, but honestly the price keeps me from doing so.

  2. You cite some great advantages for going with a small publisher. As long as you're happy with your publisher, that's the main thing. I wasn't happy with mine, which prompted my change.

    Morgan Mandel

  3. I have worked with two small publishers and one that could be considered halfway between the small independents and the big 6 in NY. I have had good experiences with all three and will continue to let them publish some of my work. Other projects I will do as an independent.

    Traci, small publishers, as Heidi pointed out, do not charge authors for publishing the books. They work like any major publisher, with the main difference being the amount of advance, if any, and limited distribution.

  4. The personalization is a big plus.

    With the death of so many bookstores, being carried in one isn't quite the priority it once was. Library distribution is vital though.

  5. Heidi, thanks for thos information. Good stuff to consider as I journey into the published world.

  6. Heidi, this is a GREAT sorting through of the pros and cons. I LOVE small publishers, for the reasons you discuss. And I often counsel my writers that way. One of the biggest things is they do keep your book in print. With the big houses, you're looking at shelf life of 4-6 weeks (if you're lucky), then the book is pulled and remaindered. Which kills it of course.
    And these days, even the big houses don't give much in the way of advances (unless your last name is Grisham or King to begin with. Oh! I forgot! The latter went his own way anyhow :)
    As you hit on, Distribution is the big issue, along with yep, that elephant in the room. Small publishers complain to me bitterly about Amazon--the Robber Baron. Yet, they make it work.
    Good for you on your success and again, great sorting through here!

  7. Thanks for the perspective Heidi. I went the Indie route with my first novel but not opposed to considering a small publisher. There is a lot to consider and you bring up some great issues pro and con.

  8. Having seen all sides of this game for about thirty years, the nicest part of having a small publisher is not being alone. You have an editor to work with and someone to deal with book design, and that might feel a little more warm and fuzzy than the same from a large publisher. And you're branded by someone else. In either case, most authors are left to handle the bulk of the marketing themselves, unless they prove to have a bestselling title,and then they might eventually get some financial help with advertising and tours. But that's iffy. If an author wants total control and money, self-publishing is proving to be the best route. But as I often say, just set up your contract so you can be a free agent on future titles, and you can have it all. Writing another book, and another, is really the best path to success. Good luck, Kathryn - we're all looking forward to reading that memoir!

  9. I went with a small publisher for my first book and then went Indie for the second ... frankly, I couldn't tell the difference.

  10. It really is tough to make it in this biz these days. I have done both (traditional pub & indie) and interestingly, the results (sales) are about the same...

  11. I just signed with a small press last month for my first book, and so far I'm really impressed. They have great covers and a minimum 2 round edit process, and most of all, a fantastic author support group. I'm still learning, and this is my first step into the publishing world. I wanted it to be a good one, and I think this is the best fit for me. Getting the validation of being chosen was really important to me, and the small press provides that, along with a better chance of a longer life with the book.

    Good luck to all of you!

  12. The only thing I would caution is to be prepared for sudden, hidden charges. Vanity publishers and subsidy publishers (where authors put money in, either in a lump sum or in the promise to purchase 500 or more books) can look very much like small traditional publishers until you're ready to sign the contract (which of course should be read very carefully). If they have misrepresented themselves to you in any way BACK AWAY FROM THE DEAL no matter how painful that might be.

    I have a friend who lost a deal because the "company" behind the website was two people who couldn't make good on their word. "Small publishers" are popping up everywhere as self-published authors are starting their own companies and then publishing their friends as well. Just because they have a cool name and call themselves a publisher does not mean they know what they're doing any more than you would.

    As always, it is prudent to check at Preditors & Ediotrs and the Absolute Write water cooler, as well as simply googling the name of the publisher followed by the word "complaints" and see if anything pops up. A referral to another client is also a good idea.

  13. Sorry—that was "Preditors and Editors":

  14. Thanks to you all for commenting. No, Traci, with a small traditional publisher you don't pay for the process. You can purchase books through them for a wholesale price. The marketing and distribution is the downside, but we all have to work hard at that anyway, as several of you mentioned.

  15. Great post, Heidi. I self-published my first novel and plan to do it for the prequel, but I am considering a small press for a third novel. I've had a very good experience with doing it on my own. I contacted my local library early on to get it in and as book groups have picked it up, I now have a book club kit! Sales are growing as I look for ways to promote it. And yes, it's in bookstores. They are still a great place to sell your book.

  16. Great post, Heidi. I self-published my first novel and plan to do it for the prequel, but I am considering a small press for a third novel. I've had a very good experience with doing it on my own. I contacted my local library early on to get it in and as book groups have picked it up, I now have a book club kit! Sales are growing as I look for ways to promote it. And yes, it's in bookstores. They are still a great place to sell your book.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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