When most people think of publishing, they think of the “Big Five” publishers. You know, those enormous, multiple-imprint houses based in New York and Toronto who fill Barnes & Noble with titles by household names.
A publishing deal with one of those companies is the dream for many aspiring writers, but it’s not the only way to get published. It’s not even necessarily the best way.
Small presses are abundant throughout the US and beyond, and they’re powerful drivers of the written word. They can be more responsive and take bigger risks than the major houses, making them an excellent resource for beginning authors.
But—like all things in writing and publishing—they aren’t without their risks.
Let’s take a walk through what might happen if you choose to publish with a small press.
The Three Experiences
You’ve been accepted by a small press! YAY!
Although each author’s experience is different, most fall into three broad categories of experience.
Experience One: Awesome!
You’ve been accepted! YAY!. The press works with you professionally and promotes the book well. You won’t make enough money off your first book to quit your day job, but you get a few checks.
The press gets you on Amazon, where you do brisk business, and into B&N. They book some speaking and signing gigs for you.
When you’re ready to write the next book, you and the press are thrilled to work together again.
Experience One-Point-Five: everything goes like Experience One, only you sell so many books with the small press that a Big Five publisher snaps you up for your next work. Your advance check is in the middle five figures. This is rare, but can sometimes happen when small presses do a great job.
Financial independence is far from guaranteed with any small press, but if you assess potential publishers carefully, you have a good chance of having this experience.
Experience Two: Okay
You’ve been accepted! YAY!
You turn in your work and feel pretty good about things, but find out too late that the press is run by people who love books, but don’t know much about business or promotion. The brunt of promotion work falls on you.
You really like the folks you’re working with, but they drop balls and you don’t sell many copies at all. When you start work on your next book, you worry about how you’re going to tell these nice folks that you’ll be seeking publication elsewhere.
Sadly, this experience describes the majority of small presses out there today. Since printing became cheap and easy, more and more hobbyists have opened up a shop. They aren’t bad people, they’re just bad businesspeople.
Experience Three: Oh Geez
You’ve been accepted! YAY!
But the press wants some money from you to help cover the costs of editing, promotion, and publishing. Things smell funny from the start, but you’re so thrilled to be getting published that you ignore the signs. When you finally say enough is darn-tootin’ enough, they show you a contract you signed that means you can’t sell that work elsewhere.
The whole thing is enough to make you (almost) want to quit writing.
Experience Three is waiting for everybody, backed by aggressive marketing by the scam artists behind these houses. The good news is that most give themselves away early with a few easily spotted red flags.
The article you’re reading right now exists to help you make certain you do business only with those small presses that can give you Experience One.
We’ll talk about:
- The definitions of small presses
- Different types of small presses
- How to check out a potential publisher to make certain they’re what you need
- How to find the ones that work with what you write
- How to mitigate the risks of working with different kinds of publishers
Ready? Let’s get started!
What Is a 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. You might also hear them called:
- Small Publishers
- Independent Publishers
- Independent Presses
- Indie Presses
- Indie Publishers
All mean the same thing: a publishing house that’s not part of the big, dominating houses. Small presses are important for writers, important for the industry, and—I would argue—important for the art of literature in general.
They are important for writers because they provide myriad publishing options, far beyond what the big houses could produce. Without them, less than a quarter of published authors would have their books in print.
They are important for the industry because they can take more risks than the Big Five. The newest trends and innovations often happen first in a small press, where passion can move forward faster than the speed of bureaucracy. Small presses helped bring us steampunk and erotica, among other genres that are now part of mainstream literature.
They are important for the art because they create a robust and vibrant ecosystem where many more authors, ideas, modes of publication, and other factors can thrive without the pressures of Big Business (™) weighing them down. So much of what’s best in literature can’t happen at that top level of commercial success, so it relies on smaller operations to get out in the world.
Don’t get me wrong. The Big Five are important, too. They’re just not the only important thing. Small presses make up about half of the market share for the book industry overall.
The Good about small presses is, as I mentioned, they provide more opportunities than the large presses could manage. That means more opportunities to be published, and it means places willing to publish work the big presses won’t handle.
Another advantage of small presses is that they’re, well, um…smaller. You will be more important to the owner than you would be to the owner of a larger press. This usually translates to better treatment, faster decisions, and a quicker print run.
Finally, most small presses will invest more of their proportional resources into your book. They have fewer titles, meaning more of those books have to succeed for them to stay in business. Many of the large presses will spend big to print a book, then offer very little in the way of promotional support.
Small presses might be capable of doing less for you, but they’ll more often give you all they’re capable of. Basically, you’ll have a smaller pool of resources to draw from overall, but more of that pool could potentially be dedicated to you and your book.
The Bad about small presses comes from two things: size, and barrier to entry.
From a size standpoint, this translates mostly to a lesser scale of opportunity. They just don’t have the money to do a major publicity run like you see for James Patterson or Stephen King. Similarly, they won’t be able to get you into as many bookstores as a traditional press would. They just don’t have the reach.
Barrier to entry is the other disadvantage to being a small press. To make the big leagues, a company has to have its house well and truly in order. Ever since CreateSpace and Ingram Spark made publishing cheap and easy to access, it’s become common for rank amateurs to become “publishers.” This puts you at big risk for Experience Two—working with somebody who means well, but who doesn’t know what he or she is doing.
The Ugly about small presses is the same ugly you see in almost every other corner of publishing.
Writers want to be published so badly, they are highly vulnerable to scam artists who turn that wanting into profit for themselves. Only a few small presses really meet this definition—and offer Experience Three—but they do enough damage that the whole industry is tainted by it.
Types of Small Press
Remember how I described publishing as a “robust and vibrant ecosystem?” For any ecosystem to be robust and vibrant, it must include many different varieties of species.
This is definitely true of small presses, and one of the first keys to success with small publishing is to make certain you choose the kind that’s best for you and your work. Start finding out by looking at the five classic journalism questions:
- Who runs the small press?
- What does the small press publish?
- When do they publish, and how often?
- Where are they located and where do they distribute?
- How do they get paid?
- Why do they do what they do?
Who runs the small press you’re looking at?
In contrast to big houses, which are run by a board of directors and have a huge staff, a small press is typically run by no more than a dozen people. This makes it much more important to find the best possible match for your work, your needs, and your personality
Small presses are typically run in one of three ways.
A nonprofit organization might run the group. For example, many universities and some writers’ groups have a publishing arm that amounts to a small press. Sometimes, the organization is aimed toward getting specific voices (for example, LGBT or a specific religion or nationality) out into the world.
The advantage of working with this kind of small press is they tend to be passionate about what they publish. The biggest disadvantage is that nonprofits tend to move slowly, so you lose the speed-to-press advantage that other small publishers have.
2. Print Company
A real-world print house or printing company might run the press. These are typically staffed by a handful of people, almost always less than a dozen. They tend to focus on the business end of selling books. Some are specialized in what they print, while others are open to anything they think might sell.
These houses tend to be a good match for people who can write well but don’t want or know how to promote their work. It lets you focus on what you do best while they handle the other aspects.
The disadvantage of these houses is they do focus hard on the bottom line, sometimes to the detriment of your work and your relationship.
3. Book Lover
A lover of literature might run the press. This kind of shop is often just one person. If two, it’s usually a spouse or family team. They tend to focus on the quality of the work, and aren’t always fully prepared or trained for the business and promotion side of publishing.
Small presses run by literature lovers are often a joy to work with, since you’re on a team with people who love the written word as much as you do. They’re also often wired into local genre and literary events, helping you build a platform for your work.
On the downside, that potential blind spot for business and promotion can mean a beautiful book that never sells.
What does the small press publish?
The Big Five houses have their fingers in almost every pie, with multiple imprints under their brand to give the appearance of specialization. Small presses can’t do this, and almost all of them focus on a few genres so they can work hard on what they do best.
The first question you should ask before even contacting a small press is do they publish what you write? My YA series, The Bushido Chronicles, is published by a husband-and-wife small press that publishes exclusively sci-fi and fantasy, with a heavy lean toward YA and middle grade. Ben (the husband) complains to me often about how often he gets adult mystery, or travel, or poetry submissions.
Similarly, a press that specializes in women is not going to publish your men’s adventure novel. Nor will a press for photography books look at your brilliant history of oil painting.
Don’t waste your time—or theirs—by querying with something they won’t even consider.
You should also dig down a level to see if they’re interested in what you write specifically. Just like with an agent, most small presses will like some kinds of writing and not others. Buy a couple of books from their catalog, and read the reviews on more. Find the patterns and choose those that best match what you do.
When does the small press publish?
This one requires some research, then analyzing a complicated balancing act, but it’s worth the effort to maximize your chances of success.
- If the press has a submissions window
- How many titles they publish each year
- How long they take to get to press
The first one is easy. Many small presses have a narrow window (3-6 months, typically) during which they’ll even look at submissions. Schedule your queries to match, or they’ll be ignored just as certainly as if you had pitched your YA-coming-of-age-LGBT story to house that prints only Christian biographies for adults.
Number of titles per year is important because it lets you know how many slots are available to put your book into. Some presses announce their intention. For others, you’ll have to dig a little by comparing the publication dates in their catalog. Either way, note how many books each prints per year, and how many have already come out.
Length to get to press is harder to research, but you can ask up front when interviewing the press about their operations. Simply ask them, and then verify by asking a reference (more on that in a bit).
Once you’ve finished your research, use the information to help you prioritize your options. A press that publishes 10 titles per year and has already printed 9 shouldn’t be as urgent on your query list as one that does 5 each year but has only printed 1 so far. Presses that go to print faster are sometimes better, but it can also be a sign of slipshod work.
Overall, the when part of these questions makes a good tie-breaker, and also helps you think about some of the more business-oriented aspects of your choice. But other factors almost always trump these.
Where are they located?
This one is easy to find out. Figuring out how important that is to you…that’s tougher.
If you go with a local press, you will have the benefits of access and of better local promotion. If there are problems, you will be able to sit down with your publisher over coffee or beer to solve them. If there’s a serious problem, it’s harder to ignore you knocking on the door than a series of increasingly terse emails.
A local press will also have inroads with bookstores, coffee shops, and other speaking and promotion venues for your work. That means more robust promotion, more sales opportunities, and often more preferential treatment for a fellow local.
If you work with a press that’s out of your area, you immediately expand your list of potential publishers. Those small publishers also tend to be solid on promotion and advertising—if you’ve heard of them despite the distance, they at least know how to advertise their existence.
Another advantage for a distant publisher is that they tend to have a wider distribution network. This isn’t a guarantee that your book will be in more stores and at more shows, but it will be easier for your grandmother in another time zone to find your work.
There’s no universal right or wrong answer to this question. It’s a matter of which relationship seems best to you.
How do they get paid?
The overwhelming majority of small presses get paid the same way the big houses get paid: they sell books for more money than it costs them to make, and keep the difference.
However, there are two exceptions to this rule.
First, presses that are part of a larger organization are often subsidized by that organization. Second, some presses get a large chunk of funding from various arts grants.
As a general rule, presses with subsidies are a more reliable but less flexible partner for authors to work with. They won’t have to stop publication or pay you late because sales didn’t work out one quarter…but they’re also less willing to take risks on flashy promotion or with an edgy or new subject.
Why do they do what they do?
The most personal question on the list, with the widest range of possible answers, and again, it’s one without any kind of correct answer. Some common answers include:
- To make a profit
- To support local authors
- For the love of the written word
- To see books with their logo up on shelves
- Their dad started the company
- To serve as a platform for specific voices
You should keep two things in mind while hearing the answer to this question.
First, every press should have an answer. If you talk to somebody who doesn’t have an answer, that’s a good sign they haven’t thought through other important aspects of their business model.
Beyond that, you can look at this in one of two ways.
You might team up with a press with the same reasons for publishing as you have for writing (this makes for a more comfortable relationship).
Or you can find one with reasons that mean they are good at things where you’re weak. If you write for the love of the word but suck at promotions, teaming up with a profit-oriented press might make up for your weaknesses while your attention to language makes up for theirs.
Small Presses that Aren’t
While discussing types of small presses, we should also talk about three kinds of business that look like small presses but are not small presses. Some might fib a little and let you think they’re small presses, and others you might work with accidentally through no fault of their own.
These businesses help writers go from a draft to a printed, published book. They tend to charge for the editing, cover design, promotions, and coaching up front and then take a percentage of the sales prices as well.
Your commission from these services (which they might call a royalty, misleadingly) will often be higher than that from a print press, but you do have to pay a part of the costs.
It can be very hard to tell the difference between a publishing service and a publishing scam. Click here for our full report on how.
These are people who will give you advice and provide accountability while you turn your draft into a ready-to-submit or publishable manuscript. Some will also help you self-publish your book and get it up on sales platforms like Amazon and Kobo.
Book coaches do a lot of what your small press does, but they’re not involved in the publication and they don’t take a piece of the sales.
These companies technically publish books, in that they take your document file and transfer it to dead trees. But they won’t edit your manuscript, provide a cover, or assist in distribution in any way. They charge per item for the printing, but otherwise everything you realize from the sales belongs to you.
All three categories of business are legitimate, and can often help you in your career as a writer. Just know that they are different than “being published” and you should only work with them if their model best suits your needs and goals.
Sadly, every kind of small press contains actual charlatans as well as well-intended amateurs who aren’t scammers but will do your book little good. Once you know what your ideal publisher is like, it’s time to go find one.
7 Sources for Finding a Reputable Small Press
Signing on with one of the Big Five publishing houses is a simple proposition, even if it’s far from easy. You find an agent. The agent sells your work to the house. Voila.
With small presses, one of the initial challenges is populating a list of candidates for your work. Once you’ve figured out what sort of small publisher is best for your needs, the next step is to go find publishers to match.
I recommend making a list of close-to-perfect matches for you and your book, using any or all of the following seven resources:
This is the Yellow Pages of potential homes for your work. It includes the titular flagship guide, an online database called Writer’s Market, and dozens of specialty books that focus on one kind of press or another. Writer’s Digest does its research well, so any publisher that makes their listings is sure to be reputable, professional, and legitimate. However, that same attention to detail means they sometimes lag a few months behind.
A Google search for “small publishers of _________” or “small presses for ________” will turn up a slew of presses, plus one or two review pages or lists. It’s a good place to start searching, plus you can follow the initial links through to other recommendations, promotions, and listings.
Google is in some ways the opposite of Writer’s Digest guides. It’s as up-to-date as things get, but it’s not as authoritative or reliable.
If you’ve been a serious writer for a while, you know at least one person who can name small presses in the area…and you have at least a dozen other social media contacts who can do the same. Asking your friends for recommendations is highly subjective, but you’ll get a level of detail and personal insight you can’t get from any other source.
4. Writers’ Groups
Every local area has at least one organization for writers. Almost all of those organizations have close ties with several small presses, and/or listings of a variety of publishers. They also offer other programming that makes the (usually inexpensive) membership fee worth every penny. Join up and check out their resources.
At writers’ conferences, you can find publishers in at least three ways. They’ll be at the trade show and/or advertising in the program. They’ll have representatives on site to talk with authors. You’ll chat and sit next to authors who know about a few small presses. All three of these opportunities provide strong leads about small presses for you to approach later.
6. Industry Conventions
Whatever you write about, there’s a convention not too far from you. If you write fiction, find the genre convention. If you write nonfiction, find the convention for the industry that serves what you write. Most conventions will have at least one booth occupied by a small press serving that industry. You can visit with them and get a foot in the door at the cost of tickets to something you find interesting anyway.
7. What You’re Reading
I’m always surprised how few people have done this, but your bookshelf is full of guides to publishers. Look at who published the books that are most like your own work. About half will be Big Five houses, but the other half will be small presses….and you know those presses are interested in what you write about.
If you get two leads from each of these sources, you can start searching in earnest with a list of 14 potential homes for your work. That’s not a bad first wave of submissions.
So, you’ve found a small press. You submitted. They showed interest. You’re going to move forward and become a Real Live Published Author (™).
But even at this stage, there are risks you want to mitigate against, lest you lose time (and even money) in your quest for becoming a Real Live Successful Published Author (™).
Let’s talk about those experiences from the beginning of this article.
Experience One is what you’re hoping for. The publisher does a good job in good faith. You sell some books, make some money, and set yourself up for a second book with the same house.
This is great, but it’s not without its own risks. Most of them are associated with the contract. Some small presses create contracts that give them unreasonable power and limit your ability to write for other presses, even in genres they don’t even print.
You can avoid most of these risks by having a lawyer or agent review the contract, and push back on points that are unacceptable. This will mean an uncomfortable conversation or two, and might mean losing the deal even at this stage—but trust me, walking away from a bad contract is vastly superior to living with one.
Experience Two is the trickiest situation. Doing business with people you like, and who share your love of literature, but who don’t know how to sell books, is a risk in and of itself. But poor sales of a good book is only one of the potential pitfalls here.
Again, the contract is an important piece. Most small presses who deliver this experience don’t build intentionally abusive contracts, but they can have incomplete or poorly worded contracts that leave you in uncomfortable situations or lead to arguments down the road. Again, having a lawyer or agent review and revise the offerd contracts is the best way to reduce this risk.
Lack of budget is another risk posed by many of this kind of small press. They’re almost never full-time outfits, and are often subsidized by the owners’ personal income from a job. That means they may not be able to deliver on their intent or promises when it comes to producing, printing, and promoting your books. Asking to view their business plan is the best way to mitigate this risk. If they don’t have one, that’s a warning sign.
Finally, personality conflicts are a problem with this experience in ways they aren’t elsewhere. People passionate enough about books to become a publisher are often passionate about other things—passionate enough to produce drama even when money isn’t involved.
I have no great advice about how to avoid this potential pitfall of passionate publishing. Just be polite and professional like you would in any other work relationship, and give yourself permission to bail on unreasonable people.
Experience Three is a special kind of risky. The scam artists who create these traps set out to steal your money through deceit. The risk isn’t in the relationship—that’s not a risk, it’s a certainty.
The risk in this experience is in being so blinded by your eagerness to get published that you ignore the warning signs and do business with these jerks anyway. Remember, they stay in business because they are good at convincing you they offer a legitimate, good-faith relationship.
You’ll get a hearty congratulations email from this kind of press (occasionally without having ever sent in your manuscript). They will make wild claims about how well you could do with your writing without making any specific references to what you’ve written. They’ll say publishing is expensive and they need you to have some skin in the game.
And then they’ll ask you for money.
If they ask you for money, it is a scam. It doesn’t matter the myriad ways they try to convince you otherwise. It doesn’t matter how badly you want it to be a legitimate offer. It’s not. Avoid this experience by keeping a clear head and listening to the warnings.
If you only retain a handful of things from this article, remember these key points:
- Small presses are an important part of the industry
- Small presses can be riskier than the Big Five major houses
- Watch carefully for well-meaning amateurs
- Watch extra-carefully for predatory publishers
- Always consider a small press part of your journey to ultimate success
This report can be a little intimidating. The path of the small press is twisty, and fraught with monsters. But that’s not to say small presses aren’t worth the risk.
A good small press can take care of you in ways the big houses simply won’t. Their staff is often more passionate about your topics, and the house is small enough that everybody remembers your name. Often in the past decade, more have begun offering much larger royalties off sales than the larger publishers. This means your income can be higher than with a larger house, even with reduced distribution.
As you search for publication, search among the small presses right along with your attempts to get in with the big leagues. Just keep your eyes wide open as you search.
Have you decided that a small press is the right choice for you? Check out TCK Publishing’s submissions guidelines and consider whether we’re the right fit for your next book!
We look forward to reading your manuscript.
Read on for more about choosing the best publishing option for you and your career:
- Is Self Publishing or Traditional Publishing Better Financially?
- Traditional Publishing vs. Self Publishing – Pros, Cons and Tips for Success
- How Traditional Publishing Has Changed and What That Means to a Writer Starting Out