Should you go with a small press?

This is a question that often gets asked: what are the benefits of going with a small press?

First of all, there are a number of different definitions of the word small press. Some people define a small press as one that is not one of the big five publishing companies in the world. By that definition, a small press can be quite big.

But mostly, when people ask about small presses, they mean operations that are run by just one or maybe two or three people. They put up a website, advertise themselves as being open for submissions, and then are flocked by aspiring writers. Should you follow those writers?

There are a number of reasons why people like the idea of a small presses. It’s personal and there is a good chance that you will have some input in things like cover design, while having assistance in the nitty-gritty of publishing for those tasks that you don’t necessarily want to learn yourself. You don’t want to find an editor, you don’t want to have to worry about cover design, and you don’t want to do the marketing. But you have submitted your book to the big presses and agents already, and they all said no. So what is left? The small press sounds attractive. You can still say “my publisher”, so if traditional publishing is your aim, you appear to have fulfilled it.

But before you go any further, have a look at what your aim is.

Many people just want to be published by someone other than themselves. They like approval from the industry. However with a small press—or maybe a better word would be micro press—how much clout this approval carries will depend on the reputation and activities of the person running it. How well connected are they, how well respected are they, how good are they at getting your book in front of other people?

With the advent of self publishing, many small presses do very little that you can’t do it yourself, so why would you sign with them?

These presses are very author-centric, market and sell to the writing community. They often fall down severely on the marketing side of things. Usually these presses are run by people who do it for the love, who have a day jobs and who then juggle a number of authors in their spare time. They don’t have time to read up on the latest marketing techniques, because they’re too busy sorting out cover designers and meeting deadlines. Many are still focused strongly on print, and don’t have the resources to do all the things that you yourself could do for your books, simply because you don’t have nineteen other authors to worry about.

Many of the more successful small presses are focussed on the con circuit. They have tables at genre conventions and the main mode of selling is through these. I’m not saying that this is a good or a bad thing, just that this is what they do, and this method may not be what you envisaged for your books.

So: research the press and see what it’s doing to sell books.

If the small press has a reasonable history of publication, you are fairly safe in assuming that they will do the right thing by their authors. You can also safely assume that the press will do as it promised.

As a precaution, I would say also plan not to worry about money, because you will see very little of it. Most of the proceeds will go into covering the production cost, and there are so many occasions that I’ve had to chase up small presses for payment they never got around to making (“Oops, we forgot”) that I have given up trying. If you sell reasonably well as self-published author, you need to have a very very good reason to go with a small press. They need to offer you an advantage that you could not get on your own. Maybe the owner has awesome connections that could put you into contact with writers or publishers you have always dreamed of working with. Maybe the press is really good at getting books into local book stores, and you don’t want to go through that hassle yourself.

In any case, take a really good look at the contract. Ideally the contract should only be for a number of years with five being the most common. Ideally, the contract should only cover rights they are going to use. For example if the press deals with just print books, make sure you retain the e-book rights. If the press is very locally-focussed, make sure you retain worldwide rights to every country except yours. Make sure you retain your audio rights, make sure that in case the press does not meet their obligations and deadlines, you have a way to get your books back.

As I said most of these presses are run by only few people. Life happens. They get sick, get busy jobs, have to move, or have to deal with family crises.

So in conclusion, should you go with a small press?

It may be an option if you are totally uninterested in taking any form of control over your marketing or the production of your book. If you just want to see the book out there, and don’t want to optimise your income from it. It may be an option if the press is well respected and you want angle for an award. Or you want to be in the press’ community. Or if they can offer something that you cannot get by yourself.

However, if you want to optimise your income from your book, you want to be able to run promotions, or actually just run promotions full stop, or you want to publish a number of books in the same series and want to do it quickly, you will probably find it immensely frustrating.

A small press can be a good way to get a foot in the door if you are afraid of all the things that go into publishing. Research your press well to make sure that they put out a quality product. Don’t just go with anyone because they call themselves a publisher. Look at their product, look at the number of reviews that they have garnered for those books, look at the covers and how professional they look, buy one or two of the books to check the editing and most importantly, check the reputation of the owners.

However, don’t expect riches and don’t expect your book to appear on the bookshelves of every local bookshop.

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