Whenever I hear people discussing paths to publication, I have to admit, my ears perk up. Generally, there two buckets: Traditional versus Indie. Traditional typically means publishing through one of the Big 5 or their imprints with an agent. Indie is mostly regarded as self-publishing. But there’s a third, lesser explored option: the small publisher.
When I first wrote Thought I Knew You, I had no idea what to do next. I found a brand new small press, Red Adept Publishing, on a writer’s website forum. I never queried an agent, never submitted my manuscript to another publisher at all. I thought getting it published would be a lark – how fun! My mom could read it in real book form! Truly, I never expected a yes.
I often reflect on the “decisions” I’ve made almost serendipitously, and feel enormously lucky. People have asked me: do you ever wonder what would have happened if you’d chosen a different path? If you’d queried an agent three years ago? Do you regret it?
No. A resounding no.
I’m not in any position to preach what anyone else should do. Like most things, publishing isn’t a one size fits all endeavor, and the manner in which you put your words into the world should feel like a home. I’ve found great comfort in the small press world because:
1. The size of the pond
No matter how you slice it, a debut author is small fish in a big pond. An ocean is a more apt metaphor. In traditional publishing, it’s very easy for a debut author with an average $5K advance to get lost. An editor retires, a marketing rep drops the ball. I’m not saying it’s inevitable, I’m just saying it happens. In a good small publisher, the business owner is rarely more than a phone call away. A real live person is invested in the company, literally and figuratively. They operate like a small business. They need successful books in order to thrive, and the success or failure of one novel has an impact. They put out (maybe) a book a month.
I know I can call my publisher at any time of the day and my questions get answered. If I have a reasonable request (like a price point discussion), I know it will be treated carefully. Will I always get my way? No, not always. But also, not infrequently. It’s a bit more collaborative and the playing field is more even than with a large publisher.
2. The 1:1 Attention During Editing
Most of the time, a debut is the first, tentative steps into the world of ohmygodpeoplewillreadthis. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that my first (and second) drafts of my manuscript were overwritten. I waved my hand. I blinked my eyes. Veteran writers know that I waved and I blinked work just fine. Editors know this. Unless you’ve had a thorough edit from someone you do not know, you are probably also suffering from a tiny bit of newbie-itis throughout your manuscript. With a good small publisher, your editor is not bogged down with making deals and is focused on your book. They are typically not strapped as thin as editors in the Big 5. My novel was content edited, line edited, copy edited, and proofread (at least 3 times). I had an open dialogue with my editor about content issues, brainstorming sessions and even a few Skype sessions. The process was thorough, exhaustive, and rewarding. Not to mention, I learned more in those sessions than I would have reading any craft book or even taking classes.
Conversely, if you procure editing services to self-publish your novel, the temptation always exists to ignore their suggestions and claim creative control. Good editing should hurt. It should make you mad. It should be frustrating as hell. That’s how you know it’s working.
3. Higher royalty rates than Big 5
Most small publishers offer a higher royalty rate on print and ebooks than the legacy publishers. The industry standard for larger publishers is 25% net on ebooks and 10-15% on print, depending on distribution, contract, publisher and third-party clauses. For small publishers, the royalty rates typically jump anywhere from 35%-65% (with most being in the 50% range). While most offer very low advances ($1-2K), if at all (I did not get an advance), the good months can make up for that over time.
4. Quick(er) Turnaround
If a publisher tells you they can take you from submitted draft to finish product in a month, you should probably run. Editing, proofreading, art and formatting take time. Cutting any of these short impacts the quality of the product you’re going to put out there. That being said, a small publisher can work significantly faster than a large one, while still maintaining quality. Both my books came out within a year of submission.
5. Bearing the financial burden
When comparing a small publisher versus self-publishing, the advantage to small publishing is that they bear most of the financial burden. They pay for formatting (~$500), editing (~$500), marketing (~$500), cover art ($400)… these costs add up (obviously these are estimates based on what I’ve seen and do not speak to all available price points). An business-savvy author will track of their expenses and develop a plan to get each book into the black. Listen, I don’t think I’ll offend anyone by saying it: we’re creative. A LOT (not all) of creative people are not so good at… keeping track of things (says the girl with a pen clipped to her shirt and a pen in her hair). With a small publisher, you’re allowed to focus on the writing. It’s a freeing privilege.
Like anything else, there are great and not-so-great small presses, make sure to thoroughly vet your options. Contact other authors, ask for referrals, get your contracts reviewed by a publishing lawyer.
There are many reasons why people choose small press. To some, it’s a viable option because they’ve been querying a long time with no luck, but believe in their work. Some are writing in a niche genre that won’t garner wide readership and is viewed as “not salable” by agents and larger publishers. Or maybe they want their books into the world and don’t want to wait two years to do it. Some people find the alternative of self-publishing to be too labor intensive and just want to write. Whatever the reasons, small press is just one of many options, but might hold some appeal for anyone just starting out.
What about you? Have you considered an alternative publication path?
Kate Moretti is the New York Times Bestselling author of the women’s fiction novel, Thought I Knew You. Her second novel Binds That Tie was released in March 2014. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, two kids, and a dog. She’s worked in the pharmaceutical industry for ten years as a scientist, and has been an avid fiction reader her entire life.
She enjoys traveling and cooking, although with two kids, a day job, and writing, she doesn’t get to do those things as much as she’d like. Her lifelong dream is to buy an old house with a secret passageway.