May 27th, 2015

Paths to Publication: The Small Publisher

Kate Moretti

Photo by Danilo Rizzuti. Published on 12 January 2010. Image from Stock photo - Image ID: 10011430

Photo by Danilo Rizzuti. Published on 12 January 2010. Image from
Stock photo – Image ID: 10011430

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?

About Kate

author photoKate 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.

41 comments to Paths to Publication: The Small Publisher

  • Kate, a good small press is an excellent thing, although the operative word is “good” — we’ve all seen the results of the less-than. I went the small-press route on the recommendation of my agent, and I love the results. With my third book, I became the small press because I wanted that creative control, and I wanted to test the waters of indie publishing. Yes, it was a costly endeavor to hire an excellent editor, but his knife wielding helped make Heavy Weather a much better book. And I had a wonderful time designing the cover. What I don’t like is marketing. How well did your small press help at that end?

    • “GOOD” Is totally the operative word. I could have written a whole other post on how to vet the good ones. As for marketing, I think RAP is great because they’re constantly growing their knowledge. Now, they seek trade reviews, and utilize Netgalley (they didn’t when I published Thought I Knew You with them). They do preorders. Much of their marketing is similar to self-published authors (vs. traditional with national media campaigns): blog tours, price point variation, and they pay for ads at sites like Book Bub and ENT (among others). I truly believe that no matter where you go (legacy, small press, self-pubbed), you bear the brunt of marketing efforts. Have you had that experience too, Normandie?

      • I have, Kate. Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas did much that yours does to help with marketing, but I long for someone who’ll do it all!

        • Normandie – as someone who is pubbed with NY, and one of the better marketing publishing houses to boot, I can tell you, there’s no such thing! Unless you’re Nora or *fill in the blank* you don’t get it all….

          I hear your bubble bursting – sorry.

          • HAHA! I wish there was a “like” button on these things. Yes, I heard it too! OH, wait that was mine….
            I think that many people do LESS with legacy publishing because they expect to. And for some, that works out because of various factors: word of mouth potential, lucky breaks in exposure, like a well placed ad or big review. For others, maybe they get fewer sales and then risk future contracts. I have called what I do “scrapping for sales”. I truly think of book marketing like a small business and every single sale counts. It can be exhausting and rewarding and also I meet some really wonderful people. I don’t know if this is the right or wrong attitude. I was truly hoping to do a little bit less work with my new book published with S&S next year. We shall see!! xoxo

  • I am published with a small press. I agree with the competent editing you receive, the beautiful covers and the large royalties. I haven’t published anything new in a long while. Long story involving the long caretaking and then death of a spouse. I am currently putting some work out again. Perhaps some to smaller presses. Perhaps some indie. I enjoyed reading your blog.

  • My debut novel was published last year with a small publisher, and I couldn’t be happier. They did so much more than I could have done if I had self-published, and they’re small enough that I feel connected. I’m finishing up my second novel, and I will go back to my current publisher in a heartbeat. I know that not all experiences are as good as mine, so when I was researching publishers I took note when authors had published more than one title with the same publisher. It seemed like a wink that I might want to check this one out.

    • Great advice, Mary Ellen! Yes, two books with the same publisher would indicate satisfaction in my mind as well. Great tip on vetting potential homes for your work!

  • Completely agree with what you say – I’m very happy with two small publishers and now I publish the odd book myself as well. Great choices for writers these days!

  • Wonderful blog today. I really learn a lot from the posts. I have indie published two books and would be interested in pursuing small presses. Where do I begin constructing a list? How do I find them?

    • You know Christine, that’s a great question. I think a lot of it is word of mouth, but I’m not sure. I found RAP on a writer’s website. You can check Predators and Editors but the list is overwhelming, and not entirely inclusive (for RAP it just says “a publisher”). I think its mostly just legwork, starting with Google, unfortunately. Then vet the ones that take your genre (look at covers, sales, return authors, that kind of thing).

  • Where do you start looking for a good small publisher? I’ve seen plenty of lists of small publishers on the Web, but how about a list of good, legit ones? Also, a blog on how to vet a small publisher would be great!

    • I should write a blog post on that (how to vet, that is). As for finding one, I’m not sure a good list of legit small publishers exists. I think if you started P&Ed, as I suggested above, you’d have to vet them all individually. Look at cover, overall books (quality, you might have to buy one!), sales, return authors (do most authors return?), even contact their authors and ask them! I’m always happy to talk to people about RAP.

  • Orly Konig-Lopez

    There are so many viable options for writers these days. In addition to researching your options, I think it’s important for writers to really evaluate their motivation for going down a certain path. As long as you stay true to what you want for your career, there are no wrong answers. Great post, Kate!

    • Thanks, Orly! I did *not* take your advice :). I didn’t know, three years ago, I was so naive. I had no idea what I was doing. For me, it was more luck than anything else. Knowing what I do now, I probably still wouldn’t have made a different choice. Totally the right move for me, right out of the gate!

  • Great post.

    I’ve taken both routes, small press and legacy (NY Agent), to experience both options. How wonderful to be a writer and have choices!

    Dee Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT

  • Insightful post. I think you’ve convinced me that a small publisher is right for me. Thanks!

  • Great post, Kate … and coming in late in the day, I also get the advantage of all the wonderful comments. It has never failed … WITS … puts us in the driver’s seat and let’s us decide where to drive 🙂

    Thanks again 🙂

  • I also chose small publisher for my first two books for many of the same reasons Kate did. I wanted more control and I wanted to learn about the publishing industry by being more involved. Kate, you were right about the editing. I worked one-on one with my editor and learned a great deal.
    Great post. thank you for adding so much information. It is a viable route to take.
    Do your research and make sure you chose wisely.
    Judi Brett w/a Reece Brett

  • Very informative post Kate. I never thought of going with a small press as a first route. I’m glad it worked out so wonderfully for you and for others here. Another plus is that you didn’t have to go through the agent rejection game. I know, I know, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger . . . Going with a small press seems to be like me finding that my husband is perfect, maybe he’s not perfect for someone else (luckily cuz I’m glad he’s mine), but he’s perfect for me! You’ve given me another option to ponder, on what I hope is my road to publication of my first novel. Many thanks for sharing your story, and hopefully some of your luck will rub off on the rest of us who aren’t published. Not yet that is.

    • Luck is definitely a factor and yes, I got lucky with the agent rejections! Mostly I wanted everyone to see that there are a ton of ways to get into the publishing game and no matter who you talk to or what you read, there’s no “wrong” way. UNLESS you’re giving someone money to publish your book. Don’t do that! 🙂

  • This is a great post and reading the replies has also been helpful. I submitted my first manuscript to a small publisher 10 days ago and am anxiously waiting for their reply. I believe in my work, my writing and my future as a published author. It’s exciting AND scary but conversations like these are very helpful…and I am a sponge!

  • Fae Rowen

    I love the timing of the Universe! Kate, your post comes at the perfect time. I’m actively deciding whether to continue pursuing the traditional route or self publish. Thanks for some more thinking points.

  • I’ve been toying with this idea for a couple of years. A caregiver has lots of time to sit and think. Anyway I told a dear friend that is a writer (we met at an RWA Conference several years ago) that our books didn’t seem to be liked by any Agents or Publishers. I had been rejected once only because I had only submitted once but she had submitted to more than one but she was getting the same rejection. I thought I wrote romance, I didn’t. I’m not sure what genre she submitted to. So maybe we were going to have to become agent and publisher to get anything accepted. She has 4 books and
    almost ready to send in that her agent has sold. Life took over my life and I have had to go the route older writer took which is slower than I expected. But coming along. As I saw the names of the writers who have gone with small press I am impressed and will probably follow their lead. I don’t have the freedom to do what independent publishers have to do. I also do not like the at least 2 year wait for the Traditional way although until I had started honing in on making a decision I was going to go Traditional. I do not know enough if I was free to do all required of a self-published author so Traditional was close to #1. I had not even thought of Small Press but after this article and the discussion here they are neck and neck. More research but that’s writing. Thanks for the info Kate. I need to cut about half of this out but that is writing too.

    • I think rejection is part of the game no matter what for 99% of people. I’ve been lucky, BUT, my agent submitted my newest manuscript to over 40 large publishers and I got about 30 rejections. So, even though I consider myself “lucky” I’ve been rejected over 30 times. It’s all part of it, I think! Good luck!

  • I published with a small press and I love it! My debut novel is out, I just finished edits on my sophomore novel and last night, I turned in my third book. I’m now writing the 4th one with them. It’s the same house that Normandie published with first, Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas (or LCP). And you’re right, I can converse with the publisher/CEO, toss ideas around, etc. I do have an agent, one I love, and she’s helped me get a couple of things that most writers with a small press don’t get, especially debut authors. SO I feel she’s worth her weight.

    As far as marketing, mine has helped me with several things, but I’ve done my share through the internet. Once again, as Laura Drake said, unless you’re Nora or “____”, book signing tours aren’t worth a hill of beans outside your local area. Local ones are fairly good.

    I somehow found (I think it was through Twitter) Book Tribe. Then the owner sent me a message about his Ask David Twitter promo. It cost $10 for 10 tweets, which you can spread over a year, and retweet. He has over 40K followers who are readers. For 10 bucks, I tried it. I bounced back up to #6 on Amazon. My publisher called me to see what I was doing because I’d sold a bunch of books in one day. 🙂 My $10 was well-spent and had a great return. The only caution I give is don’t use them all at once. Spread the tweets out a month or so apart.

  • Kate,
    Thank you for this. I have just begun to research small publishers and have been wondering if it is a good path. I’m encouraged by the comments and information you’ve generated. One thing though, the submission guidelines can be rigorous and as important as querying an agent. Rejections are possible. It’s part of the process. No one’s writing appeals to everyone. I want a good home for my story and a small press is starting to feel right.

    • I think rejection is possible, even likely, at any stage of the game. Never easy, never fun, but it’s part of it, I agree! Good luck to you!

  • What a GREAT post and really in truly, one of a kind because I haven’t read one like it before. I’ve read indie versus traditional but not much about small presses. My first book was pubbed by a small press but I was new, they were new, and marketing was fairly non-existent. Hence, the sales were abominable and ultimately they folded this year. So I went to another small press. I could line my entire house with the rejection letters I’ve received from agents on my books. So I bumped into Ravenswood Publishing and my book comes out tomorrow. Long story short, I agree with all your points. I had to pay for my own editing but I always have my books professionally edited before I send them out to agents anyway, so my cost was minimal. I didn’t have to pay for cover art or formatting and Ravenswood does a good amount of promo. Of course, as Laura Drake said, an author still has to do a LOT of their own marketing with a big or a small press. That is totally true. I’ve been doing that heavily for the last month. After tomorrow I’ll see what a difference all of it makes for my second book.
    Thank you so much for your post.

  • Your information on a small press has made me rethink what I want to do with my novel. I’m in the final revision stage and I’m beginning to look at agents and publishing houses. Although my dream has been to find and an agent who can get me seen by one of the big 5, I’m now thinking I want to look at small presses, too. I guess I’m trying to move back into reality. Thanks!