10 questions to ask before publishing with a small press

Salvete, readers!

My first novel, The Way Home, was published this year by Odyssey Books, a small press in my native Australia. I have personally found the experience positive. However, this isn’t always the case when dealing with small presses. For example, my friend and fellow author Robyn Sarty shared on her blog the difficulties she encountered while working with a small press. Good experiences with small presses seem to be the exception. There are many reasons to be wary. For today’s post, I’ll run through some of the questions I ask myself before submitting to a small press. I went through all these questions before I signed on with Odyssey.

This post is unusually long for me. Here’s the short version: make sure you know what kind of career you want right from the very beginning, do your homework, and scrutinise the contract very carefully. With that in mind, here are the big questions:

  1. Am I better off self-publishing?

Disadvantages of small press publishing

  • With a small press, chances are you will end up doing most of the marketing yourself. It’s a lot of work, and you will receive less royalties per sale than you would by self-publishing. All things considered, is it worth sacrificing the royalties?
  • If the publisher is decent, you may have to surrender some creative control over things like content, formatting, layout, pricing, and the cover. You may or may not be okay with this.
  • Ask yourself: what are the advantages of being with a small presses? What does this small press offer that you can’t do yourself?

 

Potential advantages of small press publishing

  • Perhaps the publisher has a good reputation in the industry, or they might have great distribution, or they might have excellent people on their staff with whom you would like to work.
  • The ideal publisher will give expert guidance on aspects like cover design, editing, layout. I personally gain energy from working with others and wanted to benefit from my editor’s expertise.
  • There is a plethora of self-published content out there and it’s easy to get lost in the over-saturated market. Perhaps you’ll stand out from the crowd a little more with a publisher behind you, though nothing is guaranteed!
  • Potentially, you may have marketing opportunities you wouldn’t have as a self-published author. For instance, The Way Home was included in the Christmas catalogue for The Small Press Network and advertised in Books + Publishing, the magazine for the Aussie publishing industry. I don’t think these would have happened if the book were self-published.
  • Perhaps, for whatever reason, you don’t feel comfortable self-publishing—and that’s absolutely fine! It’s enormously time consuming and can be very costly to have sole responsibility for every aspect of your book. Lord knows I wasn’t ready to step into the indie world when I started seeking to publish The Way Home. It’s a somewhat different story now, and I would like to have a foot in both the indie and trad camps. But that is another story for another time…
  • As I mentioned in a previous post, it comes down to your long-term career goals and what your aspirations are for this particular book.

 

  1. Am I better off with a larger publisher?

Disadvantages of small press publishing

  • I’ll keep it short. If you want big advances, to see your books in chain stores, sell the film rights, have a full marketing team behind you, become a household name with your debut novel, then small press publishing probably isn’t for you.
  • Again, it comes down to your goals as an author. Be clear about this from the outset.

 

Potential advantages of small press publishing

  • These days even major publishers tend to grant smaller advances than they used to, and the marketing support has shrunk to the point where you’ll still be doing quite a bit of it yourself. However, if you get an advance you are under considerably more pressure to sell copies, as the publisher wants to recoup its investment. If your first book doesn’t earn out (often for reasons that are completely beyond your control), then you’ll be fighting an uphill battle to publish a second.
  • This pressure doesn’t really exist with a small press if you don’t have an advance, as is usually the case. Without an advance, the book doesn’t need to sell nearly as many copies to be profitable—in the small press world, around 5000 copies is generally considered a bestseller.
  • Again, it comes back to your goals—for your career and your book. These will shape your decisions about whether or not to submit to a small press. For an unknown author with long-term career goals, just starting out and looking to make a reputation in the industry, a well-regarded small press can be a great place to start.
  • Small press publishing fulfils the goals I currently strive for. It won’t work for everyone, but at this point of my career it does work for me.

 

  1. What kind of website does the publisher have?
  • Okay, let’s say that you’ve decided to start looking into small presses. You want to eliminate the bad options and make sure your book ends up in the right hands. Before submission, the first thing you’ll check out is their website.
  • If it’s a clean, professional, modern-looking website, that’s a good start.
  • You’d be surprised how many small presses’ websites look like they were built by twelve-year-old kids learning to use HTML.
  • If the website looks bad, the publisher is bad. That simple. If the website is good, well, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. See below.

 

  1. Am I actually dealing with a legitimate publisher?
  • I can’t stress this one enough. There are a lot of predators out there. Many vanity presses pass themselves off as small presses, trying to prey on the newbie writers who don’t know better. Or perhaps the authors are desperate to see their name in print—even if it means paying ridiculous fees!
  • Though I know there are experimental models of hybrid publishing, as a general principle I think it’s best for the money to flow from the publisher to the author, not the other way around.
  • There are a lot of great resources out there like Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s project, Writer Beware, which keeps track of literary scams.
  • The longevity of the publisher is a good indication of how much you should trust them. Most small presses fold within two years, for lots of reasons. If it seems like a fly-by-night operation or lame get-rich-quick scheme, it probably is.
  • Any publisher which will just print your book with no edits whatsoever isn’t worth your time.
  • Put simply, predators are not your friends. They want to eat you. Be smart like a rabbit and run.

 

  1. What sort of digital footprint does the owner of the publisher have?
  • With a small press, the business owner is most likely also the commissioning editor and solely responsible for the range of books they produce. It might feel a bit intrusive, but I do think it is worthwhile Googling the business owner and seeing what you can find.
  • If your submission is successful, then you’ll be working very closely with this person for a long time. There is a good chance you’ll be under considerable time pressure through the production process as small presses tend to have tighter schedules. It’s stressful. You want to have the confidence at the outset that you’re dealing with a decent person who knows their business, somebody you can work with under adverse circumstances.
  • See question 4 above. If you can’t find anything about the owner, that is a real worry. It suggests that either the individual doesn’t want to be found, or that they have no experience in the industry.
  • If the authors in the publisher’s current stable sing their praises online, that is a very good sign. Decent publishers tend to attract loyalty from their authors.

 

  1. Does the publisher have a good reputation in the industry?
  • How do you know they are well-regarded? Go to conferences and ask people who know. Check out who follows who on social media.
  • If the publisher’s books get shortlisted for publishing awards, it’s a very good sign. One of the reasons I was confident going to Odyssey was because Kathryn Gossow’s Cassandra was nominated for an Aurealis Award, the biggest award for science fiction and fantasy in Australia. My hunch that I was onto a good thing with Odyssey was confirmed when Elizabeth Jane Corbett’s The Tides Between was shortlisted by the Children’s Book Council of Australia.

 

  1. Do I actually like the books they publish?
  • Some small presses publish a diverse array of materials. Others specialise in a particular genre. Either way, if you don’t like the books they publish, chances are you won’t like working with this publisher.
  • See if you can find a consistent theme or tone running through the books. If it resonates with you, go for it. If you like their books, there is a chance the editor will like your stuff. If you don’t like the books, move on.
  • Do the books’ covers appeal to you? Does the publisher invest actual money into cover design? If their covers look cheap, tacky, unprofessional or unappealing, then run.

 

  1. Can I find their books in bookshops/libraries?
  • I’m not just talking about distribution to online stores like Amazon etc. That isn’t a big deal these days. You can distribute to online stores for a very small fee through an automatic service like Draft2Digital. I’m talking about distribution of hard copies to libraries and bricks-and-mortar stores.
  • Chances are you won’t see the books in the major chain stores. That isn’t necessarily a problem. However, do check out the franchises like Dymocks in Australia or Waterstones in the UK. Also check independent bookstores, who are much more likely to stock small press books out of a desire to support the writing community.
  • If you Google “Publisher name” + “distributor” you should be able to find out which company distributes their books. If they don’t work with a distributor, that may be a cause for concern. Part of the reason I was attracted to Odyssey was because their books are distributed via Novella Distribution, which has a great relationship with schools in Australia and NZ. If you write for kids or teens, school libraries are your bread and butter. The distributor isn’t just there to take orders, store and deliver the stock. They also champion the book to potential retail outlets and libraries.
  • The public library is also particularly important litmus test in Australia, which has a thriving public library system. Authors receive a (very small) compensation every time their book is borrowed.
  • It can also help to check out websites like worldcat.org, which give a fairly good overview of which libraries hold a particular book. It isn’t comprehensive or kept up to date, but it will give you some idea.

 

  1. How fair is the contract?
  • Let’s say you’re successful in your submission and you are offered a contract. It can be tempting to sign anything the publisher waves in front of you, but make sure you go in with both eyes open. Read it carefully. If it’s not acceptable to you, renegotiate or walk away. Other opportunities will come along. You have power in this situation. You have something the publisher wants—it is easy to forget that.
  • It is of enormous value to have an expert read it and give their professional opinion. Professional bodies like the Australian Society of Authors and the Queensland Writer’s Centre will provide this service for a fee. It’s worth it.
  • I’m a bit wary of anything written in excessive legalese. The English should be clear even to a lay reader.
  • What rights are you granting? Any publisher that expects you to surrender your copyright is predatory.
  • The terms of the contract should only last for a finite period whose date of expiry is explicit.
  • Also, it should spell out that if the publisher folds—which happens all too often—then all rights revert to you as the author.
  • You are in essence granting the publisher a licence to print and distribute your work, and when the contract is finished you should have the opportunity to renegotiate before renewing it. If the rights lapse, they should automatically revert to you, and this should be made clear.
  • You should keep the adaptation rights. They are more valuable than you think.
  • The contract should also make it clear who has the final say on the book’s content—i.e. the publisher shouldn’t be allowed to make major revisions without your expressed permission.
  • The contract should also spell out exactly what you and the publisher are expected to do in order to ensure the book’s success.
  • If the contract restricts your right to submit future work elsewhere, renegotiate. If the publisher won’t renegotiate, run. There is at least one player in the world of Australian publishing who compels authors to surrender part of their royalties if they submit future work elsewhere. I won’t name names, but for heaven’s sake, don’t sign anything like this!
  • Finally—the contract should spell out what will happen if things don’t work out between you and your publisher. Sometimes they don’t. Look after yourself.

 

  1. How much are my royalties?
  • If you are going to a small press for the money, you may be in it for the wrong reasons. But you *do* deserve to get paid fairly for your work, no matter what.
  • The contract should clearly spell out how much you get paid, how royalties are calculated, and when you can expect payment.
  • If you are not receiving any kind of advance, then it is reasonable to expect more generous royalties. A major publisher will offer 25% of net receipts on e-book sales on top of the advance. Ideally you should get a bit more than this.

 

  1. Bonus question: Are you willing to work your butt off to make the book a success?
  • No matter which avenue for publication you choose–indie, trad, small press—you’re going to need to work hard to make sure the book sells. If you know nothing whatsoever about marketing, then now is a very good time to learn the basics.
  • Again, you are also going to have to work fast and be available to respond to editor’s notes very quickly, as small press schedules are usually tight. If you can do that, you are doing well.

I think that’ll do it for today.

Until next time,

Valete

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