Myth: Size matters

Ok, get your head out of the gutter! I’m talking publishing here.

There is a bias regarding smaller publishers and whether they’re worthy of an agent’s attention and, by proxy, worthy of an author’s attention as well. I’ve seen comments on various writer’s boards about how agents are deemed “good” if they only sell to the big guys. I’m willing to play along with this because there’s a certain grain of truth to it.

Just because we accept unagented work doesn’t negate the necessity for agents. They always get better deals for their authors and the authors get a company who can deliver the goods.

Now, that said, I think it’s important to consider whether agents are making those big sales as well.

If an agent only sells to smaller publishers – who usually accept unagented queries – then they develop a reputation for being unable to get the job done. I agree with this. A worthy agent sells to everyone – big and small.

Why small, you screech like a frog who’s pond water was spiked with meth. After all, big is better and small fries are less commercial. They’re one step above those vanity barfbags and PODs, so why would an agent DARE sell to a small fry?

Small publishers – da truth

Small publishers tend to get lumped into one big mudpie with the PODs, vanity barfbags, and small presses who don’t have distribution. So we small commercial presses do a lot swimming upstream.

Da truth is that agents do their homework, and they know darn well who’s got game and who needs to hit the showers. This is a wee industry and gossip flies faster than the beagle after a hit of Jim Beam. We meet at conferences and network. They look at how many years a publisher has been in business and what kind of distribution they have.

The idea that good agents only sell to the big guys is plain nutsy. There are many reasons why an agent sells to a smaller indie publisher.

Time factor
It could be that a book needs to get out quickly because promotion may have been set in motion – and the agent knows a solid indie publisher can deliver the goods in a more timely fashion and also allow a large measure of author input.

It could be a trust thing. I’ve known authors who have been severely burned and they don’t trust a large press.

Editing differences
It could be that the agented-only publishers wanted to change an author’s book into something quite unrecognizable. The large press needs to sell a ton of books in order to be profitable, so they may want to severely alter a book in order to make it more “marketable” – which isn’t to say that they’re improving the book one iota.

A better deal
It could be that the smaller indie press offered a better deal. Maybe Big Gun, LLC offered an advance, but nothing in the way of promotion dollars, whereas the small fry may have said zip to the advance but offered great a promotion budget.

The school bus vs the Ferrari
Think of  the big publisher as a school bus. It needs a lot of passengers to fill up its seats before it can start its journey. It takes a lot of money to fill up the gas tank, so a percentage of those passengers better be worth some serious bucks. Now, that school bus has a huge gas tank, so it has a tremendous reach, but it also is cumbersome, so it can’t turn on a dime when things go wrong – like detours or freeway shutdowns.

The small indie is more like the Ferrari. It takes fewer passengers to fill the seats. Its smaller gas tank doesn’t require that those passengers be worth the huge bucks. And when those detours hit, the Ferrari is better able to quickly make a course change without upsetting the passengers, or tweaking the engine.

Ok, in English, I’m saying that the big guys need to sell a lot of books in order to be profitable due to their sheer size. Many don’t earn out, and it’s the big authors (those big buck passengers) that keep the bus in motion. The Big Gun publisher will turn down a book because they believe they can’t sell enough to be profitable. It’s not that it isn’t a worthy book. It’s just not a “big enough” book.

The small indie press, however, needs to sell far fewer books in order to be profitable, so that midlist, or lower, author becomes a superstar for the small indie press. And that means they’ll get far tighter editing and a lot more attention.


I’ve seen it suggested that agents would approach a smaller publisher because the quality of the book wasn’t good enough for the Big Gun publisher. Considering that I just read about Justin Bieber getting a book deal on his memoir (mind you, the lad is the tender age of 16k, so how much freaking living can he have done?), I question whether there are any working brain cells over at HC. Quality? Eh, don’t get me started.

The realities are that small fries have to be more selective because a) they normally are niche and only accept a narrow genre or category, and b) they don’t have the large budgets that can absorb huge losses if a book tanks.

I’ll take the example of one of our books. A very large press wanted the book but wanted to make huge changes that would literally destroy the essence of the original intent. The agent was incensed and queried us instead. Now, the big press would have gladly taken the book, but they would have given it very little attention because, in the grand scheme of things, it’s a small book for them – not even midlist. But for us, it’s our lead title for the year and will be the Great Yoda for its particular subject matter.

The idea is to get as much attention paid to your book as possible, and this wouldn’t have happened with the big press. OTOH, I edited that manuscript within an inch of its life and turned it into something quite fantastic that has a more cohesive arc and a much tighter, linear storyline. I’m convinced that they would have sold just as many books as we have – only they would suffer far more returns than we are – which to date is zero. Small fries have to work smart or go home.

It doesn’t mean that Small Fries rule and Big Guns drool.  I’m just sayin’ that indie presses are doing very, very well and the bias that has permeated the industry is dissolving. There are advantages that make both publishers ideal for authors. Agents know this.

4 Responses to Myth: Size matters

  1. NinjaFingers says:


    It’s not a question of the biggest publisher, it’s the question of the best publisher.

    And that varies from book to book.

  2. Tara Maya says:

    Thanks for that breakdown, it’s a question I’ve been thinking about recently.

    Btw, I just started Jan’s Story. I can’t say I’m “enjoying” it — it is too painful for that word, but I’m glad to be reading it. It is a very emotional read for me because my own grandmother suffered from a similar condition, and chances are my mother and I will also have it. I am glad there are presses bringing these stories out, and not just the bios of famous 16 yr olds.

  3. Angie says:

    Bra.vo! I love small and indie presses and peoples. A shame lots of people have blanketing opinions as to the “goodness” of bigs and littles. Personal service and caring — those are the essentials, IMHO. Loved this post.

  4. Tara: thank you for your comments regarding Jan’s Story. It’s a heartbreaking read, to be sure. But there are controversial subjects that need to be discussed, and Barry’s book is the first that deals with these tough issues.

    Angie: I can’t say that I blame people for their small press biases because they’ve been well-earned. There are plenty of meatball publishers out there who don’t know what they’re doing, and they always end up screwing the author. Thar be two sides to the coin, but I did want to present the nicer side.

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