Small Presses: Exposing the Myths

While at a writer’s conference, I overheard two writers talking in the bar. One had an offer from a small publisher and wondered if signing with them would trash her credibility with agents when querying them for subsequent books. Her friend snorted that people who pub with small presses are only interested in getting their stuff out there and that agents laugh at these publishers and their authors.

The author with the book offer listened closely, then made up her mind. “That settles it, I’m waiting for a REAL offer from a REAL publisher.”

I nearly swallowed my tongue. The publisher being discussed is a respected niche house that has been around for a long time. Had she signed with them, she would have enjoyed solid sales, credibility, and a lovely publishing credit.

And here’s the problem:  the word “Small Press” has become bastardized to the point where it has no meaning – much like the senseless term “Traditional Publishing,” which makes me want to pull my hair out.

Terms that once clarified, now confuse. An independent press used to mean a publisher who isn’t part of a conglomerate, like the Big Six. But now the self publishers, PODs, and vanity presses have  stolen the term, so now everyone is confused…which makes having a conversation like the one above nearly impossible without further clarification.

The main problem is that we can no longer assume to know what Small Press means. Here are the flavors that now populate the publishing industry:

  • Small Commercial Press:  These are the Big Six’s little sister. They work exactly like the Big Guns but with fewer zeros in their operating cash. They have solid distribution, respectable sales, and their books are in stores across the country.
  • Print On Demand:  They have less operating cash, they don’t have distribution, they do small print runs, and their books aren’t shelved in bookstores.
  • E-Publishers:  Just what it says – they only publish in the e-book format. There are a few who will take their e-books to print after a title has X number of sales.
  • Vanity:  Pay to play.
  • Self-published:  Where the author is the publisher and handles all aspects of production, distribution, sales, marketing, and promotion.

So you can see why it’s vital to be very clear about WHAT publishing option the other guy is talking about because each option yields completely different results.

Myth:  Small Presses Suck Stale Twinkie Cream

Not all Small Presses are created equally. There are some very big differences that separate the wheat from the chaff, so it’s dangerous to lump all small presses into the same margarita blender.

Distribution:The author’s friend assumed Small Press meant a Print on Demand company that has no distribution and few sales, when in truth, the publisher who offered the book contract has excellent distribution and fabulous sales.There are many small presses who enjoy very solid distribution and sales. They coordinate with their distributor’s sales and marketing teams on a regular basis in order to maximize exposure and sales.

Instead of guessing and pondering with a friend who isn’t well-versed in publishing, you should be asking your prospective publisher who distributes their books. If they say IPG, Perseus, Consortium, NBN, IPS, then you know they are working on all cylinders because they have to have a certain amount of $$ coming in to even qualify. They are a proven quantity.

If they say Ingram and Baker and Taylor, then they do NOT have distribution. These entities are fulfillment warehouses. They don’t have sales teams out there pitching their catalog to buyers.

Promotion:  Don’t assume the worst of a small publisher; ask your prospective publisher what they do to promote their books. Do they send out ARCs to all the reviewers? Do they send media kits to print, radio, TV media? How many ARCs do they send out. For example, we send out 200 ARCs.

Editing:  Check out some of their books. If you’re wondering whether to sign on the dotted line, then you should consider reading a couple of their books in order to get an idea of the product they put out. If they are riddled with misspelled words and crappy formatting, then it could indicate what your book will look like.

Print Runs:  Ask what kind of print runs they do. If they say they use print on demand, then you know they do very small runs because they don’t expect to sell many books, or they’re waiting to see if the book actually takes off before investing in an offset run (which is cost-effective at about 1,000 units). Don’t be shy about asking how many books they plan on printing. If they’re offering you a book contract, they must have a good idea what kind of run they plan on doing because they’ve already done a P&L statement.

And here’s the thing; many small presses do these things, and agents know this.

Agents Laugh at Small Publishers 

The idea that agents laugh at Small Presses is laughable in itself. Many small presses work with agents on a regular basis – and these are agents who sell to the Big Guys as well.

Let’s face it, publishing is changing. The Big Boys are under the gun from their corporate overlords to make big bucks, so they’re looking for Big Books. The blockbuster. The problem with this is that many midlist authors are having a hard time getting placed. So guess who’s cleaning up? You got it; the Small Publisher.

The result is that midlisters become the #1 titles for their Small Publishers, and every bit of their arsenal is thrown into promoting those books – possibly moreso than if they’d signed with a Big Six. Because of this, many Small Publishers have a lot of very excellent books that are doing well. And because they’re doing well, agents come a-knockin’ a lot. What they WILL NOT DO is waste their time on a POD/vanity press, or any publisher who doesn’t have proper distribution, a good reputation, and solid sales history.

Sure, there are some agents who will only pitch to the Big Six and walk away. But most agents stick with the project because they love it and believe in it. It may not sell to a Big Gun, but that doesn’t mean it’s unworthy of publication and won’t sell quite well. Agents establish relationships with editors of all kinds of publishers because they’re always looking for a solid option. They’re not laughing, they’re selling.

Agents Laugh at Authors of Small Publishers

There’s this idea that agents look down their noses at authors who pubbed with a small press, and nothing could be further from the truth. If your publishing credit is with a small house, they’ll look up the sales via Bookscan. They may do a bit of research on the publisher of your previous book to decide whether they’ll include that publishing credit in their query letter/book proposal.

But first and foremost, they’re looking at the current book – not your past. If your previous experience is with a vanity press, or you self-pubbed, then you won’t even put that in your query letter because it’s not considered a publishing credit (because there is no litmus for talent). However, if you sold a bajillion copies of your e-book, then yes…include that.

The most important thing with publishing is to know the facts. People, like the one I saw in the bar, lost out on a wonderful opportunity because she listened to a myth. Apart from running out of the beagle’s margaritas, I can’t think of anything sadder.

13 Responses to Small Presses: Exposing the Myths

  1. D. D. Syrdal says:

    I’m sure glad I read this before I heard any of the myths. Excellent article, tweeted it out.

  2. briancleggauthor says:

    Spot on, Lynn. I’ve been published by Big 6 publishers and independents – and for anyone worried about going with one, I’ve found the independents easier to work with and very professional (if a little more short of cash!). Plus none of the big 6 has a beagle.

  3. NG says:

    Thanks for this bit of mythbusting. It’s sad that the person you overheard may loose out on an opprotunity to get published because of assumptions/myths held about small presses. Research is always an author’s best friend before submitting to a publisher or agent and all the points you mention are good questions an author should keep in mind when thinking about a home for their work.

  4. MK says:

    While I understand that there is a lot of misinformation out there, and even cautious people are occasionally misled by bad advise, the person in your story sounds to me like someone extremely careless. Who makes such a serious decision, like turning down an offer for a contract, so impulsively? Over a drink at a bar, because of the advise of someone who probably doesn’t have much knowledge on the subjest, and as the result of a comment that is obviously (even to someone ignorant of the industry) a snarky generalisation?

  5. You’d be surprised at the number of people who make ill-advised decisions regarding their publishing choices.

  6. This, for a change in the weather, is really solid information about the independent publishing scene. It is absolutely true that there has been a general terminological oollapse in our part of the industry which has made nonsense out of most of the commentary about it. Some readers of this blog may be interested in a post I put up on the IPG website about self-publishing and vanity press.

    Curt Matthews, CEO, Independent Publishers Group

  7. I have been published by a small press since 2004. 13 books, nice royalties, invitations to speak, teach, and most importantly, i have been treated with respect by other writers, readers, critics, agents, and my publisher. Small presses–you bet.

  8. Bill Webb says:

    Lynn, I think you forgot one important point – the idiot factor. Anyone who turns down a small press and thinks there is grass yet greener over yonder is, IMHO, an idiot.

  9. Laura W. says:

    And again your blog helps dispel the cloud of mystery around publishing. Thanks and shared it.

  10. […] must-reads from editor Lynn Price on the myths of small presses and the quest for excellence in […]

  11. tbrosz says:

    If “traditional publishing” is a bad term, what do we use instead? We all know the idea we’re trying to get across: agents and publishing businesses who operate…oh, heck, conventionally.


    What do we call the categories?

  12. I’ve always advocated using “trade press” or “commercial press” as a way of distinguishing from everyone else.

    Not quite sure what you mean by “category.” Do you mean genre or different types of publishing (which I defined in my blog post)?

  13. […] you to Lynn Price at The Behler Blog yet again, because she just keeps making so much sense. This time she discusses how, in the migration of definitions, you can figure out whether your […]

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