Once upon a time, I thought an author would write a book, get it published, and then write their next book. But, once upon a time, I also believed in Santa Claus.
Let me start by admitting that I have never seriously considered becoming a “writer” as a career. I’ve had an eclectic employment history, but I came to writing rather late in life. My first speculative fiction publication (in Esperanto) was in 2010 (in my late 40s). That is also the year I self-published my first book, Poŝtmarkoj el Esperantujo, a collection of haiku in Esperanto and English with imaginary postage stamps, using Createspace.
I went on to self-publish another three books. These are books where I did very nearly everything (although I got a friend to help me edit the manuscripts — you really can’t edit your own manuscripts.) But I did the writing and page layout and cover art and interior art. And “promotion” — if you could call it that.
These books were not commercial successes. But I never expected them to be. I made them mostly for fun — so I could give copies of my poetry to friends and family. And to learn about self-publishing. It was an interesting and valuable experience. But I also came to appreciate how much work it is to self-publish.
I’ve never been traditionally published, although I’ve seen book publishing up close. I’ve worked on several book projects for traditional textbook publishers. And been invited on some of their junkets. My father published several books. And my brother has always been interesting in writing and publishing.
But the key point I’m making is that I’m not personally that invested in my writing becoming a significant part of my financial support. I wouldn’t mind, but that’s not primarily why I’m writing. And this fact drove a lot of my decisions about how I approached choosing a publisher for my work.
In Fall 2021, I signed a contract with Water Dragon Publishing (an imprint of Paper Angel Press) to publish my first work of speculative fiction in English, The Third Time’s the Charm. Working with a small press offers unique opportunities and challenges to an author. But it’s not for everyone. Anyone who is tempted to go with a small press should probably be aware of the trade-offs before signing a contract.
Publishers are a kind of specialized venture capital firm. They put up the capital to publish a book hoping to recoup their investment plus profit. But more importantly, a publisher hopes to discover the Next Big Thing. That’s what they’re really hoping to do: to discover the new writer today that becomes tomorrow’s great and famous writer.
Large (traditional) publishers basically require you to work with an agent. A small publisher probably won’t. Agents can be helpful in terms of negotiating the terms of the contract. And knowing which publishers are most likely to be interested in your manuscript (and, indeed whether your manuscript is likely to be publishable by one of the traditional publishers.) But, of course, their labor doesn’t come for free either. Their interests are aligned with yours but, at the same time, they’re also probably on friendly terms with the publishers too. (Make of that fact what you will.)
With a small publisher, you’re on your own. This is, front and center, one of the primary reasons that Writer Beware warns against small presses. “Be afraid! Be very afraid!” You, as the author, will be negotiating with them directly.
That said, a good small publisher will act like your agent for many of the tasks you would otherwise need to do yourself if you were self-publishing. And, in some ways, is better than an agent: An agent probably has some good ideas about what kinds of manuscripts a publisher is accepting. But the small publisher knows. 🙂
Small publishers tend to not have deep pockets. So don’t expect an advance. But you will probably get a more favorable revenue sharing arrangement. What does a small publisher do? They do the publishing: they edit your manuscript, do the layout, arrange for the cover art, etc., etc.
Perhaps, the biggest challenge is that small publishers (and authors) face is publicity. The large publishers have a track record and established relationships with the national vendors and media outlets to help get favorable placement for their authors in book stores and advertising. Small publishers mostly do not.
In point of fact, however, the large publishers have been pushing authors to take larger and larger roles in publicizing their work. Authors are encouraged to maintain a presence in social media and try to develop a fanbase that can help get “word-of-mouth” referrals, which is the gold standard (or, perhaps, best manure) for growing sales. And as the traditional publishers make the author do more and more of the publicity work anyway, there are fewer and fewer downsides to going with a small publisher anyway.
If you imagine a line between self-publishing (where you do everything) and traditional publishing, there are a whole range of small presses in between that offer more or fewer services. Shop around! Look at what kinds of books they’re already publishing: Will your work complement what’s already there? Do you like their selection of cover art?
And be sure to do your due diligence: What’s their track record? How long have they been around? Have they been reported as a vanity press? Are people complaining about them?
But if you do decide to go with a small press, you should understand that the relationship is a two-way street. The press has chosen to invest in your work. They’re going to do whatever they can to help you succeed. And that means it’s incumbent on you to also help your work succeed. You need to advocate for yourself and get your work out there. But you should also try to help raise the profile of the press: their success will also be your success.
Don’t publicize your book with links to distributors! Link directly to the publisher! They can provide the links to a range of vendors that buyers might prefer. And people going to look at your book might find other things at the press to buy.
Tag the press when you post about your work! Help the public to discover and learn about the press! The more people are looking at the press, the more likely they are to discover what other stuff they might have — including stuff you have there.
Work together with the other authors at the press! They can help cross-market your work and coordinate with publicity. And help discover opportunities (awards, conventions, etc.) that might be useful. Who knows? You might even make a friend or two.
At its best, your relationship with a small publisher is a kind of partnership. If you were self-publishing, you’d be on your own. But with a publisher, you’ve got someone you can work with, ask questions of, and get advice from. Take best advantage of this partnership and work together.