Since the turn of the century, digital technology has transformed the world of small press publishing.
Whether they’re ebook only or a mix of ebooks and print, digitally-based small presses save money by reducing or eliminating the cost of print runs and warehousing, making it far less expensive to start a publishing business than in the past. Easily-accessible digital platforms like KDP and IngramSpark make it possible for just about anyone to become a publisher (whether or not they have relevant skills or expertise).
Small publishers play a vital role as an alternative to giant, agent-only conglomerates such as Penguin Random House or HarperCollins. More flexible than the corporate behemoths and bigger independents, free of the shareholder expectations that drive the major houses in pursuit of profit, they can afford to take on authors and books that the larger houses may overlook or be unwilling to risk. They can serve niche or specialty or experimental audiences that aren’t profitable enough for the big publishers to bother with. And they’re an important alternative for writers who don’t want to go the agent-to-big-publisher route, but prefer to avoid the DIY work of self-publishing.
Still, there are many considerations to take into account if you’re thinking of submitting to a small press.
– Lack of stability.
It’s tough to make it as a publisher. The attrition rate is high even for well-capitalized presses run by experienced staff. For publishers run by people with limited experience and/or funds, it’s even higher. Many small presses go out of business within the first couple of years. The sudden death of your publisher can create big problems, especially if the publisher doesn’t bother to return your rights before it vanishes.
Signing up with any small press involves a degree of uncertainty, but signing up with one that’s just starting out is really risky. It’s good policy to hold off on querying a small press until it has been issuing books for at least a year–preferably more–and has demonstrated some staying power. (This also makes it possible for you to evaluate important things like quality, sales, and marketing, and allows time for problems and complaints, if any, to surface.)
For an extended discussion of the potential dangers of contracting with a brand-new publisher, see this post from Writer Beware’s blog: New Publishers: To Query or Not to Query. Also see the links below, which provide several cautionary tales.
– Lack of competence.
Once upon a time, the substantial financial outlay involved in setting up a publishing company was a deterrent to dabblers. These days, it’s so cheap and easy to become a publisher that anyone can do it, whether or not they know anything about publishing or running a business.
Like the amateur literary agent, the amateur publisher may have good intentions and a genuine desire to do right by authors. But writers need to keep in mind that good intentions–like responsiveness, enthusiasm, praise, and all the other non-publishing-related things that so often entice writers into questionable situations–aren’t a substitute for knowledge, experience, qualified (and adequate) staff, and working capital–all of which are far more important factors in a publisher’s success.
Just as new writers can get into trouble if they set out to get published without taking the time to learn about publishing, inexperienced publishers can run into difficulties if they start up too quickly and attempt to learn on the fly. This can lead to author-unfriendly contracts, poor editing and cover art, ineffective (or no) marketing, fouled-up publishing schedules, opaque communication, inaccurate royalty accounting, missed payments, and more.
It can also push the publisher into serious financial and logistical trouble, which in turn may provoke unprofessional and even abusive behavior from the publisher and its staff as things get increasingly bad. Alternatively, the publisher may simply vanish, cutting off communication, closing down websites and social media accounts–all without warning or explanation.
All of this may sound alarmist, but it’s not at all uncommon. A few examples, from Writer Beware’s blog:
- The abrupt demise of Entranced Publishing
- The equally sudden death of Fiery Seas Publishing
- City Limits Publishing, out of business after less than a year
- High Hill Press’s owner goes MIA
- A true horror story: Silver Publishing
- The saga of Torquere Press (in this case, the publisher was trouble-free until it was taken over by a pair of inexperienced co-owners)
- Pegasus Books, Realmwalker Publishing Group, Spectral Press
- Crescent Moon Press and Musa Publishing
- Allegations of chaos, nonpayment, and bullying at Month9Books
– An abundance of sharks.
The ease and cheapness of digital technology has also made it very easy for unscrupulous or dishonest people to become publishers. From vanity publishers masquerading as legitimate small presses (see Vanity Publishers in Small Press Clothing, below), to “author mills” that seek to turn a profit on enormous author volume and skimpy services, these companies are the Venus flytraps of the writing world, lying in wait for the inexperienced or desperate authors who are their sustenance of choice.
– Small sales and exposure.
Small presses’ limited budgets–and, often, limited expertise–may mean limited ability to distribute and market the books they publish. Many small presses are not capable of brick-and-mortar distribution (still a major source of sales for print), and may do little in terms of meaningful promotion beyond maintaining a website and posting on social media. For really obscure small presses, sales may never even rise to three digits.
– Lack of professional credit.
Publishing with a reputable small press can be a stepping stone to bigger things. But hundreds of such publishers exist, and new ones start up all the time–and in such a hyper-crowded marketplace, it’s difficult for one publisher to stand out from another. You can’t assume that a title from a little-known small press will be regarded as a genuine publishing credit–especially if the press isn’t capable of producing a professionally designed and edited book.
The small press world can be a murky place. If you’re submitting, it’s vital to carefully evaluate the company ahead of time, both to assess its professionalism and to be sure that what it can do for you is in line with your own goals.
– Is there a fee, or do you have to buy something?
Many reputable small presses can’t afford to pay advances, but they don’t ask for cash upfront, or require you to buy something (finished books, editing, cover art, just to name a few) as a condition of publication. If you have to give your publisher money in order to be published, you are probably dealing with either a vanity publisher or an assisted self-publishing service. Don’t be fooled by terminology: some assisted self-publishing companies style themselves “indie publishers”, and many vanity presses (falsely) describe themselves as “hybrid publishers” (see the discussion of hybrid publishers, below).
Fee-charging publishers posing as traditional small presses can be inventive about hiding or attempting to sanitize their fees. For examples of these sneaky practices, see Vanity Publishers in Small Press Clothing, below.
– Did the publisher solicit or spam you?
Reputable publishers don’t advertise for authors on Craigslist, or (usually) email authors out of the blue with invitations to submit. Writer Beware’s blog provides a number of examples of why you want to avoid publishers that solicit or spam.
– Are there any complaints about the press or its staff?
A websearch on the publisher’s name can turn up information–in discussion groups, or on authors’ websites and blogs (see the Links section, below, for more suggestions on where to research). You can also contact Writer Beware; we’ll tell you if we’ve gotten any negative reports.
Don’t skip this step. A publisher may be open for submissions even as complaints are blowing up on the internet, and a professional-seeming facade may disguise a long history of publicly-aired problems. These things are more common than you might think.
Also, some small presses that fail under one name start up again under another; and staff who leave under questionable circumstances may start their own publishing enterprises. Here are two examples of small presses that fell apart under accusations of nonpayment and other problems, and whose owners started new companies just a few months later.
– How long has the publisher been in business?
As noted above, there’s a high attrition rate for new small publishers. This can work out badly for you, because a publisher that liquidates or goes bankrupt can tie up your rights, or may pass them on to third parties without your permission. Sudden failure is a possibility with any small press–finances are often precarious–but if you sign with a publisher that’s just starting up, or has been in business only a few months, you are really taking a risk.
Look for evidence that the publisher has been issuing books for at least a year (longer is better), and that it has a decent backlist of published books (not just two or three). These things suggest at least some stability, and demonstrate that the press is capable of taking books all the way through the production process. You’ll also be able to judge important factors like quality, design, and how (or whether) the publisher is marketing its books.
– What are the staff’s credentials?
Staff credentials are an important element of evaluating a publisher’s expertise. Do they have publishing, editing, and/or marketing backgrounds? If not, how does their experience relate to publishing and bookselling? Be wary of publishers whose owners and/or staff don’t have relevant work experience (“Staffer X has been an avid reader all their life” and “Staffer Y did critiques for friends and now they’re editor-in-chief” are not professional qualifications). Be even more wary of publishers that provide no staff information on their websites.
– How are the staff paid?
This may not be easy to find out, but it’s important. Many cash-strapped small presses pay their staffers not a salary or a fee, but a royalty on the books they work on. This saves the publisher cash upfront, since it only has to pay if it gets paid.
It’s not always so great for staff, though, who basically have to work on spec. If the publisher does a poor job of production, distribution, marketing, or all three, sales may be dismal. This can become a recipe for frequent staff turnover, as editors and designers realize that their hard work isn’t going to be adequately compensated–a problem that has a direct impact on authors, if their editor or cover artist quits in the middle of the process. Writer Beware receives a lot of complaints about this sort of thing. It may also encourage the hiring of less-qualified editors and others, since people with more professional experience are less willing to work for peanuts.
– What’s the website like?
Is it professionally designed and easy to navigate? Is the text well-written, copy edited, and formatted? Do the links work? The website is the publisher’s business face, and should reflect a commitment to professionalism. If a press isn’t capable, or doesn’t care enough, to create an attractive website free of typos, grammatical errors, and the like, what kind of books will it produce? On the other hand, a glitzy website is not a guarantee of quality.
Also, a reputable publisher’s website will be book-focused–it will publicize its authors, and try to attract readers. A questionable publisher’s website will be service-focused–it will promote itself, and try to attract writers.
– What about the publisher’s backlist?
Investigating a small press’s backlist can tell you many things.
For instance, Amazon sales rankings can give you insight into sales volume. Amazon isn’t the only retailer out there, but it owns 60% or better of the ebook market, and for most small presses, ebook sales far outstrip print. Amazon rankings, therefore, can provide a general idea of well a book is selling. (Here are some attempts to explain the perennial mystery of Amazon rankings, or to convert rankings to sales numbers; you can find many more online.)
The number of books the press is issuing can give you a sense of its publishing volume. Tiny numbers (fewer than five or six books a year) may indicate a hobby press, while big numbers (a dozen books a month, scores of books a year) may be a sign of an author mill, or a publisher that’s pushing out books too fast to give them proper editing and marketing attention. Overcommitted publishers can get into trouble because they don’t have the staff or the resources to keep up with the workload, leading in some cases to mass contract cancellations (an example: Fireside Press.)
Are there any gaps in the press’s publishing history? A hiatus of several months or years suggests logistical or financial problems; ditto for a press that abruptly stops issuing books, regardless of how active its publishing program may have been before. Missed publication dates are also a big red flag.
– Are the books professionally produced and edited?
Order a couple to find out. I can’t overemphasize how important this is. Questionable and amateur small presses often produce shoddy, poorly-formatted, error-ridden books with ugly, unprofessional-looking cover art. Error-free text and attractive covers are no guarantee that a press is reputable, of course, but their absence does suggest a lack of professional expertise, and won’t enhance your book’s appeal.
– Is the pricing reasonable?
Compare the publisher’s list prices with similar publishers, large and small, to be sure it is pricing its titles competitively. High list prices can especially be a problem for print editions, since digitally-printed books have a bigger unit cost than offset-printed books, and must be priced higher to ensure the publisher’s profit.
– What distribution is in place?
Distribution is a vital component of book publishing. At a minimum, the publisher should distribute through the major online retailers (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Waterstones, Kobo, iTunes, etc.), as well as distributors/aggregators such as Smashwords, and make print books available for order in physical stores. If there’s also a relationship with a distributor (as distinct from a wholesaler), there’s a better chance of physical shelf presence (for a discussion of the important differences between wholesalers and distributors, see Misleading Terminology, below).
– What kind of marketing does the press do?
Does it produce a seasonal catalog? Send out unlimited review copies? Advertise? Attend book fairs, writers’ conferences, and/or genre conventions? Offer pre-orders? Have a NetGalley account? Maintain an active social media presence? These are all important components of book marketing, in many cases done long before a book is offered for sale.
Many small presses have limited budgets, and expect their authors to play a major part in marketing and promotion. This is fine, as long as you’re up for it and the publisher is honest about it. No matter what you may have heard, though, the entire burden of marketing should not fall on you. Your publisher should be a partner in the marketing process, undertaking efforts of its own. Especially, a press should not require authors to pay for marketing (for instance, charging for sending out review copies, or offering a menu of marketing options for which you have to pay (an example: Black Rose Writing) or pressure authors to become customers by buying their own books for re-sale.
Don’t take the publisher’s marketing promises at face value. Writer Beware hears all the time from authors who were promised the moon and got little or nothing. Research the publisher’s marketing efforts to make sure it’s really doing what it claims.
– What about the contract?
Whether because of ignorance, greed, or a combination, terrible contracts are common in the small press world. Problems include life-of-copyright grants without adequate reversion clauses, demands for copyright transfer, claiming subsidiary rights the publisher isn’t capable of exploiting, paying royalties on net profit, retaining a financial interest in the author’s work even after the contract has terminated, claiming the right to edit at will without seeking the author’s permission, tying next-book option clauses to current contract terms, imposing fees for early termination, tying rights reversion to purchase of overstock…the list goes on.
Contracts are a minefield for authors, who may not have the knowledge or experience to recognize bad contract terms, or to grasp their implications. Don’t just assume your contract is OK, or take the publisher’s word that its terms are standard (for these and other unwise assumptions, see my blog post: Evaluating Publishing Contracts: Six Ways You May be Sabotaging Yourself). Get qualified advice (if you seek legal counsel, be sure the lawyer has experience with publishing and is familiar with publishing contract terms, otherwise s/he may not be able to help you). Writer Beware will also answer contract questions if you email us.
You should be able to do at least some negotiating. There are contract terms publishers are almost never willing to negotiate (warranties and indemnities, for instance), and small presses may be less flexible on contract negotiations than bigger houses–but there should be at least some wiggle room on things like option clauses, holding onto subsidiary rights, how many author copies you get, and more.
If a publisher flatly refuses to negotiate, be wary. This may indicate an autocratic attitude toward writers–not a good sign for the road ahead–or the publisher may be hiding the fact that it doesn’t understand its own contract language (more common than you might think).
See the Links section, below, for some contract terms to avoid.
– Is the press forthcoming?
Does its website name its staff and provide biographical information (important: you want to be able to assess their experience)? Is the submissions process clear and complete? Are your questions answered promptly, fully, and without evasion? A publisher that isn’t transparent about its business, refuses to provide information–or, worst of all, scolds you for asking questions–is a publisher to avoid.
– Does the press add value?
I’ve left this question for last, but it may be the most important. Many small presses don’t do much more than upload a spellchecked version of your manuscript to Amazon via KDP. For this minimal service, they demand that you tie up your rights with an exclusive publishing contract and yield up a portion of your sales proceeds. This makes no sense. If a publisher does barely more for you than you could do for yourself, what’s the point?
A publisher should add value, in the form of quality editing, design, cover art, production, and promotion. Otherwise, in today’s world of easy self-publishing, it may be better to go it on your own.
When is a fee-based publisher not a vanity publisher? When it’s a hybrid publisher. Sometimes.
A growing number of pay-to-play publishers describe themselves as “hybrid publishers.” When used properly, this term indicates a publisher that straddles the divide between traditional and self-publishing: charging a fee and having a lower gatekeeping threshold than highly-selective trade publishers, but offering more value in terms of editing, design, marketing, and/or distribution than a self-publishing platform or a vanity publisher.
Unfortunately, many unscrupulous vanity publishers also call themselves hybrids, in an effort to hoodwink writers.
How to tell the difference? Author and editor Jane Friedman provides this advice:
- A good hybrid will have some method of curating or selecting what projects to take on. In other words: They consider the market potential of your work and its ability to succeed. If they appear to take anyone and everyone, then you’re better off evaluating the best self-publishing service to use. Don’t kid yourself about leveling up to a hybrid. (So-called hybrids aren’t averse to playing to your ego to get your business.)
- A great hybrid offers the potential of bricks-and-mortar distribution—whether to bookstores or other retail channels. They might not be able to promise it, but if they’re actively working with a distributor or retailer—and they have a catalog of titles for marketing purposes—that’s a good sign. A self-publishing author can easily get distribution through online retail, via Amazon and Ingram (distribution fees are zero or little for online retail), so the more the hybrid invests in marketing and distributing print editions, the more they’re offering something you may not be able to accomplish yourself.
- A good hybrid works with you both pre-publication and post-publication. The relationship doesn’t end once the book is done. (However, you may have to pay fees to continue the relationship.)
Jane also advises that a good hybrid should “pay better royalties than a traditional publishing deal. (Fifty percent is common.)”
Similar guidelines are provided by the Independent Book Publishers Association in its Hybrid Publisher Criteria, a 9-point set of standards intended to differentiate true hybrid publishers from other author-subsidized models (i.e., vanity publishers). “Hybrid publishing companies behave just like traditional publishing companies in all respects, except that they publish books using an author-subsidized business model, as opposed to financing all costs themselves, and in exchange return a higher-than-industry-standard share of sales proceeds to the author. In other words, a hybrid publisher makes income from a combination of publishing services and book sales.”
Unfortunately, these criteria are fairly easy for less-than-honest small presses and unscrupulous vanity publishers to game by misrepresenting their business models or just plain lying (an example: prolific vanity publisher Austin Macauley). This kind of subterfuge is extremely common; in fact, any self-styled hybrid you encounter is far more likely to be disreputable than not.
It’s a good idea, therefore, not to take a hybrid publisher’s claims at face value, but to investigate on your own.
- Does the hybrid claim to screen for quality and publish to professional standards? Assess those claims for credibility–buy some of its books, and use Amazon’s Look Inside feature to sample even more.
- Make sure that the hybrid is offering more than just a self-publishing-style suite of services, or pretending that the basic elements of digital publishing (such as “worldwide distribution” via Ingram and online retailers) are premium extras. What will it do for you that you can’t do for yourself, or buy for less from another service?
- Check the hybrid’s other claims. Does it really work with a distributor (as opposed to a wholesaler like Ingram)? Can it really get its books into brick-and-mortar stores? Does it really do the marketing it promises?
- Search for complaints; Absolute Write’s Bewares, Recommendations, & Background Check forum is a good place to start. Contact Writer Beware; we may have heard something.
- As yourself whether it’s worth it. Hybrids can be seriously expensive–mid- to high four figures is not uncommon–and some hybrids don’t even include everything you might want in their basic packages: you may have to pay extra for editing, for instance. Not only does that make it even more important to determine that you’re not being rooked by a vanity publisher in disguise, it should prompt careful and realistic consideration of whether you will recoup your investment.
As writers become more aware of the pitfalls of vanity publishing, many less-than-honest pay-to-play operations are trying dodge the vanity label by stripping mention of their fees from their websites, using misleading terminology, or shifting their charges to areas other than printing and binding.
I often hear from writers who are confused because they’ve been offered a contract by a publisher that describes itself as “traditional” but wants its authors to make some sort of financial commitment in order to be published.
If asked, such publishers vehemently deny that they are vanity publishers. After all, they don’t accept everyone who submits! Or they aren’t asking authors to pay for printing–just to finance their own editing, or to pre-sell or pre-purchase a certain number of books.
But whether you’re shelling out cash for book production, finished books, adjunct services, or anything else, the bottom line is the same: you are handing over money as a condition of publication. A publisher that turns its authors into customers has little incentive to get books into the hands of readers, and is not likely to invest significant resources in editing, marketing, and distribution. (For much more on the pitfalls of vanity publishing, see Writer Beware’s Vanity Publishers page.)
Here are some of the ways in which vanity publishers attempt to hide or sanitize their fees.
– A setup fee or deposit. Publishers that require a setup fee may tell you that you’re not paying to publish–just contributing to the cost of preparing your book for printing, or making a “good faith investment” in your own success. Some publishers promise to refund the fee under certain circumstances (usually carefully crafted so they’ll almost never be fulfilled).
The setup fee many not be large by vanity standards–a few hundred dollars–but since such publishers don’t waste cash on professional staff and use digital technology to produce their books, it more than covers the cost of production.
– A fee for some aspect of the publication process other than book production. Some publishers ask you to chip in for editing, or for cover art, or for publicity (real publishers provide these things as part of the publication process, at their expense). Services may cost thousands of dollars, and are often minimal and not of professional quality.
– Fees for “extra” services over and above the basics of publication. The publisher doesn’t charge you an upfront fee, but does offer you the opportunity to pay for expedited editing, or special website placement, or inclusion in book fair catalogs, or enhanced marketing. These services are optional–so the publisher can claim it’s not making authors to pay to publish–but there’s often heavy pressure to buy them, and authors who don’t pull out their credit cards become second-class citizens.
– A claim that your fee is only part of the cost, with the publisher fronting the rest. This extremely common claim–whose sole purpose is to make you feel better about handing over a large amount of money–is, at best, an exaggeration. At worst, it’s a lie. Vanity publishers’ profit comes from the fees authors pay and the books authors buy, rather than from book sales to the public; they have little incentive to cut into that by investing resources in high-quality editing, design, production, and marketing. Most of the time, your fee will pay the whole freight, plus the publisher’s overhead and profit.
– A claim that fee-based contracts are only part of the business, with traditional contracts making up the rest. This is meant to make the publisher seem more respectable, since it doesn’t just do pay-to-play; but it’s as apt to be a lie as to be true. Even if a vanity publisher does offer fee-free contracts, it’s unlikely that they make up more than a small fraction of the total.
– A book purchase requirement. Some publishers include a clause in their contracts requiring you to buy a specific quantity of finished books–from a few hundred to several thousand copies, often at a paltry discount. This can be more expensive than straightforward vanity publishing.
– A pre-sale requirement. A similar contract clause may require you to pre-sell a certain number of books prior to publication, or to “guarantee” a minimum number of sales (usually, exactly as much as is needed to enable the publisher to recoup its investment and make a profit). You don’t have to buy them yourself–you may be asked to find “investors” or organizations to commit to purchases–but if you don’t deliver the sales, the publishing deal is off.
This is an especially tricky variation on the pay-to-publish scheme, because it allows the publisher to claim that it’s not asking you for cash. But it’s not an author’s job to be a salesperson for his or her own books–that’s what the publisher is supposed to do.
– A sales guarantee. If your book doesn’t sell X number of copies within X amount of time, you must agree to buy the difference. Most authors have an over-optimistic idea of the sales they can achieve, and figure they’ll never have to pay up–but vanity publishers’ nonexistent marketing and distribution ensures that they’re usually wrong.
– Withheld royalties. You get no royalty income until the publisher’s out-of-pocket costs have been recouped. In this version of vanity publishing, you don’t have to physically lay out any cash–but money that should be yours is kept by the publisher to fund publishing costs, which amounts to the same thing.
– Pressure to buy your book yourself. The publisher may not contractually require you to purchase your own book–indeed, it may make a big deal of telling you that you don’t have to buy anything. Even so, it will put you under heavy buying pressure–for instance, providing an Author Guide that extols the financial benefit of buying your own book for resale, or bombarding you with special incentives such as extra discounts or contests for the month’s top seller.
These are all signs of a publisher that relies on its authors as its primary customer base, and therefore has little interest in selling books to the public. Unfortunately, if the publisher employs such tactics, you usually don’t find out about them until you’ve already signed the contract.
– A variety of other sneaky techniques. Some examples from Writer Beware’s complaint files: requiring authors to pay for publisher-sponsored conferences or workshops or publicity opportunities or “author universities”; requiring authors to sell ads that are included in the company’s books; hawking company stock to authors, despite the lack of an appropriate license; requiring authors to hire the publisher’s staff to perform various adjunct services. The permutations are endless.
Whether through ignorance or an active desire to deceive, small presses may use confusing or misleading terminology to suggest that they add more value than they actually do, or to distract authors from nonstandard business practices. Here’s how to decode some of the common terms you may encounter.
“Traditional publisher” is a term of relatively recent origin. It was created before the turn of the century by a notorious author mill to suggest (falsely) that there was a meaningful difference between it and the assisted self-publishing services whose business model that, except for the upfront fees, it followed very closely.
At the time, “traditional publisher” had no real meaning, since self-publishing was embryonic and there was no need to make a distinction. However, the seismic shifts in the publishing landscape over the two decades, which have transformed self-publishing from a last resort to a viable career path, have created the distinction on their own, giving meaning to a term originally invented to hoodwink naive authors.
Small presses often call themselves “traditional publishers” or “full-service publishers.” The implication is that though they’re tiny, they’re essentially just like Penguin Random House or HarperCollins. But “traditional publisher” is still a very fluid label, and you can never really be sure what it denotes; ditto for “full-service”. You can probably count on the publisher not asking for upfront money, but other components of the real traditional publishing model (rigorous selectivity, professional editing and design, competitive pricing, effective marketing) may be missing, and elements absent from that model may be present (nonstandard contract terms and business practices).
Bottom line: “traditional publisher” tells you nothing about how the publisher selects, produces, and markets its books, or how it treats its authors.
Wholesaler vs. Distributor
If you ask a small press whether it has a relationship with a distributor, it will probably tell you that it does. It may even claim that it has “worldwide distribution.” Most often, what that actually means is that its books are carried by one or more wholesalers.
Many people use the terms “distributor” and “wholesaler” interchangeably. But there are important differences (for a more in-depth discussion, see Distributor vs. Wholesaler: Getting Your Book on the Shelf, from Writer Beware’s blog):
- Wholesalers (or wholesale distributors) provide warehousing and fulfillment services for publishers. They keep publishers’ books on hand (in either physical or virtual form, depending on the publisher’s business model) and fill orders as they come in. Examples: Ingram, Gardners, Brodart.
- Distributors do everything a wholesaler does–plus, they maintain sales forces to sell publishers’ books into physical bookstores. Distributors are also much more selective than wholesalers, carefully scrutinizing a publisher’s list before agreeing to work with it. Examples: Publishers Group West, Independent Publishers Group.
If your book is being published in print, this is a vital distinction. For volume sales of print books, it’s desirable that there be a balance of online and offline availability–your books need to be sold not just on the internet, but in physical bookstores. Without the direct sales component supplied by a distributor’s sales force, it’s unlikely this will happen, unless you yourself can persuade a store to stock your books (which, no matter what your publisher may tell you, is not your job).
Bottom line: a small press that works only with wholesalers will sell mostly if not exclusively online. If you care about real-world shelf presence, this is something to take into account.
Available in Bookstores
Many small presses are eager to assure you that your book will be “available in bookstores.” Unless the press works with a distributor (as distinct from a wholesaler, as noted above), what this usually means is that your book can be special-ordered by a brick-and-mortar bookseller, usually on a pre-paid basis, sometimes with an extra charge to cover shipping and handling.
Unfortunately, inexperienced writers often assume that “available” means “stocked,” and expect that their books will appear on bookstore shelves. Less-than-honest publishers take advantage of this by failing to explain what “available” actually means, or by skewing their use of the word in ways that encourage authors to make unrealistic assumptions.
“Everyone Has to Self-Promote”
Operating on limited budgets, small presses often don’t have the resources (or, sometimes, the skill) to aggressively market their books. They may push most marketing and promotion onto their authors, justifying this by claiming that “everyone,” even bestselling authors with the biggest publishing houses, must self-promote.
This is true. However, the book promotion that big-house authors do–setting up signings and readings, attending conferences, maintaining websites, writing articles, social media presence, and so on–is undertaken in partnership with the book marketing the publisher does–sending out review copies, producing catalogs, attending book fairs, buying print and online advertising. The author, in other words, doesn’t have to go it alone.
When small presses tell authors they must self-promote, they often do mean the author must go it alone, with the publisher’s only responsibility being to maintain a website, see that books are listed with retailers, and process royalties. Some presses won’t even provide review copies, or provide only a limited number. Others require authors to agree to elaborate self-promotion schemes (and penalize authors who they perceive are not doing enough).
Any publisher will expect you to actively promote your books. But the burden of promotion should be shared, and the press should never browbeat you or punish you for poor sales. It’s a very good idea to find out, before signing up with a small press, exactly what sort of marketing effort it puts behind its books–and what it expects you to do.
Researching Publishers and Checking Reputations
- E-mail Writer Beware. SFWA has assembled a large archive of documentation on publishers that engage in questionable practices. Send us the names of any publishers you’d like to know about, and we’ll summarize for you any data that’s in our files.
- A good spot to research the reputation of small presses: the Bewares, Recommendations, & Background Check area of the Absolute Write Water Cooler. Check the index first, to see if the press you’re interested in has already been discussed.
- Successful novelist Piers Anthony maintains an internet publishing resource that lists and describes epublishers and small presses, and flags those that have problems or are the focus of complaints.
- The Erotic Romance blog provides lots of information–and warnings where necessary–including publisher listings and sales figures, with a focus on epublishing.
- Helpful advice from author and editor Jane Friedman: How to Evaluate Small Publishers.
- Agent Janet Reid offers a list of criteria for evaluating a small press.
- From Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, Tips for Evaluating a Traditional Publishing House.
- From author and editor Harold Underdown, a helpful discussion of concerns and cautions about publishers that don’t pay advances.
- Precautions for Small Press Authors: from Writer Beware’s blog, suggestions on researching small presses, and how authors can protect themselves from problem publishers.
- Also from Writer Beware’s blog, a rundown on the lies dishonest fee-charging publishers tell to attempt to convince writers that they’re “real” publishers. (This is an old post, but still completely relevant.)
- Not All Hybrid Publishers Are Created Equal: advice and warning from Jane Friedman.
- The Independent Book Publishers Association’s 9-point list of Hybrid Publisher Criteria. (As noted above, these can be–and are–easily gamed by dishonest vanity publishers, so while they are helpful, you shouldn’t necessarily trust a self-identified hybrid publisher’s claims to follow them.)
- The vital importance of reading your publishing contract–a step no one should skip. Another old but still relevant resource.
- Evaluating Publishing Contracts: Six Ways You May Be Sabotaging Yourself. Should you believe your publisher if it promises that a nasty contract clause will never be enforced? Or trust it if it tells you that contract language doesn’t mean what you think it means? How these and other assumptions could come back to bite you.
- The Electronic Publishing Industry Coalition’s model contract.
- Model novel contract from Mystery Writers of America.
- Model contracts from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
- Discussions of contract clauses, from Writer Beware’s blog:
- Bad contract clauses: temporary transfer of copyright, royalties paid on net profit, an outrageous reversion clause
- Early termination fees in publishing contracts: a cautionary tale
- More on early termination fees and why they’re bad not just for authors, but for publishers
- The importance of reversion clauses in book contracts
- Editing clauses in book contracts: how to protect yourself
- Red flag: when a publisher claims copyright on edits
- Two red-flag sentences in book contracts
- Signing away your rights: arbitration clauses in book contracts
- The Authors Guild’s Fair Contract Initiative takes a fresh look at the standard book contract, and highlights where change is needed.
- A list of red flag/yellow flag publishing contract clauses, from the Electronic Publishing Industry Coalition (EPIC).
- Agent Rachelle Gardner on the book contract clauses she is most likely to negotiate.
- From the Alliance of Independent Authors: Who Does Your Publishing Contract Protect? (Make sure it’s not just the publisher.)
- Keep Your Copyrights, a copyright information resource from Columbia University, includes a helpful section on publishing contract clauses, both good and bad.
- A variety of posts on publishing contract clauses, from publishing lawyer Daniel Steven.
- From the Authors’ Guild: Ten Book Contract Traps.
- From the Authors Alliance, Understanding and Negotiating Book Publishing Contracts
- How to Request Rights Reversion From Your Publisher, from Writer Beware’s blog.
- More termination suggestions from Writer Beware: Getting Out of Your Book Contract (Maybe).
- And on the flip side, my post on the wrong ways to try and escape your deadbeat publisher.
- From author and former agent Nathan Bransford, a glossary of publishing terms.
- Start Here: How to Get Your Book Published. A comprehensive resource from author and editor Jane Friedman.
- Useful guidelines: Jane Friedman’s chart of the key book publishing paths puts small press publishing in context.
- From Janes Friedman, a discussion of the key book publishing paths–including small presses–and what they entail.
- The Association of American Publishers, a trade group for publishers in the USA, provides useful info, industry stats, and a list of member publishers.
- The Independent Publishers Guild, a similar organization in the UK, also lists its member publishers.
- The Independent Book Publishers’ Association is a US-based group focusing on smaller presses.
- The Complete Review provides a substantial list of independent publishers and small presses.
- Another list of small presses, from Poets & Writers.
- NewPages.com’s List of Independent and University Publishers.
Links checked/Page updated: 7/9/2021
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