Why I submit to small publishers first

ereadersFirst off, let me confess that I have daydreamed about getting a contract from Simon and Schuster, Random House or another one of the big publishers. In these daydreams I get a five figure–sometimes six figure–advance and my book appears in every bookstore throughout Toronto.

I suspect you’ve had similar daydreams. What writer hasn’t? We might be satisfied with making a decent living from our work, but every writer at some point imagines what it would be like to make as much money from their books as J.K. Rowling or George R. R. Martin.

And yet years of researching–and working in–the publishing industry have convinced me that a contract with a big publisher is rarely as grand as one imagines it to be.

Big advances mean lots of time waiting for your first royalty check unless you’re a big name who can sell books like candy. If you go with a big publisher you’ll also be extremely lucky to get more than 10-12% royalties.

Small publishers often offer much higher royalties. Many small publishers offer 30-50% royalties on ebooks and a 15-20% royalty rate for paperbacks. Most of these publishers won’t offer you an advance or will only offer a small advance, but that means you’ll see your first royalty check sooner.

Another reason authors used to flock to big publishers is because they used to pay big bucks for their authors’ marketing campaigns. These days the big publishers have drastically cut their marketing and chosen to focus the remaining advertising budget on books they already know will sell, books by big name authors like Stephen King.

Many small presses will put more effort into marketing your book than the big five. They often publish fewer books, allowing them to devote a higher percentage of their marketing budget to each book. With the current popularity of social media small publishers now have a wide range of free tools to market their books, allowing their small marketing budget go much further than it would have thirty years ago.

If you sign a contract with a big publisher you also give up all influence on what your book actually looks like. You can push back during the editing process, but you won’t have much–if any–influence over what the cover looks like.

Many small publishers give you some power over your book cover. Some will even let you design the cover entirely yourself if you can prove you have the skills. Some small publishers do take complete control over the cover, but many will ask you for suggestions and actually listen to what you have to say. After all, nobody knows your book better than you.

Last but not least, many small publishers have a smaller slush pile. Certain large publishers only accept queries from agents, but those who do accept unsolicited submissions are usually drowning in them. As a result, your query could sit in the slush pile for three to six months. Small presses aren’t as well known and there are less writers attracted to them, so you might hear back within a couple of weeks. Most small presses will respond to your query in less than three months.

Thanks to the internet there are dozens of small presses. Each one has its own advantages and disadvantages of course, but most small presses are more author focused and many even focus on publishing debut novelists or authors near the beginning of their career. They range from tiny non-profits to fairly large for-profit companies that publish a couple dozen books a year.

Big publishers still do offer some advantages–like getting your book into physical stores all over the world–but the advantages of small publishers hold more appeal for me. I believe an author-focused small press will treat my books better than a big publisher ever would.

What do you think? Small press or big publisher? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below!

4 thoughts on “Why I submit to small publishers first

  • Incredibly good points made about small presses. Anyone is lucky when they are chosen by a publisher. The problem is knowing choices you need to negotiate so that you are happy with the deal.

  • dlgunn

    So true! Researching terms commonly used on publishing contracts–and getting advice from a lawyer if you’re still not sure–is so, so important. A contract of any kind is always exciting, but it’s important not to get so caught up in the excitement that you sign a less than ideal contract.

  • I do like working with small presses. Their turnaround time from contract to publication is much quicker. The problem with them is that I’ve now worked with three different ones that closed their doors. It’s frustrating.

    • dlgunn

      That’s quite a few publishers closing. Sadly, it is a tough industry and publishers close every day. This is why it’s so important for us to support small publishers–we can’t expect them to be there if people aren’t buying their books.

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