Your column last week about getting an agent before signing a contract with a small press made me think a lot about small presses. I have had offers from small presses in the past and turned them down because that wasn't my dream. Now, several years on, having been agented, on submission for many months without a sale and ultimately dropped by my agent, I'm wondering if I might have been too hasty in dismissing those small press offers.
Do you have any advice?
This isn't an easy question to answer because this is your career, and in reality, only you can make that decision. But I can give you some information about small presses that might help you make it.
There are a lot of small presses out there, so before you leap into signing with any of them, do some checking to make sure the one that has offered you a contract is reputable and stable. There have been too many horror stories about small presses closing and authors struggling to get their rights back and stories about small presses not paying their writers the royalties they've earned.
Writer Beware is a good place to search for red flags, and there is lots of useful information in the forums at Absolute Write, although you will have to trawl through a lot of chatter to get there. Preditors and Editors was always my go-to, but they seem to be undergoing some changes right now. But it looks like they will be up and running again soon, so that may be another useful resource.
If you have done your due diligence and think you might be interested in a particular small press, make sure you know what they are offering, both in terms of the percentage of royalties you will be receiving, and services. Some small presses publish e-books only, so if your dream is to hold a copy of your book in your hot little hand and ruffle through the pages, this isn't going to fulfill that dream.
Most small presses expect you to do the majority of the marketing of your book yourself. They may send out to a select group of reviewers, splash your cover around in a few social media posts and on their blog, but most of the work will be on your shoulders. Small presses make their money by publishing a lot of books, so your title will only get pushed until the next one comes along. And some small presses publish a book a week, or more. Yours will get lost in the noise unless you have a plan for getting it seen, and probably some money to put behind it. And the chances are you still won't sell thousands of copies.
So you have to weigh up whether it's worth it. Self publishing is increasingly simple, and if the small press is only going to format your e-book, assign it an ISBN, give it a cover and load it up on e-book retail sites, you have to consider if the percentage of royalties you are giving the publisher is value for money. Some small presses have great editors who will help you polish up your book until it's better than the one you submitted, but others do little in the way of editing and the finished products wind up as riddled with errors as some self-published titles.
Another thing to consider is distribution. If your small press does do print books, how do they get the books into bookstores? Many small presses rely on print-on-demand (POD) to keep their costs down, which means there are no copies available until they are ordered. Sure, you can buy a box of your own books and sell them to the stores in your local area, but this isn't an effective distribution method and can often end up with you actually losing money on every book sold.
Yet there is still a certain stigma about self publishing. Some reviewers refuse to consider self-published titles. It's a struggle to get self-published books on shelves in stores, and even harder to find an effective way to distribute your self-published novel outside your own local area. So there is definitely some value in having a publisher's name behind your title.
At the end of the day, you need to weigh the pros and cons of each method for yourself. And remember, small presses and self publishing aren't your only options.