How to Smartly Evaluate a Small Publisher

small presses

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For any author interested in a traditional publishing deal, one of the first questions you’ll face is: Do you need an agent?

If you want to be published by one of the “Big Five” publishers—the New York houses that represent the large majority of what you’ll find in your average bookstore—then you do need an agent.

But if you can’t find an agent to represent you, or if your book isn’t appropriate for the Big Five, you’ll quickly run into the following quandary: How do you evaluate the merits or ability of a small publisher without an agent or other publishing professional to guide you? For someone without industry experience, it can be hard to tell the difference between a quality operation and one that’s hardly better (or no better) than self-publishing.

Years ago, when I worked for Writer’s Digest and Writer’s Market, it was safe to say, “Stick to the publishers you find in Writer’s Market”—since it would only include publishers that offer traditional contracts (the kind that pay writers).

However, as the publishing industry has changed in the digital age, small press activity has proliferated, especially small presses with a variety of publishing models, both traditional and pay-to-play. That means you’re more likely to find listings in Writer’s Market with hybrid approaches—meaning they charge writers for their services. So this again raises the problem of how writers can smartly evaluate their choices.

Here are the criteria I use to evaluate small presses. Note this applies to trade or mainstream presses, and academic/scholarly presses may have different expectations or standards.

Does the small press offer paid publishing or “hybrid” services?

Some small presses, in addition to offering traditional book deals that work on a traditional model, also have a separate plan where authors have to pay. So, if you get rejected, you may be offered a “pay to play” deal.

Unfortunately, this likely means their overall business model relies on charging writers for services rather than selling books to readers. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this if they’re transparent about their operations—and not trying to deceive you about the type of deal you’re getting—realize that such publishers may have less motivation to acquire books that have a good sales outlook; they may accept nearly any book where the author is willing to subsidize its publication. Are you OK with an assisted self-publishing or hybrid publishing arrangement? Or do you prefer a publisher that is very selective because it must focus on projects that have a good chance at survival in the marketplace?

Read more on hybrid publishing here.

Do they ask you to pay for standard editing, design, marketing, and promotion?

If so, they’re not a traditional publisher, but a hybrid publisher or a publishing service. Traditional publishers, regardless of size, pay the author. The only expenses the author should incur as part of the traditional publishing process relate to indexing, permissions costs, or possibly making editorial changes beyond the timeframe allowed by the publisher.

Must you buy copies of your own book as part of the publishing deal?

A traditional publisher, regardless of size, shouldn’t contractually require authors to purchase copies of their book as a stipulation of publication. Again, this is a sign that the publisher’s business model relies on an author’s investment in the project. Furthermore, a traditional publisher should offer the author free copies upon publication.

Will there be a traditional print run?

A print run equates to an investment—someone is taking a financial risk on your book’s success. Having a specific number of books printed anticipates sales and marks confidence that the book will be actively stocked in bricks-and-mortar stores.

Some small presses rely strictly on print-on-demand printing and don’t invest in a print run. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this—it’s a way to reduce risk and economize—but it also means your book’s sales and visibility will rely on Amazon and other online retail channels. Don’t expect to see your book on physical bookstore shelves when working with such a press. Hopefully, the press is upfront about this fact and doesn’t pretend otherwise; if so, that’s a red flag.

Who is their distributor?

The more professional and sales-oriented the press, the more likely they will have a formal distributor that regularly pitches their books to retail accounts and secures advance orders to get books on shelves. To figure out if a small press has such a distributor, visit their website and pretend you are a bookseller (or other retailer) who wants to order and stock the publisher’s books. Look for a page with bookseller info or trade accounts info. If you can’t find anything, check their FAQ, about page, or contact page. You should be able to find out who their distributor is, or who handles orders from retailer accounts. You should find phone numbers or another way to place an order. If all the sales information simply directs people to Amazon, then the small press probably doesn’t have a formal distributor, and/or likely uses print-on-demand distribution via CreateSpace, IngramSpark, and/or Lightning Source.

Small presses that talk about having their books available to be ordered via Ingram, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and so on aren’t necessarily saying anything meaningful. Any self-publishing author can achieve book distribution to the same outlets, for free, using print-on-demand distribution. But it’s another thing entirely to have a publisher’s sales team—or a distributor’s sales team—working on your behalf and personally making sales calls with the buyers at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Ingram, and others to get orders placed for books before readers ever see it sitting on a shelf.

What marketing and promotion support do their titles receive?

Ask what the publisher’s baseline marketing effort includes for each title. Does it produce a seasonal catalog? Does it send out review copies? Does it submit the book to media outlets for coverage? Some small presses are operated only by one or two people and don’t have full-time marketers or publicists. This isn’t necessarily a deal breaker, but they will be limited in what they can do to support your work. It’s also helpful to study recent titles they’ve published on Amazon and see if there’s much review activity.

Yes, you can judge the books by their covers

Evaluate the quality of the publishers’ cover designs—and interior designs as well (try using Amazon’s Look Inside feature). Are the designs professional and comparable to other titles in the genre? Do they inspire confidence in the book?

And perhaps judge them by their website

If the publisher’s website looks poorly designed, out of date, or amateurish, that’s not a great sign—although, to be fair, book publishers are somewhat notorious for having bad websites.

If you’re willing to forgive bad website design, consider who the website seems to speak to or focus on. Is it trying to lure in authors, or is it trying to showcase its work—its books? The more it’s catering to authors, the less likely it’s a publisher you want to work with. You want a publisher focused on selling books, not author services.

Does the press list advance and royalty terms right on their website?

If the press is able to tell you upfront what your specific advance and royalties will be, that probably means they offer you a take-it-or-leave-it publishing contract.

Traditional publishers, even small ones, usually negotiate every single author contract, and each book has different terms. However, this creates a lot of administrative effort and long-term accounting responsibility, which “mom and pop” presses are ill-equipped to handle. While it may seem great that the financial terms are transparent and standard across all books, this isn’t done for your benefit. It’s for theirs.

Is the contract not really negotiable?

I’ve often helped authors evaluate small press contracts, suggesting changes to be made, and just about every single time, that small press will come back to the author and refuse to negotiate on terms. That’s not a good sign, as every publishing contract ought to be negotiable. When a small press resists even reasonable changes, it may be because their lawyers told them never to change the contract, or they don’t really understand their own contract (more common than you’d think), or they’re simply inexperienced and afraid.

Factors that may not mean anything

  • Number of titles published per year: A press can do a terrific or poor job regardless of how many titles they handle. However, a higher number of titles brings with it more marketing, promotion, and administration. Be wary of small presses that put out dozens or hundreds of titles each year with a very small staff; that’s a give away they’re not investing much in each title, or that they’re primarily working as an assisted publishing service rather than as a traditional publisher.
  • A statement of author friendliness: Don’t be lured in by flowery language about developing personal relationships with authors or helping fulfill your dreams. It may appeal to you, but it has little bearing on how good the company may be at the business of publishing. The more the publisher talks in cozy language about you and your work, the less professional they likely are. (Sorry, but good publishers tend to leave you feeling a little cold; that’s why there’s a continuing love-hate relationship between authors and publishers.)
  • An online storefront: It’s nice if the small press is able to sell direct to readers, but that’s not where most sales will happen. Amazon is the most important channel.

How to conduct research on a small press

To find out what other authors have experienced, Google the name of the publisher and add the word “scam” at the end. You’ll find conversations and warnings if there have been poor or questionable experiences with the press.

For more information


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Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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38 Comments on "How to Smartly Evaluate a Small Publisher"

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Dawn Lajeunesse

Has Preditors and Editors fallen out of favor as a way to identify shaky publishers and outright scams?

Vicki Weisfeld

Preditors and Editors–formerly a helpful resource–has gone on a hiatus, looking for someone to pick up the work. The site acknowledges that much of the information is out of date. Big job, that. I sometimes find good information at the Absolute Write Water Cooler. Authors are desperate for good advice on all these offerings!

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[…] As the publishing industry has transformed in the digital age, small press activity has proliferated. Here's how authors can evaluate their offerings.  […]

Vicki Weisfeld

These are very pertinent evaluation criteria, Jane, thanks! I created a Word table (have never mastered Excel) that includes some of your points as well as columns to note how long a publisher has been in business (worth knowing, if not make-or-break) and such logistical considerations as do they accept simultaneous submissions, do they have a reading period (and what it is), what do they say their response time is? I read what Amazon reviews say and if readers complain about grammar errors and typos and the like, that earns the publisher a low score in the “editorial support” column!

Sara Catterall

One other exception to a little of this: in the case of heavily illustrated scholarly books, legitimate and respected university presses (members of the Association of American University Presses) will sometimes ask the author for a subsidy of a few thousand dollars to help with the unusually high printing costs. They are also likely to expect the author to clear copyright permissions for the illustrations and possibly some quotations, as well as the indexing–and the fees for those can mount up quickly.

Neil Raphel
Jane, I think you make some good points in your article. However, as a small publisher of business, education, and some fiction books (www.brigantinemedia.com), I think your blanket assertion that a publisher shouldn’t require authors to buy copies of the book is not reflective of the real world. There are a lot of benefits to authors in having a book published. One of our authors commented that his autobiography was a tremendous help in completing a multi-million dollar sale of his company. But in some cases, we cannot publish a business book (for example) without the author committing to buying… Read more »
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[…] New on Jane Friedman’s site: “How to Smartly Evaluate a Small Publisher.” […]

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[…] How to Smartly Evaluate a Small Publisher (Jane Friedman) or any author interested in a traditional publishing deal, one of the first questions you’ll face is: Do you need an agent? If you want to be published by one of the “Big Five” publishers—the New York houses that represent the large majority of what you’ll find in your average bookstore—then you do need an agent. […]

Dianne

I would love to reblog this! Is there a way?

Madeline
This is a very useful list of things to consider with small presses and a service to new authors that should be bookmarked by them and read VERY carefully, no skimming allowed. One criticism— I wish you had not catered to the book services people by using in passing their preferred use of the word “hybrid” to describe what is really a pay to play model that often makes most of its money from charging for services, and that always shifts the economic risk onto authors. That is confusing the use of that word, which has become standard to refer… Read more »
lizzie Newelll

Excellent article. Thank you.

Grace Burrowes
And will that small press (or very large press) put the marketing plan in writing, and attach it to the contract, along with an explicit commitment to do at least what’s in the plan? If PR folks excel at one skill, it’s making a five-page, glossy, hard-hitting, unique, impressive, powerpoint “plan” out of “round up the usual suspects.” When they won’t even commit in writing to doing that much, caveat scriptor. And I tend to give some creds to any publisher who is set up to sell direct. Books are a great loss leader and data mine-expansion tool for the… Read more »
L.L. Barkat
Thanks, Jane. Always thoughtful! 🙂 Okay… overall, this sounds more like vanity publishing to me than small presses. 🙂 That said, there are a variety of ways that quality small presses make it possible to take titles on with lower risk. The key, to my mind, is not so much the myriad ways they do so (we have our ways, too, at TS 🙂 ), but more in the balancing factors like extremely generous royalties and overall handling of the author’s career and assistance in so many little things (some of which I received as a traditionally-published author and some… Read more »
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[…] to Smartly Evaluate a Small Publisher (Jane Friedman): I’ve worked at small, medium, and Big 5 publishers, and I’ve seen how drastically the […]

David Morgan
A good article, combining in one piece the concerns that have been part of the small-press vs. large, traditional press conversation for years. My concern, however, is that for new writers or those new to seeking publication, the piece doesn’t truly answer the question it poses “How do you evaluate the merits or ability of a small publisher…?” as it focuses more on the demerits than the merits of small press offerings. There’s more about what to avoid, in other words, than about what to pursue. For example regarding the use of a distributor, you write “If all the sales… Read more »
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[…] Continue reading @ Jane Friedman » […]

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[…] If you do want to publish, but not self publish, Jane Friedman has tips on how to smartly evaluate a small publisher. […]

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[…] Here are some helpful submission tips to live by. For those submitting books, Jane Friedman offers this useful article on how to evaluate small press publishers. […]

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[…] Here’s some good info from Jane Friedman on how to choose a small publisher. […]

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[…] guidelines of the publishing house they are submitting to, whether large or small. In her article, How to Smartly Evaluate a Small Publisher, Jane Friedman, of The Hot Sheet, (the publishing industry’s news letter for authors), offers […]

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[…] Today, I’d planned another kind of post. Usually my new year kick-off is publishing options for twenty-whatever. I began to write it. I realised as I did that not much had changed. What I’d say for 2017 is much the same as I’d said in 2016. And when I wrote 2016’s post I referred heavily to 2015’s. I’d lined up some good reference posts – Mark Coker of Smashwords, who looked back at 10 years of ebooks and forward to how the publishing ecosystem will continue to evolve. And to Jane Friedman, who give some great pointers for sizing… Read more »
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[…] wide range of small and independent publishers out there, and they’re not created equal. (I comment more on small presses here.) Some, like Graywolf, don’t accept unagented material; their size and prestige matches that […]

John Grabowski
Another fantastic article Jane. On so many blogs I struggle to find material worth reading; with you I’m deluged and could just read your posts all day! One observation, though. While Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature used to be a great way to evaluate page layout, nowadays it nearly always shows the Kindle version of its material, even if you are in another edition of the book, which means you get very unformatted typography. Also, with older books often they just have one version for the “Look Inside” feature that stands in for all editions of the book, including books that… Read more »
Karen Sargent

Thank you, Jane! Before I signed with my small press publisher, you were gracious to answer some questions for me via email. Your article confirms I am blessed to be working with a quality publisher. Now, three months from my debut book release, I know this was a perfect fit for me and a great way to learn about the publishing world…and I’ve learned so much! Thank you for helping me make the decision to sign with a small press!

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[…] to Smartly Evaluate a Small Publisher (Jane Friedman): To tie in to our conversation about comparing different kinds of publishers, here’s a fantastic […]

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[…] So is it worth the trade-off? There’s not one answer to that question. Partly I think it depends on the author’s personality and how they’re best complemented by the publisher, and maybe even who their agent is. (An agent can play a role in getting marketing support from the publisher!) At some point, money usually speaks loudest, and authors go with the publisher that pays the highest advance, which then can help ensure sufficient attention. If your advance isn’t much of a risk (let’s say $20,000 or below), then you may be better off with a small press if they… Read more »
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[…] define this primarily as not paying to publish. Authors must exercise the most caution when signing with small presses; some mom-and-pop operations offer little advantage over self-publishing, especially when it comes […]

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