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?
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.