What You Need To Know About Publishing With A Small Press

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In the ever-changing world of the publishing industry, your options are often distilled into three categories: traditional publishing, self-publishing, and hybrid publishing. Broadly speaking, this is accurate, but an unfortunate consequence of these groupings is that few authors consider publishing through a small press. It’s true that a small press still falls under the traditional publishing route, but the experience is different enough that authors should consider small-press publishing a separate option in its own right.

This may be especially important for writers looking for the flexibility of self-publishing but still needing the support offered by the traditional publishing route. I like the way Eliot Peper describes this in his guest post for the Jane Friedman blog, ‘It’s the shadowy middle ground between self-publishing and a Big Five contract.’

Might a small press be the right fit for you? If you’ve never considered the option before, read on to learn what it’s all about!

What is a small press?

A small press is an independent publishing house that has a fully staffed publishing team – think editors, proofreaders, designers, and typesetters – but runs a smaller operation than the big name publishers. That’s why Peper says they’re a sort of middle ground. You get the full experience of working with a publishing team but on a personalized scale.

Publishing through a small press can act as middle ground between self-publishing and working with a major publisher. Click To Tweet

If you’ve had your heart set on signing with a big publisher but you’re not having much success, take a step back. Think about how these unique qualities could mean uncommon perks for you. This is especially true for debut writers eager to learn the ins and outs of the publishing process and feeling intimidated by the demands of self-publishing.

The perks of a small press

As you might have guessed, this alternate approach provides some attractive advantages for authors. Consider how the following issues might affect your publishing experience:

  • Increased involvement: Many authors who publish with a small press report feeling more deeply involved and invested in the process. Because a small press is working with fewer authors (and has more direct contact between staff), small-press authors have a hand in decisions that are often withheld from authors signed on with bigger publishers.
  • More freedom: Because they’re independent, small-press publishers have greater freedom, a willingness to think outside the box, and are sometimes more open-minded about publishing and marketing decisions. This can translate into creative and customized approaches to marketing where a larger publisher might stick you into a standard marketing package that doesn’t suit your project. It’s also valuable if your content serves a niche market that larger publishers aren’t interested in addressing.
If you’re writing for a niche audience, a small press may be the way to go.Click To Tweet
  • Faster turnaround: Because they’re juggling fewer projects, it’s common for small-scale operations to provide quicker turnaround times, getting the book to print faster. This trickles down to you, of course, putting you back at your desk to work on your next title in record time.
  • Eligible for awards: Small presses often submit their books for literary prizes and awards for which self-published authors aren’t eligible. This is a great way to create visibility for your book, widen your readership, and boost your credibility.
  • Flexible contracts: A more practical issue, but no less valuable, is the flexibility in negotiating your contract. From the business side of things, it’s a great advantage to have more control over the terms of your contract.

Of course, there are also downsides to a small press.

The drawbacks of a small press

Beyond the more obvious cons of this approach (a smaller budget and less influence than major publishers, less freedom and a smaller cut than self-publishing), there are a few potential pitfalls an author can run into with a smaller press.

For example, a smaller press means smaller capital means a smaller advance. Some publishers may not be in a position to offer an advance at all. Do your homework and learn as much as you can beforehand.

Just because small presses may get creative about marketing and publicity doesn’t mean their budget rivals that of a big publisher. Marketing and publicity budgets will scale with the size of the company. Be prepared to accept these limitations and do your part to fill in the gap.

Small presses vary in every aspect; no two are alike. This means you can’t make assumptions going in. Vet the publisher as thoroughly as possible. Look at the quality of books they’ve published. Check out the cover, back cover copy, text and formatting, as well as their website and wider online presence. What’s your impression? What’s your gut feeling about their quality and their online visibility?

Each small press is different, so it’s essential you do your homework.Click To Tweet

Try to gauge how the presses you’re interested in stack up against other reputable small publishers. What risks would you be taking by signing with them? What rewards might you gain for your book, your business, and your standing as an author?

Another thing to consider is distribution. Smaller presses don’t always have an in-house sales team, which has implications for where and how your book is sold. Jane Friedman explains:

It is not easy for a small press to get a distributor onboard who is actually pitching their books… Book distribution is not difficult; the door is wide open to everyone. What’s difficult is actually selling the book to anyone. If the small press is not selling your book into major (or minor) accounts… you’re unlikely to see your book shelved nationwide in bookstores.

– Jane Friedman, ‘How to Evaluate Small Publishers – Plus Digital-Only Presses and Hybrids

As with any business decision, it’s important to do your research. Gather as much information as you can about your options with various small presses, what they have to offer you, and what downsides you may have to accept.

Small acorns

I hope you now feel that you’re armed with enough basic information to consider whether a small press is right for your book. Just like any approach, there are pros and cons to going this route. However, for many authors, a small press can be an asset – a place to learn about the industry, a team to guide them through the process, and an important step along their writing career. I like the way Jonathan Taylor, published with the independent press Salt, describes his preference to ‘go small’:

These independent publishers are able to do different things to the global publishers, taking risks, disseminating writing which is original, idiosyncratic, individualistic. Let’s hope in the near future that independent publishers become the mainstream. Certainly, they’re a vital part of our literary culture – without them, the literary world would be seriously impoverished.

– Jonathan Taylor, ‘Going Small: Working With A Small Press Publisher

What books have you read put out by small presses? What concerns and questions do you have about their approach that I didn’t cover in this article? Tell me about your experience working with a small press and how it’s affected the life of your book, and check out Traditional vs Self-Publishing – The Fundamentals You Need To Know and Writing For Digital Publication: The 3 Things You Need To Know for more great advice.


2 thoughts on “What You Need To Know About Publishing With A Small Press”

    1. Hi Jon,

      You might start with Poets & Writers list here: https://www.pw.org/small_presses. It’s a huge database and contains a profile of each publisher, which you can access by clicking on the company name. Each page includes contact information and a link to the website so you can vet the publisher yourself. I hope this turns out to be a helpful resource for you!


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