Small Indie Publishers: An Overview

small indie press adult-3327336_960_720A couple of months ago I wrote a post about vanity presses: those publishers that are in business specifically to take advantage of authors rather than make money by selling books.  In the comments it was pointed out that I talked about vanity presses, self-publishing, and the Big Howevermany publishers as options, but not small presses. I even made the comment that there were a couple of small (some might say micro) publishers that I’d recommend without any qualms. But … I’m not going to name names. Instead I’m going to throw out a few thoughts on why someone might come to the decision to go with a small or micro publisher instead of self-publishing, and some of the things to consider in making such a decision.

I’ll start with a disclaimer that this is all just opinion. It’s not based on the experience of actually publishing a book using any process, publisher-assisted or not, but from observing the publishing landscape’s evolution over the last several years, reading about author’s experiences (both good and bad), and reading books that resulted from every publishing process out there.

Why might an author prefer a publisher over going it alone? That going it alone part is the clue. A publisher that is a good fit will assist in those areas that you might not have some of the needed resources or expertise. They’ll act as a partner, share in the risk of publishing your book, and also share in the reward. You’re risking the time put into writing the book. They’re risking mostly money (whether to pay employees or freelancers), but depending on the company structure, probably time in lieu of money as well. Things like paying a cover designer or editor is one place that a publisher could be helpful. The publisher might also have some existing relationships with book reviewers or readers who have learned they won’t be disappointed by a book from Publisher X. Those kinds of things might help jumpstart the sales and marketing effort of your book compared to what you’d be able to do on your own.

One thing that should be obvious is that it takes two to tango. Even if you decide you’d rather have a publisher as a partner to help get your book out into the world, you have to find a publisher willing to be the other half of that partnership. Authors who really want to find a publisher, but aren’t being successful in finding one, are where the sharks find their easiest prey. That’s where those vanity publishers operate, making you feel like you’ve been chosen, but expecting you to foot the expenses normally borne by the publisher. If you can’t find a publisher, it could mean your book isn’t good enough. Your idea isn’t original enough. Or it could just indicate that it didn’t fit into the current needs of the publishers you’ve approached thus far. Some authors choose to self-publish because finding a publisher could end up being more work than just doing it yourself.

Finding the right publisher and knowing you’ve found one that is good could be problematic. You could ask authors who have worked with the publisher, but if they’re still working with them and want to continue, it might be because they feel chosen more than because they’re a competent judge of how the publisher is doing. (Many of the authors “signed” to those vanity publishers will defend them, even as the “publisher” is draining the poor author’s wallet dry.) If they’re no longer publishing with them, they might have valid insight, or bad-mouth them due to sour grapes or unreasonable expectations. Doing a Google search and seeing what you can uncover in discussions on websites and forums where authors gather, or websites like Writer Beware that are aimed at authors, will give you a feel, at least for how a publisher has been to work with in the past.

While I’d advise finding out what you can about any publisher using whatever research methods are available, I think the better advice is to be careful how much you’re risking. Why? Publishing is a risky business. Look for contracts that don’t lock you in for more than one book at a time. If the experience with the first book doesn’t go well, you don’t want to be locked in for the next book. What happens if the publisher goes out of business or pleads bankruptcy? Small, high-risk businesses get into trouble all the time. Anyone who monitors news around non-mainstream publishing could list a few publishing companies that have sprung up, maybe even done well (or appeared to) for a few years, then eventually shut their doors. During the leadup to their final demise, the stories get ugly. Authors aren’t getting paid. The publishers aren’t doing what’s required of them because they don’t have the money to do so, but expect the authors to do their part. I suspect they’re hoping the next book will be a big hit and save them all. That’s rarely the result. More often the result is authors never get paid, have to fight to get the rights to their books back or have those rights tied up as assets in bankruptcy court. You can’t predict this, so the best way to deal with the risk is to minimize how much risk you’re taking.

Only you can decide how best to take your book those final steps from rough draft to polished work on sale in bookstores. The key point to keep in mind is that no matter what route you choose, you’ll be doing some of the work (no publisher does it all), but there are options that might make sense depending on your specific situation.

Again, these are just some of the things to take into consideration. Are there any specifics you would like to see articles about? Let us know in the comments below.

Author: Big Al

Big Al (who insists he only has one name, like Cher, Sting, and Madonna) spends his days writing computer programs that are full of typos, homonym errors, and incorrect verb usage. During his evenings, he writes reviews of indie books for BigAl’s Books and Pals and has recently taken over The IndieView, a website founded by indie author Simon Royle as a resource for indie authors, indie reviewers, and those who read either.

14 thoughts on “Small Indie Publishers: An Overview”

  1. I went with a small press instead of going solo. At the time two things influenced my publishing decision. Libraries and schools (I write YA) weren’t interested in indies (at least not unknown ones) so I wanted the publisher’s stamp. Being new, I also wanted a publisher with skin in the game to help with the non-writing aspects of releasing a novel (editing, covers, web presence, etc.). Ultimately I had a choice between two non-vanity publishers. I actually chose the offer that paid lower royalty rates because that company had been in business for more than 12 years and even bought out a few other publishers. The other company was less than a year old. Did I get everything I wanted, no. While I’ve been tempted to leave, I continue to publish with them.

    1. Thanks for weighing in, Armen. Going with the company that’s proven themselves over time is a decision that is hard to argue with.

  2. Hey Al, great post. My experiences have been mixed but more good than bad. The two big negatives I’ve faced are lack of bandwidth and change of strategic direction. Nothing the author can do about these. You’re absolutely right about a one book at a time contract, I’d also suggest evaluating the length of the contract and ensuring a clause goes in on buy out options. Escape routes are good…

  3. Al,

    Good comments! My wife and I started a small press (micro, I suppose) in 2010. We served a special niche and had some contacts that made it possible to sell most of our books, but having said that, the books that sold best were those whose authors did promotional legwork, too. Having a publisher generally doesn’t absolve the author from involvement in sales.

    We operate as a traditional publisher, taking on most or all of the financial risk and paying an accordingly low royalty rate to authors (8% on print books, 40% on ebooks). We contracted each book separately (no first right of refusal) and handled all the stuff authors don’t care to do: editing, layout and typesetting, cover and interior art, copyright registration, purchasing ISBNs and barcodes, etc. It’s a great deal of work, and could take us a year or so to get each book done, with several books always in the pipeline.

    We’re closing up shop now, however, in part due to health issues and in part for financial reasons. We haven’t made a penny on it in all this time, and it’s become impossible to keep funneling money into the business. This points out something authors should be aware of: while there are some advantages to working with a small press, there are some disadvantages, too. When the whole company consists of only three family members working as slave labor (i.e., no wages or salaries until such time, if any, as the company turns a profit), the future is very unpredictable. One of our authors had two previous publishers go belly up as soon as her book was issued, and unfortunately we’re about to do the same thing to her. But we at least will pay our bills and execute on our remaining contracted, even if we have to dig into our meager pockets to do it. Not every waning publisher will do that, it seems.

    1. You’re right, Dale. Maybe most do and we never hear about them. (How often do you hear news when any business or person does the right thing?) But there have been a bunch of examples of the bad kind in the last few years.

      I think you make a good point in your comment that publishing is a hard business to make money in. Anticipating the public’s reaction to anything is tough to do and that’s what you’re taking on if you become a publisher.

  4. I have written eight children’s books four have been published by Publish America/American Star Books, which has since gone bankrupt. I don’t know the condition of my contracts. I have since published an ebook on Amazon and am considering going with them to print the book. I would love to find a publisher but they only handle known authors. I just got a call from Archway Publishing which you just warned us about in your article. I’m really glad I read that it confirmed my declining them. I would like to get my rights back on the published books and finish publishing the remaining. Do you have any advice on how to find a good Children’s book publisher. Amazon did a review on one of my books stating it should be in every home with children who can read or who can listen. They loved the book but stated their should be more pictures. Unfortunately, when PA made the book an ebook they deleted every picture as they did the illustrations. This I did not expect but they are their illustrations so I guess I understand. If you have any advice as to how I find an good publisher I would really appreciate it. I am doing the free month with ALC but since I read your article I will cancel after the free month. Thanks for the information. Deb/DJ Morrow

  5. Hmmm, your article makes me think of how tough it now is for small publishers. Will they continue to publish their own books fighting Amazon who has 70% of ebook market and 45% of the print book market? Or change to distributors and publish using POD distribute through Amazon’s CreateSpace and KDP, IngramSparks and/or Smashwords?

    For years I have used CreateSpace and KDP, well now I am expanding my print title distribution to IngramSparks.
    Thank you

    1. I think a fair number of small and micro publishers do use Amazon/CreateSpace and/or IngramSparks to print their books. IngramSparks provides distribution to B&M stores, if they can convince stores to stock them. But given the number of books out there and the number of titles the average B&M can stock, it makes sense for them to focus on online sales for both paper and ebook.

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