When publishing routes are so often discussed in terms of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing, it’s easy to forget about options beyond the binary—and even as someone who works in publishing, I’ll freely admit that I don’t talk about small presses enough! So while my previous column reinforced that trad pub/self-pub dichotomy, today I want to dive into small press publishing and its myriad benefits, especially for first-time authors.
To be clear from the outset: small press publishing is a division of traditional publishing, but it’s not what people typically imagine. While Big 5 publishers put out thousands of titles and rake in billions of dollars each year, small presses publish way fewer books and make $50 million or less per year. They also tend to focus on a certain literary category (for example, poetry or memoir) and may even specialize in regional authors, depending on where they’re based.
Needless to say, there’s a vast range of small presses out there. But if you do choose one, you can expect certain things to be different from working with a major publisher—and indeed, for some of those to be a drastic improvement.
Find that elusive home for your unique story
First and foremost, you’ll likely enjoy working with a small press if your book has quirky subject matter, employs an experimental style, or otherwise represents a “niche interest”. Where a major publisher might be reluctant to spend resources on it—and where self-publishing may not appeal because you have no idea how to market such a book yourself—a small press can provide just the right balance of enthusiasm and knowledgeable assistance. (Lilly Dancyger recently published a great case study over on Electric Lit about this, for those who are interested.)
The tricky part, of course, is finding a suitable press for your book. Because small presses love to specialize, you’ll have to do some research to find a press with the right catalogue and qualifications. I’d recommend looking carefully at each press’s in-house team, their mission statement, and the books they’ve released in the last year to figure this out. Remember that no legitimate press will ask you for money upfront. No matter how small, they’re still a publisher, and that entails providing services in exchange for later royalties, not out-of-pocket payment.
The good news is that if you want to start researching small presses, you can find plenty of reputable ones in this directory of independent publishers. Even if your perfect match isn’t among them, looking into these publishers and their catalogues will give you a sense of what a legitimate small press should look like.
Work with an experienced team without losing creative control
One of the biggest frustrations authors report with Big 5 publishers is how little creative control they retain. Without a doubt, this is the way of mainstream traditional publishing: the author gets an advance for their troubles, but they have almost no say in the editing, design, and marketing of their book. And while many authors are understandably relieved to be free of the responsibility, others very much want to stay involved.
If the latter sounds like you, definitely consider publishing with a small press. The grassroots nature of most small presses means that authors are encouraged to help prepare their book for publication—contributing substantially to edits, cover design concepts, etc.—and that it’s an excellent learning experience for new authors, as Marilee Haynes discusses here.
Crucially, though, you’re not left to manage all your own production services (as you’d need to when self-publishing), because your publisher will already have an in-house team. In effect, you get the best of both worlds: experienced, talented people to help make your book a success, without wresting away your creative control.
Some authors might be fine with having minimal control in exchange for a bigger advance, which is entirely fair! But keep in mind that while Big 5 publishers pay out in the short term, their long-term plans do not guarantee sales. If you suspect your book will be a tricky “mainstream” sell, go with a small press that cares deeply about your niche and will listen to your ideas—rather than a major publisher that will shut you out and potentially market your book all wrong.
No upfront costs and decent royalty shares
Going back to the financial side of things, it’s true that most small presses can’t offer high advances, and some small presses don’t offer advances at all. An established small press might give you a couple thousand dollars… but that’s very much the exception, not the rule.
Still, the overall financial benefits of going through a small press can outweigh this tiny or nonexistent advance. As mentioned above, one significant advantage of small press publishing is that you don’t have to hire an editor or cover designer yourself, which means no upfront costs (and again, if a publisher does ask you for money ahead of royalties, they’re not to be trusted). Also, while small press royalties aren’t as much as those you’d get from self-publishing, they’re a lot better than royalty shares with a major publisher—usually just 5-10%, compared to up to 50% royalties with a small press (and versus 70% with self-publishing, for context).
That’s not even to mention that royalties only come through after you’ve “earned out” your advance, which can take ages with a Big 5 publisher, if it happens at all. So while I won’t deny that small press advances are low, I’d also point out that massive advances aren’t such a good thing if your sales are disappointing, and that higher royalty shares often make for a more positive, sustainable publishing experience in the long run.
Curious to learn more about royalties in publishing? Check out this post on how much authors make—and for thoughtful ruminations on author costs and royalties from someone who’s been through it firsthand, be sure to read Lauren Sharkey’s piece on the price of publishing.
It’s easy to pivot to another publishing path
Despite some drawbacks of traditional publishing and self-publishing, both are still very viable publishing routes! Working with a small press isn’t for everyone, and if you ultimately find yourself drawn to one of these instead, do feel free to change course.
Luckily, if you start with small press publishing, it’s easy to switch to a different path after your first book. Having collaborated with a relatively small in-house team, you’ll then be prepared to either trust your next book to a larger one (that of a Big 5 publisher) or to go in the other direction and hire your next team directly (if you self-publish).
Essentially, small press publishing lets you sample both sides of the publishing world. If you like the balance, by all means, stick with it. But if you’re seeking better royalties, or if you’d prefer to work with a literary agent to get acquired by a major publisher, you can always look into other options—now with a bit of experience under your belt.
Savannah Cordova is a writer and content creator at Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors with the best editors, designers, and marketers in the business. In her spare time, Savannah enjoys reading contemporary fiction and low fantasy, as well as writing the occasional short story. She’s here to pull back the curtain on publishing so that every author can have the greatest possible chance at success.