The Ins and Outs of the Small Press

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Not counting your third-grade memories of Scholastic and its book fairs, chances are that when you think of a publisher, names like HarperCollins or Hachette pop up in your head. That’s the same as your mind going “horse racing” when you hear Triple Crown. 

However, it’s important to keep in mind that the publishing world is also peppered with small presses. These can offer a more boutique experience, with dedicated fans and niche titles, but they can also correlate to a smaller overall budget. Depending on what your priorities and preferences are, a small press could be the perfect fit for you and your work.

If you have carefully crafted your book for submission, you might explore the world of small presses. Working with them has unique benefits and drawbacks. Learn more about those below.

What characterizes a small press?

A small press is usually defined as one whose annual sales are below $50 million. Even though you may initially be deterred by this number, there are several notable advantages to getting your book published by a small press. Unlike imprints, such as MacMillan’s sci-fi subsidiary Tor Books, they are independent. Also, small presses boast a hefty roster of noteworthy releases. Some successful titles include Water for Elephants, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Snoop Dogg’s From Crook to Cook

The landscape of book publishing appears to be changing, and small presses are becoming more prominent and prestigious. Small Press Distribution (SDP), a nonprofit from Berkeley, helps get these books into stores and libraries. 

The benefits of working with a small press

Interest in avant-garde books

Even in the age of BookTok, books in unique subgenres or unusual niches, especially with no famous author attached to a title, have a harder time attracting a large readership. Big publishers focusing on marketability often pass them over. Some small presses, on the other hand, specifically seek them out. They may even have specialties, such as diverse literature or narrative nonfiction. It is entirely possible that a small press turns out to be the ideal fit for your book as indie publishers are more willing to take a chance on an untested author. Consequently, it will be easier for you to grab their attention—and hopefully nab that coveted book deal.

Different agent requirements

Some big presses won’t entertain an unsolicited manuscript. Small presses, however, may have more leeway. With less money riding on every decision and fewer executives bearing down, editors can give more attention to fledgling authors. In fact, some presses hold writing contests to draw in new writers and foster young talent. This gives you a greater chance of getting noticed and recognized. 

Fast and adaptable

Because small presses have fewer books and smaller releases, they move more quickly in general and can respond to abrupt changes. If there’s suddenly a new reason to promote your book down the line, they can do so and get you an unexpected boost in royalties. 

More creative control

We dare you to tell a Penguin editor that you hate the cover art! At a small press, an author often has more input and a seat at the table. Writers with a unique vision can appreciate their thoughts being heard. The author is also more likely to retain subsidiary rights. All of these are huge advantages, particularly for authors concerned about maintaining creative control over their work.

The drawbacks of a small press

Limited advances

Big publishers come with big advances. The inverse is true for small presses. Expect a meager advance, if any. Royalty rates can often be higher although the book’s distribution will probably not be as wide. 

Fewer marketing opportunities

The Big 5 have the money to send authors to conventions, splash them on TV screens, and commandeer schools for a week. This leads to greater exposure and, naturally, more sales and readers. A small press doesn’t have this kind of budget or personnel. However, this can also be an opportunity for imaginative promotion, like podcast appearances or blog interviews. Working with a small press means you have to be more creative and adaptable.

Less regulation

You don’t want to walk face-first into a scam, do you? So, make sure the press you’re dealing with is legitimate. Indeed, a small press might be terribly run, and without research, you might not catch on until you’ve already signed a contract. 

Despite the potential drawbacks, small presses have a dedicated following and are a colorful cog in the publishing machine. You might find they fit your needs. Regardless of the press size, however, you will always need a well-written, well-proofread book to get an editor’s attention.

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