There are a lot of ways to publish a book nowadays.
The old-school traditional way is to get an agent, who will then try to get your book picked up by a big publisher. “Big Publisher” includes the “Big 5” (at least I think it’s currently 5…things change quickly in that world which otherwise moves so slowly) and a lot of other larger presses. What separates them from small presses? Two things, besides sheer volume. One is that they often offer advances to authors they’re publishing. Small presses just can’t do that. I’m not sure the big guys always do, but it’s what your agent is fighting for, among other things. The second is print runs. Large publishers do print runs, which is printing a certain number of books in hopes of selling them. Small presses more often use “Print On Demand,” (or POD) for printing, wherein you order a copy, they print a copy, and send it to you. That’s gotten really quick and efficient, and it keeps anyone from being stuck with a thousand printed copies of something that doesn’t sell well.
Those two things are why small presses exist…no advance (so their only financial outlays are editing, cover design, and all the legal stuff), and no print overhead. If nobody buys a certain title, then it doesn’t get printed. A lot of small publishers are e-book only, and don’t even do POD. But there’s something about holding a copy of an actual physical book that has your name on the cover…even for me, who reads almost exclusively on Kindle these days.
The third option is self-publishing. Anyone can do this with anything they’ve written of any length or quality. Just push “publish” and it’s out there, for better or for worse.
So what’s cool about a small press?
A lot of things. One is timing. Large publishers are notoriously glacial in their dealings. If my agent sells my book today (please, let her sell my book today), it won’t be printed until 2016 at the earliest. Big publishers are currently looking at least a year ahead to fill their dockets. They’re slow to read manuscripts, slow to reply, slow to offer a contract, slow to edit, and slow to publish. It’s just the way it is.
Small publishers are nimble. When you send your manuscript to a small publisher, it might be the owner herself who reads it. There are no endless committee meetings where acquiring editors have to convince the money-folks to accept a manuscript they’ve fallen in love with. Small pub reads it, likes it, accepts it. I sent Flamewalker to Catherine at Word Branch in January 2015. I had a signed contract within a month, and the book was published less than four months later. It’s slower than self-pub, but way faster than large.
And small publishers do so much for you. If you self-pub, everything is your responsibility. You have to do your own edits, or pay someone else to do them (you should really do this…nobody can edit their own stuff properly. Nobody. You just can’t. You’re too close to it. For the love of god, pay someone to edit your manuscript before you puke it into the world and subject innocent lives to your typos and horrible formatting). You have to design your own cover, or pay someone else to do it (you should really do this…you might be really good at Photoshop, but self-pub covers often look like self-pub covers. A stock photo with your book title in Comic Sans does not a good book cover make). You have to format it yourself for whatever e-book or POD service you’re planning to use. You have to get all the legal stuff (Library of Congress, ISBN number…a bunch of stuff I don’t know about because my publisher did it for me) done.
Small publishers do all that. Within a few weeks of acceptance, I had an editor (the amazing John, who took my rambling mess and made a book out of it). We worked together over Google Docs for weeks to get it right. Then it went to proofreading. Then back to me for a final proof. Meanwhile Julian was painting the artwork for my cover (isn’t it gorgeous?). The end result is a professionally edited and proofed book that looks amazing on the shelf. And all that work was done for me (and with me, in the case of editing) by Word Branch.
So how will my next book be published? I’m hoping my amazing agent will get me into a bigger publisher. Because that’s what agents do. But even if she doesn’t and I end up with another small pub, or staying with the great folks at Word Branch, I’ll be all right with that. Small publishers are the best of both worlds…all the support of a big gun, with the speed and personal input of self-pubbing.
A word of advice: don’t submit your manuscript to agents and small pubs at the same time. Agents really hate it if they offer representation on your book, then find out that you’ve closed a lot of doors by getting the book rejected by a lot of publishers before the agent has a chance to work her magic. They want something no publisher has seen before. But if you give up on finding an agent, or just don’t want one for whatever reason, then consider looking at the little guys. They have a lot to offer.
Have you had an experience with a small publisher? Share in the comments!