Better Than Fall Back: The Small Press Option

Small presses

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Today’s guest post is by Shirley Hershey Showalter (@shirleyhs), author of the memoir, Blushto be released in September 2013.

“Publishers have not yet grasped the sea change in the world of authors. Authors in this giddy time have not yet grasped the true cost of going it alone.”

—Donald Maass, literary agent

In the 1950s, few women enrolled in college. When they did, their parents sometimes explained to the neighbors that education for girls was like an insurance policy. “Nancy will always have something to fall back on.”

Likewise, college students who apply to the Ivy League schools also apply to a B list of “fall back colleges.”

That’s the way many writers view the small press: something you swallow your pride to accept and then make the best of. For some of us, however, small presses actually serve as our first, or even best, option.

Here are three case studies that show why.

Richard Gilbert & Michigan State University Press 

Shepherd by Richard GilbertRichard Gilbert worked as a book publicist at Indiana University Press, and then as a publicist and marketing manager at Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, so he has an appreciation for the advantages of small presses. His memoir, Shepherd, releases in May 2014.

Was a university press your first choice? Why or why not?

During the seven years of working on Shepherd, I pitched trade presses and agents. I ended up getting rejected in all categories, including university presses, but accepted by two university presses—making for a hard choice—and had close passes from some trade publishers and agents.

Unfortunately, I blew my best chances with two or three small trade presses fairly early in the process when my book wasn’t ready, but I couldn’t see that. There are so many manuscripts clamoring for attention, it’s basically one strike and you’re out, anywhere. If you just think your book is ready, it isn’t—you have to know it’s ready.

Beyond that, it’s harder to get an agent than to get a publisher; they are in business, a hard one, to find and to sell books to publishers on the promise that every man, woman, and child in America will want to read it. I exaggerate, but not by much.

What benefits do you see in publishing with a small press?

University presses usually have excellent copy editors, high production values, and tend to keep their books in print a long time. The latter benefit is a real biggie for me, since a big trade house may give a book a year and then it’s gone. Like any publisher, university presses are looking for books that “fit their list,” which means their subject categories and often their geographical region.

It astounds me how many writers give up rather than try a university press. I knew a writer who had a great 9/11 story to tell, wrote a great proposal, and had it rejected in New York and gave up. “Why didn’t you try a university press, maybe Rutgers?” I asked. “Because,” she said, “I want to make my living as a writer.” I think my mouth fell open.

My saying all this makes university presses seem like pushovers and they’re not. For one thing, they are under tremendous financial stress as universities support them less and as the bookselling landscape changes so rapidly. But they’re still publishing books and looking for books.

What do you enjoy specifically about the press you are working with?

I appreciate the way the folks at Michigan State are a team. And I love my book’s cover and the way they involved me when they deadlocked between it and another cover; I got to break the tie.

The editor who acquired my book, Julie Loehr, responded to my proposal, read the manuscript and liked it, and then sent it to three outside readers. Such readers are a difference at university presses, stemming from their practice of publishing scholarly books. I loved who Julie picked. One person was supportive but taciturn, while the other two said all kinds of ecstatic things and identified one shared concern. The epilogue was tripping them up, and though they couldn’t say why, I knew that a technique I had tried wasn’t working. Julie was really low key. She said, “Do you want to take a look at it? It’s your book.” I did, and am grateful for that process. 

Any downside? What kinds of books and authors do not fit university presses?

University presses don’t have big advertising budgets. One of the reasons they like and look for niche books is because they can find and market to niches. They have been credited with keeping short stories alive, not to mention providing crucial life support for poetry. It takes a ton of money to market bestsellers, but thankfully that’s not the only book market. A trade publisher might turn away from a book that’s not going to sell tens of thousands copies, whereas a university press may publish one that has prospects of selling 3,000 or fewer.

A rule of thumb is that you need an agent for trade houses, whereas generally speaking university presses don’t like dealing with agents. They will do it, and an agent can help improve your contract—university presses’ boilerplate contracts can be too one-sided, excessively favoring the publisher—but university presses are used to working directly with authors. I joined the Authors Guild for help with my contract, and I recommend the organization.   

Eleanor Vincent & Dream of Things

Swimming with Maya by Eleanor VincentIn July 2013, during a special promotion, Eleanor Vincent’s memoir Swimming with Maya became an Amazon bestseller, edging out Sheryl Sandberg and Tina Fey.

Did you consider the Big Five? Did you try them before deciding on a small publisher?

I went through the traditional publishing process initially. My former agent, Laurie Harper, sold my book on the basis of a proposal and sample chapters. We tried all of the Big 5, and I have a file full of beautiful rejections—editors loved the writing but sales and marketing could not see a market. Ultimately, Swimming with Maya was published in 2004 by Capital Books, an imprint of International Publishers Marketing. IPM provides distribution and marketing services for a number of smaller presses.

It was a beautiful hardcover book priced at $28. Despite garnering favorable reviews and quite a lot of publicity (I was interviewed on CNN and several local TV shows, and featured in many articles), Swimming with Maya sold tepidly and slowly. In all, I think we sold about 2,000 books before Capital closed its doors in 2010.

They kept the book on their backlist, but did no active promotion after the first half of 2004. Because it never went into paperback, it was not available to book clubs. I see that as a huge factor in the trajectory I am describing. Book clubs are the ideal forum for Swimming, which I discovered as I began speaking to the few that would read a hardback and invite the author for tea!

When I heard that Capital was closing and would be pulping the remaining copies, I looked into self-publishing. Laurie Harper was no longer my agent, but she advised me to consider a print-on-demand version of the book. I also talked with the Authors Guild about their “Back in Print” program, which provides a way for authors to keep their books available on a print-on-demand basis, but with very limited formatting. I balked when I realized that I could not keep the book’s beautiful cover using their program, and that if I went with AG, that would limit my options going forward.

Meanwhile, the whole publishing landscape had changed. Social media was becoming the way to build an author platform and lots of new options for publishing, including very small companies like Dream of Things were springing up. As luck would have it, a friend, Madeline Sharples, had a memoir out, Leaving the Hall Light On, which was suddenly dropped when her very small publisher also closed. She found Mike O’Mary, publisher at Dream of Things, and he brought out a paperback and e-book version of her book. Madeline offered to e-introduce me to Mike. He read Swimming and loved it, and agreed to reissue it in formats that are much less expensive to produce and sell than a hardcover edition. 

Did you consider self-publishing?

Frankly, self-publishing never appealed to me. I am a writer with a corporate day job. Any time or energy I have must go into my writing. I lack the skills and interest to deal with gnarly things like technology glitches and distribution.

What I instantly loved and recognized in Mike was someone who was passionate about books and my genre—narrative nonfiction, including memoir and personal essays. That’s what I love, read, and write. I read some of Mike’s essays and found a kindred spirit who happened to have the skills and interests in the mechanics of publishing that I lacked. I observed what he was doing to promote Madeline’s book and knew he would do a great job with mine.

I wanted someone to help spearhead the marketing effort as well. Mike has been terrific in that department. He’s found the right virtual venues for promotion, and the latest BookBub promotion shows how well his approach works. In one weekend, we’ve sold more e-books than Capital sold in hardcover over 6 years! And this is not to mention the 12,000 downloads that occurred before this latest promotion.

Meanwhile, I’ve built a Facebook following and a better platform to display my blogs. (I use other social media as well like Linkedin, Twitter, and Tumblr, but Facebook has been the best forum, and the easiest to use.)

I think this story illustrates the immense changes in publishing over the last decade, and the opportunities for writers with good books to sell them through smaller, boutique presses. Had I given up in 2010, Swimming with Maya would have disappeared.

How and why have you focused on boosting Kindle sales? [answered by Mike at Dream of Things]

Mike: I believe that a good book will generate its own momentum if you can get it into the hands of readers and get some word-of-mouth going. My solution is to release the e-book early (simultaneous with or shortly after the print edition), price the e-book aggressively, and then promote the heck out of it.

One of the ways I promote it is via websites and e-newsletters that target e-book readers. In a recent promotion that I advertised via BookBub, I sold 3,000 copies of Swimming with Maya in three days. Granted, it was at a promotional price of 99 cents (versus a regular price of $2.99), but the ad more than paid for itself, and there were many other benefits. The book moved way up in the rankings for several days, to the No. 1 memoir in the Kindle store, and to No. 12 out of all e-books in the NOOK store. Based on past promotions, I expect to see higher-than-average sales levels for the next several weeks at the e-book’s regular price of $2.99. I also expect to see more reader reviews, and because of all the paid downloads, Swimming with Maya will now be featured on the pages of other e-books under the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” heading—which amounts to free advertising. So lots of good things happen when you get the e-book out there.

BookBub is selective. You essentially apply to be able to advertise with them. Quality matters. Swimming with Maya has quality blurbs from many reviewers, writers, and subject matter experts, plus about 50 reader reviews on Amazon with an average rating of 4+ stars.

My Story With Herald Press 

Blush by Shirley ShowalterLike Richard and Eleanor, I chose a small press for my memoir, Blush—a publisher for the Mennonite Church USA and Canada. Why?

I was a rookie without previous book publishing experience in 2007 when I attended the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. I first heard the word “platform” there. I learned that finding an agent and then a publisher can take years and that the odds are stacked against the writer. That was before the tsunami of self-publishing, and also before e-books took off.

I might have given up the dream after that conference, but I kept on writing short personal essays and winning literary awards that included publication in the Kalamazoo Gazette. I was a fairly early adopter of social media also.  

If I hadn’t known Amy Gingerich at Herald Press, I might have looked elsewhere. Amy inspires confidence in everyone she meets and has the kind of smarts you want in an editor. We inked a book deal in August 2011 on the basis of a proposal, not a manuscript (another advantage).

Here’s an incomplete list of what Herald Press has done for me:

  • gave me a small advance
  • supported me with two editors and two proofreaders
  • allowed me to hire my own developmental editor
  • procured ISBN numbers, set up Amazon and Goodreads author pages
  • provided professional book design, including a cover almost everyone loves as soon as they see it
  • included a (small) marketing/advertising budget, including a full-page ad in the denomination’s magazine
  • provided a professional publicist who sent galleys to 49 media outlets, wrote an excellent press release, has responded to every e-mail, and will support the launch tour with advance copies and media contacts
  • offered contacts with Ingram, Amazon, Publishers Weekly (which will review the book), Booklist, etc, all by the four-month-in-advance deadlines
  • sent galleys to 10-15 endorsers
  • featured me at their bookstore during a recent convention
  • offered staff support and a professional videographer to do a book trailer
  • worked with independent bookstores at five locations to support my book tour

There’s another major advantage: I’m a life-long Mennonite, my story centers on the meaning of being Mennonite, I was the president of a Mennonite college for eight years, and most of the people who know me best and care about me most are Mennonite.

Every author starts with a core of most likely readers. Mine is Mennonite, literary, and academic. I want to reach far beyond that core, but the best way to do so, I believe, is to excite my first readers. If buzz doesn’t happen there, it’s not likely to happen anywhere.

You might be amazed at all the small presses still going strong. Here’s one place to search for them, and here’s another. You can also research them in Writer’s Market.

When asked the difference between a small press and a large one, Margaret Benefiel, author of three books, including The Soul of a Leader (Crossroad Publishing Company), quoted one of her friends: “With a big press you get visibility; with a small press you get love.”

And as with love in real life, we are not searching for a fall back. We want the real thing.

Posted in Getting Published, Guest Post, Publishing Industry.

Shirley Hershey Showalter’s memoir, Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World won the Spirituality and Practice Best Memoir of 2013 award. Visit her blog at

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[…] Today’s guest post is by Shirley Hershey Showalter (@shirleyhs), author of the memoir, Blush, to be released in September 2013. “Publishers have not yet grasped the sea change in the world of authors.  […]

Kim Triedman

Like the authors above, my experience with a small press has been exceptional. I, too, started out with the agents and the near-misses with the larger houses before arriving (exhausted and older) at the door of a small literary press. My book has yet to release, but so far I have felt absolutely no regrets. I’ve had a fabulous, mutually respectful relationship with my publisher, had significant input into design issues (resulting in a fabulous cover that we’re both thrilled with), and generally felt in-the-loop and attended to in all the important ways. I have no horror stories to recount,… Read more »

Mary Gottschalk

Who was your press?

Eleanor Vincent

Fabulous. You capture the advantages really well! Best of luck with your launch!


Always great to see you here, Shirley. I enjoyed the way three authors detailed the benefits of a small press. I hope you save a few wonderful manuscripts from being sealed and stored in attics.

Eleanor Vincent

I second that!

Marion Roach Smith

Hello to Shirley and Jane:
This piece is timely, right on and much-needed. Thanks so much for it. I am seeing gorgeous small presses come across my desk these days. On the best days, the sheer beauty of the product will be rivaled by the wonderfully-written content. It’s a new world, and one to be celebrated, not feared. Yippeee and kudos to you both for this fine piece.

Eleanor Vincent

Absolutely! We should all celebrate the vibrancy of small presses. Thanks for your comment.

Heather C Button

I wonder if the fear of small presses is that because they seem unknown to the general public they can appear as a self-published book. I don’t see that as the case personally, and I think when the time comes, I’ll be just as interested in them, if not more than the big 5. Or however many there are left when I get there.

Heather C Button

Also, I am not Mennonite, but lived in a Menno residence during university. Some of my best friends are Menno, and I’m glad you’re writing for them!

Mary Gottschalk

Shirley … as someone below noted, this is a timely post, as I am very reluctant to go the “traditional” route with agent and publisher, but the idea of small press is very appealing.
Is there a list of small presses (in addition to the university presses) anywhere?

Mike O'Mary

Mary: There’s a pretty good list/directory of small presses on the P&W website:

Linda Austin - MoonbridgeBooks

I am also a fan of small presses and recommend them to new authors. They are a great jumping-off platform. Not only do most not require agents, they are more willing to take the risk with unknown writers. For the newer and the very small presses, make sure they have a distribution system. Also, I’ve noticed with university presses, the retail prices of the books can be on the high side, affecting sales. Be sure these presses will format and distribute the e-book version or give you the rights to do it. Take a careful look, inside and out, at… Read more »

Eleanor Vincent

Very good points, Linda. Authors must be very proactive, whatever route they take to publication.

Susan G. Weidener

My question/concerns are these: Small presses seem an unknown commodity at best. I wonder how much they charge the author for the paperback version, which she can then go ahead and sell in the community at her own price? Does she have to buy a certain number of books? What is the longevity of some of these companies? Will they be around in two or three years, five years? Who owns the copyright to the trade paperback? Who do they hire as copy editors and content editors? What are their credentials? How much do they charge in fees to an… Read more »

Jane Friedman

I’m sure Shirley will offer her take, but since I have experience too, I’ll jump in. Small presses—of the type discussed in this article—do not charge authors to publish their work, nor do they require authors to buy a certain number of copies. Those are often called “vanity presses” or “publishing services”—not small presses. However, some small presses may not pay an advance. If that’s the case, they often offer better royalties than a traditional, Big Five house. 50-50 is not uncommon. At a quality small press, you are getting quality editing attention (for free), often a better design than… Read more »

Eleanor Vincent

Excellent advice, Jane. Absolutely, always get help with the contract. I had the Author’s Guild review mine on this go round. As you point out, reputable small presses never charge authors and often will offer very favorable royalty splits. Due diligence is the name of the game.

Susan G. Weidener

Thanks, Jane, for noting the difference between small presses and “quality” small presses. Final question: How do small presses make any money? Do they set the price for the book? How much do they charge the authors to purchase the books from them? Who sets the Kindle price? Can the author tinker with that?

Richard Gilbert

Susan, University presses set the prices for their books. They give authors a discount price, typically 30 percent off but negotiable up to 40 percent on carton quantities. The author does not have a say in any retail pricing, hard copy or ebook, that I am aware of.

Susan G. Weidener

Thank you, Richard, for that information. Do you feel that having no control over pricing is a constraint and can affect your sales?

Richard Gilbert

I imagine an author can give input, especially at a small press, but pricing is a publisher’s province and I’m glad personally to concede it. Their motive is to sell the book, after all. If someone wants total control, she must self publish. Publishers take what writers do and they package and market and fulfill orders. Beyond control, authors give up a lot of potential income as a result of those services, but in my case I didn’t have or want to take my time for all that. So I am trusting in my press’s professional judgment.

Jane Friedman

Small presses make money when the book sells. They typically set the price for all book formats, though there may be consultation with the author. Unlike the self-publishing field, traditional publishers—big or small—are less likely to be tinkering/experimenting with the price, and they are unlikely to work with the author post-publication to change the price unless for a specific campaign (as described by Mike). This may change, however, since publishers are catching some heat for not being appropriately dynamic about their pricing.

Author discount on print copies is negotiable—as Richard says, anywhere from 30% to 50% is typical.

Joan z. Rough

Wow, Shirley. What a great article. I’ve been pretty stubborn thus far in mostly thinking about self-publishing. But I’m beginning to swing your way. Thanks for your words and support of those like me who are just starting out.

Eleanor Vincent

Joan, glad you are a convert. There are many excellent small presses out there. Find one that specializes in your genre and has a solid track record. Good luck!

[…] I discovered that I had a guest post over on Jane Friedman’s blog. So that was another reason to celebrate, and to share with you […]


Dear Shirley and Jane, Thanks for this informative post and discussion about using small presses. Well-timed for me as I wrap up final edits on my memoir manuscript. It validates a decision I recently made about querying small publishers as an initial step vs a backup. I am researching who may be the best match for what I have to offer. I appreciate the varying perspectives offered on why this is the best choice. Whatever we do, we need to find people who are as invested in our success as we are and getting “the real thing” is certainly a… Read more »

Eleanor Vincent

Very wise commentary, Kathy. I am so glad you are going to query small presses. Follow the link that Mike posted to the Poets & Writers list. That will be a great help!


Thanks, Eleanor. I will check out Mike’s link.


I appreciate the information, Shirley. Thank you.

Lexa Cain

Great article! Thank you very much!

I must admit I kind of wish you’d have included fiction examples, since platform is a big part of memoir sales. It almost makes it seem that if writers can make a big platform, they can go with a small press, but if one wants to sell fiction (like most of us), it’s still better to go with the big publishers. (I write fiction and am thrilled with my small press, MuseItUp.)

Lexa Cain

Thank you so much for the additional links. The articles were a delight to read! 🙂

Saloma Furlong

Shirley, what a great article! Great punch line at the end.

What a great writer you are!

Saloma Miller Furlong

Saloma Furlong

Thanks, Shirley. I will have a wonderful small press publishing my second book, thanks to you. And I love that Herald Press has the Anabaptist perspective.

I could write an article on this subject, but it would not be as well-written as this one.

I cannot wait to get your book. I wish you all the best with it!


Sherrey Meyer

Shirley, highly informative, well thought out and highly readable. I appreciate the links. I’m not yet close to publishing, but do hope to have a first draft completed by year’s end. Keeping my fingers crossed on that. Like the way the three of you presented your individual experiences with small press. And happy birthday!

[…] Kaufman explains how to find a reputable agent or publisher. And Shirley Showalter explores why the small press option might be best for […]

Jim Sellers

I would like to join in here. I am being published for the first time and it is with a small publisher. As far as I can see I haven’t lost out on anything. They are providing full distribution including e-books, and publicity. I will be promoting the book to support the work the publisher is doing and I did not receive an advance, which I think may be a good thing. I likely won’t be able to retire on the return from this book but I hope to be able to use this opportunity to publish more books and… Read more »

[…] Some writers think a small press is something you have to make the best of. Yet small presses can often serve as a first—even best—option. Three case studies show why.  […]

[…] Better Than Fall Back: The Small Press Option […]

Tomas Karkalas

My “writings” are my comments. They are as the original aphorisms as a teacher of life. Prior coming here I knew that there are the writers and the readers, now I see a big stuff promoting the books. Did that mean the success depends not on the author but on the involved media? My Lord Jesus Christ didn’t publish a word, but His teachings have impacted the whole earth. Can we see the example set for us here? While each of us is responsible for his thoughts, we should not bother for the publicity of our creativity but continue the… Read more »


I’m looking into publishing a friend’s book. He gave me the to go. The book have to be translated to English. Its about politics and international relations. The book had a big success in other countries especially the middle east and Africa. I asked for opinions and they are convinced that the book will find success here in the US. My question is how to go about publishing it? If you had a book published, what is the process? Do I need to get publishing rights from the original foreign publisher? Do I need a lawyer? or an agent? Is… Read more »

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