How to Evaluate Small Publishers—Plus Digital-Only Presses and Hybrids

small presses
Photo via GregMontani via Visualhunt

This post was originally published in 2016 and has been recently expanded to keep pace with changes in the industry.

In my annual chart, The Key Book Publishing Paths, there is one column that is most vexing and problematic for writers to navigate: small publishers.

Into this category falls some of the most prestigious publishers you can imagine, that can boast of New York Times bestsellers, and that writers dream of working with. But it also includes publishers that started up last year out of someone’s home office, run by people who may not know anything more about the publishing industry than you do.

Small publishers often have little or nothing in common with each other; each has unique contracts, distribution power, and quality, not to mention title count and revenue. That said, small presses can be alike in that they take pride in their status (and often rightly so) and call themselves “independent publishers,” to emphasize their creativity or more personal approach, and to differentiate themselves from corporately owned behemoths.

The problem for the writer is that some small presses take a sizable chunk of royalties and rights, yet offer little value in return. The intent is seldom malicious; it’s rather that their ignorance of standard (or ethical) business practices in publishing may lead them to offer contracts and deals that mimic what they see far more established players using.

First, let’s examine the basics of how books make it to market and how they get sold—and the role that traditional publishers play, regardless of size, in that process. With a clear view of the business, you can learn how to identify whether a small press offers an advantage to you over self-publishing. Incidentally, understanding this can also help you evaluate what value, if any, a hybrid publisher offers.

To greatly simplify matters, a traditional publisher has four overarching duties:

  1. Producing the best-quality book possible, regardless of format. I include all aspects of product optimization in this bucket, such as editorial, design, packaging, production, pricing, book descriptions, metadata and so on.
  2. Proactively selling the book into accounts, such as bookstores, other retailers, and libraries—or any place books are sold or available.
  3. Marketing and publicizing the book to the trade—namely, booksellers, librarians, and professional book reviewers.
  4. Marketing and publicizing the book to readers, whether that’s through direct marketing (its own email list and social media, for example) or through traditional media and publicity (newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, and so on).

Producing the best-quality book possible

If the publisher isn’t fully invested in producing the best-quality book, that causes trouble immediately for what comes afterward. Without sufficient effort to get the product (book) right, neither author nor publisher has much hope of selling and marketing it successfully.

Some small presses put a lot of burden on the author to get the book right, and offer limited editing in-house. They may lean on authors to come up with the best title and write the marketing copy for their own work. While experienced authors might be able to do such work or at least source it, a new author typically needs some guidance on best practices.

Some authors I talk with are excited about the prospect of a hands-off publisher—because then the book can come out exactly as you intend without “interference.” But this undercuts from the start the whole reason for working with a publisher in the first place. If you’re going to fork over a healthy share of your profit (or even pay upfront, in the case of a hybrid), you should prefer to work with a publisher that is engaged and can challenge you to produce a better product. The publisher is supposed to bring greater experience and knowledge to bear on how to package a book so that it will be more appealing to buyers in the trade (e.g., bookstores) and to readers. If they’re not helping you do that, then the lack of investment and interest should raise a warning flag. The quality of books released by the publisher shouldn’t vary depending on the experience or investment of the author; that will quickly lead to a less-than-stellar reputation for the publisher—which then affects their success at the next stage of the process.

Important side note: If the small press makes you pay upfront for their in-house editing, design, or production—or makes you pay for copies of your book—they’re not a traditional publisher, but a hybrid publisher or a publishing service. Traditional publishers, regardless of size, pay the author. The only expenses the author should incur as part of the traditional publishing process relate to indexing, permissions costs, or possibly making editorial changes beyond the timeframe allowed by the publisher. That said, some small presses, in addition to offering traditional book deals that work on a traditional model, also have a separate plan where authors have to pay. So, if you get rejected, you may be offered a “pay to play” deal. Unfortunately, this likely means their overall business model relies on charging writers for services rather than selling books to readers. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this if they’re transparent about their operations—and not trying to deceive you about the type of deal you’re getting—realize that such publishers may have less motivation to acquire books that have a good sales outlook; they may accept nearly any book where the author is willing to subsidize its publication. So, are you OK with an assisted self-publishing or hybrid publishing arrangement? Or do you prefer a publisher that is very selective because it must focus on projects that have a good chance at survival in the marketplace? Read more on hybrid publishing here.

Questions to ask

  • What is the editing process like? Is there a developmental or content edit, copyedit, and/or proofread? Will you be working with people who are in-house or freelancers—or no one? What level of responsibility do you have to get things right?
  • Evaluate the publishers’ cover designs and interior designs (using Amazon’s Look Inside feature). Are the designs professional and comparable to other titles in the genre? Do they inspire confidence in the book?
  • Read the book descriptions, both on Amazon and on the print back cover (using Look Inside). Are they well done, at least to your eye?

Selling the book into accounts

Part of the value a traditional publisher provides is the ability to sell your work into bricks-and-mortar bookstores and other retailers. They have a sales force, either in-house or through a distribution partner, that goes on sales calls. Your book gets pitched, even if it’s just for seven seconds, to people in charge of placing orders for books, prior to the book’s release. Most traditional publishers still work according to seasons, meaning they have a fall list and a spring list, which means there are fall sales meetings and spring sales meetings to determine what books will get placement. The outcome of these conversations helps determine the print run.

The smaller the press, the less likely they have an in-house sales team. Instead, they may work with a partner (called a distributor) who sells their books on their behalf. This is where terminology gets tricky, because just having a distributor, or having your books distributed, does not mean your books are being sold into stores during sales calls. For instance, my book Publishing 101 is distributed through Ingram, but that doesn’t mean anyone at Ingram went on sales calls to pitch my book. But Ingram does have publisher-clients for whom they take on this responsibility.

It is not easy for a small press to get a distributor onboard who is actually pitching their books. (Some examples of distributors who do this work include Perseus, which is now owned by Ingram; Small Press Distribution; Independent Publishers Group; and Itasca.) Small presses typically have to show a minimum level of sales or titles per year in order to be taken on as a client.

If a small press doesn’t have a distributor that sells its books into accounts, then they’re likely focused on pushing sales through Amazon, and they may forgo a print run and rely on print-on-demand distribution. Any small press can get adequate distribution for their books (get into major retailers) by simply working with two print-on-demand services: Ingram (either Lightning Source or IngramSpark) and Amazon. Critically, authors have access to the same type of distribution, at little or no cost to them. This is why any small press touting their wide distribution through Ingram is not really doing anything special for you or the book.

Book distribution is not difficult; the door is wide open to everyone. What’s difficult is actually selling the book to anyone. If the small press is not selling your book into major (or minor) accounts, that doesn’t mean you should avoid it, but understand that you’re unlikely to see your book shelved nationwide in bookstores. Maybe locally and regionally it will happen, or if you secure significant influencer or media attention that helps spur demand and thus orders. However, a small, digital-only or digital-first press will likely see it as a waste of time and money to market to the trade (bookstores, libraries, professional reviewers) or target traditional bookstores for sales. If you have your heart set on that kind of promotion and visibility, then obviously you don’t want to work with a small press that is primed for and focused on Amazon sales.

Side note on print runs: Investing in a print run means the publisher anticipates sales and has confidence that the book will be actively stocked in bricks-and-mortar stores. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with small presses relying on print-on-demand. It’s a way to reduce risk and economize—but it means the press’s value to you might not lie in a sales effort. So look for that other value. Is it in producing the best possible book? Or in marketing direct to readers? Think it through.

Questions to ask

  • Does the publisher have a distributor that pitches books to accounts? You can ask directly or visit their website and pretend you are a bookseller (or other retailer) who wants to order and stock the publisher’s books. Look for a page with bookseller info or trade accounts info. If you can’t find anything, check their FAQ, about page, or contact page. You should be able to find out who their distributor is, or who handles orders from retailer accounts. You should find phone numbers or another way to place an order. If all the sales information simply directs people to Amazon, then the small press probably doesn’t have a distributor.
  • Does the publisher produce a seasonal catalog?
  • Does the publisher invest in a print run?
  • If the publisher uses print-on-demand, who is the provider? If they use Amazon only (not Ingram), that can pose a problem for authors eager to arrange events or promotion with independent bookstores, who do not like ordering from their competitor (Amazon).

Marketing and publicizing the book to the trade

“Trade” is defined as publishing industry insiders, or: booksellers, librarians and reviewers (as well as traditional media) who are typically first in line to make your book known and visible to readers.

To reach these gatekeepers, small presses need to produce advance review copies of your book about three to six months prior to the book’s release, and send them out to whomever they think will most likely offer placement, reviews, or coverage. This type of activity is typically done to help ensure orders are placed by booksellers or librarians prior to the release date, and may help determine the print run or other marketing efforts, if early indicators are positive.

If a book is released only in ebook form, that more or less means there will be no marketing and publicity effort toward the trade. Often the same is true for print-on-demand titles, or those with no print run. Most ebook sales in the US happen direct to reader through Amazon, and some bookstores and libraries aren’t eager to take on print-on-demand titles because the terms aren’t always what they need. Bookstores expect books to be returnable, usually at a minimum 40 percent discount. While it’s possible for a small press to make those terms work when using print-on-demand, some presses would rather mitigate their risk and refuse to accept returns. Be sure you understand your small press’s policy and terms, especially if you intend to be basing your marketing campaign around independent bookstores.

Questions to ask

  • Does the publisher send out ARCs or review copies? Some small presses are operated only by one or two people and don’t have full-time marketers or publicists. This isn’t a deal breaker, but they will be limited in what they can do to support your work. Get clarity on what support you’ll receive.
  • Does the publisher submit the book to media outlets for coverage? Does it follow up?
  • Study recent titles from the publisher Amazon—what’s the review activity like? Are there editorial (professional) reviews listed? Follow the publicity breadcrumb trail for recent titles.

Marketing and publicizing the book to readers

Even the biggest and best traditional publishers fall down on this one—and it’s the area of authors’ greatest disappointment by far. Some publishers can do a tremendous job of producing a quality book, selling a book into accounts, and getting books on shelves throughout the country … but then no one shows up to buy those books. Within six months, those books get returned and authors have the sudden realization that the game is over before it really had a chance to begin.

This is an area where some small presses can shine, and where they can compete favorably with even the biggest publishers. But will they?

One factor that works in your favor is if the small press is well-branded and specializes in producing books for a very specific type of reader or community. That means that they don’t necessarily have to create a unique and distinctive marketing plan for each and every book. Instead, they can tap into existing assets that reach the readers they already know will love the next book coming out. The publishers’ assets might include email newsletters, social media, blogs/websites with book-related content, podcasts, advertising campaigns, and so on.

While it can be nice if the small press sells direct to readers through its own website, it’s extremely unlikely that’s where most sales will occur. Therefore, don’t use that as a sign of reaching readers unless the website is more of a content marketing hub. An example would be Early Bird Books, run by Open Road Media.

Speaking of the publisher’s website: if it appears poorly designed, out of date, or amateurish, that’s not a great sign—although, to be fair, book publishers are somewhat notorious for having bad websites. If you’re willing to forgive bad website design, consider who the website seems to speak to or focus on. Is it trying to lure in authors, or is it trying to showcase its books? The more it’s catering to authors, the less likely it’s a publisher you want to work with.

Questions to ask

  1. What is the publisher’s baseline effort for each title when it comes to reaching readers directly?
  2. Does the publisher have a publicist on staff? Will you be working with a publicist or will you have to hire you own, assuming you want one?
  3. Does the publisher have direct-to-reader marketing assets, such as an email newsletter list, social media accounts, or other places where it discusses new releases?
  4. Does the publisher assist the author with any efforts or materials that might be used to market to readers, such as book events/signings, bookmarks and postcards, and so on?

For more on book publicity, see this article.

Comparing the publisher’s value to their contract

You’ll encounter two types of contracts: so-called “life of copyright” contracts (which are most common in traditional publishing) and fixed-term contracts. Neither is best; they’re just different. I recommend hiring a literary lawyer to help you negotiate the contract, but here are a few warning flags.

  • If you’re not receiving an advance, you should receive higher royalties than an average publishing contract. Royalties on an average contract might be anywhere from 4 to 25 percent depending on the book format and volume of sales. Royalties on a no-advance or digital-only/digital-first contract should look better than that, usually 20-50% of sales for print. Ebook sales should be a minimum of 25% net to the author (that’s the standard for Big Five contracts), but for small, digital-only and digital-first presses, 50% is common and should be what you’re shooting for.
  • The smaller the press and the less value they offer—and especially if there’s no advance—the fewer subsidiary rights they should have. Hold onto your audiobook rights, for instance, as well as film/TV. Or: hold onto as many rights as possible if the small press has little or no experience exploiting those rights in the first place.
  • Small presses that offer little value, especially digital-only or digital-first presses, are more likely to offer you a fixed-term contract (three years or less is preferable); try to avoid a life-of-copyright contract when there’s no advance and limited value.
  • If you sign a life-of-copyright contract, be sure to negotiate a termination clause that allows you to part ways when sales dip below a specific threshold.
  • Avoid signing a non-compete clause (especially an overly broad one) or giving a first option (right to see your next work) to a small press of any kind, but especially to a digital-only or a hybrid. Frankly, it’s best to avoid this with any book contract, but the more reputable the press, the more likely they’ll try to insist some level of commitment. This is where an agent or literary lawyer can be very useful.

Traditional publishers, even small ones, will often negotiate every single author contract, and each book has different terms. However, this creates a lot of administrative effort and long-term accounting responsibility, which “mom and pop” presses are ill-equipped to handle. Thus, small or new presses may tell you upfront what your specific advance and royalties will be, which probably means they offer you a take-it-or-leave-it publishing contract. While it may seem great that the financial terms are transparent and standard across all books, this isn’t done for your benefit. It’s for theirs.

I’ve helped authors evaluate small press contracts, suggesting changes to be made, and often, that small press will come back to the author and refuse to negotiate on terms. That’s not a good sign, as every publishing contract ought to be negotiable. However, their goal may be to keep administrative headaches at bay. Or maybe their lawyers told them never to change the contract to keep things simple. And it may be possible the deal is not sufficiently profitable to them unless you stick to the boilerplate.

What about hybrids?

Because there is no consistent business model or standard of operation for hybrid publishing, it makes it difficult to say what is a hybrid and what is not. Most define themselves as being somehow innovative, but usually the innovation is more about a marketing gimmick—a new way to convince authors to pay for a highly priced publishing service.

Rather than seek out a hybrid intentionally, which can lead to a poor result, seek out the best publishing partner or service for your project, using the guidelines above. Regardless of whether you pay upfront or not, a publisher still has to perform the same functions for you to be worth the cost or the profit sharing. Quality hybrids have a quality control process in place and present a curated list; have the ability to sell your book in some form (even if they can’t promise anything); and offer some level of marketing and promotion support, whether that’s directed at the trade or the reader.

For more on hybrids, read my May 2022 article in The Hot Sheet.

Factors that may not mean anything

I have not discussed the following qualities of small presses because they can be a poor means of assessment.

  • Number of titles published per year: A press can do a terrific or poor job regardless of how many titles they handle. However, a higher number of titles brings with it more marketing, promotion, and administration. Be wary of small presses that put out dozens or hundreds of titles each year with a very small staff; that’s a give away they’re not investing much in each title, or that they’re primarily working as an assisted or hybrid publishing service rather than as a traditional publisher.
  • A statement of author friendliness: Don’t be lured in by flowery language about developing personal relationships with authors or helping fulfill your dreams. It may appeal to you, but it has little bearing on how good the company may be at the business of publishing. The more the publisher talks in cozy language about you and your work, the less professional they likely are. (Sorry, but good publishers tend to leave you feeling a little cold; that’s why there’s a continuing love-hate relationship between authors and publishers.)

How to research small presses

To find out what other authors have experienced, Google the name of the publisher and add the word “scam” at the end. You’ll find conversations and warnings if there have been poor or questionable experiences with the press.

Final note

For someone without industry experience, it can be hard to tell the difference between a quality operation and one that’s hardly better (or no better) than self-publishing. I hope that this post has given you the knowledge to evaluate the merits of a small publisher on your own.

Years ago, when I worked for Writer’s Digest and Writer’s Market, it was safe to say, “Stick to the publishers you find in Writer’s Market”—since it would only include publishers that offer traditional contracts (the kind that pay writers).

However, as the publishing industry has changed in the digital age, small press activity has proliferated, especially small presses with a variety of publishing models. That means you’re more likely to find listings in Writer’s Market with hybrid approaches—meaning they charge writers for their services. So this again raises the problem of how writers can smartly evaluate their choices.

While I still favor small presses that do not charge writers, and that take seriously all four duties outlined above, everything depends on the right fit for you and your book. You might find a hybrid or a digital-only press that could be a good partner for you and your work and be a steppingstone to greater things. It helps if you first determine what you value (and need) and then ensure the publisher offers you that value for a price or profit share that is appropriate. Always remember that a bad publisher will put you in a much worse position than no publisher.

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