Should You Publish Your Book with a Small Press? Two Literary Agents Advise

Michelle Brower and Jennifer Chen Tran

Today’s guest post is a Q&A by Sangeeta Mehta (@sangeeta_editor), a former acquiring editor of children’s books at Little, Brown and Simon & Schuster, who runs her own editorial services company.

As Big Five publishers merge and the competition to land a book deal becomes increasingly fierce, small press publishing can seem like an ideal option for some writers. And for those who prioritize being traditionally published but aren’t concerned with the size of their advance, it can be a win-win situation. Many small presses invite unsolicited manuscripts during specified reading periods or year-round, offering writers the ability to bypass securing representation before being published.

Small presses have produced Pulitzer Prize winners and International Booker Prize finalists, in spite of sometimes limited budgets or distribution. A tiny indie press is responsible for one of the titles longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize. But not all small presses achieve the same level of success. In some cases, signing with a small press can hinder rather than help a writer’s career, as the Writer Beware website and blog warns.

To get a better sense of the nuances of small press publishing, I spoke with literary agents Michelle Brower of Aetivas Literary Management, whose “Insider Advice for Small Press Publishers” panel I virtually attended at the AWP Conference this past spring, and Jennifer Chen Tran of Bradford Literary, who worked at an independent press before becoming an agent. As with all my Q&As, neither knew the other’s identity until after they submitted their answers to my questions below.

Let’s start with your definition of a small press. Is this a traditional publisher that operates much like a corporate publisher but on a smaller scale? How else would you differentiate a small press from, for example, a Big Five publisher and one of its imprints? Is it correct to say that all small presses are independent presses?

Michelle Brower: Small presses, to me, are both independent entities that publish fewer titles than most imprints at a Big Five publisher. There are independent publishers that I would not consider “a small press,” because they have bigger or medium-size budgets that can compete with Big 5 imprints.

Jennifer Chen Tran: In my view, a small press is a press that focuses on publishing a limited number of titles each year and usually generates less revenue than major publishers, due to having a smaller list. Some small presses follow a traditional model and provide advances, functioning much like larger publishers. Small presses may not have the same distribution reach that a Big Five publisher does, and they may or may not have more than one imprint.

Even though every small press is different, many are publishing important books that may be overlooked by bigger publishing houses. The vast majority of small presses function independently, but I also know of other small presses that may be nonprofits or be beholden to a certain mission. For instance, when I served as Of Counsel to The New Press, which is considered an independent publisher (but is also a nonprofit publisher), it was clear that the books they were acquiring were social justice-oriented and centered on issues important to the public interest.

What are some advantages of publishing with a small press as opposed to a corporate publisher? (For example, is the author given more personalized attention? Creative control?)

MB: What I’ve learned is that this can vary widely across small publishers. What you do know is that you are a bigger fish in a smaller pond, and it’s more likely that you’ll have contact with the owner of the press and be more involved in the publication process.

JCT: I think this varies on a case-by-case basis. Some small presses give their authors a lot of attention, partially because of their smaller list, and partially because this is just how they do business. Publishers that treat their authors well, by being more responsive, by giving their authors more attention for marketing and publicity, or even consulting with their authors on cover designs, demonstrate that they understand the give-and-take of a creative relationship. I’ve found that the size of the press often isn’t the defining factor when it comes to the overall dynamics of the relationship. Additionally, a smaller publisher may be more open to negotiating certain terms of the publishing contract, which often works in the author’s favor. Furthermore, you may or may not need a literary agent to pitch a smaller press.

Conversely, what are some of the disadvantages of publishing with a small press? (Small advances? Limited distribution?)

MB: Distribution is definitely an issue, as well as small or no advances and a potentially overstretched staff who are responsible for the same tasks that a larger publisher does (publicity, marketing, editorial), just with fewer people and smaller budgets.

JCT: Smaller presses usually don’t have the backing of a major corporation so the advances can be lower, but I have to say that I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the offers some of my clients have been receiving from smaller presses. Distribution is less likely to be robust, but this may become less of a disadvantage given how consumer buying habits have shifted due to the pandemic (and it remains to be seen if retail will bounce back). Smaller presses may not have the same marketing and publicity bandwidth that bigger publishers do.

When you’re ready to go out with a client manuscript, how likely are you to include small presses in your first round of submissions? In later rounds? Does your decision depend in part on who the acquiring editor is? If your client is a debut author or a multi-published author?

MB: I almost never include small presses in my first round except for a few very well-regarded literary presses; it often doesn’t make sense financially for the author. But I do frequently include them in second rounds and if there is a specific reason that particular press would be the best fit.

JCT: It depends on the project. I usually include major publishers in the first round because they tend to pay higher advances. This really helps my authors out, some of whom have been working diligently on their projects for over a year! There are some projects that I represent that might be more niche, or perhaps another agent had previously represented the author but was not successful selling the project, in which case I try to be more strategic about where the project will be best placed.

Matching the right editor to the project is as much an art as a science and so yes, who the acquiring editor is will greatly factor into my pitching strategy, as well as where the author is in his or her career. It can be harder to pitch a midlist author if their previous books didn’t sell as well as we had hoped, but I am continually surprised by how things pan out and remain ever optimistic for my clients. I have a different strategy for every client and I really believe that enthusiasm goes a long way, both on my end when I’m pitching projects and also from the acquiring editor. I’ve had a situation where an acquiring editor at an independent publisher told me that the support for my client’s project was unanimous and unprecedented—not to brag, but that was a very good day!

If a small press is upfront about their ability to offer your client a contract that leaves little room for negotiation, what would your role be in the book deal? How would you be involved with your client’s book once the contract is signed? Once the book is published?

MB: I will always try to negotiate the best contract possible for my client, even with a small press. I would also not hesitate to tell my client to not sign a contract that would be detrimental to them in the long run. But beyond that, my role is the same as with any book, doing everything I can to be a partner in helping it reach an audience.

JCT: I’m pretty adamant about obtaining the best terms for my client. I also have the backing of an established agency, which helps me negotiate better terms for my client based on past course of dealing. I never accept a contract at face value and I truly believe that most everything is negotiable. If a small press (or any press for that matter) has a “take or leave it” attitude, that is a red flag. After the contract is executed, I try to take a step back and let the editor take over, so to speak, but I also want to be informed of any major editorial feedback and support my authors during the marketing/publicity stage.

Since many small presses accept unagented submissions, many writers are inclined to query them at the same time they query agents. If a writer who has queried you follows up to tell you that they have an offer from a small press, what is the best way for them to inform you? In what instances would you offer representation? Encourage the writer to pursue this opportunity on their own?

MB: If they have an offer, they should definitely inform me over email. However, since I work on commission and small press advances are often quite small, it often makes more sense for the writer to use a publishing attorney to vet their contract than use an agent.

JCT: The best way to tell me is via a direct message on Query Manager (which is what I use to field queries) or via email directly if we’ve already corresponded via email. I would only offer representation if I felt that the potential client was a good fit for my list and that I’m also a good fit for the potential client—sometimes the best way to find out if it’s a good fit is through a phone conversation. Over the years, I’ve had quite a few writers come to me with offers in hand, but I decline offering representation if I don’t think they are a good fit for my list or if I have another client that is writing something very similar. I don’t want my clients to be competing with each other so I’m also very mindful of my current client list when offering representation.

As corporate publishers continue to merge (Penguin Random House—once two separate companies—has proposed purchasing Simon & Schuster, and HarperCollins has now acquired Houghton Mifflin), do you think more authors will sign with small presses? Or will the remaining Big Five or large independent houses be in a better position to attract those authors who are concerned about the industry’s move toward “megapublishers”?

MB: My prognostication is that the books that sell to the Big “whatever number we arrive at” will sell for higher advances, but there will be fewer of them. I also think small presses will be at a disadvantage in terms of distribution and pushing back on the terms from online retailers compared to corporate publishing. But I always believe that publishing needs an ecosystem to flourish, and that includes small presses, self-publishing, corporate publishing, and the formation of new, medium-sized publishers.

JCT: I predict that small presses will only have a more important and vital role in publishing as corporate publishers continue to merge and consolidate. Often, small presses will take on projects that might seem too risky or on the “fringe” for Big Five publishers. Authors will continue to sign with small presses, independent presses, and hybrid presses because Big Five publishers might not be willing to invest in clients and projects that seem more niche. Big Five publishers are still taking risks, but I think there are a lot more hoops for the author to jump through at a major publisher. For instance, for nonfiction projects, platform is only becoming more important and often it can be a deal killer if the author doesn’t have an extensive enough platform. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that small publishers will continue to publish great talent, and I truly believe that their continued success is vital to the publishing industry. There is no one-size-fits-all solution and authors are becoming savvier about how many options are available to them too.

Do you have any other advice for writers who are considering submitting to and publishing with a small press?

MB: If you do want to sign with an agent and try to sell your book to a big publisher, I would not query small presses at the same time. And if you decide to work with a small press, be prepared to put a lot of elbow grease into your publication. Lastly, make sure to vet your contract! There is no standard small press contract, and they can vary wildly; make sure you are not signing away something valuable.

JCT: Yes, consider your long-term goals and ask yourself where you want to be in five years. Do you want to have multiple deals published with a major publisher or would you rather publish your book with a smaller publisher first and then perhaps try a major publisher on your next go? Publishing is a marathon, not a sprint, so educate yourself and read as much as possible about the industry while also perfecting your craft. At the end of the day, there are so many amazing authors and stories out there that deserve to be published, and it’s just a matter of fit, timing, and a bit of luck. You can and will find the agent, editor, or publisher that is right for you. Believe in yourself, stay open-minded, and never give up!

Michelle Brower (@michellebrower) began her career in publishing in 2004 while studying for her Master’s degree in English Literature at New York University. After stints at Wendy Sherman Associates and Folio Literary Management, she joined Aevitas Creative Management, where she is a partner. She is looking for literary fiction, suspense, “book club” novels, genre fiction for non-genre readers, and literary narrative non-fiction. Her authors include Tara Conklin, Kathy Wang, Erika L. Sanchez, Jason Mott, Erika Swyler, Clare Beams, Riley Sager and Jaquira Diaz, among many others.

Jennifer Chen Tran (@jenchentran) is an agent at Bradford Literary. She represents both fiction and non-fiction. Originally from New York, Jennifer is a lifelong reader who now lives in California (please send bagels). Prior to joining Bradford Literary, she was an Associate Agent at Fuse Literary and served as Of Counsel at The New Press. She obtained her Juris Doctor from Northeastern School of Law in Boston, MA, and a Bachelors of Arts in English Literature from Washington University in St. Louis. Jennifer is the child of Taiwanese immigrants and hopes to continue to work with authors from marginalized backgrounds. She is looking to grow her list in the areas of upmarket women’s fiction, graphic novels (particularly for Middle Grade and Young Adult), adult and children’s non-fiction, cookbooks, lifestyle titles, narrative nonfiction, and business books. Her ultimate goal is to work in concert with authors to shape books that will have a positive social impact on the world—books that also inform and entertain. She is honored to work with her talented clients, including Dierdre Wolownick, Stuart Palley, Dr. Elizabeth Landsverk, Missy Dunaway, Steve Casino, and others.

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