| Don’t Write Alone
Shop Talk Five Questions to Ask Before Signing with a Small Press
Before you sign a contract, it’s worth opening up a dialogue to understand how the press handles the publishing process.
As the publishing market continues to consolidate, more writers and agents are doing deals with small and independent presses. The category of “small press” is often hard to define, because it means different things to different people. For the purposes of this article, small or independent press refers to publishers who operate traditionally, in the sense that the author does not take on publication costs in the way hybrid or self-published authors do, and standard royalty contracts are in place, but they are not a member of the Big Four (Penguin Random House, Macmillan, Hachette Book Groups, and HarperCollins).
Writers who have gone through the many cycles of rejection may be tempted to accept any offer of publication. That’s understandable! Yet, if you are choosing a small press, do be careful: There are hundreds of small presses operating in the US alone, and their models—and thus the experience of the author—can vary significantly. There are many excellent small presses, but there are just as many who may disappoint in terms of investment in your book.
Before you sign a contract, it’s worth opening up a dialogue to understand how the press handles the publishing process. While that may feel intimidating, it’s an important step in advocating for yourself. If you don’t feel comfortable speaking with the press directly, examine that. You can also check with other authors who are in the catalog as a jumping-off point. Even if you are working with an agent, you should be prepared to be inquisitive.
While not exhaustive, when making the decision, here are five questions to start with:
1. Who makes up your editorial staff, and how will I interact with them?
Some small presses—in fact many—try to roll developmental edits, copy edits, and proofreading all into one, instead of treating these as distinct functions. Budgetary concerns are real, and not every small press has the capital to invest in multiple editors. The editor may, in fact, be the owner of the press themselves. Even when you have waited to go on submission until your manuscript is complete, that doesn’t mean it is camera ready. There are plenty of small presses who do invest heavily in their editorial departments, and depending on your manuscript, you may want to find one who does.
Tip: If you love the press and want to sign on even in the absence of an editorial team, consider at a minimum hiring a professional proofreader on your own. This will ensure you feel confident that your book will be published without any grammatical errors that might be missed by an editor!
2. How do you make books available to reviewers?
Some authors may be surprised to learn that their press does not print physical Advance Reading Copies (ARCs). These same presses often do not make digital review copies available on industry sites like Edelweiss or NetGalley, which are important because they can connect you to reviewers who are outside of your or the press’s network.
Digital and print ARCs are often another question of cost for the press, which is why some small presses decline to provide them. This can also represent a lack of investment in your book. Without ARCs, it’s difficult to secure prepublication reviews, and not having them hinders your ability to schedule events, as some venues want to see an ARC prior to your book’s publication.
Related to this point is how a small press does—or doesn’t—interact with the trades. Publishers Weekly , Kirkus , Library Journal , Booklist , and others require ARCs well in advance of publication. Some small presses claim that the trades don’t review small-press titles; that’s not true. What is true is that no outlet or individual can review a book in advance of publication if they don’t have a way to access it. (As an aside, many reviewers have mixed feelings on reading PDFs.)
Tip: If you are satisfied with everything the publisher has to say except the quantity or existence of ARCs, find an inexpensive copy shop and have your manuscript bound. Bookmobile offers low-cost ARCs that are geared toward the self-publishing crowd but are an option if you need more ARCs. Note that this will not work for trade coverage, but it will satisfy many other reviewers.
3. How far in advance of publication should I expect preorders to be available, and from where?
Preorders can be absolutely critical for a book. They are one of the earliest indications of the health of a title, and slow preorder sales can send a message to the publisher that they need to adjust their marketing approach or demonstrate to the author that they need to step up their own promotional efforts. However, some small presses decline to offer a preorder period, or the preorder is only available directly from the publisher’s website. Direct sales are essentially invisible in the larger industry because they go unreported to places like BookScan, which tracks book sales across retail channels. Via BookScan, retailers can see the activity of other retailers, and this can help drive demand. For instance, when Bookstore A sees that Bookstore B has ordered several cases of your book to be ready for launch, Bookstore A may increase their orders.
Preorder periods also lengthen the publicity window for your book, as a preorder link is much more tangible than simply talking about your title or sharing an unclickable cover image. For instance, if you land a prepublication review, you want potential readers to be able to put your book in their cart immediately.
Buying direct from the publisher is probably relatively tolerable for people in the independent book world, but for the rest of the reading public it’s a large barrier. In addition, many national magazines want to capture affiliate revenue—the small percentage they make on sales when a reader clicks through to purchase on sites like Amazon and Bookshop—and they cannot do this on a publisher’s website.
Tip: If the press is adamant about not having a preorder period, you may want to consider passing. It is a standard publishing practice that is too important to ignore.
4. How is PR handled?
Many presses do not have in-house public relations, and much of the effort there is on the author. Even if there is in-house PR, there still may be a significant lift for the writer—though this is true even of big presses. PR should be a partnership between the press and the author. Even if the press does not have a dedicated PR pro, they should at a minimum be ready to give some guidance, including recommendations of independent publicists that they’ve worked with in the past. What you are seeking to understand here is the publisher’s approach to outreach: At the most basic level, you want to ensure there is some kind of a process in place. Even having an intern working through a list of contacts is better than nothing.
That said, be aware that you will likely need to set up your own book tour. Be aware that you will likely pay for most of it yourself. And also be aware that publicists, even expensive ones, can’t guarantee coverage.
Tip: You don’t need to decline a press that doesn’t have in-house PR; just be realistic about what this means for your book. PR is the most challenging of all the items on this list because it’s the least predictable. News cycles, timing, the other titles being released in your season, and many other factors play a role in potential coverage. There is much you are unable to control here, so work toward a shared agreement of what the expectations are on both sides.
5. What is your distribution model?
Publishers have different distributors available to them, such as Publishers Group West, Small Press Distribution, IPG, and SCB. At its heart, distribution is how your book gets from the printer to bookstores. Distributors take a commission on sales, so they have an interest in seeing a book do well.
When a press works with a national distributor, it helps get your book into the hands of more buyers, including libraries. The distributor will also warehouse the book, so when an order comes through from a bookstore or online retailer, copies will be available. In addition, distributors will also put pressure on the publisher to meet deadlines and stick to release dates, which can unfortunately be a problem with some small presses.
Some small presses self-distribute or choose a regional distributor, which puts limitations on the title. It’s worth knowing that when you see a book displayed in shop windows across the country that this is just as much related to an active distributor as marketing buzz.
Tip: Be heads-up if a small press says they are distributed by Ingram. While Ingram is the largest distributor in the business, in small-press terms it often means the publisher is using Ingram’s Spark program. This is a service that literally any person can sign up for, and it makes it harder to convince bookstores to carry your book and set up readings. If the press is distributing outside of Spark, they will be happy to let you know.
Finally, remember that every press and every project is different. There are neither clearly right nor clearly wrong answers to any of these questions, but the more information you have as an author, the better your experience will be and the more realistic expectations you will have for your publishing journey. Plus, asking questions shows your potential press that you know something about the business of writing and helps to level on both sides. The responses you receive should serve as a guide in your publishing journey.