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Publishing Routes: Small Press?

Updated: May 14, 2022

Once the writing is done, what do authors do? In these series of articles, we are exploring which path is the right one for you. In week one we gave an overview on how the publishing business works, then we looked at self-publishing, and this week we look at small presses.


Brief History:

Small presses began to rise towards the end of the nineteenth century and saw a recent increase in presence with the advent of digital printing.

For the sake of definition, a small press or indie press, is not a printer, but an actual publisher with a turn around below a certain level, and that publishes an average of ten titles a year. Small presses do not belong to large conglomerates or multinational corporations, but are run by one, two individuals, or small teams. They also make up half of the publishing market. They are business, to all effects and purposes. And most importantly, they are NOT vanity publishers.

As founder and owner of Luna Press Publishing, I don’t particularly like to consider small presses as the bridge between self-publishing and traditional publishing, but it is fair to say that the presence of serious, hard working small presses has relieved the pressure that was building under the traditional publishers’ feet: there are a lot of writers out there who are very good, but not marketable enough to take a risk – small presses have that freedom, and their trust in unknown authors have contribute to the world being a far more culturally richer place.


If self-publishing is only now, slowly shaking off the stigma of not being the “real deal” in the eyes of some, it is fair to say that small presses have never really suffered from it. They are not vanity presses, they do not ask the author to pay the costs of publishing a book and they will support their authors just like a mainstream publisher, only on a lower scale, because of the smaller budget available. That isn’t to say that some people haven’t jumped on the ‘small presses’ bandwagon and created a press that all but in appearance was in fact a vanity press.

Also, and this is true of small and traditional publishers, in the eyes of many people they provide a filter of sorts: someone other than you and your blind cat has read your book and helped you make it better. The fact that you wrote something which has won the trust of a third party who doesn’t know you, is confirmation that you are doing something right.

Agents and mainstream publishers, regularly keep an eye out for the writers coming through the small presses, because they might spot the next big thing and swoop down to make an offer. In this sense, although it is very good for the author, it leaves the small press to fulfil a sort of first step on the property ladder – you know, like buying a flat, let it grow in value and then moving on to the bigger house.

Does it hurt business being seen as stepping stone? Not necessarily (though is not pleasant), and actually, it is an acknowledged truth that a mainstream publisher may very well pass a book to a small press if they feel it’s not right for them, but could do well at another level.

Pros Of Small Presses

Ease of access. The vast majority of traditional publishers only receive submissions through agents, and it’s unlikely they will consider unsolicited manuscripts. A small press, especially if dealing with niche topics, is more likely to have an open submission policy, and if you have been doing some research, you will know what projects are on the go at any given time. Find the presses that deal with your genres, bookmark them, subscribe to their mailing list and check them regularly.

Chances of success are slightly higher. Assuming you have done your homework and are submitting to the right people, following the required procedure, a small publisher will have a higher degree of freedom when selecting the manuscripts, as it will not be bound by the rules and laws of the mega-bosses driving the whole shebang.

If you are writing for a niche audience, then small presses are definitely more likely to listen, as a low print run will not be an issue at all. Don’t forget that every book means a slot in the calendar, a slot that comes with organising and costing editors, marketing, advertising, etc. Traditional publishers do print runs in the thousands: it is only normal that they will commit to that level if they believe a product can make them money, but if the topic is too niche, they know it would be a waste of money.

Waiting times. Once you submit your work to a small press, it is very likely that you will hear back way sooner than the customary three months (if not longer) of a traditional publisher. This is very helpful, especially if your story is rejected and you need to move on that list of publishers/agents you made: etiquette dictates that publishers don’t like it when a story is submitted to fifty different places at once.

A word to the wise, submitting a novel when a publisher’s website clearly states ‘no unsolicited manuscripts’ will likely result in a no reply, so do read those instructions – if the press has taken the bother to write submission guidelines, it is in your own interest to read them and follow them.

On being your own boss. Not anymore. A contract is a legally binding document – if you sign it, you better highlight your timescale and stick to it. A small press is still a business, regardless of the fact that it publishes an average of ten titles a year, instead of twenty or more. They will have a queuing system for their publications, and they will require you to deliver your work by a certain date or in some cases to commit to a series. Either way, you are no longer in charge of your timetable.

On being the creator. Again, not anymore. This is however, a very big PRO. The press will cover all the costs involved in the process of creating a book, saving you thousands of pounds. One of the biggest critiques to self-publishing is the lack of editing in published books: a small press will see to that on your behalf. If your day job barely covers your bills, the last thing you need is to pay editors, proof-readers, purchase ISBNs, print free copies to distribute to the legal deposit libraries, set up printing and distribution, start and keep up a marketing campaign, travel to conventions, etc. Often titles, even those released by traditional publishers, don’t always cover all costs, so the fact that a small press is taking the financial risk on your behalf, is simply beneficial to you. This of course means that they will take joint decisions with the author, and retain final say on any particular aspect – a small price to pay for hassle reduction. Besides, it is unlikely that a publisher would do something to hurt your book! It is in their interest to create a great product, a business success.

The marketing side. Marketing is a bit of a nightmare for everyone, and if you can leave it to someone else, you should. Now, in today’s book industry, authors are expected to do their own networking and self-promotion to various degrees. However, if you work with a publisher you can count on their network as well as yours. Advertising costs money, and with the quick turn around of books these days, the product must really be exceptional to warrant a high budget for ads. Still, even a small press has a budget for that and will gladly use it, relieving you of that financial burden.

You will still run your own website and one or two social sites, but your publisher’s site will make sure your name and books are there for all to see. After all, people forget quickly, therefore reminding them (not harassing them) of your book will keep your existence in their consciousness.

Small Press: Is It For Me?

Sure, you lose a bit of independence, but you gain in money, time and sanity. You are a writer, not a designer or market researcher. You were never asked to write the Christmas card for you boss, on account of your intermittent tense-sense. You want to write and let someone else carry you forward. Let your editor have those nightmares! And why the hell not?

So go to your closest bookstore or public library and buy yourself a copy of the Bloomsbury's Writers and Illustrators Yearbook, or The Red Bible as I call it. Read the chapters that pertain to you, scour the listings of agents and publishers, make your list, go through it checking each website and submission guidelines, and contact them, one at the time. Prepare for rejections and don’t give up.

As soon as you begin looking for a publisher, big or small, the whole game changes: you will have competition, and it will be fierce. Don’t go in unprepared, but submit to the right people, and only the best possible version of your work, as opposed to your first draft.

Next week: Traditional Publishers.


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