Up until I got my first internship at a small press in college, I had never heard that it was possible to submit novels to publishers without first going through a literary agent. Working in acquisitions for a press where 99 percent of our submissions came directly from authors was eye opening.
With the idea that I could approach niche publishers with my work, rather than having to either find an agent or self-publish, I began to expand my net just to see what would happen. And while I hardly had publishers falling over themselves to get to me, I managed to find a lot of success with this “new” third option.
While I never published a novel through the press with which I interned (the editor-in-chief understandably wishing to maintain a divide between their staff and their authors) I have worked with a number of small presses at this point—my third book, The Copper Witch, having just recently signed with 5 Prince Publishing for release next year. Combined with picking up editing work as a contractor for another press and having seen many, many publishing contracts at this point from either side of the process, I have developed my own pros and cons list for what to expect when signing with a small press:
- Pro: You don’t have to have an agent. While having a literary agent isn’t a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination, agents fall on the business side of publishing. It is their job to find projects they think will sell—and hopefully sell for a lot. If you have written something experimental, or just not the current big thing, it can be simpler to go to a small press that specializes in experimental or off the wall pieces than it would be to find an agent and big publisher. And, without the agent, you don’t have anyone taking 15 percent off the top when you do sell your work.
- Con: You don’t have an agent. On the flip side of that coin, there’s a reason agents get their commissions. They are able to help make good novels better, and then tell you whether or not the contract you’re offered has bad terms/is a scam. Without an agent, you have to be extra careful that you aren’t getting in over your head/selling your work for a song.
- Con: Small, or no, advances. When going through a large press, you’re likely to be given an advance of some kind (money the publisher gives you up front as an advance on future royalties). As most small presses tend to work on smaller operating budgets, you are likely to not see much (if any) money up front as you sign your contract.
- Pro: Higher royalties. Making up for the advances, however, you are also likely to see higher royalties listed in your contract. You won’t have the money upfront, but if your book sells well, you’ll end up with more money off each copy sold.
- Pro: You likely will maintain more creative control. While I’ve yet to have a publisher give me complete veto power over what cover art they chose, I have always been asked what I picture for a cover before they go to their cover designers. I have also always had a very equal relationship with the editors publishers have assigned me. Since the production is smaller, you will often be much more involved with each step that’s happening as your book goes to print.
- Con: You won’t have as many resources behind you. With a smaller production, however, you also don’t have the full power of the [Big Publisher]’s design and marketing team behind you as you go to print. A small press will still help promote your work (they only make money when you do, after all) but you will not see the same reach as you would with a big publisher.
So, obviously, I have decided the pros outweigh the cons when it comes to working with a small publisher (especially now that I’ve gotten pretty good about knowing what’s normal and what’s sketchy in a contract) and I would speak very highly of my experiences with them. It might not be what’s best for every writer, but it has certainly been what’s best for me so far in my career. And so, that’s just one more thanks I have to offer to that college internship.