Deb: When publishing, you might want to think small

As many of us gear up for the 2014 AWP Conference this week, it’s a good time to talk publishers. Among the vast halls of booths and tables, you’ll find plenty of fine small publishers. One of them might just be the best home for your book.

Many years ago, my first novel came out from Lodestar, an imprint of Dutton, a subsidiary of Penguin. Even then, before it merged with Random House, Penguin was one of the Big Boys. The perfect place to land your first publishing contract.

Or not. I loved my editor, but Big Boy Publisher dumped her and her imprint shortly after my novel came out. They failed to put my book in the proper catalog. They could have cared less about marketing it in Alaska, where the story was set, and where we get upwards of a million book-buying visitors a year.
A few years later, a regional press made an offer on another one of my books. I was leery. It seemed like a step down. But the publisher assured me the marketing would be good and the sales would be strong and the book would stay in print.
He was right. Not only is that book—and three others I sold to the same small press—still in print, but they’ve found five times the readers (and generated proportionately that much more in royalties) than my two books that came out with the Big Boys.
More and more, I look to small presses (including my own) not as a last resort but as my first choice. Here, six reasons why: 
  • In general, small presses aren’t chasing “sure thing” celebrity deals. They’ll take more risks both in what they publish and the terms they offer. I placed my forthcoming novel Cold Spell with a small press because they let me keep all except English print rights. That means I’ll produce and market my own digital editions, which I’m convinced will result in more print sales for them. 
  • While free to innovate, small presses tend to be backward-thinking in a way I appreciate: They pay a lot more attention to what’s on the pages of the books they produce than what’s on the pages of their balance sheets. Does that make publishing with them more precarious than with the big boys? Maybe. But I’d rather cast my lot with a small group that cares a great deal about good books than with a large group controlled by corporate concerns that they can’t override. 
  • A small press works like a team. They know and promote their books. After hearing from so many on the staff of the press that’s handling my book, I wouldn’t be surprised to get an email from the custodian saying that he, too, loves my novel. 
  • Though a small press may be as understaffed as a large one, in general I’ve found them more responsive. With the Big Boys, it’s easy to feel shuffled around like you do sometimes when you’re buying a car—like it’s a game in which you’re the pawn being nudged from one person to the next in what ends up being a long way of saying sorry, our hands are tied. 
  • The pressure’s off. Small presses don’t set authors up to fail by setting bars that keep changing and in the end are impossible to reach. Midlist authors—one whose books sell steadily but don’t bust the charts—are just fine with them. And guess what? Books stay in print, so authors sell more than they would with a Big Boy who remainders them sooner rather than later. 
  • Small presses are more agile, adjusting more readily to new paradigms, as with the growing trend of readers connecting directly with authors. 
All well and good, you may say, but I’ll bet she’d jump at a Big Boy deal if one fell in her lap: more money, more marketing, more bragging rights.
Consider, yes.
Jump, no.

I’d weigh everything I’ve said here against the money and the marketing and whatever short-lived fun I’d have saying a particular book was picked up by a Big Boy, and then I’d choose the path was best for that title.
A version of this post also appeared at

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