Monday, 5 April 2010

A Small Press says "Yes"

More and more that's something I'm hearing writers say - their ms has been accepted by an exciting new small press. They're not asking money up front like a vanity publisher. So this is fantastic! Isn't it?

We are at a time when the publishing industry is catching up much of the rest of the world in realising that aggregation and merger are outmoded business models, and small, independent and flexible are the way forward. This is creating fantastic opportunities for new small presses. But, like all booms and bubbles, 95% of these new presses will fail, and do so quickly - through plain natural selection (in many cases, where they have not thought out a new business model that isn't successful/lucky, the issue will simply be - as always - undercapitalisation).

The future failure of so many new presses creates a very real problem that writers need to be aware of - when the business goes bust, their book (or the rights thereto) will be one of that business' assets - the chances of the author getting their rights back in a hurry are minimal (and the assurances of the lovely people who run the press are irrelevant - once they're wound up it's not up to them, it's up to the banks)

It's so early that we really don't know who the charlatans and incompetents are, and who will emerge victorious, so all we can do if considering a new small press is be as savvy as we possibly can. I would recommend considering the following checklist of questions:

1. There are many many more books than shelf slots. You may have experienced rejection after rejection. If someone approaches you it's flattering, but PLEAS, be self-aware enough to ask why. Have they really spotted what everyone else missed? Quite possiblyso, but almost certainly not.

2. Following on, if I were approached, i would want to a. make sure the contract protected my rights so they reverted to me in certain timeframes/scenarios and b. look at their business plan. You should, of course, discuss the publisher's business plan before signing even if they're HC, but in cases like this I'd want forecasts and figures, and if I didn't feel confident analysing them, and didn't have a manager/accountant to do it for me, I'd walk away.

3. Remember that submission followed by instant acceptance can amount to the same thing as being approached directly - like a cynical, jaded lover ask yourself, and them "why so keen?"

4. Always always always go to sites like Writer Beware and Absolute Write. DO remember that negative feedback can be as unreliable as positive, but consider any comments.

5. Use google - for two reasons - to find out what people are saying about them that may affect your decision, and to see just how wide their web footprint is

6. Consider approaching a reputable independent editor like Maria Schneider or Nicola Morgan. Ask them if they consider your book shelf-worthy, and if they say no, think carefully.

7. It's hard in a global age, but meet these people if you possibly can. This is a people business, and as a writer your instincts about people aer probably fairly good.

8. This should be obvious, but it may not be - ask to see the other books they're publishing. For new presses there may not be any on the shelves - ask to see the mss. Consider the following factors - 1. Does your book fit alongside these? It would be pointless, for example, for me to have The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes published by DIIArts - it just doesn't fit with their other books, and would get lost amongst them. It would fit very nicely in the portfolio of To Hell With Publishing, though - if a press is REALLY new, you need to talk serious turkey with them on this - it may be too early to tell what the feel of the press is (their website's "look" will tell you a lot, though - take a look at for example - I KNOW my book would fit there) 2. Are the books any good? I would never really feel comfortable joining a group where I wasn't the weakest member (at Year Zero, I've got very lucky - because I do the tech donkeywork they let me hang out and put my writing up), but I do have a Groucho Marx approach - if they're right for me because it's such a strong portfolio, why would they think I'm right for them.

9. If you still like the idea, ask yourself: could I do what they're doing myself and would I want to? That doesn't mean, for example, "could you edit your own book?" You couldn't. It means "could you find an editor suitable and work with them?"

For me, number 9 is the one that clinched it. I know I can do as good a job as anyone I've come across for my particular brand of weirded out underbelly scuzz. And I love doing it. I REALLY love it.


  1. Good post, Dan.

    I rejected a small press offer last year based on the following:
    1. My book didn't sit comfortably with the majority of their range
    2. I thought some of their blurbs were poorly edited
    3. They wanted to keep rights (print rights, creative rights) which they weren't going to use
    4. I googled some of their titles (and looked them up on Amazon) and what VERY underwhelmed with what I found.
    Small press cn be wonderful, but you have to be selective in what you sign and with whom.

  2. Some great points, Dan, specially the one re rights, which, oddly, is one which many writers forget. Danny Gillan put up a post about exactly this happening with one of his books some time ago. R

  3. @RPS - yes, it was Danny's experience that first made me aware of the issue

    @Patty - those are very good reasons. And the point is that if one small press is interested, others will be too - and if they're not, one has to wonder why the first one was. It's like agents - people are often so glad to have anyone they'll just sign without working out if it's a relationship that'll work for them. It takes nerves of steel, but sometimes it really is best to walk away

  4. Excellent points and plenty to think about when searching out new outlets for getting published. There's so much to consider and this sort of article helps clarify things.

    Thanks Dan.

    VJ Corfield

  5. Thanks, VJ. I should expain that the article arose out of a question on Authonomy from Shoshanna Einfeld, a writer I really admire, who had noted that more and more people were being approached by small presses, or apparent small presses, keen to publish their work. She was keen to highlight a growing number of seemingly spurious new "small publishers", and the conversation developed about how small publishers can be really good for writers, but how on earth one knows who are the genuine ones and who are the charlatans.

  6. I've been posting my fiction in a link to my blog and now hear that this will probably mean no one will want to publish it since I have published it myself. This saddens me, but given the anxiety I feel when I try to write a query letter maybe it's for the best. I'm just not a blurb writer and from what I've been able to glean reading advise from agents on the art of the query that's what I need to write. And to write a synopsis seems impossible as well. So I'm probably stuck with myself.

  7. I couldn't go with a small press for a really simple reason: I'd make no advance and probably only sell a modest number of copies. That in itself doesn't bother me. I'm all about having modest success as a writer. The problem would come when the lady at the dole offices finds out that I wrote a book and sold twenty copies and then I get kicked off the dole like in "Famous For Nothing." I'd be there praying for the royalty cheques to come in and when they did, they'd be for some amount like ten euro.

    So yeah, only a really big deal with a six figure advance and Barnes and Nobles marketing play would lure me away from my fear of publishers, but since that's never going to happen, I'd rather just write for free.

    Also, Utah, why not just pay someone to write a blurb for you?

  8. @US - hmm - that will depend entirely on the prospective publisher - many many don't care less about such things.

    @Marcella - that's the long and the short of the point I was making in "Dear Publisher" - the finances of going with a small press just don't stack up - so I'll stick to ploughing my own furrow

    hi, Cat :)

  9. Hey Dan, excellent post! I was aware that even non-vanity publishers could be 'dangerous' in a way, but your advice makes it much more clear are what to beware of. Thank you for that!

    p.s.: I'm not sure you noticed, but I've left you a Happy 101 Award for you on my blog. Won't you collect it? ;)

  10. Ooh, thank you - I have no idea what that is, but yes, and thank you again :)

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