Like many of my posts, this stems from something I saw in an online writer’s group. Essentially, someone who has been traditionally published from a small press was putting down people who self-publish. Personally, I have my own problems with self-publishing that I discuss in my “Why I’ll Never Self-Publish” post, but that is besides the point. At this point, I’d like to formally begin my rant against small presses.

In my opinion, traditional publishing is best done through an agent and then with a professionally recognized publisher. Small presses, unless they are recongized by writing organizations like Codex or SFWA, often give little more than what someone can do through self-publishing but will suck away 40-60% of the author’s share of royalties and then use self-publishing tools (like Createspace) to produce the book. Small Presses get away with this by telling authors lies in order to get them to sign a contract.

Lies told by Small Presses

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These small presses capitalize on the reputation of the Big 5. They fulfill an author’s sense of validation of being “traditionally published” even though they are not giving tangible benefits. You can spot a bad self-publisher if they say new authors don’t get an advance, new authors don’t get marketing help, or new authors need to pay for editing before they are willing to accept a manuscript (a revision request is different). This is a flat out lie. These lies are used to trick quality writers to sign with them rather than allowing the writer to shop their work to a good publisher.

The best way to avoid these publishers altogether is to get an agent. A writer is experienced in writing, but agents have experience in the industry. They will never take you to one of these publishers, as they have the potential of damaging your career (which by extension, the agent’s career). In addition, agents get only get paid when you do. If a publisher doesn’t offer an advance, the agent’s 15% of nothing means that they still get nothing.

Lie #1: New Authors don’t get Advances

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To those who will try to say that the market has changed and new authors really don’t get advances anymore, you’re wrong. In order for SFWA to consider a novel publisher to be a pro market (which there are currently 47) publishers have to offer a minimum of a $3000 advance.  There are other requirements too, but this is one of the big things crappy small presses say doesn’t happen because they either don’t want to pay a writer a few thousand dollars upfront or they literally do not have the money, which indicates an entirely separate problem that you should always stay away from, financial stability. If a publisher goes bankrupt while they still hold your rights, they’ve been known to tell authors they can only have their rights back if they do not pursue them for any outstanding royalties. (Source: Writer Beware)

If a small press doesn’t offer an advance, then they are not recognized in the industry as a professional publisher, simple as that. This doesn’t mean they are a scam like a vanity press. It means you need to do some research, figure out what are the things they are going to do to help you succeed that you can’t do on your own, and ask yourself why you are submitting to them unless you’ve already been rejected by all 47 professional markets. Signing with a bad small press is far worse than not signing at all.

Lie #2: Publishers Don’t Help with Marketing

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In regards to marketing, the Big 5 might not run ads for new authors but they have deals with bookstores and amazon for co-op space. Small presses often say that any bookstore can hold their books, but they really just list the book on Ingram (which you can do with self-publishing). Listing something on that site doesn’t mean any bookstores will actually order and stock your books. The Big 5 have deals with major bookstores so they make sure their new authors actually get into those stores. If you are going to a small press that isn’t professionally recognized there is little chance you will see your book in stores outside your local area.

(Just in case any new writers read this, co-op space is the term for the books that are placed in special, high-visibilty areas such as a homepage, the tables near the entrance, or on the bookshelf end caps. This additional visibilty helps garner book sales from people who are browsing. The publisher doesn’t pay for this upfront but if a novel sells while its on co-op the bookstore gets to keep a larger portion of the revenue for that specific sale. This additional portion comes from the publisher’s share, not the author’s share, of the royalties.)

Lie #3: Authors need to Pay for Editing

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This is actually the biggest red flag of them all especially if the publisher recommends a specific person for you to go to (like their in-house editor). Essentially, they say that they like your book but you have to get it professionally edited before they will accept it (or some variation of that). This is different than a revision request, because a revision request will often state a specific problem that needs to be fixed and is something you can do yourself, while this scenario refers vaguely to the idea of “editing” and the need for a “professional.”

A publisher earns their portion of the royalties for covering expenses like this. They are supposed to pay their editors, copy editors, and proofreaders a salary, who then work on your book. Publishers that want you to pay for the editor are doing one of two things.

First—though not as bad—is they are trying to cut costs. This could be because they are cheap as hell and trying to make a higher profit or that they are in financial trouble (again why you should always get an advance) and they can’t afford an editor. To skirt this problem, they try to pass the cost onto you, though somewhat in disguise (remember if they actual charge you a fee to publish they are officially a vanity press). Once you get the book edited they will say, “great,” and make little or no changes once it is accepted. This means they get to put out a higher-quality book, but they don’t actually have to pay as much as they should for it.

The second possibility is that the owner is also the chief editor (as if they had employees below them, cue sarcasm). They offer editing services in order to help out with your submission, but they really don’t care about the story. They use their “traditional publishing house” as a front in order to secure editing clients. Often, these people have no experience as editors outside of their little, make-believe publisher. The goal isn’t to make your book a success, it is to get you to pay them to edit it, and to let them pretend they are important. If you are going to pay for an editor, you have already covered the biggest problem most self-published books have.

Final Thoughts

In my opinion, if a publisher is offering a deal with no advance, the author is almost always better off self-publishing. These bottom-level publishers parade themselves as so much more prestigious than self-publishing because they cling to the Big 5’s coattails and help the writers feel good that they are “traditionally published.” They are not vanity presses because they don’t require an author to pay actual money, but they are pretty damn close. Rant over.

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11 thoughts on “Lies told by Small Presses

  1. Your rant reflects some impressions I gained from looking through the small-press market. It was really hard to tell which ones were legitimate. The advice to hold out for an advance offers a tangible criterion. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Just Can't Help Writing and commented:
    Some good warnings to take to heart!

    I have a couple of things to add. Unless the market has changed drastically, having a good agent and getting an advance is unlikely to guarantee your book visibility or even entry into mainstream bookstores. I was paid $5000 by St. Martin’s in 1983; even though King of the Roses got superb reviews (check them out in the Amazon preview), the book never made it into any of the many stores, local or national, that existed at the time (before Amazon). I was told St. Martin’s would have had to commit to a massive advertising budget before any of the stores would find spine-out space for my book, let alone any kind of display or prominent position. (This despite the fact that my mother wrote many angry letters to bookstores demanding that they put my book on a stand in the doorway!) St. Martin’s did minimal advertising, but did make sure reviewers got copies and paid attention to them, which is a big deal, and something that will be hard for us to do for ourselves.

    It’s my understanding (possibly erroneous?) that publishers’ budgets re even tighter today than they were in 1983. So true traditional publishing by one of the major houses doesn’t mean authors don’t still have work to do to get their books out there. But articles like this help us avoid pitfalls that will make our efforts go for naught!

    Liked by 1 person

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