I do work as an associate editor for the small press Jolly Fish Press and my debut novel is going to be published by Pandamoon Publishing, so I may be giving a biased opinion about indie presses*, because I love them both a lot, but if you’re wondering on whether you want to go this route, here’s some pros and cons to the option.
[*okay, so self-publishing is starting to steal the term “indie publishing” and to that I say NO, it belongs to small presses. Independent publishers outside of the Big
Six Five, like Soho and Algonquin, have been known as “Indie” publishers for a long time. The authors who are (traditionally) published by them wear their Indie cred with pride.]
So what is a small press, small publishing house, or indie press? Quite simply, it’s traditional publishing in miniature. The bigger, more established publishing houses (that are still independently owned) often have as many distributors as the Big 5, and except for a sometimes higher focus on e-sales, they operate the same way, just on a smaller scale.
Higher royalty cut: Bigger publishers, because they have so many resources, often have more expenses in getting your book published so your percent of the net profit is less (hopefully, this expensive publicity pays off), usually around 12%, but if you’re like Stephen King or something, probably closer to 15%. Small publishing houses usually offer around 30-40% of net profits, depending on your overall sales. That’s more than double.
More personal: This is the big-fish-in-a-little-pond versus a little-fish-in-a-big-pond argument. Each individual book gets its share of attention from the entire publishing house. With Jolly Fish and Pandamoon, at least, the community of authors within its bounds are family-like in their support and communication with each other. It’s nice and cozy.
It’s among small presses that you’ll find editors who are in it because they love and care about books. Editors, not sales and marketing executives, will be reviewing the merit of your work. The main reason I signed with Pandamoon was because the top editor cared as much about my book as I did.
You don’t need a literary agent: The Big 5 won’t even look at your manuscript unless it comes through an agent. No unsolicited manuscripts. For good reasons, even with the extra gatekeeper, they have thousands of submissions pouring in each week. But most small presses accept manuscripts even from the totally unknown (like I was) and publishing something makes you that more attractive to an agent.
It’s faster: A smaller staff can mean less bureaucracy and an easier decision process. And with less books to publish, more get published faster.
It’s about your writing, not just your sell-potential: Many are niche publishers specializing in a particular market like regional mystery or paranormal romance, but even if they’re not, they’re much more open to experimental books that fit outside the cookie-cutter mold. Small presses aren’t banking on your fame or big name connections to sell books. They’re betting on you— your unique credentials, your voice, your expertise— and the quality of your work and what you have to say.
Distribution: The hard fact remains that with a bigger publisher, more people are going to see your book, plain and simple. They have a lot of money to spend on marketing and sales.
Covers: Really watch for this one. Sometimes, the mark of a small press is deadly: and its evidence is on all the crap-a, my-mom-can-use-Photoshop designs for their covers. Before you choose a small press, look at their titles, and make sure the covers look good. Jolly Fish has an excellent design team.
No advances: Usually. There are exceptions. But for the most part, indie houses don’t offer advances, but make up for it in higher royalty cuts.
The press might go out of business: With all small publishing houses, especially new ones, you run the risk of them running out of business, and then you’re back to square one trying to publish your book, which will be even harder now that it’s already been published. Your best bet against this is to find a small press that’s been in the business at least ten years.
And to further encourage you, here are some big names who got started in small presses: Tom Clancy, John Grisham, J.K. Rowling, Maggie Stiefvater, M. T. Anderson, Jodi Picoult, and many others.