Choosing a publisher is like choosing a restaurant.
My God, I am brilliant.
You can think of the “Big Six” publishers as five-star restaurants, so exclusive that it’s not enough to call six months in advance for a reservation, you have to know the right somebody to get in. Smaller, independent publishers like Night Shade Books and Angry Robot require reservations and appropriate attire, but they’re a bit more relaxed. The even smaller publishers, like Carina and Samhain, are like nice sit-down restaurants; you don’t need a reservation, but you may have to wait for a table. Then there are the locally owned restaurants—the truly small publishers—that range from superb to endearingly unprofessional, sometimes in the same evening.
Take my dining experience tonight as an example. I live in a small town with a handful of non-fast-food restaurants within a ten minute drive, with many more restaurants half an hour or more away. I haven’t made reservations anywhere—in other words, I don’t have an agent (let’s see how hard I can flog this metaphor). It’s over a hundred degrees tonight and I don’t want to drive very far.
That narrows my choices to small publishers. I mean local restaurants. I’ve eaten junk food all day so I want food that I can pretend is good for me. That knocks out pizza and the local Chinese and Mexican restaurants (think of them as niche publishers). That leaves me the choice between an inexpensive diner with consistently mediocre food, and a more expensive steakhouse with a chef who apparently has Moods.
I choose the steakhouse, where the server brings my entrée near my table and announces vaguely, “Cajun shrimp?” I have to wave to him, because he’s forgotten which table ordered what. But he remembers to keep topping up my glass with unsweet tea, which I’m sucking down like I’ve just stumbled in from the Sahara (a hundred degrees out, remember).
Like forgetful or confused servers, small publishers vary widely in their editing skills. I’ve had editors who do a quick line edit and that’s it, while others have done round after round of careful, professional edits. Mostly it’s in between, and on the whole my experiences have been positive.
It’s important to know quite a bit about the publisher before submitting. Not every publisher knows what they’re doing when it comes to the business side of things; some local restaurants are the same way, with menu offerings that sound great but come to the table nearly inedible. Read the contract carefully and know what to look for. Some good resources are Writer Beware, the Absolute Write Bewares, Recommendations & Background Checks forum, and Preditors and Editors.
It’s helpful also to sample the menu by ordering and reading a book or two from the publisher. Think like a customer, because it does no good to entice readers to your book if they won’t stick around to buy a copy. Is the ordering process easy? Do the covers and formatting look professional? How do prices stack up against larger publishers? And are the books well written and edited?
Most small publishers carry ebooks only. Some also offer print-on-demand (POD) copies for readers who don’t mind paying considerably more for a print version of a book. (Um, this service is just like those sit-down restaurants that offer to-go services at lunch. Yeah.) The POD copies I’ve seen have been consistently high quality, with good bindings and nicely printed covers and pages. But copies run a good five bucks higher than similarly sized offset printed books offered by larger publishers, while ebooks are typically less than large publishers charge. For example, my book Evil Outfitters, Ltd. was released just a few weeks ago from Double Dragon Books. The ebook price is only $5.99 but if you want a print copy, you’ll pay $18.99 plus shipping.
Local restaurants have prices that are all over the place, some surprisingly low, some surprisingly high. Similarly (my tenth grade English teacher would be so proud of me keeping this metaphor going), small publishers may pay authors well or not very well at all. Sometimes it’s hard to tell, too. Watch out for contracts that specify royalties paid on net sales. Unless the contract also lists exactly what net sales entail, your royalties could have all kinds of fees taken out before you see a penny. Your publisher should be the one paying for listing fees, ISBNs, and similar business expenses. Those fees shouldn’t come out of your royalties. And don’t expect any kind of advance; small publishers can’t afford to give you money up front.
One of the big advantages to working with a small publisher is, well, that they’re small. Many are one-person operations, which means that the same person who accepts your work will edit it, format it, design the cover, and see it through to the finished product. If you have concerns, you know exactly who to contact. And one enthusiastic person running the show can mean fast publishing times—a few months to publication instead of years.
Unfortunately, one-person publishers can vanish without a trace very quickly. If the owner gets sick or busy, loses interest, or runs out of money, the authors may be the last to know. Imagine the annoyance of driving out for a nice meal only to discover the building is locked up tight and the restaurant’s signs have been removed. Now imagine having stock in the restaurant and finding out it’s closed and the owner has disappeared along with the bank account contents. If a publisher stops operation or declares bankruptcy, your novel rights can be tied up for years with no publication ever forthcoming.
Finally, you’re not likely to get a lot of publicity for your small press published book. Effective publicity isn’t easy even for the big guys; small publishers may expect the author to do all or most of the work. If you’re lucky, your publisher will send copies out for review, but there’s no guarantee any reviews will be forthcoming. Google “K.C. Shaw reviews” and you won’t find many reviews of my books even though I’ve had seven published by four different presses. However, if you’d like a free bookmark of my steampunk novella Goldie, just email your mailing address to kcshaw123 at gmail dot com and I will send you one for free! And I totally look just like that girl on the cover.
Speaking of poor publicity, my server tonight has forgotten to ask if I’d like dessert. As a matter of fact, I would like dessert. But he has already dropped my check on the table, so I guess I’m done eating. I think I have stretched the restaurant=publisher metaphor too far as it is. But you know I’m totally right.