Monday 11 January 2016

Paths to Publishing 2: Small Presses

By Iola Goulton

Last week I talked about traditional publishing, focusing on large publishers.

Small presses and micropresses follow the same business principles as the major presses in that they take on the full financial responsibility for publishing and distributing the book, and pay royalties. They do not ask authors to pay for publishing or marketing, and do not require that authors buy a set number of books.

However, small presses are often newer publishers and there are some differences:

  • They are more likely to be owned by individuals rather than multinational corporations, which means the person you are dealing with has an actual stake in the business. As an added bonus, the owner is unlikely to change jobs mid-project, leaving your book without an editorial champion.
  • They will have a smaller team, and the owner may well be the acquisitions editor, the structural editor, the line editor, the copy editor, the proofreader, the formatter, the cover designer, and the sales and marketing department. This has advantages and disadvantages: it means the person you’re dealing with is the one with the power to make decisions, but it may mean the publisher becomes stretched too thin, or are undertaking roles they aren’t suited for.
  • They are less likely to pay advances. However, they often pay higher royalties than the major publishers, especially for digital sales (although it can be argued a higher royalty rate is only useful if the book is selling).
  • They may offer digital-only or digital-first contracts, so only books with a high enough ebook sales record will get printed and distributed. Alternatively, they may sell paperback copies through a print-on-demand service such as LightningSource rather than printing and distributing stock.
  • They may not distribute to bookstores, partly because of the cost: books are distributed to bookstores on a sale-or-return basis, and a small business may not have the financial backing to make in-store sales financially viable.

Advantages of a Small Press

The big advantage of a small press or micropress is that most accept unsolicited submissions from unagented writers. However, just because you can submit doesn’t mean you should. I find many small presses produce books with bad writing, amateur covers, insufficient editing, and little or no marketing support.

Here are some suggestions of what to look for before submitting to a small press:
  • A good small press will operate in a niche (e.g. Christian romance): they can’t be all things to all people, and they don’t try. 
  • Cover art will be professional, and reflect the specific genre. While their cover art won’t reach the standard of the best Big Five publishers, it will be as good as the cover art of the best indie publishers. Readers do judge books by their covers, and many of the small presses (unfortunately) feature cover art best described as average. 
  • The writing and the editing need to be excellent. I often find the copyediting is solid, in that there are few or no typographical errors, but there are fundamental writing issues (e.g. headhopping, or telling not showing). Mistakes like these show the publisher or their editors lack an understanding of the essentials of good fiction. Small presses who produce excellent non-fiction may well be lacking in the necessary skills to produce excellent fiction—and vice-versa. 
  • Books are available in major online stores (although they may not be available in physical bookstores, especially if the small press utilises a digital-first or digital-only model to control costs). 
  • Prices are competitive for both ebooks and paperbacks. Readers are unlikely to pay more than USD 5.99 for a full-length novel (80,000–90,000 words) from an unknown author or publisher.

Once you are confident the small press has the high standards your book deserves, make sure your book shines. To employ a cliché, you only get one chance to make a first impression, and you don’t want to waste that chance on a manuscript that has issues you didn’t fix because you didn’t know they were issues.

There are an increasing number of small presses and micropresses publishing Christian fiction. To receive a current list, click here and sign up to my monthly newsletter.

Next week I’ll be looking at self-publishing and hybrid authors (authors who trade publish and self-publish). Meanwhile, what questions do you have about small presses? What advice do you have to share?

About Iola Goulton

I am a freelance editor specialising in Christian fiction, and you can find out more about my services at my website (, or follow me on Facebook (, Twitter (@IolaGoulton) or Pinterest (


  1. Good information.
    I would be 'wary' of a small press where the owner is doing just about everything: "The owner may well be the acquisitions editor, the structural editor, the line editor, the copy editor, the proofreader, the formatter, the cover designer, and the sales and marketing department." Just as researching a larger press, doing so with a smaller one before submitting is vital.

  2. I absolutely agree, Terry. No one can be expert at everything - the skill is in recognising our weak points, and hiring experts to fill those gaps.

    I've read books from a lot of small presses specialising in Christian fiction. Some are as good or better than the books coming from the larger presses, while others . . . are not. Authors need to educate themselves so they can tell the difference between a good publisher and a not-so-good one.

  3. Thanks Iola. I think there are some excellent Christian small presses - and often they will get behind an unknown author in a way the big presses may not - though of course, they may not have the reach of a big press. On the other hand, it might be better to have one's book published by a quality small press than for it to sit in the slush pile for another 10 years. So I think this is a viable option for many authors.

    I do have a question. You say 'Readers are unlikely to pay more than USD 5.99 for a full-length novel (80,000–90,000 words) from an unknown author or publisher.' My query, do you mean for both print and e-book or is this the e-book price. I'm just wondering how a small press (and the author) would make any profit if this was a price for a printed book.

    Look forward to reading the next post in the series.

    1. Hi Jeanette,

      Good catch - that's definitely the ebook price!

      I see most US Christian fiction paperbacks in the $12.99 to $15.99 range, but shipping means that will be $25 to $40 by the time it gets to New Zealand . . . which is why I don't buy many paperbacks any more.

    2. We set Glimpses of Light at $12 US on Amazon (at the lower end because the exchange rate is woeful at the moment). You are right about shipping, especially if you want the book reasonably soon.

  4. Iola, great post! When I first started writing (before ebooks became popular) one of the biggest concerns with small presses related to their financial viability. Would the company stay in business? Would the author get paid the print book royalties owed to them? The danger period for bankruptcy seemed to be when a small press was doing really well and took the big steps to expand their print runs and range of titles.

    Now, the small presses are less reliant on print sales to turn a profit and they can do really well from selling a combination of print and ebooks. The conversation has now moved to small press vs. indie. What does the small press offer (expertise) that the author can't do for themselves? One advantage of a traditional small press for authors is that they don't need to spend money upfront to publish. The small press takes on the financial risk. Indie authors are usually factoring in the up-front expenses of editing and cover art before they publish their book.


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