Book marketing · Kindle · self-publishing · The writing business

Self-publish or small publishing house? How to decide

I’ve had two questions recently about small publishers. First, Stacy Green: ‘Do you think self-publishing is a better option for new authors than a small publisher whose focus isn’t solely on the next bestseller?’

Also Tahlia Newland: My agent is waiting for the last 3 big publishers she queried for my book to get back to her. If no one wants it, it’s just small publishers left. I’m thinking I’d rather ebook self-publish than go for a small publisher who hasn’t got a big distribution. I’d be doing most of the publicity anyway, so why not be in a position to keep control and maximise profits? What do you think?

There’s an excellent piece here by Michelle Davidson Argyle on what a publisher should be able to do for you.

What I’ll add to that is my own opinion, from my own experience and that of author friends.

The term ‘small publisher’ can cover anything from the small adventurous imprints started by publishing professionals who have decamped from the major companies – to decidedly less qualified outfits led by people who are chancing their arm at publishing. With varying motives.

Quite clearly, the publishers started by the publishing professionals will have the edge. They have the experience, the expertise and the contacts – and you can weigh up an offer simply by googling them and finding out about their reputation. But some small – and micro-small – publishers may not be as good for you as going it alone.

It all comes down to what they will give you in return for the chunk they take and whether that suits you. And in some cases, you have to be able to assess whether they are properly set up to do the best for your book. Leaving aside the crooks, some of the very tiny publishers do not have enough experience in key areas of the business – but they don’t know how important those are. You’ll see from my horror stories below.

But first, here’s a run-down of the major areas in which a publisher can help you and the self-publishing alternatives.

Editorial help

Editorial help certainly can cost. If you go it alone you can hire a professional to do this, but it’s a hassle to set up and takes time away from your writing.

Art, editing and formatting all come with the package when you sign a publishing deal. Even harder to put a price on is the input of an editor who is in tune with what you want to do. The right editor, who chose your book from their company’s slush pile, has fallen in love with your work – unlike an editor you hire. Any good editor can make you better than you believed possible, but one who had to woo you will probably go the extra mile (provided you agree with their vision). They can guide you to revise and revise, and can reassure you when you’ve done enough. An editor you hire can only carry on as long as your purse can hold out. Having a trusted team around you who are helping you hone your book is terrific and irreplacable.

However, if you’re tied to a publisher you’re tied to their professionals. You may love the words people, but not like their cover artwork at all. And you may not get much clout to refuse cover designs you don’t like.

Moreover, you might be right to distrust those designs. I looked at the list of one small publisher and thought at first they were producing municipal leaflets – all their fiction had ugly covers produced with the one template. Yet they’d managed to get authors to sign up with them.


Distribution is where your book is stocked. If you go it alone, you can buy packages for this from the POD companies but if you don’t know what you’re getting how do you know what’s worth paying for? And let’s face it, it’s the least creative part of making books, so who has the patience to become expert in it?

But the grass isn’t necessarily greener in a publishing deal. Especially in companies that were set up solely by editorial or production people. And have never had to handle distribution. And don’t know what they don’t know.

I know of one publisher who produced beautiful copies of an author’s work – superior even to the very good quality that POD can produce – but couldn’t organise how to get the books onto Amazon. Instead they sold them through ebay, where no one buys books, and through an obscure website for that genre. They sent the author to a major fair to showcase his work and couldn’t arrange for copies of the book to be available there so that they could be sold. They got reviews in major magazines and the book still isn’t on Amazon.

Market reach

Another question you have to ask yourself is: what is the publisher’s market reach? Can they market to more readers than you can on your own?

Publishers with rigorous selection procedures will be able to get reviews in places that never touch self-published works – such as the national newspapers. That’s a gate you simply can’t open on your own, no matter what you do.

But a couple of reviews aren’t enough to sell your book. You need other gates opened too – to wider audiences. I know of several small publishers who are well enough connected to be able to get reviews in influential places. But some aren’t at all, regardless of how much they talk about how passionately they love good books. Now that we all build tribes, this aspect of a publishing deal is like royal marriages. Some publishers’ tribes aren’t as big as those of some bloggers!

What rights do they keep?

This is a thorny question indeed and is why it is good to have a reputable agent on your side. I’m not offering legal advice here in any capacity, and every single case is different. So if you are currently studying the fine print of an offer and are worried about it, please get proper help. If you don’t have an agent, a rights lawyer can do it for you – although it will cost you (which is one of the reasons why an agent deserves their percentage).

Traditionally, most books are ‘in print’ for a period and once the run is sold they go ‘out of print’ or are printed again. After a certain period you may get your rights back or your contract may come up for renegotiation. Sometimes you can take the book elsewhere if you want.

Many small publishers launch a book through e-editions and print on demand. Print on demand allows a publisher to print a book only when it is needed, saving on warehousing. If a publisher uses POD, they might have a clause that says they will keep your book in print in perpetuity – and that means you can never take advantage of a better offer from somewhere else with a more prestigious reputation. Of course, to look at it from their point of view, they don’t want you using them as a stepping stone to something better, after they’ve put so much effort in (which they may or may not have, of course). Although any legal agreement can be undone if it’s wrangled enough, that’s messy and expensive.

There might even be clauses governing what you may work on in future and who owns it.

Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. We mustn’t forget that being published is the most important milestone a writer can imagine. What most of us want to do is write great books and find someone to handle the less interesting jobs and treat us fairly. A publishing offer may indeed do this. More than that, it may give you moral, emotional, practical and technical support that is beyond measure, pulling you out of isolation and into the ‘proper’ world of writing. After all, it’s not just about money; writers have an innate urge to share, communicate and to know our work is cherished.

But any deal you do is also a business deal about your career.  Not all businessmen are nice. Or some may be terribly nice and awfully incompetent.

If you get any offer from a small or micro-publisher, look very carefully at what they will give you for what they will take.

Thank you, Very Urgent Photography, for the picture

Do you have any experience with small and micro-publishers? Share in the comments!

Oh – shameless plug – My Memories of a Future Life launches on August 30!


36 thoughts on “Self-publish or small publishing house? How to decide

  1. Thank you so much for this post, Roz. As you can see I clicked it as soon as you posted. You’ve answered a lot of my questions. I’ve decided to query at this point because it’s always been a dream, and because I don’t have a backlist to boost self-publishing sales. So while write a second and third book, I’m going to be querying. We’ll see what happens.

    I never thought of the difference between editors, but you make an important point: those who’ve picked you out of the slush pile love your work. Is that how it’s done in the big houses as well, or are they simply assigned after the contract is done?

    I do think there are some great smaller houses out there that are reputable, but the rights issue is a big one. That’s where an agent is worth the pain to me, because I just don’t understand all the ins and outs. Of course I’ll learn them, but having a guide would be great.

    1. My pleasure, Stacy. I still think querying first is the way to go – you never know if you’ll find an agent who clicks with your work. And if they do, it’s a huge boost to your confidence. And as publishing continues to change and publishing models continue to rewrite themselves, it’s useful to have a professional who can act on your behalf. Sometimes self-published writers pick up translation and foreign rights deals – and an agent is the person to help with that.

      As to your question about the big publishing houses…. what generally happens is that first one editor reads your work, then if they like it they pass it around the others. Then it goes to an acquisitions board, which is where the sales and marketing departments have their say on whether the book is viable from a commercial point of view.

      But the original editor who liked the book will usually be your book’s champion – it’s not usually farmed to someone else.

      1. Thanks for answering my questions, Roz. You’ve made understanding the system a lot easier:)

        And yes, getting an agent would be a huge boost to my confidence level!

  2. Thanks for addresssing this, Roz. It looks like the best idea is that if my agent finds a small publisher that I check them out thoroughly and be very careful with what I sign away, if I do sign. This is not a business for the niave.

    1. Thanks, Tahlia! If you have an agent they’ll probably be able to do some of the checking for you, especially what you sign away. But beware of the distribution problems – ask how many titles they already have on Amazon. It turned out the company I was talking about hadn’t got ANYTHING on Amazon. Crumbs.

  3. This is an interesting and timely post, Roz. Thanks for the information.

    I am anxiously awaiting to hear from a small press whose acquisitions editor sent for a full after reading my first three chapters. I have scouted around about their contract and it appears to be a standard for first time authors. I have seen a few of their covers and they look fine. I have also heard they are quite an approachable company for ideas from the author. Their distribution also appears to be in all the right places and countries for me.

    I am at the point of if they come forward with an offer (please DG), then I will (do a happy dance) probably go with them. If they do not I will learn how to self-publish via CreateSpace. My beta♥reader is a brilliant editor so I am pretty confident the work is to a good standard.

    Good luck with your launch and contact me to shout out for you on my blogs. 🙂

    1. Pleading to DG for you as well, Glynis. I know how long you’ve battled for this.

      And thank you for the offer about my launch – so kind and I certainly will be in touch!

  4. Thanks for this post Roz. I really really cringed reading about that small publisher that seems to get most aspects right but can’t get onto Amazon and sell on eBay! eBay? Yikes! I can’t believe they’re even in business!

    For my first book I had the misfortune of using a company that turned out to be fraudulent, and to this day I know I didn’t get my full royalties (they’ve since shut down). My current publisher offers both self-publishing and traditional contracts (my book was offered the latter) and they use POD with five to seven year contracts and exceptionally fair royalties. As a small press, they suffer from the lack of marketing power problem, but they’re completely reliable and honest. Their ethics and vision also match mine so overall I’m happy with them. But still I’m planning to go it alone with my novel, partly because my publisher is no longer taking fiction, and partly because I feel I may have just enough clout (just!) to get somewhere with it. The only thing I worry about is potentially not getting reviews, since most papers and magazines continue to refuse to look at self-published (what they call ‘vanity’ published) books.

    1. Sally – this is the kind of horror story people don’t usually hear about but that needs to be spread around! I’m sure they won’t stay in business for long.

      Eek, your experience with your first publisher sounds awful. Not just because you were ripped off financially, but because of the betrayal of trust. A book is so special to an author; for it to be treated with such disrespect makes my blood boil. So pleased you’ve found another company you can have an open and productive relationship with. Long may that continue.

      The reviews question… yes, that is tricky. I’m facing it myself. At the moment all we can do is appeal directly to readers and try to build up word of mouth. That’s why I do as much as possible to raise people’s awareness of how the publishing industry really works, to present a balanced view of what is going on, and to gently educate people about how excellent authors are now having to find other routes.

      1. Oh, thanks so much Roz!. Yes, I’m in the UK, so I’ll definitely check it out. I’ve never published in ebook format but was thinking to pursue this route for the novel. So this’ll help a lot.

    1. Thanks, Diana! Publishing takes a lot more skills than people imagine. We need to all think about options, rather than demonising one side or the other.

  5. An excellent piece, Roz, and crammed with useful and sound advice.

    Please don’t think this a veiled attempt to plug our own small house. The last thing we need is new, unsolicited submissions, in fact we closed to new submissions in March until Jan 1 2012. We will then open only two three-month submission windows each year. I’m afraid that’s the cost of incredible pressure of work on a small professional editorial team.

    But I would advise any author considering a small press to read our ‘For Authors’ section of the main website (direct line to that section here:

    It’s a warts-n-all run-down on what a small but dedicated house can and cannot offer. All houses, I believe, should make it easy for a prospective author to enter into any eventual agreement with eyes wide open (in fact to actively encourage it), and also like us, to help inexperienced authors understate what’s actually on offer. Pleasant surprises are always better than unexpected disappointments.

    On the question of rights, I also think other houses would do well to follow our own policy. Our contracts are merely ‘drafts’.EVERYTHING is open to negotiation BEFORE anything is finalised. This often means tailoring agreements and cutting or amending clauses to meet individual author wishes.

    Also, our eventual signed contracts are not carved in stone. Although they usually run to between three and five years and extensions can then be negotiated and mutual agreement always reached, a legally binding covering letter allows all authors, after the first year, to amend or even terminate a contract without the slightest fuss, though it does take a month or so for us to actually withdraw a book from all third-party retail outlets..

    And when we do return rights, that does not mean only rights to an author’s raw manuscript, we also re-assign them rights to the edited fully designed and set version, complete with rights to the cover art and design and back notes, etc. On ebooks, we also supply complete files in all digital editions, DRM free. All an author needs do to go it alone or submit elsewhere is remove our house-specific ISBNs and s/he’s ready to roll. After all, why not? However heavy our input it is of no further value to us and it would be petty peevishness not to do this.

    I wish all this were true of all houses. I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t be. And also, I must mention that only one author has decided to take this route in the past eleven years when she decided she wanted to withdraw her book to produce it as a screenplay after a theatre offer that called for the withdrawal of competing material. We not only terminated the contract immediately and returned everything, but we helped her our later, and we’re still in now occasional but warm contact eight or nine years later.

    We very much move with the times, but — after forty-five years as a pro in the game, I still feel strongly that openness, mutual understanding, friendly cooperation, flexibility and honesty is the best policy. I also feel that an author should have the casting vote on ALL decisions. Happily, my tech and design partner and other team-mates hold to the same ethic. Although legally binding contracts are necessary, for the author’s sake more than our own, we place more weight on the virtual handshake than the actual paperwork.

    Also at the foot of that rather lengthy article are some simple guidelines that would apply to the majority of other small independents, so they’re worth a glance.

    And never lose sight of the hard fact that good intentions do not make for small house success. Friendly dealing is as vital as it is welcome, but it’s only part of a complex system that you must fully understand before taking a serious step in your career. My first and most prominent advice to authors is always to be sure that the larger house and agency potential has been tried to the full before considering a smaller publisher. We all DO have limitations in some areas.

    Good luck, folks and very best wishes. Neil

    PS: If anyone needs further advice straight from the horse’s mouth, why not contact any one or more of our authors (most are easy to reach) and ask their advice from experience. We always also advise prospective authors to seek outside and independent expert advice before taking us seriously. It’s vital that a small house has a happy table of authors (nope, that’s not a typo — I detest the word ‘stable’ used in this context). N

    1. Neil, no I don’t mind you introducing your company at all, especially as your reply is so very interesting and useful. Be warned, though, there are a lot of folks here who will probably beat a path to your door…

      What I like very much about the approach you’ve outlined is how much you treat the author as a partner. This is an area in which small houses can definitely shine. Although it brings enormous prestige to be published with one of the major players, authors can find that they’re left out of the loop – and sometimes feel bullied in order to fit with agendas that are not for the good of the author or the book. Obviously publishing is a business, but there are many ways to do business.

      I’d also like to highlight, in your very wise reply, the point about limitations. Every strand of the business has them – my remark in the above paragraph suggests one of the limitations of larger publishing houses. But I do agree with you that I’d always urge writers to aim highest to start with and see where they get. You could always choose a smaller outfit if it suits you, but you need the best possible range of options (indeed Ken Russell chose to self-publish one of his books with Authorhouse because he wanted full control).

      Very nice to meet you, Neil, and as I said, you can probably look forward to meeting a lot more of my readers…

  6. I would like to see more transparency in publishing agreements, which seems to be what Neil is proposing. The author is bringing a novel with may represent one or more man-years of risk. The publisher is committing some level of investment in editing, marketing and (for print books) production and distribution. In any normal joint venture, both parties’ investment would be spelled out, but traditionally publishers have just stuck to a fixed royalty rate without any guarantee of initial print run or how much they will spend to promote the book. Now, many of the big publishers are trying to fix an ebook royalty of 25% and are trying to insist on business as usual, but authors are rightly saying they want to inspect the books a little more closely – the account books, that is. Smaller publishers are more willing to do this, which is why I think they have a brighter future than the big corporate houses.

  7. Thanks for the welcome Roz: Wonderful to meet you and your group, too.

    Yup, there are upsides and downsides to both big and small publishers. What I fear ever hearing, though, is an author saying — “gosh I wish I’d tried harder with the big guys,” or “I didn’t realise …”

    That’s why we’re so keen that prospective authors should do their homework and fully understand the pros and cons of big houses, small houses and self-publishing … and can identify a shark when they spot one. After all the sweat, tears and midnight oil that goes into actually completing and polishing a manuscript manuscript, it’s surely not outlandish to suggest a little extra work to make sure that hard-earned result is not wasted through hasty, reckless or apparently easy placement.

    When ‘the end’ is typed on that last page, the next step in any new author’s work schedule should be to research how best to present it and to whom it should be sent.

    Especially for a smaller press like our own, it’s vitally important that everyone’s happy, that all questions are answered fully and honestly, even unasked questions answered, too, and that the author comes in with expectations we not only have promised but that we go way beyond in what we actually can and do provide. As I said in my last post, better pleasant surprises than unexpected disappointments. An aware author saves everyone involved wasted time. An unasked or unanswered question that arises mid-prelim work but pre-contract exchange and a response that’s a deal-breaker is a horror we could all do without So we take great pains to avoid even the slightest possibility of that..

    A happy house is a good house (and vice versa). And — although reader loyalty is very, very important — author loyalty is even more so. And you don’t gain that by masking limitations. That puts you in the same sub-class as … well, we don’t have to name a hundred or two names, do we?

    Always, folks, check things out. Use invaluable but freely accessible resources like Preditors [sic] and Editors website, follow blogs like Victoria Strauss’ and Ann Crispin’s excellent WriterBeware, ask questions at AbsoluteWrite’s Water Cooler forums — a group beautifully populated by struggling beginners through to top whack publishing pros. Read Roz and those few other impartial commentators like her. These are your watchdogs.

    If you can speak to an experienced author or publishing pro before making a move, that’s a huge bonus. AWLAYS check out the websites, blogs and the published books of publishers and agents that might catch your eye. When a publisher’s authors or an agency’s clients are not easily available to consult (without prompt from head office), consider it a small red flag.

    A BIG red flag is any publisher or agency asking (directly or in small print) for ANY financial contribution or self-buying commitment. You supply the raw materials. All a decent house should ask of you is your reasonable cooperation during the editorial process and — although it’s not a contractual obligation with us and some others — some assistance in promotion. A good operation will talk you through this and offer all the assistance you need to help in any promotion — including assistance in the supply of books for events and reviews. It is the responsibility of the publisher or agency that’s selected your work to provide ALL necessary financial and professional input to see through its publication and success.

    Everywhere you step, the land is potentially mined in this game. So watch how you go. If in doubt, find out. And if you can’t find out, back out. (I don’t know if that’s a flashback of memory or if I just made it up. But it ain’t bad advice either way.)

    And Dave, transparency really should be a top priority rather than the exception, not only for the author’s sake but for the publisher’s. Thankfully we’ve never had to deal with it, but the very thought of a ‘why wasn’t I warned?’ question from an author is a nightmare. The prospect of an unhappy partner (and partners are what signed authors become) doesn’t sit at all well with me and my pals here. Neither they nor we need the added burden of dealing with dissatisfaction.

    Any square-dealing operation should agree with that principle. It makes sense and it saves wasted time and heartache. It also keeps hard-won reputations intact. And we can all sleep straight at night.

    Best wishes and thanks for allowing me entry to the group here. I hope we can offer advice when it may be of value. Even if you have no intention of working with BeWrite Books, We consider ourselves part of an international community of the like-minded and mutually-interested, so never hesitate to drop a line (all our individual contact details are on our website in the ‘about us’ section. Your message would be welcomed, and we’d do our best to help.

    The only thing we can’t promise, I’m afraid, is publication. Or even right now the consideration of submissions to BB itself. As I mentioned earlier we’re currently in a subs suspension period to handle a backlog of editorial work scheduled for release later this year and early next. We have never and will never allow a slush pile to develop. Slush piles are an insult to authors and (should be) an embarrassment to publishers and agents.

    Luck and best wishes, folks. Neil

  8. I *love* this post, Roz – and it’s spot on for me. I’m currently working on a collection of short stories and considering whether to go indie or query some small presses. This post sheds a lot of light on that debate. I’m definitely seeing that all small presses are not created equal – it’s so difficult to tell which ones are worth pursuing. Thanks for this post!

    1. Thanks, PJ – the worrying thing is that it’s difficult for authors to know these pitfalls. To most people, a publishing offer is a publishing offer and that’s that. Good luck with yours.

  9. If you are considering publishing, there is always the question of whether to self-publish or publish through a publishing house. There is a slew of new publishing houses that have appeared with the advent of digital publishing, including the Bad, the Good and the Ugly.
    There is a list of epublishing houses with ratings at where a new publishing house is added every week day. Worth checking when starting to look for a house for your book.

  10. Thank you loads! I am twelve and have nearly written a book, and may finish before I’m thirteen. I definitely want it to get published, no matter what, and have had a hard time deciding. Thish has really helped!

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