By Salomé Jones (@call_me_salome)
Salomé is a writer and the acquisitions editor for Ghostwood Books, a new small press that’s publishing very good books, with plans for even more. There are many authors who might prefer contracting with an appropriate small press instead of taking on the work of publishing themselves, and that’s certainly a good move for the right author. But there are also a lot of bad choices out there, and it can be hard to tell the good ones from the bad. I asked Salomé to provide some guidance for authors considering signing with a small press. Here’s her advice.
Small presses can definitely be part of an writer’s plan to be a successful author. There are some great small presses out there, but there are just as many disreputable ones. How can you tell them apart and avoid making a deal with the devil? Read on.
- Know what you want to accomplish as a writer. Are you planning to write the Great American Novel? Do you want to quit your job and write as your main source of income? Or are you more interested in rubbing elbows with your favorite writers at conventions? Before you can decide who will be the best fit for your book, and for you, you need to take some time to figure out what you hope to get out of a publishing arrangement. Of course, your first published book is only your first step, but will the publisher you select help you or hinder you on your way? Know where you want to go and then evaluate the press accordingly.
- Be patient! One of the quickest ways to get in with the wrong publisher is to rush into a deal. If your goal is to continue to write and publish, I recommend you try to get an agent. In the process of preparing your manuscript to the very high standard an agent will require, you’ll be aiming your book to a better class of publishers. I’ve had a number of editing clients (in my private practice before I started at Ghostwoods) sign with small presses because they were impatient to get their books out into the world.
In one case, the writer wanted the book to start earning money. In the other, the writer started to panic that her book wasn’t good. She wanted someone to validate her worth as a writer. In both cases, these writers were let down. The first writer was betrayed by a bad company and went on to sign with a second bad company, only to be betrayed again. In the second case, the author received an offer from a larger publisher, but she couldn’t take it because she’d already signed with someone.
- Before you submit to a publisher, check them out. Read their website, yes, but also do some scouting around the web to see if you can find any complaints about them. Writers complaining that they were turned down may be inevitable, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Presses that take on every book submitted aren’t going to last long, and who wants their work promoted side by side with horrible writing anyway? More serious complaints would be things like non-payment of royalties, repeated missed deadlines, and unpleasant treatment of writers, and so on. If any of these red flags are thrown up, take a pass.
- When you get an offer, ask for some time before you decide to take it. Two to three weeks should be perfectly okay. To help make sure this is enough time, before you have the contract in hand, prepare yourself mentally. It can be quite difficult to stay calm the first time you get an offer. Decide what things are must haves and what things you could do without and still feel like you’re moving in the right direction. But be realistic. A first deal is probably not going to be a huge advance and a worldwide book tour.
- Contact other publishers you’ve submitted to. If you have the manuscript out at any other places that are higher on your list of publishers you’d like to work with, send them a polite note saying that you’ve had an offer and you’re wondering whether they are interested. Often this will lead to nothing, but it’s worth asking. You should say who your offer is from, and how soon you have to get back to them. This makes it sound less like an ultimatum, which probably wouldn’t go over well.
- Read the contract carefully. Make sure you understand all the clauses. I recommend having someone knowledgeable about publishing contracts look it over for you and suggest areas where you might negotiate. Don’t be afraid to take a few days to look it over. If a publisher really wants your book, they’ll wait for you. Most reputable publishers will negotiate unless it affects their ability to function. How do you do it? Just ask. Be aware that some things may not be negotiable. Try to get a sense of where the line is. But don’t be afraid to ask questions.
- Know how to break the contract. Make sure you understand under what conditions you can get out of the contract. Most boilerplate exit clauses are terrible but can be negotiated at least a little. Ideally you won’t want to get out of your contract, but if you do, you need to know how much it will cost you, how long it will take, and whether it’s even possible.
- Know how company failure will affect you. Find out what will happen if your publisher goes out of business through bankruptcy or death. Your book could be held up in a bankruptcy proceeding or as part of the publisher’s estate unless the contract provides for these events. Also, know what will happen in the unfortunate event of your own death. Will your contract be heritable? That is, will your family or estate be able to continue receiving royalties through your publisher? How would your relatives break the contract in that event? Is the contract terminated by your death? This all should be in your contract.
To sum up, a small press can certainly be a step towards a writer’s goals, and may even fulfill them completely. Planning and careful evaluation before submitting to a press, and again before signing a contract will help ensure the author has a positive experience.
- SFWA: How to Evaluate a Small Press
- 16 Steps to Novel Writing Success by Evan Marshall, Part 1: Planning for Success. (This section helps a writer define his or her goals.)
- The Business Rusch: The Writer’s Guide to Evaluating a Traditional Publishing Company (This article lays out a list of points you might use to evaluate a publisher.)
Salomé Jones is the acquisitions editor and project manager for Ghostwoods Books. (Check out their upcoming titles and watch a short video in which Salmomé explains their Ghostwood Book Kickstarter campaign.) She studied writing at the graduate level and has an MFA from Pacific University in Oregon, and an MA from Roehampton University in London. She’s been editing in one form or another for five years. You can find her on Twitter at @call_me_salome.