The Potential Perils and Pitfalls of Signing with a Small Press – And How to Avoid Them

by | Oct 6, 2014

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

Resources

small press evaluationSalomé 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.

Photo: bigstockphoto.com

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13 Comments

  1. Estelle G.

    Hi Salome,

    I read this article with interest, but have a question that goes beyond these points. What do you recommend once you have already signed with a small publisher, whom you like, are comfortable with the contract, but close to a year after you’ve sent in the manuscript it still has not been even edited and there’s constant hesitation on their part to give you a publication date? do you leave them or wait X months longer?

    Reply
    • Salome Jones

      Hi Estelle,

      The answer to this question depends on what you want, both in the short term and long term. But first, there are things we can look at to see if this is something that’s easily resolved. Does your contract give any time frame by which they have to publish your book? Our does. Depending on how everything is going when we sign someone, we specify somewhere between six and eighteen months, from signing to publication. Not all contracts will say, though, leaving the publisher free to publish when they want.

      Are there any other time limits in your contract? How long do they have your rights, for example? Maybe something there can be used to extrapolate when they have to publish.

      Have they published a lot of books recently? Have they not published or announced publication dates for a while? More than a couple of months? There could be a resource problem or a staff shortage keeping them from getting to your book.

      Have you asked for information about this situation?

      In order to give you a better answer, it would be nice to have a bit more information that you might not want to give here. If you’d like to contact me (salome.jones at gmail.com) I can try to give you a more complete answer with a few more details. But basically, I’d say gather as many facts as you can, try to get a picture of what’s going on, and then approach them with some polite, informed questions. It may just be they have a lot of books to publish and don’t want to set dates that they’re not sure they can keep. It could be a more serious problem.

      Reply
  2. Lara D.

    What a great article! :)

    Do you have any tips for anyone looking to start their own publishing company? It’s been a dream of mine for a long time and I was just wondering where to start with everything?

    Reply
    • Salome Jones

      Lara,

      I can tell you that it’s a LOT of work. So be wary.

      Getting started depends on where you want to go with it. You need to set up a business, and what that requires depends on where you will be doing business.

      If I were doing this from scratch, I would start by publishing a book of my own. That way you don’t have to risk someone else’s work while you figure out what you’re doing. You’re likely to make a lot of mistakes. Much less embarrassing if you don’t have to explain to someone who has entrusted you with their book.

      There are a huge number of things to consider. One of the rewards for our Kickstarter is some advice sessions for people who want to start ethical publishing companies, ones which share our philosophy of treating authors fairly. It’s really too much to write about here.

      Start small, I’d say. Unless you have a lot of money to invest and to hire people who know what they’re doing. That’s my best advice.
      Learn everything you can about the way that Amazon’s internals work. It’s really important considering what level of sales come from Amazon. Also, forget about print until/unless you’ve got a lot of cash.

      A client who was fed up with the way publishers treated her just decided to self-publish a book. I gave her some tips. She has still managed to do a number of thing that will probably negatively affect how well her book sells. There’s just so much to learn that it’s easy to misjudge what you need to know. So do a lot of research before you start. Find a niche (what kind of books do you want to publish?). Subscribe to some publications about publishing. Read fora. Set up news alerts for the kind of books you’re interested in so you can follow what others are doing for ideas.

      Find a mentor, if you can. Someone who’s done this before. Someone you respect and trust. There’s so much information. Not all of it will apply to you, but it’s good to try to get a good grounding before you decide how you’d like to proceed.

      I hope this helps!

      Reply
      • Lara D.

        Thank you so much Salome! This is extremely helpful, so thank you again from the bottom of my heart for taking the time to write such an amazing reply back! :) I’m taking a look at your Kickstarter right now and if I can find the cash, I will definitely be supporting you for the ‘Pay it Forward’ pledge! (If I can’t I’ll take a look at the other pledges and pick one so I can at least help a little!) The advice you guys would give would be invaluable.

        Reply
        • Salome Jones

          It’s my pleasure to help, Lara. If you can pledge to our Kickstarter obviously we’ll be grateful. Whatever happens there, feel free to contact me later with questions. Just go to our website and use the contact form. :)

          Reply
          • Lara D.

            Sorry for the late reply! I just wanted to say thank you again! If I have any questions (which I’m sure I will haha), I’ll be sure to contact you. :)

  3. Kate Tilton

    “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.”

    So authors SHOULD say who the deal is from and when their deadline is or the SHOULDN’T because that makes it sound like an ultimatum? Just checking. :)

    Reply
    • Salome Jones

      You SHOULD say. I’d write something like this:

      Dear [editor if you know her/his name],

      My name is [Kate Tilton]. You have been considering my novel [The Magic Book] for publication since [June].

      I have received an offer on the book from [Publisher B]. I’ve agreed to get back to them within two weeks. Your press, [GoldenGate Books] is the publisher I really would like to work with on this book. I was wondering if you’d had a chance to read it yet and whether you could let me know if you’re interested?

      Yours truly (or what have you)

      Of course, you don’t need to lie about whether they are your preferred press. Tinker with it to make it ring true. It’s just a guide. There are many versions of such an email that would be fine.

      Reply
  4. Salome Jones

    There’s a discussion to be had here about why a writer might choose to go with a small press when self-publishing is so common now. It’s a huge amount of work to publish a book. Going through a good publisher can mean more guidance, a team of other people who know what they’re doing takomg on a good deal of the work, lower costs for the author and maybe even some money up front. It can also be more prestigious if the press has a good reputation. The writer’s work gains some validation and fans of the press will be watching it for books, so a new and larger audience can result. Small presses are easier to get a deal with than agents or large publishing houses. These are all reasons why someone might consider one.

    Reply
  5. Salome Jones

    Thanks, Joel. I’ll be keeping an eye out for questions if anyone has them. Happy to give advice or make suggestions. (I’m at the office so I can also pick the brain of the publisher.)

    Reply
  6. Ronald Sieber

    Some of these points should be tackled by the writer’s agent, yes? I mean, isn’t that what they are hired to do, to help the writer through the legal swamp?

    Or are writers totally on their own in the wilderness these days?

    Reply
    • Salome Jones

      A lot of small presses don’t require agents, and a lot of agents won’t take clients on the basis of a small press deal. (It depends on how much money is at stake.) So, yes. If you have an agent, they’ll help you through this. But if you go with a small press, and you get the deal yourself, you’ll have to do it all yourself.

      Reply

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