With so much information available on how to hook an agent, and on how to self-publish should none take the bait, the third option of signing up with a small press is often overlooked. Publishing with a relatively unknown independent press might look like the worst of both worlds, with no big name or budget to attract your readers while siphoning off a large percentage of potential profits; yet, if you can put in the work, and ditch your grandiose delusions, it might well turn out to be the best.
An independent press might be more inclined than a large commercial publisher to take on something outside of the mainstream, providing the perfect home for the quirky book that lots of readers relish. In a small-scale outfit, you can expect a more flexible, personalised route to publication with no risk of your book falling through the gap between the different departments in a large publishing house, and more of a say in how it is presented, such as the design of the cover. Unlike self-publishing, you have someone holding your hand through the scary bits, as well as the opportunity for your book to be submitted for literary prizes. Don’t underestimate the value of a publisher, however modest, believing sufficiently in your book to invest time and money in it. Claiming your authorial authority isn’t always easy for the shrinking violet, but harnessing it is essential in getting your book noticed.
Most publishers are motivated by their love of words and will do their utmost to make your book shine. But with the rise of e-books and print-on-demand technology, almost anyone can set themselves up as a publisher. How can you be sure yours isn’t out to exploit you? If you receive an offer from a small press you’d hitherto never heard of, a dose of scepticism is no bad thing.
Any author, even bestsellers with a mighty publishing conglomerate, should inform themselves about the mechanics of self-publishing. Not only does it provide a possible retreat if a publishing relationship turns sour, it demystifies the publishing experience, showing you exactly what your publisher should be doing on your behalf.
Ideally, you’ll have done your research before making your submission but, if you haven’t, don’t sign until you do. Scrutinise copies of their previous publications for the quality of the editing; production standards; cover; blurb. Would you feel proud to have your words packaged this way?
Check out the website; find out how they market their books; pay attention to price. An overly expensive book can’t compete against more modestly-priced books by better-known authors or publishers, but a book that’s too cheap is also disadvantaged in the marketplace.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions of both your publisher and other authors, attending not only to the content of their responses, but their willingness to engage. Rather like separated parents raising a child, you don’t have to agree on everything, but flexibility, openness and mutual trust provide a solid foundation to send your book out into the world.
While it’s tempting to skim through the legalese and sign on the dotted line, you should take the time to get your contract right. Even if you’re comfortable with clauses and sub-clauses, it’s worth getting someone familiar with publishing contracts to examine yours. The Society of Authors provides a useful service in this regard, as well as leaflets available to non-members for a small fee. Don’t worry about a miniscule, or even non-existent, advance, but beware of publishers who want a financial contribution from you. Traditionalists also advise against print-on-demand or e-book only contracts because the publisher’s investment is lower. Yet if you’re happy with their rationale, and they can demonstrate their commitment through better terms in other contract clauses, this model can work. For extra security, build in an easy exit from the contract if your publisher should fail to fulfil their obligations.
While it’s worth negotiating a favourable contract, don’t act as if you’ve won a six-figure advance from one of the Big Five. Be modest in your expectations, apart from your expectations of the work you’ll need to do to bring your book to the reader’s attention. Follow the strategies of self-published authors in relation to reviews; social media; blog tours; public appearances. But be realistic about your own limitations also; the time will come when you need to leave this book to stand on its own merits and move on to writing the next.
Anne Goodwin’s debut novel, Sugar and Snails, about a woman who has kept her past identity a secret for thirty years, was published in July 2015 by Inspired Quill. Her second novel, Underneath, about a man who keeps a woman captive in a cellar, is scheduled for May 2017. A former clinical psychologist, she is also the author of over 60 published short stories, a book blogger and speaker on fictional therapists and on transfiction. Catch up on her website: annethology or on Twitter @Annecdotist.