I’ve decided to write a post to share my experience of being an author with a small press publisher, mainly since in the past month I’ve been PM’d for advice: first from a former colleague and teacher at a secondary school where I worked, asking about how to get published on behalf of a student, and more recently by a writer who has been offered his first contract seeking advice.
To date, I’ve had three books published with small press publishers: my debut poetry collection, A Model Archaeologist with London-based Eyewear Publisher in 2015; my second poetry collection, Chemotherapy for the Soul with Canadian publisher Fowlpox Press in 2017 and my debut novel, Gods of Avalon Road with UK based Blossom Spring Publishing in 2019.
Why did I choose small press publishers rather than large publishing houses?
Large publishers generally don’t allow unsolicited submissions; they only accept manuscripts submitted by agents. Since I don’t have an agent (hopefully some day) I felt it would be better use of my time to search for small publishers accepting in my relevant genre.
How did I find relevant small press publishers?
Primarily by searching for what I wanted. A good starting point is ‘publishers accepting unsolicited poetry/fantasy/literary (etc) manuscripts’ and going from there.
What helps to get a publisher’s attention?
Writing a punchy cover letter is key, since often this is as far as a publisher will get when reading your work. Rejections are just one of those things in the life of a writer; whilst never welcome, you get used to them eventually. For novels, having a sample of three chapters with your contact details included at the start, and a header with your name, email and page number helps too. You should also prepare a one page synopsis of your novel including all twists and turns and the ending.
What if I get asked for a full manuscript after sending 3 sample chapters and a synopsis?
Then congratulations! You’re one step closer to publication. As it’s vanishingly rare to get this far, consider this an achievement worth celebrating!
I’ve been offered a contract for my novel, but I’m being asked to contribute a ‘token’ amount of money towards ‘costs’. Should I pay?
Nowadays some small press publishers might offer ‘hybrid’ services where they ask for an author’s contribution towards publishing costs, often to protect themselves in the event that the book doesn’t do as well as expected. As long as they are upfront that this is the service they offer, and you are comfortable with both the amount and what you feel you’ll gain from being published in this way, then I would say go ahead with it. Bear in mind that if you self-publish a book, you’ll pay to have it typeset and to buy cover artwork and an ISBN anyway, all of which may amount to £100-300 anyway. Why not have it handled by a pro? If you decide to go down this route though, always, always, always do your homework. Check that they aren’t a vanity press that will extort thousands of pounds out of you, or heap on continually increasing costs. Search for reviews, or talk to authors who have had experience working with them. If the publisher is legitimate, they also won’t mind you asking questions.
Will I have to significantly change or edit my work?
In my experience with my first poetry collection, I had many phone conversations with an editor about changes to make, until we came to an agreement. With my first novel, it went back and forth at least eight times over the course of a whole summer as we addressed red-pen issues ranging from typos to omitting swear words – they didn’t allow any profanity, so I had to get creative with alternatives. I’ve learned that it isn’t good to be too ‘precious’ about your work; even though it’s your brain-baby and you feel that it’s a finished piece, someone else may see differently. At the end of the day, you need to shape your work so that it’s accessible to readers, not only you.
How long does a small press publisher buy the rights for the work?
It depends. My debut poetry collection was only for a 5 year contract. Back issues are therefore no longer available from Eyewear Publishing, but (updated as of 5 March 2023) I’ve since re-released A Model Archaeologist as a full collection. On the other hand, both my second poetry collection and my debut novel encompass lifetime publishing rights, which I believe to be for an author’s lifetime plus 70 years. Guess my great-grandkids will reap the royalties from sales of Gods of Avalon Road then!
What about marketing and promoting my book?
The downside of a small press publisher is that they simply won’t have the budget that big publishers do to get your book into all the main bookstores and libraries. With my poetry collections, I’ve had to engage in open mic nights and join literary festivals to promote my work. With my novel, I had to organise a Waterstones book launch myself and send out my own copies for review. In all cases, my publishers have promoted my books on their websites and at book fairs, etc. and in terms of publicity, have helped me to organise radio author interviews or helped to facilitate book signing events, but much of the legwork will ultimately come down to you.
I hope that seems like a fair and comprehensive assessment of small press publishing, based on my own personal experience. I feel lucky in that my experiences have been mostly positive, to the extent that I continue to feel motivated to seek publishers for further work, rather than going it alone via self-publishing. To me, there’s nothing wrong with being an indie publisher – I myself have also self-published a novella (Zombie Reflux in 2014) though in my experience, small press publishers have been a better option for my author career. But it’s a personal choice and you should do what works best for you, your career and your experience. Whatever you decide, best of luck with it!