Sunday, August 30, 2009

Will being published by a small press help my career?

"I'm curious how small-press published books are viewed by industry professionals. My book was repped by a top agent but didn't sell. Now I'm at a crossroads: seek out a small/mid-size press or scrap the book. I've heard from more than one source that publishers and bookstores will look only at the number of books sold without taking into consideration the size of the press. I guess the larger question is, is a small/mid-size press really a good stepping stone? My goal is to have a thriving career as a mystery author. Thank you.

The first thing you must know is that the term “small press” can mean anything, and that there is a world of difference between one small press and another. Anyone can launch a “small press” from their living room by publishing one or two titles, giving them tiny print runs, and sending them out into the world with little or no distribution or review coverage. With a fancy website, a nice logo, and some key listings in small press directories, this “small press” can appear, at first glance, to be as much of a small press as one that has genuinely published dozens of titles over many years.

If you are talking about one of the legitimate and prestigious small/mid-size presses, such as Algonquin, Overlook, Coffee House, Graywolf, Soho, or Pegasus (to name a few), then yes, being published by them can certainly make a major difference in your career—indeed, a publication with any of these can lead to more review coverage, better distribution and better sales than with a major publisher. The excellent small/mid-size presses tend to put a lot of time and attention into each and every title, and sometimes this can pay off. I recall a situation about ten years ago when I represented an author who had two books published at nearly the same time, one with a prestigious small press, the other with a major publisher. The small press publication sold triple the copies and garnered far more review attention.

That said, I have encountered many authors who have a fantasy that, if their book does not find a major publisher, they can always turn to a small press. Not true. While there are hundreds if not thousands of “small presses” out there, there are actually very few prestigious and influential small/mid-size presses. These few small presses tend to receive as many submissions as the major publishers, and it has been my experience that they are at least as selective as the major publishers, and sometimes even more so. I recall many submissions where a prestigious small press rejected a book, only to have a major publisher acquire it.

If you are considering being published by a small press, and it is not one of the few prestigious small presses, then in most cases I would say, don’t do it. Instead, put your manuscript in a drawer and write another book. If you sell subsequent books to major houses, then your unpublished manuscripts can be valuable, as your new publisher may want to acquire them all at some point down the road. I recall an instance where an author I represented could not land several novels, and his three unpublished novels sat in his drawer for ten years. When I finally got him his big break with a major house, that house wanted to take all of his novels, and he suddenly found himself with four advances and four books coming out in quick succession. In this case, it was better for him to have these rights free when the time came than to have had them tied up by an ineffectual press.

Finally, keep in mind that many of the prestigious small presses won’t consider your manuscript unless it is submitted by an agent—or at the very least, they won’t take it as seriously. So it is really best to focus your energy on writing the best book you can, and then finding an agent. A good agent will know which small presses to keep in mind, and when to include them in a submission.


  1. Thank you! I've been wondering about small press publishers for several months. You solidified my questions - and answered them.

  2. Thanks. I'd never realized there was that much difference in small presses. How do you know if a small press is good or mediocre? sales? awards?

  3. Thank you so much for this thoughtful response to my question! Very, very helpful.

  4. Maybe it's not the best advice, but I always took what came my way from small presses. And I've never said no to anyone.

  5. Robert S. WhitmanJuly 7, 2013 at 4:15 PM

    Thank you for your efforts to educate the unexperianced such as myself. Since YOU are not taking any new clients, can you direct me to one who has the intelligence that you seem to possess. I have two non fiction books that HAVE been self published, and have and still are selling with my own ISBN#s through Amazon & B&N on special order. But I know they would do great if handled by an agent who could get them published under the publishers ISBN and distributed professionally. The reviews for these books are amazing, and exclusive,by well known leaders of both industries. Your advice would be most appreciated


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