Like many of my posts, this stems from something I saw in an online writer’s group. Essentially, someone who has been traditionally published from a small press was putting down people who self-publish. Personally, I have my own problems with self-publishing that I discuss in my “Why I’ll Never Self-Publish” post, but that is beside the point. At this point, I’d like to formally begin my rant against small presses.
In my opinion, traditional publishing is best done through an agent and then with a professionally recognized publisher. Small presses, unless they are recognized by writing organizations like Codex or SFWA, often give little more than what someone can do through self-publishing but will suck away 40-60% of the author’s share of royalties and then use self-publishing tools (like Createspace) to produce the book. Small Presses get away with this by telling authors lies in order to get them to sign a contract.
LIES TOLD BY SMALL PRESSES
These small presses capitalize on the reputation of the Big 5. They fulfill an author’s sense of validation of being “traditionally published” even though they are not giving tangible benefits. You can spot a bad self-publisher if they say new authors don’t get an advance, new authors don’t get marketing help, or new authors need to pay for editing before they are willing to accept a manuscript (a revision request is different). This is a flat out lie. These lies are used to trick quality writers to sign with them rather than allowing the writer to shop their work to a good publisher.
The best way to avoid these publishers altogether is to get an agent. A writer is experienced in writing, but agents have experience in the industry. They will never take you to one of these publishers, as they have the potential of damaging your career (which by extension, the agent’s career). In addition, agents get only get paid when you do. If a publisher doesn’t offer an advance, the agent’s 15% of nothing means that they still get nothing.
Lie #1: New authors don’t get advances
To those who will try to say that the market has changed and new authors really don’t get advances anymore, you’re wrong. In order for SFWA to consider a novel publisher to be a pro market (which there are currently 47) publishers have to offer a minimum of a $3,000 advance.
There are other requirements too, but this is one of the big things crappy small presses say doesn’t happen because they either don’t want to pay a writer a few thousand dollars upfront or they literally do not have the money, which indicates an entirely separate problem that you should always stay away from, financial stability. If a publisher goes bankrupt while they still hold your rights, they’ve been known to tell authors they can only have their rights back if they do not pursue them for any outstanding royalties (Source: Writer Beware) .
If a small press doesn’t offer an advance, then they are not recognized in the industry as a professional publisher, simple as that. This doesn’t mean they are a scam like a vanity press. It means you need to do some research, figure out what are the things they are going to do to help you succeed that you can’t do on your own, and ask yourself why you are submitting to them unless you’ve already been rejected by all 47 professional markets. Signing with a bad small press is far worse than not signing at all.
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Lie #2: Publishers don’t help with marketing
In regard to marketing, the Big 5 might not run ads for new authors but they have deals with bookstores and Amazon for co-op space. Small presses often say that any bookstore can hold their books, but they really just list the book on Ingram (which you can do with self-publishing).
Listing something on that site doesn’t mean any bookstores will actually order and stock your books. The Big 5 have deals with major bookstores so they make sure their new authors actually get into those stores. If you are going to a small press that isn’t professionally recognized there is little chance you will see your book in stores outside your local area.
(Just in case any new writers read this, co-op space is the term for the books that are placed in special, high-visibilty areas such as a homepage, the tables near the entrance, or on the bookshelf end caps. This additional visibility helps garner book sales from people who are browsing. The publisher doesn’t pay for this upfront, but if a novel sells while it’s on co-op the bookstore gets to keep a larger portion of the revenue for that specific sale. This additional portion comes from the publisher’s share, not the author’s share, of the royalties.)
Lie #3: Authors need to pay for editing
This is actually the biggest red flag of them all especially if the publisher recommends a specific person for you to go to (like their in-house editor). Essentially, they say that they like your book but you have to get it professionally edited before they will accept it (or some variation of that). This is different than a revision request, because a revision request will often state a specific problem that needs to be fixed and is something you can do yourself, while this scenario refers vaguely to the idea of “editing” and the need for a “professional.”
A publisher earns their portion of the royalties for covering expenses like this. They are supposed to pay their editors, copy editors, and proofreaders a salary, who then work on your book. Publishers that want you to pay for the editor are doing one of two things.
First—though not as bad—is they are trying to cut costs. This could be because they are cheap as hell and trying to make a higher profit or that they are in financial trouble (again why you should always get an advance) and they can’t afford an editor. To skirt this problem, they try to pass the cost onto you, though somewhat in disguise (remember if they actual charge you a fee to publish they are officially a vanity press). Once you get the book edited they will say, “great,” and make little or no changes once it is accepted. This means they get to put out a higher-quality book, but they don’t actually have to pay as much as they should for it.
The second possibility is that the owner is also the chief editor (as if they had employees below them, cue sarcasm). They offer editing services in order to help out with your submission, but they really don’t care about the story. They use their “traditional publishing house” as a front in order to secure editing clients. Often, these people have no experience as editors outside of their little, make-believe publisher. The goal isn’t to make your book a success, it is to get you to pay them to edit it, and to let them pretend they are important. If you are going to pay for an editor, you have already covered the biggest problem most self-published books have.
In my opinion, if a publisher is offering a deal with no advance, the author is almost always better off self-publishing. These bottom-level publishers parade themselves as so much more prestigious than self-publishing because they cling to the Big 5’s coattails and help the writers feel good that they are “traditionally published.” They are not vanity presses because they don’t require an author to pay actual money, but they are pretty damn close. Rant over.
This guest post was contributed by Steven Capps. Steven is a writer with an insatiable hunger for the fantasy and science fiction genre. His writing has been featured in publications such as Fiction, The Bird & Dog, Survival Prepper, Survival Sullivan, Markit Bulgaria, and The Cass County Star Gazette. His blog’s goal is to create a place to talk about improving writers’ craft as well as learn about the industry.
I do have to say, self-published books hold more mistakes than anything else I’ve read. It’s a good route for some people, but everyone needs an editor before they publish. No matter how they do it haha
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Self-publishing is not an excuse for fouling the waters with unedited (or badly formatted, don’t get me started) work. Self-publishers need to hold themselves to a high standard – otherwise, a lazy author drags the rest of us down.
Yeah, I have an attitude about this. 🙂
I think the term editor is being generalized a bit too often. Self-publishing should check out someone who does line editing, copy editing, and proofreading, even if that’s 3 separate people. Plus, toss in a few Beta Readers too for development editing, possibly
Love your article and I have to admit I self publish as I didn’t really find another option that didn’t seem like the small press you mentioned. Felt like a way to suck up my money for no outcome. If you have good agents to recommend I’d be most grateful 🙂
Thanks for this useful post and I admit that I did self publish for lack of a better solution as the publishers I found seemed a bit dodgy
I would be very grateful if you could recommend some agents to contact
I found this article informative and insightful. Self-publishing isn’t an easy road to travel. Not all editors are actually good at their job. (I have personal experience). There’s also a lot of self-published books out there that should have stayed in the closet and never been published BUT there are also a lot that are great, well written and edited. I’ve also read a lot of traditionally published books with glaring mistakes in them, which have been missed my proof readers and editors alike, so that happens. There’s also a lot of people out there willing to take advantage of other people’s dreams and grind them into dust for their own gain. As I said, it’s a difficult road to travel…however it’s nice to see a blog that is helpful in this regard and will hopefully stop writers from falling into these kinds of traps 🙂
Reblogged this on The Reluctant Poet.