Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor


If the Front Door is Closed, Try the Window

The Small Press Alternative

By Carter Nipper
Carter Nipper

In 1983, a small-town Mississippi lawyer had a dream.  Taking time before and after work, he slowly put together the 600+-page manuscript of his first completed novel.  He began submitting it in 1986.  Many rejections later, he finally placed the novel with Wynwood Press, who ran a 5000-copy first printing in 1989.  Eventually, they all sold, many of them out of the trunk of the author's car.  The author's name is John Grisham and the novel was A Time to Kill.  His next novel, The Firm, was acquired by Doubleday and spent 47 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List.

Finding an agent or publisher for your first novel can be difficult.  Okay, that's like saying that passing a camel through the eye of a needle can be difficult.  Let's face it: finding an agent or publisher can seem downright impossible most of the time.  It is disheartening to see that your lack of a track record is working against you, no matter how good your book is.

The good news is that a small press publisher can be a good place to start your climb to the top of the publishing heap.  There are more than 600 small press publishers in North America, as opposed to five major New York conglomerates.

Advantages of Small Presses

Why should you consider marketing your book to a small press?  What's in it for you?  The biggest advantages of being published by a small press rather than a major house are that you get much more personal attention, you have access to niche publishers with established markets, and small presses are less numbers-driven and more interested in quality.

Many, if not most, writers working with a major publisher feel like a tadpole in a very large pond.  With editors so overworked, schedules so tight, and market forces in control of the business, a writer often feels like a drone or just another gear in the machine.  Writers are sometimes faced with little or no editorial input on their work, putting a huge demand on them to be their own editors in a fly-or-die sales-driven world.  Some feel like they are on their own and that the publisher cares little, if at all, about them as real flesh-and-bone people.

A small-press editor works with fewer writers and can afford to take a personal interest in each book.  For first-time authors, in particular, this can be a huge benefit.  Having a chance to learn the process and to pick the brain of an experienced editor gives a rookie writer an unparalleled educational opportunity.  In Grisham's case, the experience of working with his editor at Wynwood gave him the boost he needed to launch an extremely successful career.

Many small presses specialize in a niche market.  This has two advantages.  First, you can focus your queries much more precisely and often find a publisher who is a perfect fit for your book.  Second, these niche publishers usually come with an established market of readers who are particularly interested in your subject or style of writing.  Given the built-in marketing and distribution problems small presses face, the availability of a focused audience can save a lot of time and money and make it easier for your book to reach interested readers.

Finally, small press publishers tend to not be as focused on profit and loss as major houses.  While profit is, of course, important -- else, they couldn't stay in business -- small press publishers can afford to focus more closely on literary quality.  This gives a good book by an unproven writer a better chance of making it out of the slush pile.  This also means that your quirky style has a better chance of being accepted at a small press.  Large publishers are loathe to take a chance on anything different.

Because small presses order much smaller print runs, usually 5000 or less, and sell to a much more focused market than large publishers, your sales percentages will tend to be higher, which will look good when the time comes for you to approach a major house or an agent.  With smaller overhead costs, a small press can turn a profit on fewer copies of a book, which contributes to their ability to give editorial advice and guidance.  The small volume also means that a small press can afford to keep a relatively large backlist.  Your book will stay in print longer, maybe even for years, providing a lot more time for word-of-mouth to take effect.

The small press attitude is summarized very well by the Eleven Commandments of Emmis Communications, which you can find at their web site:


Lest you get the impression that small press publication is the best of all possible worlds, let me remind you of the words of the late Robert A. Heinlein: "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch."  Yes, there are a lot of advantages to seeking out a small press, but there is also a heavy price you will have to pay.

Small presses, being small, only publish a severely limited number of new titles each year, some only one or two.  The competition for those spots is fierce, and they have to turn down many titles each year simply because they can't afford to publish everything they think is worthy.  One bright spot here is that they sometimes refer writers with publishable books to other possible markets.

Small presses also cannot afford to market your book the way a larger publisher can.  They will, of course, list it in their catalog, so it can be seen by the people who buy from that press.  They may be able to spring for a few ads in your local paper and show it, along with the rest of their front list, on whatever ads they may be able to take in the major trade magazines.  Tours, signings, and any other marketing will probably be up to you, the author.  You will have to pay for your own expenses, which can add up pretty quickly.

Probably the biggest disadvantage to publishing with a small press is distribution.  The large book wholesalers, like Baker and Taylor or Ingram, don't carry many small press titles.  The superstores usually only buy from these major distributors, which leaves your book out in the cold.  Many independent booksellers will stock limited numbers of small press titles, but competition for very limited shelf space is cutthroat.  A company called Small Press Distribution ( ) is trying to change that.  SPD wholesales books from over 500 publishers, and is working  to increase exposure for small presses.

Finally, and probably most importantly, there are money concerns.  Small presses can't always afford to pay advances, and, when they do, the advances are usually very small.  Six-figure advances are almost unheard of in small press publishing, and most advances never get out of four figures.  Couple this with small print runs and distribution problems, and you can see that you probably won't get rich publishing with a small press.

On the other side of the money issue is the fact that most small presses operate very close to the edge of profitability.  A sudden bump in paper prices, labor problems, or any other unforeseen problem can sometimes push a small press into bankruptcy.  Be sure you have a plan or, better yet, a contract provision that allows you to reclaim the rights to your manuscript if the worst should happen.

Approaching a Small Press

Even though small presses tend to be more laid back than their big brothers, you cannot relax your standards when approaching them.  A professional approach is still essential, and the basics still apply:

  • Know what they publish.  Don't query a How-To publisher with a fiction manuscript.
  • Find and read their submission guidelines.
  • Follow the guidelines.  Don't send a complete manuscript if they only want a synopsis.
  • Craft your submission package carefully.
  • Be patient.  Small presses often take a long time to respond.
  • Be courteous and considerate.
  • Know your stuff.  Without an agent to represent you, contract negotiations are on your shoulders.  Make sure you know what you are signing away and what you are getting.

Small presses don't have a lot of resources to spend on writers who are not serious.  If you show them that you care about your craft and will do the work necessary to get your book published, you stand a much better chance of getting out of the slush pile.

Small Press Success

All of the above might give you a picture of small press publication as the last resort, an undesirable fall-back position when all else fails.  That is not necessarily accurate.  Authors first published by small presses do break through into major publishing houses and best-selling success.  Along with Grisham, a notable example is Tom Clancy, whose The Hunt for Red October was first published by the Naval Institute Press.  Success is certainly possible if you have a quality product and are willing to spend the time and effort needed to get it noticed.

Books that are tightly focused on a fairly small niche market are also suitable for submission to small press publishers.  Your regional history book would best be represented by a regional small press, maybe a university press in your area.

You can have success in small press publishing.  Do your best work, research the markets carefully, and present yourself professionally.  Above all, good luck, have fun and never give up on your dreams!.

Resources for Locating Small Presses

Finding information on small presses is not difficult.  Any decent public library will have the Literary Market Place.  They may also have the International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses.  You can also browse the Google Directory ( ) or the Yahoo! Directory ( ).


International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses (Dustbooks) 0-916685-48-9 (paper), 0-916685-49-7 (cloth)

Literary Market Place (Information Today, Inc.) 1-57387-178-8

Writer's Market (F & W Publications) 1-58297-394-6

Novel & Short Story Writer's Market (F & W Publications) 1-58297-397-0


Small Press Review ( )

Online Resources

Agent Query --

Literary Market Place -- (free registration required)

Small Press Center -- -- (subscription required)