7 Reasons to be Wary of Small Publishing Houses

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Small publishing houses (also known as small presses or independent publishers) can be a great option for writers who have work that’s not cut out for traditional publishing or who aren’t quite ready to go it alone and self publish.

Some of the small publishing houses are fantastic, but some…not so much. Generally, the worst of the small presses are the e-publishers. The companies that publish entirely or primarily in e-book form.

This is not to say that there aren’t some awesome e-publishers, there are! But there are also some horrific ones. The key to not getting suckered into a crappy small press is to be wary and to ask the right questions before signing a contract.

Here are some potential pitfalls of going with an independent publisher (especially an e-publisher):

1. Quantity Over Quality

Some small publishing houses operate under the business model of “quantity over quality.” This means that they may accept all or most of what is submitted to them if it meets the most basic requirements of a novel.

Their theory is that by publishing as many books as possible as cheaply as possible, they are bound to eventually make a profit.

Why it’s a Problem

Often what happens with this business model is that the publisher over saturates the market with low-quality books. This means that their own high-quality novels get buried under dozens of low-quality ones. It also means that readers may buy one book from the publisher, have a bad experience, and never buy another one.

How to Check

Look through the independent publisher’s release schedule and “about us” or “employment page.” If the small press employs two editors but releases twenty books per month, that’s not a good sign. Some small presses hire freelance editors (as many as dozens) so unfortunately there’s no foolproof method of determining the ratio of editors to released books.

2. Incompetent Editors

Some small publishing houses are created by people who want to make a quick buck. They may be editors who failed as freelancers, who couldn’t get hired at traditional publishing houses, or who are failed writers. They may also be people with no connection to the publishing industry at all.

Why it’s a Problem

You want your precious novel to be edited to perfection. This is your name we’re talking about. If a publisher throws your book up with poor (or no) editing, the ensuing negative reviews could have a permanent effect on your career. Not to mention that the book you slaved over will be sent out into the world ill prepared.

How to Check

Look through the Amazon previews of a dozen or so novels that the small press published in your genre. Look for issues with the writing, like head hopping, tense mix-ups, and purple prose. Also look for issues with proofreading, like misspellings and incorrect comma usage.

3. Limited Advertising & Promotions

Some small publishing houses offer little or no help with advertising and promotions. Their idea of a marketing plan might be firing off a Tweet or two to their 300 followers on release day. Or they might get you book reviews or guest posts on blogs with only a couple hundred subscribers.

Why it’s a Problem

Giving your book the promotional backing of a publishing company is one of the primary reasons to go with a small press over self publishing. If the company isn’t promoting your book, you will be stuck doing all of the work on your own, just like you would if you self published, except you’ll be giving a chunk of your sales to the publisher.

How to Check

Search some of the small press’ titles and see what comes up. Is the book being mentioned on blogs with more than a couple hundred subscribers? Does it have reviews from sites other than Amazon? Did it have a book tour? Did the author do interviews? Make sure you check for at least five or six books. If one book has a great promotional presence but another doesn’t, it was likely the author who organized the promotion.

4. Bad Cover Art

Some small presses invest in very nice cover art, but others have artwork so bad it’s laughable. Often bad artwork is due to artists who are expected to churn out an unrealistic amount of book covers for a low price. The owners of the publishing company may also be creating the covers themselves.

Why it’s a Problem

No matter how many times we tell people to not judge a book by its cover, people do. We all do. An ugly or laughable cover is not going to lead to book sales. But even a gorgeous cover that doesn’t correctly portray the genre and subject matter can ruin sales because it won’t attract the right readers.

How to Check

Look through the publisher’s website and study the cover art. Is it attractive? Enticing? Read the description of the book. Does the cover accurately convey the genre and subject matter to the reader? Is the cover misleading?

5. Poor Sales

When you publish with a small press, the hope is that by teaming up with them, you will boost your book sales (as opposed to self publishing). But at some small presses, their book sales are worse than typical sales for a self-published book. Some small presses never see sales out of the double digits. One fairly popular small press typically sells about 10-30 copies of each book.

Why it’s a Problem

Publishing that doesn’t get you any sales defeats the purpose of publishing at all. You will lose the rights to your book (most traditional publishers will no longer consider publishing it even after the contract is up) and in return you get little more than a few copies of your book to give to friends and family.

How to Check

Most small presses don’t release numbers on their book sales and if they do, they only release numbers on their top-performing books. The best way to assess sales is to go to the source – find a writer who has published with them and ask. The best place to do this is probably the Bewares, Recommendations, and Background Check forum on AbsoluteWrite.

6. Dishonest Payment

A handful of small presses have been dishonest about how much they owe their authors. They’ve gotten in trouble for keeping more than their fair share of the book sale money. Though far from the norm, it’s something to be aware of.

Why it’s a Problem

You worked hard on your book, you deserve to get paid for the book sales. Also, a publisher that lies to its authors is likely to go bust and disappear. Then your book is stuck without backing from a publisher at all.

How to Check

To figure out if a publishing company has ever been dishonest about how much they owe their authors, just search the web. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to figure out which companies are being dishonest and just haven’t been caught yet.

7. No Print Run

Some small publishing houses never provide print runs. Other houses provide print runs on only their top-performing books. This means that even if you see that some of their books have gone to print, yours probably won’t and will be sold as an e-book only.

Why it’s a Problem

It’s not inherently a problem if the market for your genre is online. But if you write in a genre that tends to sell better in print, only having your book available online can dramatically limit your sales. And some writers just want to see their book in print and will be dissatisfied without a hard copy available.

How to Check

Don’t assume you will get a print run. Go over your contract carefully to see what is and is not promised to you. If a print run is important to optimize your book sales (which is probably true in every genre except erotica) and you believe your novel has a good shot at selling well in stores, don’t sign with a publisher who can’t guarantee a print run unless it’s your last resort.

Conclusion

There are some awesome small publishing houses out there. But there are also a lot of crappy ones. Don’t be the writer who is so thrilled with a contract offer that they sign it without doing research. And don’t be embarrassed to ask the publisher questions.

Above all, listen to the opinions of writers who have gone before you. Trust the authors who have published at a publishing company over the claims of the company itself. The publisher has a vested interest in selling itself high, but your fellow writer is probably going to tell the truth about whether their publisher was awesome or awful.

It can be tough to turn down a publishing deal, even from a publisher that sucks, but so long as you keep working at your craft, you won’t regret turning away a crappy small press. Who knows, your book may be just a few more revisions away from a traditional deal anyway.

If this article helped you, please share it!

If you need a freelance editor, please check out my editing services.

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5 thoughts on “7 Reasons to be Wary of Small Publishing Houses

  1. edia hannah says:

    I absolutely love your posts. Very helpful. I only just came across your blog and, wow. I’m working hard on my first novel, I hope to use your services very soon.

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      Thanks a lot! I really appreciate the feedback! Best of luck with your novel. If you have any specific questions you’d like a post on let me know and I’ll try to get to it soon. Working together in the future would be great! Take care!

  2. KST says:

    I only wish I had found your article before I signed with a small e-publisher. It took them a year after I signed the contract to publish my book, which released 1/1/15. I received my first royalty payment today – a whole $2.16 for 4 downloads. The website listed on the royalty payment has my book listed as a best seller, which states it had at least 10 downloads but I only got credit for 4. Amazon shows four sales as well but they aren’t listed on the royalty report. So it’s been a slight let down to say the least that I made .54 per download.

    There are other issues which I have written the publisher about concerning issues with availability on two websites but they will not respond to my e-mails. I’ve bookmarked your website and started following you on twitter. Thank you for this valuable information.

    You are completely correct about promoting your book all alone. I was told they would submit to at least five reviewers but I only found one and it was buried along with tons of other writers. I submitted to reviewers on my own and got an excellent review. I do feel all alone when it comes to marketing and promoting the book. They have not been helpful at all.

    It’s true, I was excited to be accepted and offered a contract and being a new author I was naive thinking they had my best interest in mind.

    Recently, they sent an e-mail out stating how successful they are getting and how they’ve hired eleven new editors.

    I guess I will chalk this one up to a learning lesson and push ahead. I hope my experience will help someone else who is considering an e-publisher like you’ve outlined in you article.

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      I’m sorry you are having a negative experience with an e-publisher. Unfortunately, it is all too common! I hope you are able to make the best of things and find a way to get your book the attention it deserves.

  3. D.M. O'Byrne says:

    Just found your blog. You’re right about most small publishers, but you can’t get near one of the Big 5 without an agent and getting an agent is nearly impossible for a first-time author. I recently signed with Black Opal Books who are not a POD publisher, but promotion is mostly up to me. My hope is if the first two books I’m contracted for sell well, I MIGHT be able to interest an agent. It’s a crap shoot.

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