Should I Go With a Small Publisher?

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

These days there is no shortage of small publishers offering to publish your book. They range from established small presses, to hybrid (“subsidy”) presses in which the author partially funds production and marketing, to houses that assist the author in self-publishing (for a fee). It’s typically easier to get a publishing contract with one of these smaller companies than with a large or well-established publisher.

A variety of scenarios may lead a writer to consider one of these small presses:

  • The agent has shopped the project to mainstream publishers and not gotten any bites.
  • The writer has a modest platform and therefore is unlikely to interest a large publisher.
  • The project has a target audience that is perceived as small or niched.
  • The author prefers to go with a faster option rather than wait months or years as they search for an agent and then a publisher.
  • Or other scenarios specific to the writer and their project

The question is, should you consider a small press? Is this a good business decision? Is it a good career decision?

The answer depends on your long-term goals. What do you want out of your writing career? Each person has their own ideas about what they want their publishing path to look like.

Each writer’s vision is their own, so there is no single right answer for everyone.

That last sentence is really important, because lots of people will try to tell you what you should do—without knowing your specific goals, dreams, and vision. Try not to listen to the voices out there that don’t have your interest at heart, don’t understand your personal vision, or don’t have a solid understanding of the publishing world.

So how do you decide? Here’s a simplified answer:

  • If your goal is to eventually publish with a mainstream, established publisher who has the ability to get your book into brick & mortar bookstores as well as target major media outlets for reviews and appearances: then NO. Don’t opt to publish with a small publisher, in the hopes that it may eventually lead to a larger publisher being interested.
  • If your publishing goal is to publish only the one book, and the size of the publisher isn’t important to you but you prefer not to go the DIY route, then YES, go ahead and consider small publishers.
  • If your publishing goal is to write and publish multiple books, and the size of the publisher isn’t important to you but you prefer to avoid the DIY route, then YES, go ahead and consider small publishers.

Consider your long-term goals. That’s the factor on which your decision should rest.

The problem with choosing a small publisher “first” or in hopes of landing a larger publisher later is that you’ll be saddled with a sales history that is difficult to overcome. It’s virtually impossible for a small publisher to sell a number of copies that would eventually be impressive to a larger, mainstream publisher. So when you eventually pitch another book to agents or big publishers, your new book will be more difficult to sell.

So what do you do? What if you (or your agent) has shopped your book to publishers and not sold it? Well, in the old days before indie publishing was easy and prevalent, the typical response was to put that book away and write another one. If that next book didn’t sell, the author would put that one away and write another one. Hopefully along the way, they’re becoming a better writer and/or they’re writing books that more closely match what the market wants. And down the road, they may be able to pull out those early books and either make them better so they’ll sell, or realize they weren’t all that great to begin with.

Another option, if you really want to get your book out there rather than putting it away, is to self-publish. If you go the DIY route to publish your book, then in the future it’s unlikely a publisher would hold those sales figures against you.

So, get what I’m saying here:

If your ultimate goal is to publish with a large, mainstream publisher, but you have a book you want published in the meantime, it’s much better to self-publish it than go with a smaller publisher.

Make sense?

There are lots of varying opinions on this. I’m not the last word. But as an agent, if I’m considering representing you with the goal of getting you a publishing contract, I’d be wary of having to overcome modest sales from a small publisher; but I wouldn’t bat an eye if you self-published and sold 800 copies.

You may want to refer to Jane Friedman’s incredibly detailed and helpful chart: 2017 Key Book Publishing Paths. It describes the various kinds of publishing these days, from the Big 5 to DIY.





18 Responses

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  1. Dana McNeely says:

    Thanks for this, Rachelle. With Wendy’s post yesterday, the Books and Such blog summarized a lot of information in one place about career choices. I’m constantly reading about the different choices but it’s mind-boggling. My first choice is to work with an agent, but I’m a planner by nature, so my mind is always sorting all the other options into Plan B, C, and D. Your bullet points are specific and helpful.

  2. Carol Ashby says:

    It’s great to have your perspective on this, Rachelle. I’d read elsewhere that publishing indie first could be a problem because it is virtually impossible to get sales numbers that a publisher would consider “good.” When you say 800 is an acceptable number, that’s averaging less than 3 a day for the first year. I’ve found that is very achievable with my first two, and the one that released last night already has reached those towering sales figures in less than 12 hours.
    *Thanks for giving a real number that is so encouraging for anyone temporarily publishing indie who might want to go traditional in the future. I would assume that 80 copies…or 8…would be a problem because it would mean no platform.

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      Carol, in no way did I mean to convey any opinion whatsoever on the number “800.” I apologize for miscommunicating. That was a hypothetical. I meant that if you self-published, I wouldn’t pay much attention to your numbers but if you went with an actual publisher, I would be looking closely at your numbers. “I wouldn’t bat an eye” at 80 or 800, because I know it’s self-published and I’d have no expectation that it would be a meaningful number. I’d ignore it, and proceed as if you were a debut author. If you self-published 8,000, then I’d pay attention because that’s hard to do.

      • Carol Ashby says:

        Thanks for clarifying. How does 8000 compare to the typical sales for a solid (not blockbuster) Christian novel? I’d seen a number that the typical novel sells on the order of 4000 to 5000 copies in its lifetime, but I don’t know if those are good numbers.

    • Congratulations on your new release Carol!

  3. Hilary says:

    I love this article! Thank you for sharing the different options and goals, it was very helpful!

  4. Kim says:

    What happens if an author sells a book to a small publisher because they made an immediate offer and she didn’t know enough about publishing to wait? What should she do too overcome poor sales (not the books fault) so that she can later sell to a large house? I’m asking for a friend. 😃

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      Many, many people are in this position, which is why I wrote this post! The answer is you keep writing, keep moving forward, figuring out your next step, and doing your best to get your books published however you can. 🙂

    • I have been asked to submit to a small publisher after being a finalist in a contest and now I am struggling through these waters of what to do. Thanks Kim for the question and Rachelle for the answer. This article is very timely, and I am honestly scared out of my wit about publishing.

  5. Joanne Reese says:

    This post illustrates Wendy’s point from yesterday, which is that agents will always been valuable. As an agent, you are able to tap into a writer’s long-term goals and help her make decisions today that will affect her future. What could be more valuable to those of us who pursue this thing called publication? You have an ongoing read on the pulse of the industry, which changes daily. I am grateful for your willingness to share these jewels with the rest of us, Rachelle.

  6. Your post came at a perfect time for me. I’ll remain focused on my long-term goals. I’m also intrigued by your comment about self-published books versus small-press books.

    Thanks so much for sharing.

  7. That’s some very helpful clarification–thanks, Rachelle!

  8. *sigh* Thanks for the truth, even when it is a bit hard to take. Now to figure out the next step.

  9. Erin Unger says:

    Thanks for sharing this very interesting post. The publishing world is vast and complicated, isn’t it?

  10. Mary Kay Moody says:

    A strong beam of light through the pub-business fog. Thanks for that, Rachelle. So helpful.

  11. Great information and timely. As I digest all that you have presented and explore the resource you listed, I do have one question. It is a genuine question as I am just trying to begin to understand the publishing industry. Why is it 800 books sold as an indie does not matter but it does matter if it is with a small publisher? Wouldn’t a small publisher author face all the challenges that an indie does as far as marketing and getting the word out there? I am sorry if that sounds rude or naive. I am just trying to understand and gain a working knowledge of the industry.

  12. Thanks for the post Rachelle. It piggy backs with Wendy’s post yesterday. I simply will keep working until either my book is interesting to a larger traditional house, and increase my platform and presence. I also have other projects I could write in the meantime that would still reflect my passions. I’m more concerned with getting information and words that matter out there. I have my hands in several things, but after my birthday on January 4th, I am heading for YouTube and vlogging. I feel very comfortable in front of a camera no matter if it’s planned or spontaneous. Actually have some exciting ideas. I’m not worried. Im on the path God has called me to, and he is directing my steps.

    This is Andrew’s second day of not commenting. I hope he and Barb are okay.

  13. Laura Bennet says:

    Very helpful information. Thanks for sharing your take on this question.