The Small Press Conundrum

So despite your literary agent’s best efforts, your first novel/first nonfiction proposal didn’t sell to any of the Big Five publishers.

Bowker's 5400-page 2014 Guide to U.S. Publishers

What do you do now?

You ask your agent to plumb the directories of small presses and start cold calling.


Well, if your agent is a realist, that is if she has a family to support or she isn’t in the habit of taking money (her time) and throwing it out a window, she’ll beg off.

She’ll tell you that your time is better spent writing another book and trying your luck again with one of the majors in 9 to 12 months. To take whatever editorial advice you can glean from the pile of rejection letters she’s sent you and move on with your life.

But if you continue to insist she submit the book to Podunk Press, she will tactfully suggest that it would be best to part ways. Not because you are a terrible writer or a nasty person, but because she’s already blown a ton of time on you (that means money that she could have been earning with someone else) and she has no intention of throwing away more.

I own a literary agency, Genre Management Inc., and I represent a small list of writers myself. [FYI, I no longer take on any new clients. My plate is full! Please don’t ask me to read your book! Don’t be offended. I’m sure you’re great, but I have too much work as it is!]

Now, the first thing I used to tell potential clients is that I would do everything possible to get their book sold to a major publisher for the highest guaranteed advance possible. But if I didn’t sell it to a major publisher, it’s the end of the line for that project for me. I won’t submit the book to small publishers.


Hey, I was the publisher of a small press years ago and I never expected agents to submit to me. Instead I cooked up all of the book ideas myself, contacted the writers myself, and made the deals usually directly with the writers themselves. I didn’t sit around waiting for agents to send me stuff that the majors had already passed on…

If an agent represented a writer I wanted to work with, I wouldn’t discuss my book idea with him/her until we agreed on general financial terms. If we couldn’t agree, then I’d find another writer. The last thing I wanted (because it happened to me on more than one occasion before I wised up) was to give a writer and his agent a book idea without having their agreement to write it for me on my terms…signed, sealed and delivered. If I did give them the idea before the money was agreed to, they’d usually discover that what I was offering them to write it and what they would be able to find on the open market if they’d come up with the idea themselves were vastly different opportunities.

So what would happen is that they’d stall on deciding to do the book with me and send the idea that I gave them out to the major publishers. Then they’d come back to me with offers in hand that were often ten times the amount I could afford. Not cool, but that’s life baby!

Could I sue them and make their lives miserable for “stealing my idea?” Probably, but then I’d make myself miserable too. So after this happened to me (yes, it happened to me more than once…Duh!) I learned to get the money settled up front before pitching them my project.

But I digress.

Why again, do most agents not submit to small publishers? Here’s why:

The guaranteed advances from small publishers (if they offer any at all) are not anywhere near the level of the majors. What’s worse is that their royalty structures are often lower than the majors. So tiny guaranteed money up front, and less money on the back end.

Why would you do that deal unless you were convinced that the small publisher had magic dust that would guarantee that your book would break bestseller records?

Well, you’d do it for third party validation…  Proof that you were chosen as “worthy” to exploit and not having to tell your friends that no one wanted to publish your book. I get it. But you don’t have to do that anymore…you can bet on yourself and do a whole lot better.

Let’s look at it from the agent point of view.

The 15% commission for an agent on $1,000 advance is $150. That’s it. But the amount of work for a book that gets $1,000 advance is almost exactly the same as a book that receives a $100,000 advance of $1,000,000 advance. The agent still has to vet the contract. She still has to field all of your phone calls. She has to review the copy, the covers, the “marketing” plans etc.

If you were an agent would you rather handle one book that gets a $100,000 advance or one hundred books that get $1000 advances? You’d make the same money ($15,000) but you’d to do 100 times the work in small press land. Trust me. No one loves books enough to be paid $150 to do $15,000 worth of work.

Now a smaller publisher may have a book that becomes a huge bestseller, but in all likelihood, unless they came up with the idea themselves and commissioned the work, the publisher’s efforts will have little to do with the book’s success.

Sorry to all of you small publishers out there that I have no experience with. I’m not talking about your specific company, but those of your competitors that I’ve come across in my 25-year career. I’m sure you are doing remarkable things of which I have no idea. You’re probably not holding your breath waiting for Andrew Wylie to send you something anyway and you understand the agent’s position better than I do.

But in my experience, a small publisher’s book becomes a bestseller because it is too good not to talk about (and yes it’s possible for an amazing book to be overlooked by Big Publishing) or it has hit a certain cultural sweet spot at the perfect time. Or the person who wrote the book had a huge following that the major publishers just didn’t understand. Unless they are facilitating the discovery process for your work with living breathing consumers (gifting mucho copies to targeted markets), your small publisher is not drumming up any of that mojo.

Instead these small publishers are basically doing the exact same things that big publishers do…sending books out to reviewers and mainstream media hoping it will generate a big break and catch on… The last thing they’ll do is gift a single copy to anyone…including you.

The thing is that most small publishing companies use the exact same business model as the big publishers. In fact, the most well known ones have distribution deals with one of the Big Five corporations to get their books into stores, handle returns etc. My former company, Rugged Land Books, had distribution deals. At that time, there were no other means to get a book in front of a reader.

What using traditional systems of distribution amounts to having to do the exact same publishing busy work that the Big Five do and have been doing for 100 years.

Like the big boys, these small publishers have to participate in “sales conferences” every four to six months. And they have to prepare piles of paper to do so. Prelaunch reports, launch reports, tip sheets, sales packets…blah blah blah. All of that work preparing to spend three minutes per title pitching another company’s sales people so that they get excited to sell the book of a minor competitor to other sales people at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and whatever’s left of the independent bookstore community.

Trust me on this one…One of the coldest experiences in life is to build yourself into a lather trying to communicate how your latest title could be a blockbuster seller to another company’s sales reps ten minutes before they’ll be released to the happy hour of the hospitality suite after having had to sit in a chair for eight hours pretending to be enthusiastic and fascinated by every one of the hundreds of books they’ve already been pitched that day.

It’s soul crushing.

The retailers, nudged by the distribution sales people, then put in advance orders for the book before it’s been published. The small press then prints the book based on those orders and ships for a particular “pub date.”

Meanwhile the small press’s marketing and publicity departments (usually the same people as those who edit, design and acquire the very books themselves) are tasked with trying to get some kind of buzz going for the book for it to sell. The primary way they do this is same as it ever was—shipping books out to The New York Times Book Review or The Wall Street Journal to see if they will deign to cover it. Maybe it’s been expanded to big website “influencers” now too? That’s probably the big innovation of the past five years…

Now even if the big paper does review the book, very few people actually buy a book just because some critic they don’t know recommended it. If their best friend tells them to buy the book or one of those aforementioned “influencers” does? That’s a whole other kettle of fish. The thing is though, that influencers became influencers because they never fit in to corporate life. Do you think getting a press release and a free book from a big corporation that they never asked for will spur them on to review the book? Not so much.

Guess what?  All of that work the small press is doing is just about pointless. I think it’s approaching absurd, if not already there, for the Big Five to do it too. But they have to keep up the Kabuki to maintain their vaunted status with retailers… I get it.

The best thing a small publisher could do to break this ridiculous cycle would be to do what independent writers who’ve been rejected by the big publishers and probably dropped by their agents have been doing since 2007.

These writers have built platforms to identify people who would want to read what they write and have literally compiled databases of those very same people who voluntarily connect with them (permission marketing per Seth Godin) to read their current and future work.

Imagine that? Actually knowing the very people who care enough to spend their hard earned money buying your work…  Who needs all that other crap? Just to be front of store (if you’re lucky) at Barnes & Noble for two weeks seems pointless if no one knows who you are.

So instead of investing so much time playing the game the way it’s always been played…if I were to give advice to a small press, I’d tell them to stop thinking of themselves as a small press.

Why not build a system by which you put the writer first? You offer them a proven service instead of bullshit and a virtual lottery ticket.

Let’s face it…very few people want to do the very hard work the pioneers of platform/permission marketing have done—Hugh Howey, Jeff Goins, Tim Grahl and a slew of writers who still work with the Big Five—Daniel Pink, Chris Guillebeau, Gretchen Rubin, Dan and Chip Heath etc.

And I don’t blame writers who shake in their boots when I talk about this stuff. I’ve been working on it myself for The Story Grid and the workload is seriously intimidating. My mantra over the past months exploring the platform/permission model in depth has been It’s going to be okay…take your time and try and have fun. And it has been so far. So more to come as I build

If I were a small press with hopes of becoming a big operation, I think the platform/permission world is one to watch.

How would a company provide all of the advantages of the platform/permission system to writers not keen on doing it themselves?

Is there a plug and play solution that would use best practices of the pioneers of this model to build new platforms for a new writers averse to zeros and ones?

How would it work?

These are the million dollar questions of publishing’s future.

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  1. Walter Trauth on September 19, 2014 at 6:27 am

    Beautiful and clear. High value. A gift. Thank you.

  2. Mary Doyle on September 19, 2014 at 6:32 am

    Thanks for this crash course in small-press publishing Shawn – it is a valuable follow-up to your last post! On the one hand the landscape of both the Big 5 and the small presses is bleak and discouraging. On the other hand, the option of platform/permission marketing is there for the writer willing to put in the time and effort. It is the path that continues to make the most sense to me. I’ll remember your mantra: “It’s going to be okay…take your time and try and have fun.”

  3. Joel D Canfield on September 19, 2014 at 6:40 am

    How would a company provide all of the advantages of the platform/permission system to writers not keen on doing it themselves?

    1. They’d have to be heavy influencers already — or have loads of money stockpiled for all the time they’ll spend getting there.
    2. They’d still have to be gatekeepers. Silly and ineffective to broker readership for everyone; there is no “everyone” anyway. Picking a genre and sticking to it, becoming the go-to for a niche . . . that could work.
    3. Authors would have to be willing to share the risk.
    4. In the beginning, it would require early adopters on both sides, authors and press. Authors see the cruise liner of trad pub and the sailboat of self pub and will wonder why the should jump into the water between them.

    I hope this business model emerges. I’m afraid I don’t have the patience for it and besides, I’m too busy writing.

    • Tim Forbes on September 19, 2014 at 10:05 am

      Joel, I can always count on a well-reasoned comment from you whenever the topic du jour is the biz side of a writer’s life. But I’m not sure I agree with you that folks wouldn’t be very interested in jumping into the murky water between the trad pub cruise liner and the self pub sailboat. Bearing the scars from both vessels, it seems to me that the deep dive is emerging as the least risky course of action – or certainly no worse than the others.

  4. Faith Watson on September 19, 2014 at 6:56 am

    You’re speaking my language — hooray!
    “It’s going to be okay…take your time and try and have fun.”

    I know I shouldn’t edit other people’s mantras, but why not strike “try and” from that, Shawn?

    This year, I lost my mom. Many heartbreaking scenes abide. I’ve decided it’s not cliche to say life is short. and that nothing we do on purpose, unless perhaps we are trying to save babies, should be soul crushing. Not selling, not business, not even art.

    I’m glad you posted this — just joined your list at The Story Grid. Thanks!

  5. Fawn on September 19, 2014 at 7:35 am

    Good post. Wetted my appetite so I signed up for hte Story Grid. Thanks!

  6. David Y.B. Kaufmann on September 19, 2014 at 2:08 pm

    Your posts, Shawn, are always so interesting and informative – and with all the realistic pitfalls and problems, still very encouraging.

  7. andrew lubin on September 20, 2014 at 5:30 am

    I did it a different way: 1-I went to B&N and looked at every book on their shelf in my genre. 2-Wrote down the publisher’s name/website, plus author name. 3-Looked up every publisher, read their submission requirements and realized: *The big publishers wanted me to have an agent (I did not), and *the 2nd-tier (specialized but still medium-sized) publishers wanted me to submit! 4-Submitted to 2nd tier publishers. 5-Had a contract (and a small advance!) within a few weeks. Awesome – my first book was not self-published!!

    I also cold-called every author whose book I found in my genre – all but 1 were uniformly gracious and helpful with advice and more contacts, and several volunteered to act as informal editors. To date I’ve written / co-written 3 books, plus 38 print magazine articles, and 350+ paid web articles.

    While I’ll never be as successful as Steve and Shawn, let me suggest that one needs to approach marketing and promotion with the same realism as one’s writing.

    • Shawn Coyne on September 20, 2014 at 10:04 am

      You are the man! Your kind of approach (do whatever it takes to reach your goal without being a lapdog or compromising your core principles)and the practical analytical way you used to reach pay dirt are exactly what’s necessary today. Kudos! I’ll take your success any day of the week.

  8. Jeff Goins on September 25, 2014 at 6:51 am

    Wow, Shawn. Thanks for the mention. I’m honored! And I agree: most writers don’t want to do the platform thing. But at the same time, they won’t likely get signed with a big house. So what are the options?

    1. They can self-publish, which is a TON of work in itself (I know, because I just finished such a project).

    2. They can spend potentially years working with an agent to get signed and then STILL do a lot of work.

    3. They can build a platform that gets them noticed and then still have to do #1 or #2.

    Regardless, you’re looking at quit a bit of work to do. I think we’re going to see more in-between options popping up. These used to be called hybrid publishers, but I think they’re going to start seeing more traction.

    Examples such as Morgan James, where they do a lot of work a traditional publisher does but tend to be hands off with certain details, are interesting The effect is a much larger royalty rate for the author but a smaller set of authors that they will work with.

    As a writer, I’m watching such trends.

    Even if self-publishing completely catches up with the quality of traditional publishing (and it’s not far behind), I still think there will be a market for writers who don’t want to take the risk, who want to work with a team of professionals, and who quite frankly just want to write.

    But as you put it so well, no matter what option you take, you’re looking at a lot of work (as a writer or small publisher). So why not build a bridge between you and the readers you want to reach? That’s not a bad attitude for a writer, much less a publisher, to adopt.

    • Shawn Coyne on September 26, 2014 at 2:59 pm

      Thanks for chiming in! Great points all. I guess the reality of this life is…it’s not for the lazy.
      And thanks for THE TRIBE theme you developed for WordPress!
      All the best,

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