Independent Publishers: The Good, the Bad, and the Sleazy

by Marylee MacDonald in General

Independent publishers could hold the key to you getting your book into print. Let’s face it. No matter how good a book is, writers have a tough time finding an agent. That’s just the reality of publishing.

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Agents only sell to New York publishers. If they can’t make a deal with them, they’ll shop your book to a university press. But don’t get your hopes up. The number of New York publishers and university presses continues to shrink.

Is Self-Publishing The Answer?

Well, sure, but going that route requires you to learn a whole lot about print-production and promotion.

One writer who has succeeded in this arena is Ginger Scott. An Arizona author, Ginger uses her cell phone to stay in touch with her fans. Before her books come out, she builds interest with cover reveals.

Ginger has a platform. And, now, because she has a platform, she has an agent.

But, do not despair. Luckily, there is an option for authors who can’t find an agent and who don’t want to self-publish. This is the route I took, not once, but twice.

You will need a cover letter and a synopsis, but instead of going through a middleman, you can approach publishers directly.

Independent Publishers: The Third Rail

There’s some confusion in the publishing world about what to call this new breed of publisher. The publisher of my first book, All Things That Matter Press, makes a distinction between independent publishers and “indie” publishers.

According to Phil Harris, an independent publisher comes out with several books a year. ATTM Press prints thirty to thirty-five new titles. Phil is the publisher, and his wife Deb edits the manuscripts. Deb also generally does the cover design, deals with ISBN numbers, copyright registration, and book formatting. Phil is adamant that “indie” is a term that ought to be reserved for self-published books.

A similar husband-wife team operates Fomite Press. Their submissions’ policy is straightforward. Send an e-mail to the editor, Marc Estrin. He’s the “decider.”

The bottom line is that the decision to publish or not lies in the hands of one or two people. There’s no committee of naysayers. An independent publisher puts the book on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound. What independent presses cannot do, however, is get your book in bookstores or in libraries. That’s up to you.

Print-On-Demand Publishing (POD)

Independent presses do not send their manuscripts to a traditional printing company for production. They use print-on-demand technology to produce their books. A print run can be one book or ten. When someone orders a book through an online store, the POD printer (CreateSpace or LightningSource) cranks out a book.

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By way of contrast, New York publishers, university presses, and some small presses still produce books the old-fashioned way. They do a minimum print run. They store books in a warehouse. They have business arrangements with book distributors. They may or may not promote your book adequately, but, at least, they have a sales team and a marketing department. If an agent has been able to get you a big advance, then the publisher has a stake in your success.

What Services Do Independent Publishers Provide?

Let’s go back to independent publishers for a moment and compare their services. Basically, they’re using the same printing technology used by self-published authors, except that they’re taking the pre-production off your hands.

Here are some of the services you can expect:

Normal Services

  • Creation of cover art
  • Light editing
  • Turning your manuscript into an e-book and a print book
  • Producing an electronic file for you to proofread
  • Putting your book in online bookstores
  • Pricing your book appropriately
  • Obtaining a copyright
  • Obtaining ISBN numbers
  • Assigning your book to the appropriate BISAC category
  • Coming up with keywords so the book is “searchable” on Amazon
  • Tracking sales
  • Paying royalties
  • Providing a contract

Optional Services

  • Book blurbs from other writers at the press
  • A co-op marketing community
  • A handout on ways you can promote your book
  • Creation of an audio book
  • Sales of international and movie rights

What Can Go Wrong?

Let’s just cover a few of the basics.

The contract may lock you into a deal with the publisher in perpetuity or for a period you find objectionable, say five years. The contract may be virtually unbreakable. I’ve known writers whose publishers went bankrupt, and the authors still can’t get their rights back.

Speaking of that, I’ve said that independent publishers are generally one or two people, maybe five at the most. What if one has a health problem? What becomes of your book? Production stops. Your royalty payments stop. People are human, and an independent press has no institutional support.

Here’s another thing that can go wrong. You may hate the cover. Well, too bad. The publisher makes the decisions. They may change the title. They may do a terrible job on layout so that you’re downright embarrassed to hold the book in your hands.

Even so, they will take 50% of your net sales. To make any money, they will have to price the book higher than its perceived value. If you were an average reader, which book would you choose? A $16.99 John Grisham novel or a $16.99 novel from Joe Blow?

Self-published authors can price their books low enough to attract readers. Books priced at $2.99 to $9.99 have a better chance in the marketplace, but independent publishers can’t drop that far.

Independent publishers can’t afford to “price pulse,” which means to set the price low for a certain number of days in order to drive sales and increase reviews.

The publisher generally controls the e-book rights. If you need copies of your book to send to potential reviewers, you will potentially have to buy them from Amazon.

Inevitably, the volume of your sales will be low, especially if you don’t know how to promote books. According to BookScan, “The average U.S. book is now selling less than 250 copies per year and less than 3,000 copies over its lifetime.”

Where To Find Independent Publishers

Here are four places to search for independent publishers.

Brian Grove’s My Perfect Pitch has a comprehensive list, broken down by genre and country. What I like about his site is that he includes publishers from Ireland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Some publishers on his list would be called “small presses” rather than independent publishers, but all in all, this is a terrific place to start.

A second site with comprehensive listings is New Pages. You’ll want to go there for independent, small, and university presses.

When I was looking for a publisher, I found lists on Poets & Writers. However, when I went to the publishers’ websites, I discovered that many were no longer taking submissions or were just publishing work from writers they knew. Don’t feel discouraged, though. You’re in the research phase. You’ll find a publisher for your book.

A great site that keeps its info constantly updated is Duotrope. If you’re serious about finding a publisher, join their site. It costs money, but it’s worth it.

Go to their advanced search page. In the main genre box pick one of their standard genres or select general.

A drop-down menu with literary will appear. You can then select other criteria such as novel. Voila! You will see a comprehensive, fact-checked list of fiction publishers. You’ll learn which publishers are open to submissions and which pay. This is where I found my press.

A Word About the Sleaze Factor

One final caution. Avoid so-called “vanity presses.” A vanity press or subsidy publisher will not help you establish your career. More than likely, they will not even produce a good book. I base that opinion on the number of complaints I see in authors’ groups on LinkedIn.

Never, ever pay a publisher to produce your book. If the publisher wants money, run the other way. If the publisher wants you to run a Kickstarter campaign to finance publication of your book, avoid said publisher. You don’t need to do this. For more on the sleaze factor, read this comprehensive article on the Science Fiction Writers of America site.

There are plenty of reputable, independent publishers who can turn your novel into a finished book. The two downsides are that you’re tied to your publisher contractually and that you will still have to learn to sell your book in an online world.


3 Responses to “Independent Publishers: The Good, the Bad, and the Sleazy”

  1. Barbara Lorna Hudson says:

    Such a helpful post – thank you. I am now happily working with a small Australian publisher, Driven Press, with one novel doing quite well and another coming out next year. But I wish I had read this information earlier, as it took me ages to understand about print on demand etc.
    I should add that as a late starter in fiction writing I felt that after a year’s hanging about waiting for agents to reject my MS – several called in the full – I was not prepared to give any more time to that route.
    I recommend Driven Press.
    Barbara Lorna Hudson

    • Thanks so much for that recommendation! I know a number of fine writers who’ve beat their heads against the agent wall for years, but even finding representation by an agent is no guarantee. Another year or two can go by before they sell the book, and then another year before it’s published.

    • Thanks so much for that recommendation! I know a number of fine writers who’ve beaten their heads against the agent wall for years, but even finding representation by an agent is no guarantee. Another year or two can go by before they sell the book, and then another year before it’s published.

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