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

An independent publisher 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. Some agents require you to already have an author platform, even though you’ve barely managed to finish your book. That’s just the reality of publishing.

For the August, 2017 Northwestern University Summer Writers Conference, my friend Lynn Sloan put together a presentation on presses that took “unagented” submissions. Many in the audience had never heard of independent publishers. Lynn believes that independent publishers often have a particular “mission” that motivates them. Some want to serve the needs of particular region. In other cases, publishers are committed to particular readerships. But for both Lynn and me, the community of writers we’ve met through our presses has been one of the pleasant surprises of our publishing journeys.


Lynn Sloan Marylee MacDonald independent publisher presentation

Lynn Sloan and Marylee MacDonald at the Northwestern Summer Writers’ Conference

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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?

But, can’t anyone put a book up on Amazon these days? Well, sure, but going that route requires you to learn a whole lot about print-production and book 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, giveaways, and prerelease deals.

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. My friend, Lynn Sloan also went this route.

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.” Like many independent presses, the small size of the staff means that the publisher may have a backlog of queries. Be respectful and query during “open reading” periods.

With an independent press, the bottom line is that the decision to publish falls to one or two people. There’s no committee of naysayers. Just as with one of the “Big 5” New York publishers, an independent publisher puts the book on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound. What an independent publisher cannot do, however, is get your book into bookstores or in libraries. That’s up to you. And, generally, independent publishers do not “promote” books, meaning they do not have an advertising budget, nor the staff, to “get the word out” during the week of a new book’s release.

Publishers + Communities: A Surprise for Authors Who Go This Route

When an independent publisher agrees to “bring out” your book, you will, indeed, be able to say that you’re a published author. The hard part comes next. You’re one of 1,000,000 authors whose new books are published every year. Your book–and you–will be swimming in a vast sea of similar fish. Who will help you? My friends who’ve published with independent presses have found that having the support of fellow authors is one of the pleasant surprises of taking this route. It’s the community of authors that will welcome you to the fold of “published author” and that will understand what it has taken for you to get your book in shape.

Independent publishers often have a distinctive “mission.” They occupy a niche in the book world. Here are the presses that Lynn and I identified as either offering writing communities or having a unique slant on their publishing endeavors.

Could an Independent Publisher Be Right for You?


Hip, contemporary work: novel, novella, short story collection, poetry, biography & cultural studies, translation (from the German), and creative nonfiction. Open contests for submissions.


Literary fiction, contemporary issues, and long form essays. Produces beautiful books with high production values. Pittsburgh, PA


Crime, mystery, and thrillers find a home with two authors who publish in the genre.


Literary magazine with a book publishing arm and a website with a blog titled “Community” that lends support to the magazine’s writing community. Offers feedback on work-in-progress.


Recently named one of five small presses by Flavorwire. Dorothy is dedicated to works of fiction, “near fiction,” and about fiction, mostly by women. St. Louis, MO.


Theme: “no border, no limits.” Publishes story collections, novels, poetry, and nonfiction. Their new MiroLand imprint seeks genre fiction, kids’ books, and memoir.  Toronto, Canada.


Literary fiction, speculative fiction, romance, horror, LGBT, and spirituality


Hybrid forms and flash fiction. Beautiful books, inventive format and styles. Massachusetts.


Women writers. Fiction, non-fiction, and memoirs. Provides an array of services and supports community with its newsletters and blogs. (Unlike many other independent publishers, this press charges a fee for bringing out your book.)


Mash-ups of literary and fantasy sci fi. Also publishes the ‘zine Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. Easthampton, MA


Non-fiction and fiction. Focus on the Southwest and on environmental themes. Hybrid publication—the author pays for some services. Santa Fe, NM


Began with poetry collections, has expanded to publish novels and memoirs that are inventive and contemporary. Based in Portland, OR, so writers from that region have a leg up.


Romance fiction of many sub-genre, including not-for-children, sweet, mainstream and women’s fiction. Series and anthologies. A large house with a thousand titles and growing.


The literary imprint of Aquarius Press with a mission to promote and publish writers of color and develop a national platform.

What About an Independent Publisher with a Regional Focus?


Since 2010, publishes literary and genre fiction with a literary “sensibility” connected to St. Louis, MO. Part of Amphora Publishing Group. St. Louis, MO. Amphora’s other imprints: WALRUS PUBLISHING, a wide net including sci-fi, humor, memoir, LGBTQ: and TREEHOUSE PUBLISHING GROUP, children’s books through YA.


Since 2010, contemporary literature about Florida written by Floridians.  Orlando, FL.


Specializes in literature from marginalized communities in the Northwest. Portland, OR.


New literary press in Chicago with a hybrid business model. Open to submissions. Print books sold in a few Chicago-area bookstores. Electronic books sold on Amazon.

Print-On-Demand Publishing (POD)

Let’s take a look at how an independent publisher produces books. Typically, Independent presses do not send their manuscripts to a traditional printing company. They use print-on-demand technology. A “print run” can be one book or ten. When someone orders a book through an online store, the POD printer (Amazon’s KDP or IngramSpark) cranks out a book. (If you anticipate telling potential readers to order the book through their local bookstore, then your publisher must upload book files to IngramSpark or Ingram’s Lightning Source. That’s because bookstores will not order books from any Amazon entity. They view Amazon as trying to drive bookstores out of business.)

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By way of contrast, New York publishers, university presses, and some small presses still produce books the old-fashioned way. These folks do a minimum print run. An independent press may contract with the industry’s middlemen: book distributors. (Poetry presses typically use Small Press Distribution, a nonprofit.) A warehouse stores the books until a bookstore or online retailer such as Amazon requests shipment.

Even with a sales team and a marketing department, however, even a New York publisher may not promote your book the way you might hope.

If an agent has been able to get you a big advance, then at least the publisher has a stake in your success. In this day and age, all presses, even the “Big 5” in New York, require authors to pitch in. You may be required to hire your own publicist, and even then, if you are an unknown author, it’s going to be hard for a publicist to get your book on the bestseller charts.

What Services Does an Independent Publisher 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 an independent publisher is taking the pre-production tasks off your hands.

Here are some of the services you can expect from an independent publisher:

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 to seven. 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 an independent publisher generally has a staff of 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 publisher 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 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 stand a better chance in the marketplace, but an independent publisher 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 or at a discount from the publisher.

Inevitably, the volume of your sales will be low, especially if you don’t know how to promote books. According to Nielsen 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 An Independent Publisher

So, let’s say you are tired of knocking on agents’ doors and want the validation of having a publisher (who presumably is exercising some editorial judgment) put her or his stamp of approval on your book. Here are four places to search for independent publishers. Make sure you confirm whether the publisher is a non-fee-charging publisher or not. If a publisher charges money for their services, know that it’s very unlikely you will ever earn enough money to pay back that investment.

A site with comprehensive listings is New Pages. You’ll want to go there for independent, small, and university presses. They also list novel-writing competitions.

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. After you’re joined, 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.

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. (The one exception to this caveat is SheWrites Press. This press has an extremely effective marketing arm and can get books into the hands of book clubs and into bookstores. They also do a super job with book covers, which could be a reason their authors’ books can compete with the “Big Five’ New York publishers.)

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.

Go here for an list of independent publishers. In 2017 I combed through Duotrope and NewPages and listed publishers that, for the most part, are open for submissions from unagented authors. For more about how publishers like this fit into the big picture of publishing, read this article.


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.