Bigger Isn’t Always Better

By Wendy Tyson

The first mystery I wrote was not the book that landed me an agent—although it was the first book my agent sold. You see, that book, KILLER IMAGE, is a bit hard to categorize. An image consultant who solves mysteries? Is it a cozy fashion series? A traditional mystery? Women’s fiction? A psychological thriller? Agent after agent sent me the same basic response: “Love the book, but I’m not sure how I would pitch this.” Shortly after signing with my current agent based on a different book—one that was easier to classify—I sent her KILLER IMAGE. “I can sell this,” she said. And she did—to a smaller, independent press, one willing to consider a mystery with a twist. A new series was born.

Maybe you’re in a similar situation.

After years of getting up early, staring at a blank screen and forcing your fingers to press key after key (inner critic be damned), you’ve finally finished that novel. Now what? You’d love a contract with a Big Five publisher, but you need an agent and you’ve heard that finding an agent can take a long time (and a lot of rejection). You’re not sure you have the patience or fortitude to wait. But you’re not completely on board with self-publishing, either. Maybe your book is a genre-bending romantic thriller/historical/zombie apocalypse novel. You (or your agent) may have trouble convincing the acquisitions editor at Big House A that your book will sell in high volumes. But there just may be a reputable small press out there willing to take a chance on something that can’t be neatly categorized on one bookstore shelf.

A few days ago, I received an email from an aspiring author who wanted help understanding how best to get her book into the marketplace. More specifically, she wanted to know whether she should aim for a Big Five publisher or self-publish her novel. This is a common question, one I have been asked repeatedly at conferences and by students at writers’ workshops. My answer is always the same: only you can decide what’s right for you, but make sure you’re considering all of your options. But there is a third possibility, one that many authors—including the writer mentioned above—ignore: the small presses.

Small presses have gained in popularity, and for good reason. While larger houses may be looking for The Next Big Thing, or may prefer to play it safe by buying what they know they can sell, small presses are often willing to take risks. I polled other authors who have chosen small presses, many of whom started out with one of the Big Five, and their responses were pretty uniform and convincing. They cited everything from the warm, supportive atmosphere, to the shorter wait time until launch (making it easier to build an audience when you’re writing a series) to the accessibility of staff and ease of decision-making as reasons for staying with a small press. Plus, many authors with big publishers complain that they have a short window in which to sell following a book’s release or they may not get that next contract. Small presses may be willing to put the time and resources into an author—even without an immediate pay-off.

Of course, there are potential downsides to going small, such as a smaller (or non-existent) advance, less bookstore placement, and a skinnier probability of selling foreign and other rights. Not all small presses are created equal. I’ve been extremely happy with my publisher, but I had the facts up front. My agent asked questions (many questions) and we knew from the outset that this publisher was committed to quality product and long-term growth. I know authors who have been burned by small presses that were under-capitalized or not committed and the publishers ultimately closed their doors, leaving novels homeless. So if you’re considering a small press (or any publisher), do your homework. You, too, should ask many questions, including:

  • Do they accept un-agented submissions? Often small publishers will, but it’s important to know before you submit. Remember: just because you’re not required to have an agent doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hire one. There are many good reasons to have an agent (a subject for another blog), and if you are going without one, you may want to hire an attorney to negotiate that publishing contract.
  • In what formats will your book be published (e.g., print, e-books, hardcover, etc.)? Does the publisher use print-on-demand services? If not, what is the print run expected to be? How are books distributed to bookstores, if at all?
  • What is the royalty structure?
  • What does the publishing process look like? You’ll want to understand how books get to print (or electronic copy). What’s the time frame until launch? What are the editorial procedures? One author I spoke with had almost no editorial support from her small press and the result was a manuscript riddled with typos. Ask before you sign.
  • What type of marketing support can you expect? Authors often lament the amount of time they must spend marketing their books, and this is not limited to self-published authors. Even authors with the Big Five have to build their brand. That said, the amount of time and resources small presses can devote to marketing varies, and it’s important to understand their marketing plan for your novel from Day One.
  • What are their expectations of you? Do they want a series? Do they prefer that you go on a book tour? How will they help you develop your career as an author, and what do they anticipate that career will look like? Can you pitch to a Big Five or other publisher if you write something else, especially something that doesn’t fit their list? The more you understand expectations at the beginning of the publishing relationship, the better that relationship will be in the long-run.
  • What are their plans for long-term growth? Do they expect to remain a small boutique publisher or are they looking to branch out, in size or genre? While there may not be a right answer, you will want a publisher with a track record and solid business model. After all, you’re entrusting them with your creative baby.

In the end, you really do need to make the decision that’s right for you. But whether you opt to pursue the traditional path (with the Big Five or a smaller independent or university press) or you prefer to self-publish, do so in a thoughtful manner. Diligence pays off.

WENDY TYSON has written four published crime novels, including Dying Brand, the third novel in the Allison Campbell Mystery Series, which was released on May 5, 2015.  The first in the Campbell series, Killer Image, was named a best mystery for book clubs in 2014 by  Wendy is also the author of the Greenhouse Mystery Series, the first of which, A Muddied Murder, is due to be released in spring 2016.  Wendy is a member of Sisters in Crime and International Thriller Writers, and she is a contributing editor for The Big Thrill, the International Thriller Writers’ online magazine.

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