[This is Part 4 in a 4-part series, based on an article of mine in The New Writer’s Handbook 2007.]
Set realistic goals.
Know why you want to be published. To see your work in print? To have control over your work? To become rich or famous? To make a living as a writer? To break in? To make a difference in the world?
Realistic goals will help you decide if you want to work with a particular small press. Make this part of your discussions with a potential publisher.
Be prepared to be a partner in marketing your title.
Can you deliver specific ideas or contacts with specialty magazines, newsletters, conferences, bookstores, interest groups, professional associations? Can you contact some yourself with review copies or PR info? Get on a local radio show or arrange signings near your home or in places you travel to on vacation?
Be prepared to help out with grassroots marketing, from joining key associations to developing a blogsite to mentioning your book to that person sitting next to you at the dentist office.
Plan subsequent work in your subject area.
Perhaps your niche is writing about Japanese zen gardens or Western novels. Your first book may gather good reviews and decent sales. If so, many readers would love to see a another book by you. So would your publisher. (Don’t try to sell multiple works off the bat – a publisher won’t be ready for that, and you might later want to move elsewhere; just make this part of your personal planning and general discussions with a publisher.)
Do your research to find the right publisher.
Finding the right match is like getting married. Don’t jump at the first opportunity if it doesn’t seem ideal. And don’t court a publisher as a one-sided effort; find one that wants you as much as you want them.
THE SEARCH PROCESS
Visit your library.
One major resource is Literary Market Place — the leading directory of the book trade. (It requires a press to publish at least 3 books a year to be listed.) The bible for smaller and edgier presses is the International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses (Dustbooks), also available in your library.
Look for publishers in your immediate locale, state, or region.
Do a web search for book publishers in your area. A local publisher might be more open to your proposal. Why? Because they have existing contacts with regional stores, newspapers, and reviewers that will have some interest in you as a local author.
Check the Independent Book Publishers Association.
Formerly known as Publishers Marketing Association, they have a membership of more than 4,000 small publishers, from microscopic to heavy hitters like Sourcebooks. Look for publishers with awards, good websites, great cover designs, clear niches, etc. Publishers join to get access to IBPA’s marketing programs to libraries and stores, which is good for an author.
Check the Council of Literary Magazines and Publishers.
Because there are dues involved, and member services, and some screening or review process, membership in a professional trade organization tends to be a good starting point in any search.
Join organizations for writers.
Associations like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) or the Romance Writers of America (RWA) – or any of the other national organizations for specific types of writers – maintain detailed lists of publishers. Membership gives you access to insider info and interviews, workshops, and valuable networking.
Check the web; check your bookstore.
For nonfiction publishers, search the Web for listings using your subject area, plus key words like press, publishers, or book(s).
Another good method is to scan your library or bookstore shelves for the names of publishers who have published books similar to yours. Bookstores carry more new titles, and so will be more useful than library collections if you want to see what’s being published now.
Examine similar books closely. Do they include illustrations? Charts? Extensive appendices of resources? Make sure your own book proposal includes those.
Finally, many publishers have websites with writer guidelines, or you can check annual guides like Writer’s Market that list publishers by category, with summaries of what they publish and how to contact them.
HOW TO CHECK OUT A SMALL PRESS
Study their most recent catalog (print or online).
How do they describe their books? (This will give outstanding hints on what the publishers like and what they think the buyers will like!) How much catalog space do they devote to new books and also to backlist (which your book will become soon after it is released).
A very, very important question: Is this a group of authors and titles you want to be associated with? Will it reflect well on you and boost your prestige? You will be judged by the company you keep.
Do they have a good distributor?
A good distributor has the punch to get a book out to more stores if demand warrants it. Influential ones include National Book Network (Lanham, MD) and Independent Publishers Group (Chicago). There are others that handle varied other distribution needs.
And good distributors are picky; they don’t want to work with fly-by-night presses or ones that publish occasionally or unevenly.
Look for a steady presence in your niche market.
This can be ads in specialty publication or regular booths at important conferences. If you have written a science-fiction novel, for instance, check the magazines – Locus, Asimov’s, etc. – to see who is actively advertising. Would you rather be with a publisher that runs lots of large ads? . . . occasional small ads? . . . a classified listing in the back? . . . or no ads at all? The answer should be clear.
Once you enter discussions with a small press, ask for details on the most similar project.
How many copies did they sell? Over what time period? How did they do that? What kind of mailings, ads, and special activities did they undertake to achieve success? You want to ferret out more than just: “We’ve sold 20,000 copies of our best title.” As the warning phrase says, “Your actual experience might vary.”
Seek some details. Although a press may not share every scrap of info, they should be able to give some sense of what has worked best and why.
Look for genuine chemistry and enthusiasm.
Yes, it’s hard to quantify, but you’ll know it when you see it: a publisher that is truly excited by your work and really wants to do their best to make it a success.
What financial commitment is the publisher making?
What exactly will they commit to a project? A decent advance? Promises to place ads in key publications? Lots of postcards or bookmarks you can mail and hand out? This may not appear in your contract, but you can discuss it and get it planned, written down, and agreed to in advance. The more “skin in the game” a publisher has, the greater their vested interest in making your book succeed.
KEEP YOUR FUTURE OPTIONS OPEN
Like all relationships, while hoping for the best, it’s prudent to be prepared for the worst. You may wish to limit the rights, or the time frame of the contract, or not include subsequent works. If things go well, you can extend the relationship.
As the project moves forward, trust but verify. Keep in touch. Don’t be a pest, but don’t sit on your hands. Ask what’s happening with production, release plans, promotions, and once launched, with sales. Best of all, ask how you can help!
For any author wanting to reach a niche audience, or wanting to break into print to get some good reviews and a sales history, then to seek to move up the ladder, small presses can be a great stepping stone.
Or a match made in heaven.
[Disclaimer: yes, I currently run a small indie press, Crickhollow Books. For more on that effort, visit the Crickhollow Books website.]