The Pros & Cons of Working with a Small Publisher

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As a new author or even if you have one or two books under your self-publishing belt, you may be thinking of entering the traditional publishing arena.

I’ve been there and have had my share of rejections from the larger well-known publishing houses.

But, I didn’t let that discourage me ... well, not entirely.

While disappointed, I dug in my heels and attended writers conferences and joined writing groups. In one of the online conferences I attended, small publishers were on hand to take pitches from authors. Naturally, I took advantage of this opportunity. I gave my pitch and the owner of the publishing house asked to see my manuscript.

Excitement, excitement.

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Karen Cioffi is the founder and manager of Writers on the Move, a marketing group of writers and authors. As a professional writer and author, she has years of experience ghostwriting (80+ books), rewriting (35+ books), and editing children's books. She has published two children's books: WALKING THROUGH WALLS and DAY'S END LULLABY.

Fortunately, I did my homework and had the manuscript professionally edited before the conference. It was ready to go. So, off it went.

The acquisitions editor liked the story and I got a contract. There were lots of revisions and I had to rewrite the ending. I also had to add an author page, reading comprehension pages, and information about the time period and other elements of the story as it is set in 16th century China. We wanted to make the book classroom friendly.

I was fortunate that an amazing illustrator did the cover for my book. This is not always the case with small publishers. If fact it’s not the norm.

This was my first experience with a small, home-grown traditional publisher. Based on this experience and subsequent experiences, I have a list of pros and cons for other authors going this route.

Pros of Small Publishers

1. Small publishers sometimes find pearls that the large publishers let slip through the cracks. The acquisitions editor is also more likely to read past a first page that may be less than ‘grabbing’ to see if there is value beyond that page.

This can create the opportunity new authors need.

2. Small publishers are more likely to respond to your query much quicker than large publishers.

While my experience was a while ago, it took under two weeks to find out whether the publisher was willing to give me a contract. This is certainly not the case with the major publishers and their imprints. It usually takes months to learn whether their response is yea or nay.

Hopefully, you’re submitting to other publishers while you’re waiting. Just be sure to say something in your query letter to let the editors know you’re submitting to other houses.

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3. Small publishers appreciate new authors and are willing to take a chance whereas the large companies want the tried and true. Book publishing is a business after all. Everyone wants to make money.

This is especially true with children’s books, specifically picture books. Illustrations are expensive. Larger houses want to make sure their investment will at least be recouped. There’s no way to guarantee this with an unknown author. Often, illustrators provide their services for free to very small publishers. It may be they’re just breaking in or they’re students. In either case, they’re looking for experience and exposure.

4. You’re usually a large part of the process. The publisher keeps you in the loop and you have some say in what goes on with your book. This is far less likely to happen with large publishers.

I’m very grateful to the small publisher that took a chance on my story. These home-grown companies use their own finances to publish books. If the books don’t sell, they lose money.

Cons of Small Publishers

Unfortunately, in some cases the cons can outweigh the pros.

1. The staff of small home-grown traditional publishers is usually less than experienced. These publishing companies may use their signed authors to act as editors and acquisitions editors.

Along with having less experience, editors who aren’t being paid don’t much incentive to work in a timely fashion. This can slow the publication process.

2. Often, most of the illustrators work for free. This usually means they have less experience and again, they don’t have the same incentive as paid illustrators to complete projects in a timely fashion.

When it comes to book covers, having a good illustrator is a big deal. A poorly designed and illustrated book cover can hamper book sales.

The same holds true for the interior illustrations of picture books. These illustrations are an important part of the story. They should be well-done, engaging, and convey what the text leaves out.

Also, illustrators who work for free usually have the option to refuse a project. This is what happened to me with a picture book series for which the publisher gave me a contract.

It may sound extraordinary, but I’ve been waiting 3+ years for the first three books in the series to be entered into the publishing process. It seems that none of the illustrators on board at this publishing company want to work on them. It could be none of them want to commit to a series if no pay is involved.

If you’re writing picture books, this to me is a HUGE drawback to using a small publisher.

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3. You may be asked to participate in the proofing phase for your own manuscript. While you should be responsible for editing and proofing your manuscript before submitting to publishers, you shouldn’t proof the manuscript for publication. You’re much too close to the text to see it objectively enough to proof it.

According to psychologist Tom Stafford, authors have difficulty proofing their own work because we expect to see what we think should be there. This is why we don't see what's actually on the screen or paper. (Nick Stockton, “Why It's So Hard to Catch Your Own Typos,” August 12, 2014:

4. While being traditionally published is a feather in your cap, the smaller publishers don’t hold the same kind of prestige that the bigger publishers do.

This is becoming more of a problem because lots of self-publishers are now creating publishing company names that they list as the publisher of their books. When you self-publish, as long as you have your own ISBN, you can list yourself as the publisher of the book or use another name as publisher.

I did this myself with a nonfiction book I recently self-published. Rather than using my name, I used Writers on the Move Publishing. Writers on the Move is the title and domain name of one of my websites. It’s not that I’m trying to fool anyone, it just that it sounds more professional than using my personal name. And, I’m sure this is the reason other self-publishers are doing the same.

The problem though is that it’s clouding the distinction between small unknown traditional publishers and self-publishers.

5. You can usually expect very little to no marketing help from small home-grown publishers. They just don’t have the budget to market their books.

When entering into a contract with a small publisher, you should therefore understand that you’ll need to learn all you can about book marketing and building an online author platform. Books don’t sell themselves, so you’ll need to roll up your sleeves and get to work.

6. The publishing company may only be as strong or healthy as the owner. When a small, home-grown business is dependent on one individual, you never know what can happen. The stability of the company relies on that one person.

If that person isn’t able to run the company any longer, the company can easily fold. At that point, what happens to the books published through that company? While you will most likely get the rights to your book back, it’s then on to the process of resubmitting. Be aware though that until the book is republished, it won’t be available for sale and you may very well lose all your reviews on Amazon.

And, if the publisher’s illustrator designed the cover, who owns the design?

Good questions to ask before signing a contract. I wish I had.

Choose Carefully

If you’re looking at the smaller publishers, look carefully. Ask questions. Know what you’re getting into.

They can be a lifeline for a struggling author, but that line may come with some drawbacks. So be aware of the pros and cons before making a decision.

If you’re an agent looking to update your information or an author interested in contributing to the GLA blog or the next edition of the book, contact Writer’s Digest Books Managing Editor Cris Freese at

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