Publishing With A Small Press: Yes, No, Maybe?

This post was written by Katherine Sears, co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer of Booktrope Publishing. Alas, Booktrope went out of business due to insufficient revenue in May, 2016.

thumbs up2 - low resI have said it before, and I will say it again – it is a great time to be an author. Today there are more choices on how to publish your book than ever before. Unfortunately, this also constitutes the bad news, because now you must determine which of those choices represents the best fit for you, personally. There is no one-size-fits-all. Obviously this would be a very long post if I dove into all of the options, so I will focus on small/mid-size presses and where they fit in the spectrum when contrasted with self-publishing.

First, what constitutes a small to mid-size press? There is some disagreement about this point. A small press is typically thought of as one that publishes less than 25 titles per year. On the other hand, the official book industry studies will tell you that any press earning less than $50 million per year is considered “small.” That seems like a huge variance to me – hence my small to mid-size distinction. As another key trait, many small publishers will focus on one genre or a niche market.

What should you expect – and how can you be sure the publisher you’re considering is a true publisher and not a curated independent publishing option?

  • There must be a contract defining your relationship, royalties etc.
  • Not all submitted books are accepted, so you will be in the company of titles with similar quality, genre and standards as your own.
  • They may offer an advance. However, advances have been diminishing in frequency and amount at a steady rate for the last few years even at the larger publishers, so many small houses will no longer offer them at all.
  • Editing, proof reading, professional layout and cover design for your book will be provided.
  • Conversion and upload of your book into all of the major formats (ebook and sometimes print) will be part of the process. There are an increasing number of ebook-only shops, so do consider this in your selection if print is important to you.
  • Usually – the ability to sell books into bookstores (although no guaranteed distribution) and libraries.
  • Always – books listed with all major online retailers.
  • Assistance with marketing efforts: this will vary dramatically from house to house. All publishers should offer marketing expertise and advice – but again, some are better at this than others – and especially with a smaller publisher, this will vary widely.
  • Many small publishers do not require an agent in order to submit. This not only bypasses a challenging step, it means more income for an author.
  • A small press is more likely to have a small staff, and owners will almost always be directly involved in the books and authors. This means you will be important to them in a way you probably would not be at a larger publisher.
  • You do not work for the publisher, nor do they work for you. This is a partnership by which you both hope to make money.

Upfront Fees – always a bad sign?
By contrast if a publisher asks for fees up front, requires minimum book orders, and/or accepts all submissions, this is a self-publishing operation and bears careful scrutiny to ensure you get your money’s worth. A quick word on this: I know many of you have heard that none of the “pay to play” publishers are worth looking at. This is not universally true. Some are terrible, some are wonderful. Some will save you money and headache; others will cause high blood pressure and diminished bank accounts. They are not all created equal.

If you receive an offer from a publisher that outlines up-front fees, look closely. What other books are they putting out? How do their authors feel about them? What marketing support will you get? Like anything else we are discussing, your mileage can and will vary. Be careful and do your due-diligence, but don’t dismiss them out of hand.

Why choose a small press?
Why would you choose to go with a small press – or really any publisher – instead of self-publishing and keeping the entire royalty for yourself? I think the most important thing to remember is this: do not base your decision on greed. On the surface, the higher take-home percentage makes this option seem like a no-brainer, and for some people it is absolutely the best idea. But remember, 70% of zero is zero, so be sure you are ready for the work required if you go this route.

Self-publishing your book means that you take on all of the roles that are required to successfully publish a book. You wear all the hats. You get a larger royalty, because you are earning that royalty in the additional work you are taking on. You are not getting the additional royalty percentage because you wrote the book; you are getting it because you have now also published your book. This is a very important distinction.

Here are some areas that may bear further thought:

  • Do you want absolute creative control? If so, self-publishing is your only option, as no publisher will grant you that.
  • If you answered yes to the above, are you sure you have the skills and expertise to make decisions on all facets of your book – from cover design to back cover blurbs?
  • Do you have the funds to pay for a professional editor, proofreader and cover designer? These are not optional steps, they are absolutely critical for your success.
  • Do you have the time, inclination, and technology to learn and use all the required systems (Nook, Kindle, Createspace, Smashwords, iTunes, etc.)? For example,  iTunes requires you have an Apple system in order to upload your ebook to the iTunes store.
  • Are you ready, willing and able to understand the marketing of your work? Can you do it on your own with no direct support? Are you willing to absorb any and all expenses in this regard?
  • Is being in bookstores or libraries important to you? Most will not consider self-published work.

Platform building is up to you, regardless of your choice
I must mention something critical to all authors, no matter your path. You are the most important component of all book marketing efforts. Even if your publisher has a marketing department, they will not undertake certain processes for you, such as creating a website, blogging, tweeting, sharing, pinning, and posting on your behalf. You must be the primary external voice.

A typical marketing effort from a large traditional publisher is more likely to include ad placements in trade publications such as Publishers Weekly, advance review copies sent to press, or library catalog placements. They may create and distribute a press release announcing the book launch. They may pay for table placement in certain bookstores (you didn’t think those books on tables at Barnes and Noble were placed for free, did you?) But whether they are big, small or somewhere in between, they cannot *be* you, the author.

Booktrope: A publisher with a unique business model
Of course, some of us in the book industry are trying to bend the paradigm, and we don’t actually conform to the usual standards. At my company, Booktrope, we have created a process we call Team Publishing. We use our Teamtrope platform to form creative teams in order to publish books. Each member of the team receives a direct percentage of the book profit as compensation.

Booktrope does not pay advances, but we also don’t charge up-front fees nor do we accept all submissions. By my own definition, this makes us a small to mid-size publisher. Authors in our system receive higher royalties than in the traditional publishing space, but not as high as in self-publishing. In other words, in our world, the author has the support of this team versus the support of a group of employees , but is not going it alone either.

If we boil it all down, I think the decision to self-publish or work with any publisher comes down to this: do you want or need direct support in your efforts, or are you more of a go-it-alone, independent type of author? No wrong answer, just the one that is right for you.

Katherine Sears on Molly Greene's blogKatherine is the Chief Marketing Officer and co-founder of Booktrope Publishing. Prior to Booktrope, her background was primarily in technology and online marketing in both Seattle and California, working at companies such as NetApp, ADIC and Siemens. Her life-long love of books, and a desire to bring a new type of focus to marketing them, had her join forces with some other bookish folks to create Booktrope.

She is the co-author of How to Market a Book and has served on the University of Washington’s Digital Publishing Certificate Program advisory board. She has presented at many bookish events such as the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference and the Northwest Bookfest. She has also worked as an actress and a corporate trainer. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in theater from the University of Southern California. Katherine currently lives in Fall City, WA with her canine and human family members. Visit Booktrope’s website and Facebook page, and connect with Katherine on Twitter and LinkedIn

Readers, if you have questions for Katherine leave a comment and ask away!

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21 Responses to Publishing With A Small Press: Yes, No, Maybe?

  1. Tracie McBride April 8, 2013 at 6:36 pm #

    I love the concept behind Booktrope; everyone involved in the process has a vested interest in seeing the books sell well.

    One comment about the ebook only publishers – authors can always put a dollar each way, sell the ebook rights to a publisher, retain the print rights and self-publish the paperback using POD printers. Or vice versa, if they have enough negotiating power with the publisher.

    • Katherine Sears April 9, 2013 at 11:16 am #

      Hi Tracie,

      Thanks for your comment. I can tell you from direct experience in this past year that most publishers are no longer interested in print only rights. They seem to be catching on to the power of the ebook!


  2. Alex April 8, 2013 at 7:33 pm #

    This is all great advice. I needed it broken down like this, so, thank you. When is the right time to send a round of queries out? Is it wrong to send to more than one publisher before you get an acceptance or rejection?

    Thanks again. I am sharing this.

    • Katherine Sears April 9, 2013 at 11:20 am #

      Hi Alex,

      Honestly, this is a tough one to answer. I can tell you that the traditional publishers do not even accept direct queries, and will only work with you through an agent. When querying agents, it is understood you are querying broadly.

      Vis a vis our model, we always assume someone is querying multiple sources.

      Last piece of advice, do not send in anything less than your best work. Do not query, until you are certain your work is the best you can produce.


  3. Carrie Ann Lahain April 9, 2013 at 11:04 am #

    This post was really helpful. I have published short fiction in the traditional manner–via anthologies, small magazines and university journals. Haven’t had the same luck with my novels. I am in the midst of querying agents on my latest effort as I look into the self-publishing option. What’s put me off so far is that many of the self-published e-books I’ve purchased or been given free (as promotional copies) are riddled with typos and grammatical/structural issues. The advice given in this post–that self-publishing authors make use of professional editors, proofreaders and cover art designers–will go a long way towards legitimizing this up-and-coming cottage industry.

    • Katherine Sears April 9, 2013 at 8:24 pm #

      Hi Carrie,

      I think part of the challenge is that we are predisposed to remember the negative to the positive (as a species that is). That means that any negative experience with something will color our entire view of a given category – in some cases irrespective of the individual product (or title in this case). The end result is that the consumer has to see the suspect category exceeding their expectations in order to be viewed as comparable. A high bar to be sure.

      Thanks for reading!

  4. Pamela Beason April 9, 2013 at 11:12 am #

    As a hybrid author (both traditionally and indie published), I talk to writers a lot about the various routes of publishing and their individual benefits and drawbacks. A small publisher may be a good fit for many authors.

    The most important questions I’ve learned (the hard way) to ask of any publisher: 1) What are your plans to advertise my book? 2) Who pays for advertising? 3) Is there a minimum number of books the publisher must sell in a specific time period before which the rights will revert back to me?

    These are all crucial questions. You do not want to sign over your work to any publisher who does not make an effort to market your books, and you certainly do not want to give a publisher your books forever without a specific sales threshold. Authors need to find good partners in agents and publishers. We’re all in this business together!

    • Katherine Sears April 9, 2013 at 11:32 am #

      Hi Pamela – Thanks for your thoughts!

      I will say one thing, I don’t think advertising sells books (if you mean it in the classic sense of the word). Our “ad blindness” is increasing due to our overwhelming exposure to them online. My personal thought here is that ads do a good job of helping build a brand, but very little for direct sales.

      That said, I totally agree that authors need to be clear on who will do what, and for how much.

  5. Anne R. Allen April 9, 2013 at 11:24 am #

    Great post. More authors need to get this information. A small press can be the best option for many authors.

    I’m with a small boutique publisher and it’s working great for me. I have weekly communications with the company and we plan marketing strategies together. It’s a great option for authors who don’t have a huge amount of marketing experience and don’t have the upfront money for top-notch editing, cover design, and proofreading, but aren’t comfortable with the master/slave mentality of the Big 5.

    Innovative digital publishers like Booktrope are the future, in my opinion. The fact the boutique publisher Entangled was approached by MacMillan shows how important they are becoming.

    One caveat–always contact a few of the authors of a small press and ask them if they’re happy and getting paid. That’s the best way to tell the health of a company.

    • Katherine Sears April 9, 2013 at 8:16 pm #

      Hi Anne,

      What great advice. I am always happiest when our authors refer people in to us. In fact, for the past two years, that was the only way to submit to us and we were kept at capacity. We don’t lock authors in via a first right of refusal clause, in part because we should earn an author wishing to work with us again (the other reason not to do that, is that it is a silly clause, which any author could get around simply by writing a horrible book LOL).

      Just one point of clarification, at present all of our titles are available in digital and print versions. I know that Entangled in particular has some imprints that are digital only.

  6. Molly Greene April 9, 2013 at 11:40 am #

    Thank you so much for sharing this informative post with us, Katherine. And thanks to the smart-and-experienced readers & writers who have commented here and shared their hard-won wisdom. I’ve learned a lot from all of you, and I feel like you are all my partners and mentors on this wild ride!

  7. David April 9, 2013 at 12:03 pm #

    Thanks for this. I’ve taken a workshop with a hybrid publisher – similar idea but she did all of it. She then shifted to various pay packages for the up front work. I like this idea of distributed skills better.

    You didn’t mention genre but I see you’re open to all genres. But I also see you’re not currently taking submissions. Guess you got saturated by the February opening. 😉

    • Katherine Sears April 9, 2013 at 12:37 pm #

      Hi David,

      We are having some odd website issues right now, so the submissions page is an old version, apologies for the confusion. You can submit to us (via our slightly unique approach to submissions) here:

      As we have room in a genre we go through and ask for a full submission.


  8. Debby Gies April 9, 2013 at 4:52 pm #

    Thanks for sharing this awesome info. It’s great to have people like Molly who can always give us newbie writers new info to help us make better choices when publishing decisions arise. I am almost half way through my memoir and am already having panic attacks as to how I am going to get it out into the world with limited funds and not quite technically inclined. I was also wondering what percentage this publishing firm does take and how does it work if I wish to have paperbacks printed?

    • Katherine Sears April 9, 2013 at 8:11 pm #

      Hi Debby,

      For Booktrope, you can find information on our website, we even list out specific financials here: This breakdown also shows you the paperback situation, which is also done via a percentage. We don’t do print runs (we use print on demand or digital short run) so it is not a complicated process in our case.


  9. Andrew Toynbee April 10, 2013 at 1:25 pm #

    Your submissions page states interest in unpublished manuscripts. Does this preclude my self-published novel which is currently available on Amazon, Smashwords and Kobo, or does it only refer to books which have been processed by another publisher?

    • Katherine Sears April 10, 2013 at 2:05 pm #

      Hi Andrew,

      We are happy to consider work that has previously been self-published. Several of our authors have started out that way, and then come our way.

      Thanks for checking!

  10. Tracey Preston Cook April 10, 2013 at 4:11 pm #

    Do you publish Children’s Picture Books?

    • Molly Greene April 12, 2013 at 1:10 pm #

      I’m not sure if Booktrope publishes children’s books Tracey, did you check their website?

  11. Lisa Orchard October 5, 2013 at 8:13 am #

    I’m curious to learn more about the Booktrope team concept. Is there a way I can chat with someone about that?

    • Molly Greene October 5, 2013 at 2:50 pm #

      Sure Lisa, check out their website and learn more there!