How to Smartly Evaluate a Small Publisher

“For any author interested in a traditional publishing deal, one of the first questions you’ll face is: Do you need an agent?

If you want to be published by one of the ‘Big Five’ publishers—the New York houses that represent the large majority of what you’ll find in your average bookstore—then you do need an agent.

But if you can’t find an agent to represent you, or if your book isn’t appropriate for the Big Five, you’ll quickly run into the following quandary: How do you evaluate the merits or ability of a small publisher without an agent or other publishing professional to guide you? For someone without industry experience, it can be hard to tell the difference between a quality operation and one that’s hardly better (or no better) than self-publishing.

Years ago, when I worked for Writer’s Digest and Writer’s Market, it was safe to say, ‘Stick to the publishers you find in Writer’s Market‘—since it would only include publishers that offer traditional contracts (the kind that pay writers).

However, as the publishing industry has changed in the digital age, small press activity has proliferated, especially small presses with a variety of publishing models, both traditional and pay-to-play. That means you’re more likely to find listings in Writer’s Market with hybrid approaches—meaning they charge writers for their services. So this again raises the problem of how writers can smartly evaluate their choices.

Here are the criteria I use to evaluate small presses. Note this applies to trade or mainstream presses, and academic/scholarly presses may have different expectations or standards.

Does the small press offer paid publishing or ‘hybrid’ services?

Some small presses, in addition to offering traditional book deals that work on a traditional model, also have a separate plan where authors have to pay. So, if you get rejected, you may be offered a “pay to play” deal.

Unfortunately, this likely means their overall business model relies on charging writers for services rather than selling books to readers. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this if they’re transparent about their operations—and not trying to deceive you about the type of deal you’re getting—realize that such publishers may have less motivation to acquire books that have a good sales outlook; they may accept nearly any book where the author is willing to subsidize its publication. Are you OK with an assisted self-publishing or hybrid publishing arrangement? Or do you prefer a publisher that is very selective because it must focus on projects that have a good chance at survival in the marketplace?”

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