Self Publishing v. Small Press v. Big Box Publishers

Some time ago I did a guest post on my thoughts about which of the many publishing routes are the best for which authors. Recently a friend on Facebook, Sandi Fanning, asked me the exact same question. I looked up the link, only to find it’s dead. So I’m posting it here for Sandi and anybody else interested in the changing face of the publishing world today. It started with a question…

What are your thoughts on indie/self-publishing vs small press vs big box publishing?

The face of publishing has changed dramatically in recent years, and it will continue to evolve in the future. In some ways that is good. Authors have a lot more choices for how they want to get their books out there. In other ways, it is bad. First, I’ll run over the pros and cons of each publishing method. Then I’ll give you my opinion on each one.

Both small press and self-publishing are called indie (independent) publishing. Really, anything published outside of the mainstream big presses is considered indie. When I discovered indie books, I found that they were better. The kind of books I like to read are more likely to be published independently than by a big press.

Self-publishing is easy now. Once an author has a manuscript, it can be entered into createspace (Amazon) and turned into an e-book and/or paperback that anybody with internet access can find and buy. The advantage to self-publishing is that the author keeps all the profits (minus what Amazon takes, of course) without sharing any royalties with an agent or publisher. I know of some self-published authors that have become best-sellers. Another good thing about it is the author has complete creative control over every stage of the process. That can be a negative aspect for some people. It means finding and paying your own editors and proofreaders. It means hiring a cover artist (or more often, sadly, having low quality cover art) and doing all the marketing and promotion work solo (unless you can afford a publicist). The other down side to self-publishing is that it comes with a prejudicial assumption by many readers that the work was not good enough for a publisher to print. They assume the author had to do it because nobody else wanted it.

Small presses have really come into their own in the wake of the publishing revolution. Amazon’s powerful distribution makes it possible for smaller companies to get their books out without what used to be the biggest barrier. The good thing about this is that it brought production costs down to the point where anybody with a passion can start a publishing company and help authors create great books. Another advantage is that small presses are more likely to publish non-traditional and cross-genre fiction, which big presses avoided in the past. The disadvantages to small press publishing include loss of some of the royalties for authors and loss of control over their work. Small presses still don’t garner the reputation of the big box publishers, and they usually don’t have the investment capital to pay large advances or do heavy advertising.

Big box presses have lost their monopoly on the publishing world, but they are still considered the top of the food chain by most readers and authors. Although their power base has slipped, they’ve adapted to maintain their status. Publishing through a big box press is still the most likely way to get a best-seller. They pay larger advances, and have the money and contacts to advertise titles up front and give their authors a better reach from the beginning. The down side is that they run like a machine. If a book doesn’t realize a fast, strong return on their investment, it falls into obscurity. Once the initial print run is over, if there isn’t a significant demand, the book goes out of print and is no longer available.

Although all the publishing methods work well for the right people, I think the best choice for most new authors now is small presses. There are so many low quality self-published books coming out, with authors giving them away free or selling them for less than a dollar, that getting any kind of serious following in that realm is very difficult. I, personally, don’t like to deal with all the production and marketing on my own. I think most aspiring authors don’t realize exactly how hard it is to rise out of the tide of self-published books washing over everybody in the publishing business.

Landing a coveted contract with a big box press is great. If you get one, take it! However, many of the big publishers are starting to consider themselves the major league, making small presses (and rarely self-publishing) the minor leagues. They only rarely take first time authors on, and then usually only one who has contacts or is otherwise exceptional. Like agents, they are looking for authors who have already distinguished themselves before they invest in their work.

I’ve talked to people who feel like they were ground up and lost in the giant publishing machines. Their book hit the shelves, didn’t get traction in four months, and was pulled by the storeowners for credit with the publisher. There’s no reprinting. End of story. A small press through Amazon doesn’t print the books until they are ordered (although admittedly at a higher price per book). So they can leave the books available indefinitely with no cost after the initial production. This gives authors time to build a fan-base over years.

Although I’m generally in favor of small presses for new authors these days, I will say they are not all equal. Some of them are just amateurs dabbling in publishing with no real idea how to make a book successful. Those publishers tend to burn out and quit after a short time, leaving the authors floundering.

No matter what you choose, do your homework. It’s worth the effort after putting so much work into writing a book in the first place. Be patient. Publishing is a slow business. Skipping ahead to self-publish because you don’t get the huge contract you want right away might be a mistake. If you aren’t good at editing, production, cover art, marketing, and advertising, you might be better off getting somebody else to help with those things so you can spend that time writing more books instead. Even with a publisher, most authors don’t realize it’s more work AFTER you sign a contract than it was writing the book before they accepted it. Good luck!


6 thoughts on “Self Publishing v. Small Press v. Big Box Publishers

  1. As a self-published author, I wish I had encountered your site before I pushed the big button that said “publish.” My work was edited, which at least I managed to do right. However, the cover was (and still is) miserable. I’ve finally backtracked to a small publisher who has dangled the carrot of helping with the areas I need help with. Though the avenues they use to distribute books are the same as mine, at least they put some marketing push behind it.

    Have you heard anything new about the big publishers, and how they are handling marketing? Everything I am seeing right now is old news. I want to discount it, but am almost afraid the trend has gotten worse, not better – authors are having to do more and more of the marketing, even with the big names. Any information on this?

    • Thanks! It is true that authors are expected to do more and more as the game changes. I even know one author who was signed only after they saw real evidence of how hard he worked to promote his own books. Even though the publishing industry is in a tail spin, it continues to be a business where things are measured in years. The only new developments recently are new distributors using Amazon’s model, trying to give them some competition. But each place a book is listed costs time and money, so unless they get some real traction, I don’t know if they will become major players.

      • I think the one that’s going to hold out the best as direct competition will be Smashwords. Between the ability to distribute across every platform, and a negotiated ability for larger authors to consolidate their Amazon and Smashwords reports, I think they have a good shot.

        It definitely will be interesting to see where this show goes, however.

          • ::nods:: That was one of the things that drew me to them.

            What kept me from looking much further was that they have their own storefront, which provides a tad bit more visibility, unlike just sending it out in the ethersphere and hoping someone finds it. (Though, it is just as easy to be buried in obscurity on Smashwords as on Amazon.) But, at least you have a chance.

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this topic, it’s very insightful.
    I’ve enjoyed many of your posts here and look forward to reading your next! 🙂
    Feel free to check out my writing about publishing: (shameless self-promoting)

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