[This is Part 2 in a 4-part series, based on an article of mine in The New Writer's Handbook 2007.]
Let’s look at things that good-quality, small independent presses do well for writers.
They often take risks on new or unconventional writers. They look for work with literary or social value, or useful to a specialized niche, rather than demanding a more common denominator (such as being similar to other work already published, or appealing to a very large demographic, or having the elusive compelling author platform already in place). They may read relevant submissions more carefully. And they might consider offbeat submissions, something larger presses seldom do. Sometimes, a small press will stretch itself to reach into a new area if they get a great manuscript, realizing an author might bring new audiences into their fold.
Grassroots Niche Marketing
The better ones do creative publicity, using low-cost, grassroots guerrilla tactics. They seek reviews with small but respected publications, send catalogs to regional or specialty shops, attend professional conferences. They get books adopted for university courses. They try harder and longer to reach specialized audiences, whether organic gardeners or feminist mystery fans or Hispanic-speaking families of the American Southwest or Christian homeschoolers, and often develop long-term relationships with those communities. Their familiarity with a niche audience can in turn provide useful feedback to develop a good book project, with more detailed information about what that audience wants and needs.
A good small press may provide lots of hands-on editorial support to help an author who has a special story to tell or a great concept, even if the manuscript needs a bit of extra work. Large presses can sit back and reject promising but unpolished work, waiting for the ready-to-go, easy-to-sell manuscript. But quality small presses are generally known for their editorial accessibility and hands-on support.
Open to an Author’s Diversity
Small presses might publish work by an established author who wishes to branch out into a new field. Joseph Bruchac’s popular children’s books of Native legends are published by major presses like Harcourt, Philomel, and Dial, but he turned to a small press, Holy Cow! Press of Duluth, Minn., to publish his poetry. Other well-known authors like Ursula K. Le Guin or Jane Yolen have chosen in their illustrious careers to publish an occasional book with a smaller press to get worthwhile work out into the light of day.
Small presses may shepherd a slow-developing title longer as it reaches for its grassroots readership, which can take time, especially in fields where success may depend on a particular annual conference, a quarterly journal, or a post-publication blurb from an influential person. Tenaciously, they stay on the case, seeking publicity and sales long after big presses would move on to greener pastures. In contrast, large presses are famous for Darwinian tactics: publishing lots of titles, throwing them out to the wolves of the trade, then waiting to see which books do well quickly, fully prepared to pull resources from slow-to-develop titles.
Small presses tend to be loyal to their authors. Once they have invested their slim resources to develop an author and explore niche audiences, they look favorably on subsequent work by that author. They may do this even if a first title had only modest success, to sell more copies of that earlier title as well as to expand their foothold in small markets.
As Susan Vreeland, author of Girl in Hyacinth Blue, summarized her very successful experience getting published with an excellent indie press: “For a first-time author, working with a small publisher can be a boon. A personal relationship with staff members representing all aspects of the publishing process develops quickly. With a small house publishing only a few books each season, individual authors are very important people. I found that the entire staff of MacMurray & Beck got behind Girl in Hyacinth Blue, believed in me, celebrated each good review with me, and was profoundly happy at its success.
[Next in this series: Getting Published with a Small Indie Press: The Negatives]
Disclaimer: yes, I currently run a small indie press, Crickhollow Books. For more on that effort, visit the Crickhollow Books website.