When you finally type those glorious words ‘THE END’ at the conclusion of your novel, your thoughts will naturally turn to how you can get it in front of readers. Advice tends to focus on two established routes:
- Getting an agent who can then submit your work to large publishers
Both of these can be fine and noble routes to take, but both can also lead to disappointment. So I want to suggest that there is a third option that you can take: submitting directly to small presses.
The principal advantages of small presses over self-publishing are that they should have established systems and processes in place to get your book in front of readers, and they should also take all of the financial risk for you. This is great if you don’t have the time or skills to undertake all of the publication and marketing work yourself, and also if you don’t have the money you need to stump up upfront to meet self-pub costs (cover design, editing, proof-reading, printing, marketing etc).
The advantage of small presses over the agent route, is that small presses take submissions directly and so you avoid main pitfall of the ‘two-stage’ nature of the agent process: getting an agent only to find that they can’t place your book with a publisher – which happens a lot more often than many authors imagine.
You might think that these advantages would mean that small presses are overwhelmed with manuscripts, and the reputable well-established presses will certainly receive a lot. But most small presses will receive fewer submissions each week than a typical agent does. My publisher for instance, Lightning Books, receives around thirty to forty submissions per week and last year published four debut novels. In contrast, an agent might receive anywhere from fifty to 150 per week, from which she will typically take on somewhere between one and three new authors a year. And remember, even if you are accepted by an agent, that is no guarantee of publication: your agent will then have to submit to publishers. If you’re accepted by a small press, you’re accepted for publication. So, statistically, submissions to small presses are more likely to lead to publication than submissions to agents.
And it’s also worth remembering that, being small, there is typically a lot less administration and bureaucracy with small presses so the process from signing a publishing deal to seeing the book published is typically much shorter – usually a year (or even less) for a small press, as opposed to two years or more for a large publisher.
For many writers though, the dream of being published means getting a deal with a big advance and being on the shelves (or even the display tables) of every bookshop, and that requires a deal with big publisher – which in turn first requires an agent. The assumption is that being published is far more lucrative with a big publisher than with a small one, and that you can only get a deal with one of the Big Four if you first bag an agent. I want to suggest that both of these assumptions are misplaced.
Firstly, whatever you may have read about ‘six-figure advances’ in the past, even ‘Big Four’ publishers typically offer very small advances to debut novelists now, and sometimes won’t offer one at all. And, unless you are already well-known, your marketing budget is likely to be very low indeed even with a big publisher. You may well find your book being ‘held back’ in publicity campaigns behind bigger and more established authors too. So, whilst it is certainly the case that the potential for a higher profile and higher earnings are both increased with a bigger publisher, in reality there is often not a lot of difference.
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It is also important to point out that going with a small press does not necessarily rule out securing a bigger deal with a bigger publisher at a later date. This is not uncommon and even has its own name: the ‘stepping-stone’ strategy. An author publishes a book through a small press, and it attracts some positive coverage (maybe even an award listing or two) which inevitably attracts the attention of agents and potentially even a large publisher. The upshot author’s next book is picked up by a larger publisher. The advantage of this approach is that when you arrive at the bigger publisher, you are more likely to be considered as one of the higher profile authors who others will need to take their place in the queue behind.
So it is important to say that, whilst many small press authors are happy to stay with a trusted team that they know and are comfortable with, others view their small press experience as simply another way of ultimately landing the prize they really want – a way that (unlike the agent route) means that they can get published while they’re waiting to land the big deal.
For many debut novelists therefore, submitting to relevant reputable small presses is more likely to help you achieve your ultimate dream of being published than following the agent route – and may even help you to land your dream agent and/or dream publishing deal in the long run.
So, how do you get published by a small press?
In September 2022 I was coming to the end of the Ultimate Novel Writing Course but, despite several full manuscript requests, had not managed to sign with an agent. I didn’t want to self-publish, so what could I do? Well, what I did was submit to about a dozen small presses. Small presses (sometimes called ‘indie presses’) are traditional publishers, but they take submissions directly from authors. In effect, submitting to them cuts out the need for an agent.
And it worked: I received two offers of publication and my novel, The Muse of Hope Falls, was published by Lightning Books in November 2023.
I must admit, I had preconceptions about small presses so my expectations of Lightning were pretty low, and there were certainly hitches and hiccups along the way. But I have to say that overall, the process went like a dream. Lightning have a small team, but they also have established systems, processes and contacts. And when something did go wrong, they apologised immediately and worked tirelessly to put it right. Whilst they don’t have the budget or profile of a Big Four publisher, they arranged reviews and press interviews for me, and even organised my launch party, so I never felt that they were giving my book anything less than 100%. Crucially, Lightning paid for everything so none of the risk sat with me.
For me, therefore, working with small presses is a viable third option for writers to consider. When thinking about submitting to a small press however, it is important that you don’t approach the process any less thoroughly than you would if you were approaching your dream agent. In broad terms this means following a process that is very similar to submitting to an agent, namely:
Get your manuscript ready
I mean really ready. I was fortunate to be on the Ultimate Novel Writing Course when I was submitting my novel, which meant that I got a professional manuscript assessment from my mentor Helen Francis, and I also benefitted from a couple of my course mates reading the full manuscript and offering feedback. It is essential that you have a similarly thorough approach. All the work that an agent would normally do on your behalf (and support you to do) before submitting to a publisher you’ll have to do yourself. Trust me: “It’ll do” won’t do, even – especially – with small presses.
Understand your manuscript and where it sits in the marketplace
You have to understand which publishers it is best to submit your manuscript to. That means understanding what type of story your novel is, who it is for, and where you would expect it to sit on the shelves of a bookshop. If you don’t understand that then you won’t know who to submit to.
Identify your target small presses
The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook has a section listing most publishers and the genres they publish. You need to go through this with a fine-toothed comb and pick out those publishers that are open to direct submissions. Then you need to visit their website. Each small press will usually have a submissions page which will set out the kinds of books they are looking for including any specific requirements. If you can’t see books that look like yours on it, then that may be an indication that that publisher is not the right one for you.
A crucial part of the process is making a judgement about the publisher themselves. Small presses are notoriously fragile, so study the website and see how long the press has been going and how many books they’ve actually published (Lightning’s parent company have been going 27 years and publish 12-18 books every year). And don’t underestimate the difference in size and capacity between presses: some small presses will have relatively sizeable teams of paid staff. Others might really be run by hobbyists; someone trying to run a publishing company on their own in their spare time whilst still doing a paid job elsewhere. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with that, but you just need to understand what you’re signing up to and what they can realistically offer.
Also pay particular attention to anything that seems to suggest that you might have to pay for the privilege of being published by them and/or which suggests that they will publish your book ‘just the way you want it’ – this is vanity publishing. Reputable traditional publishers of any size will always be clear that they will expect to work with you editorially and that ultimately, they get the final say on things such as cover design/blurb etc.
Prepare bespoke submission packs
The publisher’s submissions page should also set out the format that any submissions should be made in. Do not send out a generic submission pack – always follow the advice on the submissions page, even if it means extra work for you. Sometimes those fiddly little bits of extra information or formatting that a small press asks for are there specifically to see if you’ve bothered to follow their instructions. If you haven’t, then you should expect to have your submission deleted straight away without being read.
One of the most crucial pieces of advice I can give is to consider carefully your use of comparison titles and, if possible, try and quote at least one example from the publisher’s own backlist. A small press is far more likely to consider you sympathetically if you can show that you have made the effort to study their books specifically (and maybe even read a couple of them) and that you understand how you would fit in with their existing list. Small presses want to be taken seriously and they want to produce a good product. It’s crucial therefore, that you don’t cut corners either with your manuscript preparation or your submission. If you get accepted my experience is that they can offer an excellent third way to publication for those authors who haven’t yet found their niche in the traditional ‘agent-to-big-publisher’ system.