Written by A Guest Author November 18th, 2021

Small Press versus Big House: How Does a Thoughtful, Ambitious Author Decide?

By JoAnneh Nagler

I remember the week it happened. I was writing my first book,  was two-thirds of the way through it, and I suddenly lost my nerve.  Or, more accurately, I got angry—pissed off, actually. I had the suddenly-occurring realization that I could spend all this time writing my beloved book, and it was more than possible that no one would ever publish it. And then, there was this whole thing about platform? What the hell was that? The thoughts made me want to crawl under my bed and not come out for weeks.

That was 10 years ago, at a time when self-published books weren’t getting any street cred, when you couldn’t get a reading at a bookstore or a library with a self-published book. I knew then that I didn’t want to go that route—there were a lot less resources then, and I knew I didn’t want to do the heavy lifting all on my own. Whether the thing sold hugely or in trickles, I wanted distribution; to have my book go out into the world to bookstores, libraries, and sites where readers would find it.

So I went to see a coach—complaining and with my heart a little ragged—an intense, in-my-face therapist who told me this:  “Don’t spend time fighting the system.  Just play the game the way it’s played.” And that was one of the best pieces of advice anyone ever gave me.

I hunkered down. I wrote. I polished. I got outside input. And miracle of miracles, I found an agent who sold it to an imprint that got acquired by HarperCollins. But now, three traditionally-published books and 10 years later, the landscape has completely changed. Self-publishing has exploded, hybrids are everywhere (many that over-promise, in my experience, with price tags that are exorbitant); big houses are pressed for cash and have gotten harder to crack, and agents are rebuffing even terrific writing, particularly in fiction, because “it’s a hard sell.”

I certainly don’t want to paint a picture of gloom and doom for the hardworking writing soul. But back to my in-my-face therapist, since the road is not the same as it once was, we have to play the game the way it’s being played now. That means we have a huge smorgasbord of choices, and we have to decide what we want as authors, what might actually work for us.

I realize that we writers often approach publishing as if agents and editors are up in a lofty castle and we’re the starving serfs down below in the swamp, waiting for some recognition. And we’ve got to get that image out of our heads. The publishing industry needs content every spring and every fall and all year long. They need well-written books to fill their lists. Which means they need us. They need writers and manuscripts and new voices that reflect our culture, our awareness as a society, our history, our needs for entertainment and How-To and story.

That means we can trashcan the idea that our manuscripts aren’t worthy, when they are; we can give the heave-ho to those nasty voices that undermine our confidence, and instead, step out and choose what direction we want to go. And, small presses can fill a sweet spot in our viewfinder.

So what about small presses? For my fourth book, Stay with Me, Wisconsin, a collection of short stories, I decided to go with a new, small press. Or maybe, more honestly, the press chose me. Why?  Because with the interest of a very talented editor (Polly Alice McCann at Coyote Point Press, the fiction imprint of Flying Ketchup Press), I realized that I’d have agency with my writing, that I’d have a hands-on opportunity to make this book beautiful and accessible and professional. The publishing house is in the heartland, which is appropriate for my characters and my settings, so that was a good match. I went to Missouri, met with Polly, and had the time of my life editing the stories with her over a number of days. Who gets that experience with their editor?

That said, it wasn’t all roses. At first, I got scared of the work involved, got nervous about the small-and-new reach of a nascent press (formed in 2017); became shaky about whether my book would show up in bookstores and libraries. After a couple of false starts (and me doing some soul-searching and researching how small presses work), and after taking an honest look at the publishing landscape, I realized I wanted this. A professional house, yes. A book we could submit for traditional reviews, yes. A relationship with my publisher that was familial and accessible, absolutely. A book that’s beautiful in design and cover art, layout and presentation. And I’ve been a part of it the whole way. Has it been an immense amount of work? Yes! But it’s what I call glory work. I get to have my hands and my heart in what I love, in what’s meaningful to me.

I like to look at my writing projects as children I’m raising to stand on their own two feet. We wouldn’t expect a two-year-old to have six-year-old language skills, right? Of course not. But we do that to our manuscripts—we expect them to come galloping out of the gate, take an agent by storm in two weeks and then sell to a big house in 45 seconds. And that’s not the arc. It’s going to take time. Lots of time. Big house, boutique houses or small presses—that’s just the game.

So let’s talk about the differences—what we can expect from publishers, large, medium or small. At a big publisher, they’ll handle creating the book art, the layout, the editing and proofing (though these days, we writers are presenting editors with a polished and completed book before we ever get out of the gate.) They’ll handle the distribution—which is terrific, they have a sales force, and they’re supposed to submit for reviews.

But wait. With my second book, at a big publisher, the publicity person who was supposed to submit the book for reviews never did it. She said she did, she even bluffed the editor for a while, but then it came out: she hadn’t submitted a damn thing. I was crushed.  In other words, just because we’re at a big house, doesn’t mean we’ll get what we need. There’s a bit of chance, no matter how we play it. One agent said to me about a certain well-known publisher, “They have a spray and pray attitude with their books.  They don’t support them once they’re out.” So even the bigs have reputations about their effectiveness or lack thereof.

(Note: as an author, you want your publisher to submit to the three important sites—Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus and Library Journal—because many bookstore owners and librarians use these publications to buy new titles. There are many more sites to submit review requests to now, and there are venues for self-publishing submits as well—some paid, some not—but these three are still very important, small press or big house. There’s no guarantee your book will get reviewed, but it’s still an industry standard. At a small press, because they’re a traditional publisher, they are eligible to submit for reviews just like a big house.)

Small presses will do all of what a big publisher does, sans the sales force, and sometimes, they won’t have the established chains of distribution. That doesn’t mean they have no distribution, it just means they may use alternative ways of getting your book out. If a small press is tied to an effective distributor, they can get into bookstores and libraries, and other venues where books are sold. (And now, there are many ways to get a book from a small press in front of librarians, indie bookstore owners, reviewers, bloggers, etc.) Many small presses will use print-on-demand services now rather than put up the money for a huge print run, and though that scared me off at first, now it’s pretty standard.

So, regarding catalogs and distribution, you may have heard or Ingram and Ingram Spark. What’s the difference? Ingram is a major book distributor in the United States, distributing to 40,000 retailers, including Barnes & Noble, independent bookstores, libraries, schools, and universities. They have a catalog which lists titles for book buyers, and those titles also appear on sites like Edelweiss, which catalogs and advertises new titles, too.

Ingram Spark, by turns, began as the self-publishing arm of Ingram, but now small presses and hybrids are also using them, too. I spoke with Holly Brady, former director of Stanford Publishing Courses who now teaches self-publishing through Stanford Continuing Studies and advises authors on publishing options. “Ingram Spark isn’t a distribution system,” she told me. “It’s the self-publishing arm of Ingram Book Company. Once a book has been uploaded into Ingram Spark, it goes into the enormous Ingram database that all bookstores use—and then it is distributed by Ingram Book Company, along with traditionally published books.” So that’s good news.

But here’s a caveat. Holly said, “By the way, Ingram Spark takes about 45% of your revenue, and then Ingram Book Company takes another 15%—something I wrote about here.  It is also distributed to Amazon, and shows up just like any other book—traditionally published or self-published through KDP—on its own Amazon page.”

If this seems overwhelming to follow, here’s what’s important to note: when you get a book deal from a small press, it’s a good idea to ask how they will distribute it, how it will go out into the world specifically, how it will get produced, and how all of that may affect your royalties.

We authors will do a lot more with a small press. This time, I proofed, helped with layout edits, helped coordinated launch strategy, did leg work, helped look for cover images, did research.  But it was my glory work, my way of being a part of the arc of my book’s delivery day by day. And it’s just begun. Just like selling a book to a big house, I’ll be responsible for almost all of the publicity and PR. That’s not new.

With all of my publishers—four, now—this is what I have learned to expect: once the book is done, at a big house, the publicity person will likely get you one press hit, and then move on. Don’t be surprised if it’s a blog, or if you’re lucky, a short mention in a magazine. That’s usually it. Then you’re on your own. You have about a two-month window of their attention while the book comes out—and remember they’re coordinating many titles, so your book is not the center of their universe. Newspapers are largely gone from the submissions/review list these days (unless you, as an author, are willing to write a finished article and submit to regional papers yourself.) One hit from the publicity department. That’s what you should expect. That’s the game the way it’s played today in big houses and boutique publishers, too. And, at a small press, you might be responsible for all of the press hits, but you’ll likely have more involvement with your editor/publisher. The small press will likely view their publications the way you value your book: held close, with pride, and with a willingness to help guide it into the world with ownership.

But there’s more. There a perspective we can cultivate that can help us on this writer’s journey. In Maria Konnikova’s book The Biggest Bluff, she quotes Erik Seidel, her Texas Hold’em Poker coach, as saying to her [paraphrased here]: I don’t want to hear about the results.  Don’t even tell me how a game ended. Tell me how you made decisions, and why you made them.

He’s dead-on.

That’s what we get to do as authors: make decisions about how we get our hands and our hearts in what we love, in what moves us, and then get it on the page. Our own voice. Our own spirit, if you will, sharing the arc of our particular spin on life with readers. And a small press has kept my hands in it—all of it.

Will the small press bring me mega-Michelle-Obama-memoir sales? Oh, good god, probably not. I’m not Michelle. And she’s earned that, by the way, by her grace and position and brains and dignity, in my humble opinion. But don’t I have grace and brains and dignity, too? Yes, I do. But my path is my path. As one mystical teacher once said to me, “Your good is always your good.  No one else can have it. It belongs to you.” I’m a working author—that’s what I am. The results will be what they will be. I will do everything in my human power to bring my writing out into the world professionally and beautifully. And this time, a small press has helped me do that in a way that I’m extremely proud of.

As my “child”—my book—gets released into the world, I get to let it go; let it stand on its own two feet and get out of its way. Help it stand up and take steps, surely, but I don’t own the results. It has its own arc. What I do own is the effort, the decision to write and take it out into the publishing world in the first place—my own unique work moving into the hands of the readers who pick it up.

There is a Jewish proverb that goes like this: “She who saves one soul, saves the whole world.” We don’t know whose hands our book will fall into, and how our words will change, shape, and move other human beings. But they will. Someone will be altered and affected by our words. That’s our object. That’s our task.

I save every email I get from readers. I print them and paste them up inside a closet door, so every time I open it, I have a wall full of appreciation for the work I’ve put into the world. We touch people one at a time as authors. Big is not the object. Reaching people is.

Would I say no if a big house came calling again? No. I’d consider it, surely, just like I would with a small press. I had amazing experiences with big houses as well as challenging ones. But I relish, with all my heart, what the small press experience has given me this time: so much of my own love and line-by-line attention poured into this book, so much familial care given to it by my publisher.

As authors, we write, we polish, we edit, we have outside help and trusted readers, and we make the best manuscripts we can possibly make. And still, after all that, it’s hard. Sometimes, the small press can make it easier.

I once heard a spiritual leader named Laura Rumpf offer these questions: Where does your strength come from in moments of accepting great challenge? How do you access a place of deep trust in the journey that is before you?

One way is to go where the love is. And I did this time. The love was at a small press. And now, I’m a big fan. A grateful, appreciative, thankful and huge fan.

JoAnneh Nagler is the author of the upcoming collection of short stories, Stay with Me, Wisconsin (2022, Coyote Point Press), as well as three nonfiction books, Naked MarriageHow to Be an Artist and The Debt-Free Spending Plan, two of which were Amazon Top-100 titles. Her books have been featured in The New York TimesCosmopolitanThe Huffington PostEssence MagazineU.S. News and World Report, and more. Her fiction has appeared in the literary journals New Haven Review, Glimmer Train, Mobius, You Might Need to Hear This and Gold Man Review.  www.AnArtistryLife.com


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