10 Questions to Ask Before Signing with a Small Press Publisher (Part Two)

The future of traditional publishing may lie in the hands of small press publishers. Their ability to be creative, adaptive, and flexible offers many advantages over the larger houses but as we discussed in Part One of this article, selecting a small press publisher requires some homework.

For an author, nothing is worse than seemingly reaching that publishing dream only to discover their publisher isn’t who you thought they were. Although there is no perfect system and no guarantees, any author considering the small press alternative should, at a minimum, investigate these ten areas before signing a contract.

6. What are their goals and objectives? Many small press publishing companies are owned and operated by a self-published author. It’s smart marketing and good business. Your books are more likely to be purchased by a bookstore if the publisher is listed as a company rather than under the author’s name.

The question, however, goes to their goals and objectives. If they know only a little more than you, then you have to wonder if they know what they are doing. Also, you need to know if they want to create a publishing company simply to pay for or promote their own work or if they have an actual interest in running a viable business.  This isn’t to say there is anything wrong with a self-published author turned publisher. They, better than most, understand the hardship and the dream, and that can make them a lot more sensitive to the art and empathetic to the author than someone who has never written a novel. For example, Meredith Wild is a best-selling, self-published author who, after closing a multimillion dollar book, began her small press publishing company to assist other writers. She did, however, hire a CEO with impressive experience in traditional publishing.

7. Who is doing the work? If the answer is “you are” then I’d question the purpose of a contract. If editing, proofing, book cover, and marketing are all your responsibilities why give them a “cut” of your sales? Spend a few hundred dollars and open your own “company.”

If the publisher is providing those things, then you’ll want to know “who” is doing the work. Does the editor have real credentials? I’ve used editors and discovered they knew less about semi-colons then I did. If they are providing a book cover then who is the graphic designer, what is their experience, and where are they getting the artwork? The last can be a legal question as even “royalty-free” photos have certain publishing restrictions.

8. How long is their publication process? A traditionally published book can take a year or two to hit the bookshelves. It’s why traditional publishers provide “advances” of various levels. If your small press consideration is short staffed (or no staffed) or has a lot of books in front of yours, you could be waiting a long time to see your book in print. And if they are offering no advance then it can be a long time before you ever see any money for your product.

Knowing the process in advance provides another benefit. You can gauge the organizational qualities of their process. If they promise publication in six months and on month five you’ve had no inquiries from your assigned editor you can be confident six months isn’t gonna happen, or it is going to be a very “rushed” job. And although we’ll discuss the contract next, you should consider having an opt-out clause if they don’t meet their designated time lines.

9. What are your contractual rights? I’m not an attorney, and I don’t even play one on television so nothing here should be construed as legal advice. However, I have experience with contracts, and the best advice I can offer is this: A verbal agreement isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

You should know your rights as specified in the contract you are signing. If you don’t understand something, you should get written…written…written clarification. Did I mention…written? We mentioned the opt-out clause if they miss their obligation and as a part of that “all rights” should revert to you if you’ve given any up. Also if the book is to be published only in one country, don’t give them rights to publish “later” in other countries. Don’t give them rights to the work, only to publish and distribute the work, don’t give away audio or movie rights either unless you are fairly compensated.

Now those might seem like “far-fetched” dreams, but I’m sure JK never considered a movie deal or a theme park when she was walking Harry Potter around London. And although she only received a few thousand for the UK publishing, she sold the US rights for over one hundred thousand. My point is, you never know, and you should limit what you give up unless there is a substantial payday in advance.

Your best bet: Have an attorney review the agreement. If could be the best $200 you’ve ever spent.

10. How does their accounting system work? Sooner or later you will want to get paid for your sales. You should know in advance how their system works, when they reconcile the sales, when and how you’ll be paid, and your rights to audit their sales claims. Remember the Brian Keene issue mentioned in Part One? His zombie series sold a ton of copies. He never saw a dime of that money.

It is true that you might meet with some resistance when asking these ten questions. You may even meet with hostility or have the offer rescinded. But I’ve been in the corporate world for nearly eighteen years, and I have never found these types customer questions to be anything but good business. As a service provider, I understand a client’s need to evaluate my credibility.

Of course, there may be some questions a publisher can’t or won’t answer completely. It is unlikely they will open their checkbook for your inspection, but still, they should be able to explain how they fund their business.

More importantly, you want to work with a publisher who understands and appreciates your concerns and is willing to take a little time to provide you with answers and assurances. Interactions that are deceptive or seem hostile, vague, or dismissive indicate future issues and these are not the types of companies you want to entrust your hard work. It’s okay to take a risk, just ensure it is a calculated risk and you understand the potential pitfalls and your options should something go wrong.

Raymond Esposito is an award-winning dark fiction author and Amazon best-seller. His articles and interviews have appeared in a variety of publications including Family Circle and Sanitarium Magazine. He has a degree in Cognitive Psychology and has spent over 25 years as a criminal behaviorist. 

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