Riding the mule: the adventure of small press publication

Guest writer Anne Goodwin shares her top tips and advice for writers considering publishing with a small press…

A first-time novelist with her feet on the ground will recognise when her novel might be insufficiently mainstream to attract an agent and big-name publisher. Unfortunately, I began submitting my novel, Sugar and Snails, with my feet high in the clouds. I could have saved myself a lot of time and disappointment if, like Sarah Armstrong, author of The Insect Rosary, I’d realised my novel was more suited to publication with a small independent press.

Publishing with a relatively unknown independent press feels akin to riding a mule: a peculiar hybrid of large-scale commercial and self-publishing. With no big name or budget to attract your readers while siphoning off a large percentage of potential profits, small press publishing might seem a beast that gives the author of the worst of both worlds. However, with greater author involvement, from the exact date of publication to the design of the cover, no financial outlay and the security of someone to hold your hand as you send your pride and joy out into the world, small-press publication could turn out to be your best option. Given that my novel is about a woman who, as a child, wanted it both ways, this cross between donkey and horse has certainly proved a good place for me.

A small press needn’t be second best. Even Booker prize shortlisted authors, such as Alison Moore, are happy to stay with an independent press. A small press can prove more loyal to authors than a large commercial conglomerate which, as Jane Rogers discovered a couple of years ago, can blithely drop even prize-winning mid-list novelists from their lists. Independent publishers are also popular with some readers, producing, as former bookseller and blogger Susan Osborne says, books that are little out of the mainstream rather than staying on the bandwagon for rather too long.

But, as an author, it’s no bad thing to be cautious. With the rise of e-books and print-on-demand technology, almost anyone can set themselves up as a publisher. How can you be sure yours isn’t out to exploit you? As Teika Bellamy, founder of Mother’s Milk Books told me, It’s all about the relationship! If you receive an offer from a small press you’d hitherto never heard of, there are four things you can do to increase your chances of forging a relationship that works for you.

Learn about alternative publishing options.

Understanding the mechanics of self-publishing not only provides a possible retreat if a publishing relationship turns sour, but it demystifies the publishing process, showing you exactly what your publisher should be doing on your behalf.

Check out your publisher.

Explore the website; find out how they market their books; pay attention to price. An overly expensive book can’t compete against more modestly-priced books by better-known authors or publishers, but a book that’s too cheap is also disadvantaged in the marketplace.

Scrutinise copies of their previous publications for the quality of the editing; production standards; cover; blurb. Would you want your words packaged this way and how far is your publisher prepared to be flexible if you don’t? Don’t be afraid to ask questions of both your publisher and other authors, attending not only to the content of their responses, but their willingness to engage.

Negotiate a contract that’s right for you.

While it’s tempting to skim through the legalese and sign on the dotted line, you should take the time over your contract. The Society of Authors can advise on how close yours comes to the industry standard. Due to the lower publisher investment, they are not in favour of print-on-demand or e-book only models, although, with some built-in safeguards, this has worked for me.

Be realistic in your expectations.

While it’s worth negotiating a favourable contract, don’t act as if you’ve won a six-figure advance from one of the Big Five. Be modest in your expectations, apart from your expectations of what you’ll need to do to bring your book to the reader’s attention. Even a shrinking violet can publicise her own novel and you don’t need a publicist to organise a successful blog tour or to solicit online reviews. But be realistic about your own limitations also; the time will come when you need to leave this book to stand on its own merits and move on to writing the next.


Anne Goodwin’s debut novel, Sugar and Snails, about a woman who has kept her past identity a secret for thirty years, was published in July 2015 by Inspired Quill. Her second novel, Underneath, about a man who keeps a woman captive in a cellar, is scheduled for May 2017. A former clinical psychologist, she is also the author of over 60 published short stories, a book blogger and speaker on fictional therapists and on transfiction. Catch up on her website: annethology or on Twitter @Annecdotist.

Anne Goodwin

19 thoughts on “Riding the mule: the adventure of small press publication

  1. Very useful advice a here. I think that small independent publishers are doing a really good job, especially in fiction.
    And the Soc of Authors service to check a contract is brilliant. With fellow authors I have used it twice, with biggish publishers.
    And I was very stirred by Sugar and Snails, Anne’s book. I hope it has made the publisher andAnne lots of money!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. interesting post and good luck. What still annoys me about any other than self pressing is the meagre returns..10% on pbks? slightly more for ebooks? small presses rarely have the overheads or premises that big publisher *claim* yet they still offer the same niggeadly payments!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading, Carol, and sharing your experience. You make a fair point, one which I had in mind when negotiating my own contract, along with the other considerations I’ve mentioned. I don’t think small presses are raking in the money, however, some subsidising their business with other employment, just like the authors – but I think it would be good to have a post on this. For example, my publisher offers increase in royalties year-on-year.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Carol, I totally understand that 10% may seem very small for the author, but if you look at the following breakdown I think you’ll see that it’s not actually that bad:

      On a £10 RRP (please note, these are approximate figures)

      50% retailer (£5)
      10% distributor (£1)
      10% author (£1)
      20% printer (£2)
      10% publisher (£1) ← That 10% needs to cover things like ISBN costs, advertising, free books that are sent off to reviewers (and postage and packaging), illustrator’s costs, editing, proofreading, typesetting and all the various running costs of the business (including salaries if employers are paid).

      You’ll see the publisher’s profit margins are still very slim. The big presses can afford to print in the thousands and tens of thousands and so they can reduce the unit print cost so that their margin is slightly better. BUT indie presses don’t often have the necessary thousands and thousands of pounds to pay for big print runs so their margin is tiny (indie presses are often funded by family savings, re-mortgaging the house, redundancy packages… gifts). Yes, I work out of my home and so I don’t pay for office costs, so theoretically our costs should be less… but that’s also mainly because I DON’T PAY MYSELF! I can probably think of about 20 other odd indie press founders who equally, don’t pay themselves. But we pay our authors.

      At the end of the day, it is the retailers that are making money, but I don’t begrudge indie bookshops getting their cut; they often have extortionate rental premises costs to pay. So really… it is the rentier class that makes the money. And Amazon (who often take 60% off RRP).

      I hope this gives you a better idea of what myself and other indie publishers have to struggle with on a day-to-day basis. Authors struggle, too, I agree (I’m a writer myself so can empathise) but unless the system is massively overhauled these issues are going to be around for a long time to come.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. This is an interesting point, one which was also mentioned by our small presses at Reading and Being Read last weekend who made the same argument. It definitely seems to be the predominant financial situation for small presses, which makes it all the more remarkable that those indie presses are typically willing to take a risk with innovative new literature that won’t necessarily be mass-marketable. But it’s a vital sector in the literary industry – to take that risk financially and push the boundaries of literature at the same time. That’s why we love to support the small press in whichever ways we can.

        Teika, I’d be happy to publish a piece on this if you’d like to send me something 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks Teika: I have been published by OUP and Usborne ( two of the ‘biggies’ on the publishing scene.). Also one small Indie and I am now self-published, though negotiating with another Indie for some YA back mss. ALL publishers offer the same crap rates. I have had 15 books published, been longlisted for the Carnegie and have an entry (not written by me) in Wikipedia. As writers are the only reason publishers exist, I still feel that 10% rising to 15% on 5 thousand sales is rubbish. Someone worked out the hourly rate of an author, given it can take over a year to bring a book to market, and I think was almost negative. We are supposed to be grateful, because ‘talent’ cannot be quantified. This is a generic rant, not personal. I don’t pay myself a salary, after all ..or if I do, it’s in peanuts. I get that bookshops are at the heart of this: Waterstones won’t stock my books because I won’t give them the 40% discount they ask for, and I have had snooty reactions from other stores when I mention I am self-published. Another BIG BIG gripe is that ALL writers have to shoulder the burden of publicity. Personally, I don’t mind, but many many writers go under because they just can’t do it. We have enough here for a whole string of blog posts, eh!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. One area that’s sometimes overlooked, but improves returns for both authors and publishers, is to aim to act as the retailer whenever you can and take back some of that slice of the RRP. That means finding opportunities to sell directly to readers. Maybe there’s room for some creativity in arrangements between authors and their publishers about who sells books and where and when… they might even agree to share the returns from books sold directly – but ideally, if there are events/talks/workshops/whatever, there should be books there too and real efforts made to sell them. It takes everyone out of their comfort zone – selling is a skill, and many of us in editorial/publishing roles don’t have it and have to work hard on it – but it can make all the difference.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m backing Teika here and leaving you with my own sums. The price of a Linen Press book is £9.99 (let’s call it £10 for ease) This is what I pay to have that book produced:

    £3.50 to the printer
    £3.50 to the distributer
    50p for the cover image, cover design.
    50p for type-setting and the creation of digital files
    75p or £1 for the author.

    So I make £1 per copy and sell between 50 and (rarely) 750 copies. That’s for four months close collaboration with an author, changing a good book into an excellent one, and editing for maybe four or five hours a day, five days a week. Then there’s the sales, marketing, pitching, networking. My hats are many. Each of those £1 coins is ploughed back into Linen Press to pay for the next publication. In fact the sums don’t add up but I’m doing something I believe in and will continue doing it for as long as I can.

    I’m an author, published by mainstream and indie presses, as well as a publisher so can see this argument from both angles. My first novel took five years to write but it was my choice to do that. We’re all struggling in a book trade that is a very hard place with conglomerates offering 55% and 60% discounts to get specific publications on the shelves of Waterstones and on Amazon.When I was selling on Amazon, I was paying them a £1 per copy to sell my books. There are no sliding scales or easier routes for small presses so we do the best with can with limited resources. The Contemporary Small Press said, after its first event: ‘A key message that came out of the day was the dedication of small press publishers to developing and nurturing their writers’ potential.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for pitching in, Lynn. I was interested in your sales figures as, with touting my first novel, it’s hard to know what’s reasonable to expect.
      However some of your costs must vary with sales (e.g. cover design and image and typesetting I assume I’m a one-off rather than charged per book). Not necessarily your responsibility to answer, but I’m curious as to how many copies an indie publisher needs to sell in order to break even.


  5. What would be a fairer percentage, Carol? I take it that 10% is of net receipts?

    I think a lot of publishers would be happy to do a 50/50 split of profits, but the Society of Authors frown on that sort of arrangement.


    1. My reading of the society of authors guidance is that they are not in favour of splitting profits because it’s more complicated to specify the publisher’s costs. This was one of the things I needed to check out with my publisher as their royalties are indeed a percentage of profits calculated as the price of the book minus printing and sales costs (but not in my case production costs). It’s an intriguing business model.


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