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In Defense of the Small Independent Publisher1

You have finished your final draft and you feel it’s ready for publication. Now you’re faced with the problem of where to send it. You’ve already checked some of the best known publishers, but most of them are closed to freelance submissions, requiring an agent to open those doors. Self-publishing is another option, but that requires a cash outlay that may be hard to justify. Enter the small independent publisher.
What is a small independent publisher? An independent publisher is any publishing company that operates on a traditional business model – where the money flows to the author – but is not owned by another company. That is, an independent publisher is not an imprint, nor an arm of another company. They are usually described as publishers with annual sales below a certain level. Commonly, in the United States, this is set at $50 million, after returns and discounts. Small presses are also defined as those that publish an average of fewer than 10 titles per year, though there are a few who manage to do more.
Although most trade books found in the chain bookstores are published by a few very large publishers, the vast majority of publishers are small. Currently, there are at least 50,000 publishers in the United States, and most of these publish fewer than 10 titles per year. In contrast, the largest publishers are multinational corporations, which own numerous subsidiary publishers and imprints (an imprint is essentially a line of books with a common theme or editor). Between the two extremes are the established small publishers that have grown to mid-size proportions, publishing perhaps 25 to 100 books per year.

The Publishing Industry at a Glance
Just like in other media markets, there are the major players and independent counterparts. In publishing, the Big Six are the entrenched, powerful entities, the “majors” in publishing. But independent publishers, when viewed as a group, are a major power unto themselves.
Just to be sure who we’re talking about, The Big Six Publishers are:
1. Random House – Random House, the world’s largest English language general trade book publisher, is a subsidiary of media conglomerate, Bertelsmann.
2. Penguin Group – is collectively the second largest trade book publisher in the world, behind Random House.
And, in no particular order from here:
3. Hachette Book Group – Hachette Book Group USA (HBGUSA for short) is owned by French company, Hachette Livre.
4. HarperCollins – This house, under the News Corp umbrella, is based in midtown Manhattan and publishes a lengthy list of bestsellers.
5. Macmillan – Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, a division of the Educational and Professional Publishing Group of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
6. Simon & Schuster – a major trade house based in NYC that goes back to the early 1920s and was home to one of the industry’s most famous editors, Maxwell Perkins.
The book publishing industry is traditionally divided into the following sectors:
• Trade: Most of the books you find at the bookstore and intended for the general public, often divided into “adult trade” and “juvenile trade.”
• Professional: Books specific to a particular industry or even a particular company.
• Textbook: Books specifically targeted at students. This sector is divided into “el-hi” (elementary and high-school publishers) and “college.”
• Scholarly: Specialized books, primarily published by the university presses.
• Religious: Books published by religious organizations for their members or potential members.
Small independent publishers may be found in all of these sectors.

An Independent Publisher may be for You
Why might an Independent “Indie” Publisher be preferable? There are some common qualities associated with independent publishers – they’re open to riskier content, they are willing to take the time to develop an author’s career and they’re specialized. Nevertheless, independent publishers account for almost half the books published annually.
The large number of independent publishers means there are options available to meet many needs. There are publishers that exist for nearly every imaginable genre and sub-genre. Also, there are regional publishers, micro-publishers, and electronic-only publishers.
Most publishers, especially small and mid-size publishers, specialize in specific topics or groups of topics. This trend is caused not only by the personal preferences of the management, but also by strategic necessity. By specializing, a publisher develops a keen sense of the market and a set of deep relationships with relevant channels. Some are more risk-takers, others are only willing to buy sure things. Some have a long and storied history, others crop up to meet a need and only release one or two books. How do you find these publishers?
• Search the internet
• Check with bookstores and libraries
• Ask other writers who you know.

Qualities that might make an Indie Publisher attractive:
 Plenty of author control – the author agrees to all changes
 Print on demand – there are no storage issues
 No agent is required – in fact, most agents won’t work with indies
 Higher royalties – you’ll make more money on book sales
 Contract is straight forward and simple to understand – you won’t need a lawyer to interpret it
 Best of all, it’s not self-publishing – so there’s no stigma attached, no money up front.

Independent publishers may NOT be the answer to your publishing needs if:
 You want your book to be on the table closest to the front door of Barnes and Noble, this is definitely not for you.
 You are working through an agent,
 Your book contains color photos or illustrations.

What to Watch for
Here are some terms and statements to watch for in your search for an “indie” publisher:
 Book printer vs. publisher vs. book distributor; here’s the difference. A book printer is just that, a printer. A publisher works with the author to develop a marketable product and, through established contacts, will assist the author in selling the book. A book distributer gets books from the publishing house to the bookstores. A distributer does not print books or communicate with authors.
 RED FLAG: if a “Publisher” wants money upfront. This is the fastest way to distinguish an independent publisher from a vanity press. An independent publisher will never charge money for publication, marketing or any aspect of publishing your book.
 Look for a statement like this: “We are not a vanity or subsidy press. We will charge no reading or critiquing fees. Editorial services will only be rendered if a book is chosen for publication. If we elect not to use submitted material, it will be returned without comment (see our Submission Guidelines).”
 The publisher’s website and their catalog are the most reliable sources of information about the publisher and their practices.

For an author, independent publishers provide another avenue for publication, with many accepting unsolicited submissions, something that’s virtually unheard of at imprints of the Big Six. They come with upsides and downsides that differ with each publisher, but for an author the more options, the better.
For an increasing number of authors, it is the fastest and easiest way to publish without the stigma or cost of self-publishing or vanity publishing. As with any publishing venture, DO YOUR HOME WORK!

Published in Outdoors Unlimited January, 2011

1Mary Nickum presented this paper at the Outdoor Writers Association of America Annual Meeting, June, 2010 in Rochester, MN.

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