Small Press or Big Press? That is the Question

by Erin Brown

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2009

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2009

There are many pros and cons to signing with a huge publishing house or a smaller press, the least of which is the size and snazziness of the conference rooms and if you’ll be offered Dunkin Donuts or caviar when you visit your editor (who in their right mind would truly choose caviar over a hot, chocolate-covered bear claw?)  But putting these inconsequential issues aside, there are several things to consider when choosing whether to plant your pride and joy with a small or big house.

Probably the first thing to consider is: who wants to buy your book? Let’s be honest, here. If there’s one editor who is in love with your book and you haven’t had any nibbles from anywhere else (insert sound of crickets here), your options might be limited. However, if your tome has several editors chomping at the bit, you have some leeway to sit back and assess your choices. There are some very important issues to consider. 

First is your advance. Now, an advance is not the end-all, be-all in terms of considering whom to sign with—far from it. A bigger house can usually offer a much larger advance if they think your baby will be a bestseller. If they are lukewarm on the project, however, but think it will net them a few bucks, you will see an offer of around $15,000 to $25,000 (if that), which is comparable to smaller houses. Those millions you thought would roll your way on day one? Not so much, most of the time. However, with a well written book, huge publicity potential, and a kick arse agent, you can drive that advance number up, have editors competing at auction, foaming at the mouth, courting you with ridiculous promises of riches and dates with movie stars...But realistically, you will be offered a moderate advance from even a large publishing house. So why would you go with a big house if you’re not getting enough of an advance to roll on a bed of one hundred dollar bills while cackling maniacally? Well, there are many advantages.

First off, the bigger houses have more money to back the book—that means capital for book tours (and no, not everyone gets a book tour—think 10% of authors), book parties, advertising, marketing, full-color galleys, roll-out campaigns, and many more events and extras that will really get the word out. And that’s what is key: Getting you and your book out there. How else will the consumer know about it, after all? Your novel could be the greatest thing since sliced Hemingway bread, but if no one knows about it, you won’t see a penny in royalties (so stuff that advance under the mattress).

Another advantage of signing with a big house is the huge team that is working on behalf of the book. You have giant publicity and marketing divisions working with you, with tons of ideas, contacts, years of experience, and the always!  You will also have a better shot at getting the book jacket with expensive special effects like glitter and embossing and glow-in-the-dark sparkles!

In addition, the large publishing house sales team is given more time and reverence when it comes to the big booksellers like Barnes & Noble, Borders, etc. The big houses have big lists that make big money, and booksellers like that. There are also long, established relationships between large, established houses and the booksellers, so when a sales rep. is talking up a first novel that they absolutely love, the B&N guy is definitely going to sit up and listen. B&N, for example, also knows that the big houses will bring them more money through co-op investments. You ever wonder why some books get huge displays and front-of-store positioning? That’s because the publishing house pays big, big, big (did I say big?) bucks to the stores to put them there. Of course, as an editor, I would also go in all of my local bookstores wearing dark clothing and large sunglasses and move all of my books to the front, but that option can get you thrown out by a burly security guard.

Big houses also bring a greater possibility of big name advance reviews, which is a very effective way to get the word out about an up-and-coming book. Hundreds of thousands of readers will pick up the New York Times Review of Books and read the reviews for the latest and greatest books to buy. Realistically, bigger, more established houses have a greater chance of getting reviews in the supplement. Of course, the Review also includes smaller titles and smaller house publications, don’t get me wrong, but the odds are greater with a larger press. And it’s not just reviews in the Times. The odds of popular publications across the nation reviewing your book are greater with an established, large press publicity team on the case, sending out galleys to the Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, People, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Kirkus, and if you’re really lucky, the Worcester Telegram and Gazette

So, as you can see, there are many advantages (mostly power, money, and influence) that will have you leaning toward a bigger press. However, there are tons of great attributes of a smaller press as well. The most important of which is personal attention. With a smaller house, your book can make a bigger splash. Without a thousand other titles cluttering the list, your editor and staff can really take the time to get behind you and your book, making it the best it can be!  Everyone in publicity will know you and your book, and with a lot more riding on its success, you can bank on a lot more time and energy (if not necessarily money) being invested. And of course, the smaller house will still contact all the major publications for possible reviews, and some even get lucky! Even a book tour is very possible (probably even more so than with a big house, as you aren’t competing for tour dollars with Janet Evanovich and John Grisham), although it might be to smaller venues—which in reality, can be more intimate and successful gatherings.  All in all, a smaller house will get you more individual attention, the players will have a greater interest in your success (they really need to make money on their investment, whereas a larger house can afford to take risks and lose some money now and then), and you will almost always have someone available to take your call. Therefore, it just might be worth it to forego the flashy “wooing the author” lunches and the French-flap book jacket in order to get some passionate, old-fashioned consideration for your book.

Getting published is an incredibly hard and rewarding experience. If you’re lucky enough to get there, jump on board, whether big or small—there are advantages to both. Just revel in the experience...and most importantly, make sure to have a good agent who will bust some heads and watch your back while you’re rolling in your piles of dough and/or practicing your new la-di-da published author signature for that book tour. And remember, your book is only as successful as the team behind it.

Erin Brown worked as an editor in New York City for over eight years. She recently left Manhattan to start her own freelance editorial business. To learn more about Erin, visit her website at

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