This is a guest post by Clare Stevens.

If you’re disheartened by a succession of agents’ rejections, but daunted by the thought of self-publishing and all the relentless self-promotion it takes to get noticed in a crowded market place, there is a third way. You might want to consider sending your work off to a small independent publisher.

So what are the pros and cons of going down this route, and how would you go about finding one?

What is a small press?

There are hundreds of small press ‘indie’ publishers out there, and in the UK and Ireland the sector is expanding. They vary a lot in size and scope. Some are tiny ‘micro-publishers’. Some are one man/woman bands operating out of someone’s back bedroom. Others have editorial teams and marketing budgets.

Some like to be called ‘indie’ presses others prefer ‘small presses’ but they are all independent presses as opposed to Big 5 publishers.

A note of caution though: don’t confuse independent publishers with vanity publishing. Never pay someone to publish your book. If a publisher accepts your work, they should be paying you!

So why choose to approach a small press publisher?

Indies often accept non-agented submissions, which cuts out the middle person and avoids the two stage process of first finding an agent then waiting for them to find you a publisher. Plus there are no agent fees.

Smaller teams make for a closer author/publisher relationship. The whole process tends to be more two-way. I can vouch for this, having had my first novel accepted by a very small publisher, Inspired Quill, I’ve had input into every stage of the process, from blurb to cover design. I have a personal connection with my editor and have full editorial control.

Indie publishers are often more willing to take risks with experimental writing, they’re less driven by commercial interests and will accept ideas outside the mainstream.

What about the cons?

Small presses are unlikely to have much of a marketing budget, so authors need to take on more of the responsibility for publicity. That said, all new authors—even Big 5 ones—need to play a much bigger role these days in marketing themselves and their books. The irony is the big name successful authors who already have massive followings get far more marketing investment than debut authors.

Indies can struggle to get their books in mainstream bookshops, which have to give shelf-space to sure bet books.

It’s not where the money is. Advances—if paid at all—are lower.

But even authors who land a contract with a Big 5 publisher are unlikely to make big bucks from writing alone.

So how do small press books hold up in the market place?

Traditionally they may have had less pulling power than the Big 5 when it comes to sales and marketing, but evidence now points to them punching above their weight.

Last year, Inpress Books, which represents 50 of the UK’s smallest publishers, reported record sales, up 79% on the previous year, and this trend is continuing this year.

There are lots of examples of indie-published books doing really well. Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse, published by Salt, got shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2012 along with Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists, published by Myrmidion—both independent publishers.

Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney, first published by Tartarus Press in a print run of just 278 copies, went on to win the Costa first novel award in 2015.

Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing took nine years to find a publisher before being brought out by Galley Beggar Press. It went on to win numerous awards and get reprinted by Faber.

Why I chose Inspired Quill

I tried a few agents, but if they replied at all (some didn’t) it was with a standard ‘not for us’ response which didn’t give me much of a clue about where I was going wrong. The whole thing felt impersonal, so I started looking at small publishers.

I immediately liked Inspired Quill’s ethos. They’re a social enterprise—they put profits back into community literary projects—but still pay their authors decent royalties. And although they can only take on a handful of authors from the 300+ submissions they get each year, they read all the submissions and give feedback on each one.

I read a few titles on their list and spoke to another Inspired Quill author so by the time I sent my submission in I already felt invested in the process. Although Inspired Quill are a tiny team, their approach is super professional and their products great quality. As one of just 20 authors, I feel I’m part of an intimate, supportive community.

Sara Jane Slack, who set up Inspired Quill seven years ago as a non-profit traditional publishing house, says she met lots of authors who had horror stories about their publishing journey and she wanted to give authors a better experience.

“I thought how hard can it be to create a triple win situation that works for the author the publisher and the reader,” she says. “And that’s what I hope we’ve achieved. We take the financial burden. We pay royalties, and we are in it for the long game. We want to keep authors with us so we pay loyalty royalties—each year an author’s royalties go up 5%.”

That investment seems to be paying off. Most of Inspired Quill’s authors come to them as debut authors but they now have writers on their list who’ve brought out three or four books. Three of Inspired Quill’s titles have been shortlisted for high-quality awards.

How to find a small press

MsLexia’s Indie Presses guide, now in its second edition, is a great place to start. It lists more than 400 independent presses as well as literary magazines. It outlines genre, submission process, and Mslexia’s own view of the quality of the product.

Here’s some tips for choosing an indie publisher:

  • Look at their past catalogue. Buy a book and look at the quality of the product.
  • Check out the other titles on their list. How does your novel fit in?
  • Look at the publisher’s website. This is their shop window. If it was a high street store would you want to shop there?
  • Make sure the publisher is easy to contact. Ask them a question and see how long they take to reply. Gauge their interaction.
  • Make sure your values align. Small presses are much more face-to-face and hands on, so you have to be able to work together.

Whatever your genre, however niche your writing, chances are there’s an indie press out there to suit you.

If, like me, you like the idea of a hands-on personal approach with full editorial control while having the backing of an experienced professional publisher behind you, it could well be that the indie presses are for you.

NB: This post uses affiliate links. If you click on one, The Writer’s Cookbook will receive a small commission should you purchase something, but you won’t be charged any extra.

Clare Stevens grew up in the wilds of Somerset where she was weaned on cider, but has lived most of her adult life in Nottingham with brief sojourns in four other UK cities.

She began her career as a journalist then spent several years working for the government publicity machine. She has now turned from spin doctor to story spinner and penned her first novel while studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Nottingham Trent University.

She has had seven short stories published in various anthologies, and runs Creative Writing workshops at the Maggie’s Cancer Centre in Nottingham. Clare’s first novel, Blue Tide Rising, is due to be published by Inspired Quill in March 2019.