If you want an experienced author’s perspective I’d recommend checking out Chad Lutzke’s recent essay on the topic here. The following will overlap in many of the same areas, but I hope to add some insight from a publisher’s perspective.
It’s probably useful to differentiate between ‘micro’ and ‘small’ presses. A micro press tends to release a handful of books a year. A small press tends to have monthly releases, year in and year out. However, the number of releases might be very misleading. A specialty micro press might bring in a ton of revenue and have their act together, while a small press might be an author mill perpetually on the verge of collapse. There are a variety of ways to figure out if a press is drawing eyes and driving sales, and whether or not they might be a good fit for your book.
Goodreads and Amazon ratings and reviews numbers are a great way to make a broad guesstimate at sales numbers. Admittedly, there are many different ways to sell books i.e. brick and mortar, crowdfunding, book clubs, book boxes, in person – that a small press might have a good track record with, which won’t necessarily show up in these numbers. Typically you’d like to see a number of a press’ releases hitting 50+ Amazon ratings, 100+ Goodreads ratings. You’d expect a book to have sold a minimum of a few hundred copies at about 100 Goodreads ratings. Again, this number could be very misleading if the press is constantly giving away eBooks for free.
[50+ Amazon reviews/ratings is an arbitrary number. It just means there are at least a couple dozen honest reviews in the mix. Publishers and authors can typically generate a dozen or two ‘friendly’ reviews for each release. It’s a myth that getting x number of reviews on Amazon triggers special promo on the site. And now they’ve added ratings to the review numbers and Goodreads ratings to the listing.]
Is a press routinely giving away its authors’ books? Select giveaways, running limited promotions, and limited exposure freebies are all key elements of book promotion. However, you don’t want a press using your book to broaden their footprint. What does that mean? A press shouldn’t presale your ebook for $0.99 or keep it at $0.99 in the months following release. Your release months are the best chance you will have at generating royalties for your book. A press shouldn’t give your ebook away for free without compensating you for those units. You’re a debut author and a press is going to use your book to drive sales for their other books? Worse. A press is going to generate access and engagement and a readership for their future or past books off of your hard work? C’mon, Bart, say the line about exposure!
Royalty rates and advances are confidential, or ‘industry standard’. There’s nothing preventing a press from stating a range of advances or royalty rates in its open calls. Authors with readerships get paid higher advances than debuts, and can at times command higher royalty rates. ‘Industry standard’ royalty rates are typically under 50% to the author – if the press is a big industry player – but those presses tend to pay out big(ger) advances. A small press should offer royalty rates 50%+ to the author and also pay an advance.
Professional advances: $1500-6400 for novellas, collections, novels per HWA and SFWA rates. $.05-$.08/word 30k-80k words.
It’s exceedingly rare that you’ll get a ‘pro-rate’ advance from a small press — but if a press isn’t paying any advance it might be an author mill. Regardless, this press is telling you it’s unwilling to invest in you beyond the cost of a book cover if they can’t guarantee you some amount, even if it’s just a few hundred dollars – sure they’re investing their hopes and dreams into your book selling…somehow, someway.
Who are the cover artists a press is working with? Do you like their style? Can you imagine your work done in that style? Would you/have you bought books from this press because of the covers? You likely won’t have much say in the artist who is chosen, though you should have input in the elements of the cover.
How many books does the press have in print? This is something that should take only a few minutes to find out by visiting their website. How often do they publish? Have you heard they’ve signed a number of new authors for the following year, yet they only have a handful of books in print? This is a major red flag. There’s a common publishing fallacy that earnings scale at predictable rates based on the volume of releases. If someone released 4 books in year 1 and earned $4,000 they seem to believe they’ll earn at least $10,000-12,000 if they release another 8 books in year 2. Some books earn nothing, some earn well, every once in a while a book will earn very well. It’s not at all predictable. If a press is writing checks based on future earnings they may have a real problem when it comes time to pay a cover artist on book 6, or when book 2 and 3 authors are due their royalty payments at the same time the author of book 7 is due their advance.
Say you’ve done your homework on a publisher and have submitted to an open call. The publisher wants to offer you a contract for your book, and now you’re on the inside. What should you be asking the publisher that you’re about to enter into an agreement with?
First off, have someone who has signed publishing contracts help you evaluate your contract. What is the publisher asking for, and what are they offering in return? Before they even send you a contract, ask them to give you the bullet points in plain language, so you can then look at the contract and see if the plain language is being expressed in the contract language. You can ask for language to be changed if it seems weird or if the publisher can’t make an argument for its inclusion in the contract. There is no perfect contract. Often a contract is missing language on how/when an author is to be paid. The language should be explicit about when you can expect your advance and when you can expect your royalty payments.
Ask your prospective publisher how many copies of your book they think they can sell in the first 12-18 months, based on past performance of similar titles! An advance should clue you in to how many units they think they can sell. If you’re given a $500 advance and it costs $300 for a cover, the press needs to move about 300 copies earning $3.50 per unit just to break even on those two expenses – assuming they’re paying you a fair 60% royalty. A quality editor can cost anywhere from $300-1000 based on the length of the work. So tack on another 100-200 copies sold.
[A publisher should be pricing their books to make $2-4 per digital unit, $3-5 per paperback. A pub should be willing to let you know how much you earn together per unit sold. Anything less you’re kind of just spinning your wheels. Imagine selling 500 copies of your book and only making $800 and your share of that is $480. Less than $1 per book!]
Where do most of the book sales occur? Do they have distribution or ‘distribution’ for their paperbacks? How much do they rely on digital sales(eBooks)? Brick and mortar by itself isn’t going to do the job. The sales makeup for a small press should be closer to 50% digital now. Listing a book on Ingram or Amazon isn’t a skill set. Proper distribution for paperback involves partnering with a company that has a legitimate pipeline into institutional and retail sales outlets. You will have a salesperson from the distributor actively trying to sell your book into places, something a press can’t do by themselves at volume.
[To have a successful book the traditional way you’ll often need an agent to say yes, multiple editors and finance types at a press to say yes, and then have a distribution salesperson say yes to championing your book to booksellers – who also have to say yes to stocking your book.]
What is the timeline for your book’s preparation and release? A small press should be nimble enough to give you a release date approximation and then an update as soon as they know they won’t be able to meet that date. How do they generate reviews? How many physical ARCs are they willing to send out? Blurbs, forewords, and a friendly-with-the-press ‘review squad’ are all window dressing. Every release needs new reviewers. A press’ promotional purpose is generating reviews that lead to sales, and a successful press will draw interest from reviewers who’ve never before reviewed one of their books with each new release.
A publisher should be motivated for your book to earn out your advance. There’s nothing more motivating for a publisher when they’ve invested $1000 or $3000 into a book.
Finally, ask multiple authors about their experiences with the press. Every press will have an author or two that’s unhappy. Some books just don’t sell. Ask a few if they’re happy with their book’s performance with the press. It’s such a simple question and not all that invasive. If they’re amiable, ask them what they think their press could have done better.
There are publishers willing to muddy the waters, fudge their sales numbers, reach, and abilities. Don’t be friends with publishers you hope to work with. Actually, don’t be friends with publishers you’re working with. You should be able to tell if a pub takes the business seriously after a few questions. If they tell you not to worry, take a long time getting back to you after offering a contract, they’re not taking you or your work seriously.
Publishing is too often an ego stroke. You see it in real time, a new pub just signing author after author, getting all this social media attention. Sending in Publishers Marketplace deals one after the other when they don’t use the site for any other professional purpose. Folks that have yet to publish a single-author title getting mentioned in the same breath as pubs that have been around 10-20+ years. It’s silly. Success in publishing is nebulous, fleeting. In the short term it’s a faddish popularity contest; in the long term publishing outfits go away and are utterly forgotten while, hopefully, some of their authors go on to have long, lauded careers.
PS. It’s a big financial risk publishing other people’s work. You can try your best and fail and also not screw your authors. It takes thousands of dollars to start a press and you have to be willing to lose all that money, so we have respect for anyone who tries to do this with the best of intentions. We’re in the midst of a very uncertain economic climate and many publishers fund their presses from their day job earnings. Every year a few presses go under following layoffs. They then pay royalties owed and release authors from contracts, reverting their rights. They aren’t bad people for having a failed business.
PPS. Amazon rankings in most categories are super shallow on volume. If you’re top-20 in almost any subcategory it just means you’re consistently selling a dozen copies a day. You aren’t going to drive so many additional sales from that ranking that the $0.99 presale and post release is going to be worth it. Small press publishing is a battle of attrition. You as an author and your pub do everything you can to keep it in front of readers’ eyes, eventually some good review or recommendation, seeing the book cover so many times triggers a sale months, years after release.
PPPS. 2022 might be the calm before the storm. You might be thinking, wait, 2020-2022 hasn’t exactly been calm sailing in the publishing world. Big presses trying to merge and getting rejected, paper shortages, inflation everywhere, tightening reader budgets, etc. Horror and SFF have had a major surge in popularity in the last five or so years. 2023 is shaping up to be very challenging for indie publishing. A looming recession paired with a cooling off in interest in genre books will shake out a lot of weak hands.