September 11, 2012

Small Publishers: Tips for Success — Guest: Susan Sipal

Susan Sipal

I’ve talked a lot about the issues facing authors on the Big 6 side of traditional publishing, from agent hunting to contracts. I’ve also discussed the self-publishing side of the aisle, from quality concerns to ebook pricing.

In contrast, I haven’t posted much about small publishers. Honestly, I don’t know as much about the issues authors face when they consider signing with a small press, and I try to avoid sticking my uneducated opinion into places. *smile*

Many of us consider working with a small publisher during our career, however, and we should learn about the pros and cons, the problems to watch out for, etc. So when I heard that my good friend Susan Sipal (her blog used to be called Harry Potter for Writers and is now Myth, Magic, & Mystery) had the inside scoop on working with a small press (Euterpe, the YA line of Musa Publishing), I figured I could start my education with her help.

Susan joins us today to talk about where she sees small publishers fitting into the changing publishing landscape and to share her tips on what to look for in a small press partner. Please welcome Susan Sipal!


Small Presses: Davids in a Field of Goliaths

Publishing Has Always Been a Force of Change

Revolution breeds innovation. In publishing revolutions, each invasion into a new print format has pushed the power of words into hands that had been previously denied.

With the Gutenberg press, both the religious and political status quo were threatened as the new paradigm upset the established calligraphers and illuminators to the point that in 1637, England passed a resolution to limit the number of the newly flourishing print shops. Later, in the eighteenth century, the power of the penny press brought the timely dissemination of news so widely to the masses that the common person became involved in politics like never before.

With increased mechanization, publishing flourished, but by the end of the twentieth century, dozens of small publishing houses had been gobbled up into what became known as “the Big 6.” While thousands of books were printed each year, writers and readers of niche genres, especially those far removed from bestselling lists, had a hard time finding each other. The competition for getting a book acquired and the lengthy wait to then get it published were daunting.

Once Again, New Technologies Spur New Publishing Options

Toward the end of the 1990s, e-book and POD (print on demand) publishing were recognized as the next wave in the publishing revolution but were slow to catch on. For writers, the fear of entrusting their hard-earned work to uncharted houses and the ridicule they faced from fellow writers was discouraging. For readers, the biggest drawback was in the cost of electronic readers.

But better and cheaper ereaders, coupled with emerging ebook publishers hitting big in select genres well suited for this new medium (such as erotica), eventually brought us to where we are today—the emergence of smart and quick Davids in a field of overgrown and slow Goliaths.

New presses are popping up to serve the rapidly expanding electronic market. Some of these smaller presses are ebook only, others both ebook and print (largely through POD).

Writers, having suffered through many years of being the unempowered lower rung on the Big 6 corporate success ladder, are thrilled to have multiple new markets for their work. And readers are enjoying the easy click of a button from their recliner to purchase a book from an author they’d never even heard of as little as five minutes before. So long as that read doesn’t disappoint.

The Need for a Great Story Hasn’t Changed

The publishing revolutionary challenge of our time is not about getting information into the hands of the masses. Due to the explosion of the Internet, most people in developed countries have access to more ideas and reading material than they can ever explore.

Today, rather, our charge is the preservation of Story. Story, that mythical element of the hero’s journey, or the mirror onto society that the writer-artist holds up to examine our inner conflict as we grow and expand, or the flow of memories and knowledge by which we empower the next generation with the understanding of what has come before.

Story does all that, but a story often cannot be contained in 250-word blog posts, 140-character Tweets, 30-minute sitcoms, or even 6-hours of an MMORPG. To really penetrate into the heart of a character, an issue, a people, we need a book…no matter the medium they are presented in. And here is where, in this new paradigm, the lure of the small press powers up.

A Field Full of Small Press Davids—Too Much of a Good Thing?

As publishing history has shown us, when a switch to new technology tosses all the rules up for grabs, entrepreneurs eager to cash in will start grabbing. But in a few years, only a few will still carry on. And decades later, we’ll probably be back to the “Big 6 E-Presses” in need of a new rebel leader.

For now, though, as a writer, how do you find those quality presses among all the slush? How do you determine which ebook publisher, who may be small now, will still be publishing your work to the greatest amount of readers decades from now (as ebooks never truly die, they just go to that great unclicked cyberlink in the Clouds)?

Three Tips for Recognizing a Quality Small Press

From my experience as both a writer and editor, I feel there are three key considerations writers should look for:

  1. Publishing Experience
  2. A Solid, Specific Vision
  3. Partnership with Authors and Readers

1) Publishing Experience: Whereas a brand-new press can be an exciting venture for the author—get in on the ground floor when the press is most open to new, untested, talent—you want to be sure that the people behind it have the experience to know the market, choose quality stories, reach readers, and still be operational several months, years, out. Prior publishing experience is the best indication, even if you’re looking for a leader in the revolution. Often the people with the most intimate knowledge of the old system have the insight to change it for the better.

  • Look at the key leaders at the publisher and see what experience they bring.

2) A Solid, Specific Vision: Very few publishers can take on any type of story, throw it out there, and have it stick. That’s why the Big 6 have multiple imprints. Readers are creatures of habit and tend to go back for the same type of story again and again. While a growing publisher can definitely have more than one imprint, they should also have a vision for what type of reader they want to reach with what types of story.

  • Look at their marketing and distribution program. Do they know their readership and have a solid plan for getting books into those hands?

3) Partnership with Authors and Readers: Some writers may have the business sense and stamina to both write an excellent story and publish and market it themselves, but others will prefer to have an experienced partner in the latter. Revolution breeds treacherous waters. There are those out there seeking to take advantage of writers over eager to get their story out through whatever means. Choose a publisher who offers transparent and author-friendly contracts, who will partner with you to match your story to your reader.

  • Look for a publisher who is innovative and flexible, but knowledgeable, in the new possibilities that are presented.

Bonus Tips for Finding a Small Press Partner

Here are a few extra tips to help you in choosing a small press:

  • Find out what other writers are saying about the publisher you are considering.  The Absolute Write forums are excellent for this.  You can see Musa’s forum here.
  • Follow the publisher’s social media, along with some of their authors’, to see what they are doing in regard to promotions.
  • Check out sales rankings from books they’ve recently published on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.
  • Read one or two of their recently published stories in your genre.  Are they well edited?  Is the formatting clean?  Do the stories indicate a publishing program you will be proud to be a part of?

If the small press has founders and staff with experience in both traditional and independent publishing, a vision focused on the needs of their readers, author-friendly contracts, and growing sales, they might be a good option for us to consider.


Susan Sipal is published in fiction and non-fiction with essays, short stories, and a novel.  Her latest release is a historical horror short story, Lighting the Sacred Way, in Journeys of Wonder Volume 2 by Fuzzbom Publishing.  She tweets at @HP4Writers.


Thank you Susan! I loved hearing about some of the ways “The Powers That Be” have fought to maintain the publishing status quo against the tide of change before—all the way back to the 1600s!

We tend to think this moment in history is more chaotic, more troubled, more…something…than any other time. But the saying is true: The only constant is change.

Please note that I haven’t researched Musa Publishing (they’re not open for submissions in my genre), so Susan’s background and mention of them should not be taken as my endorsement of them as a publisher. We all have to do our due diligence research specific to our publishing goals. The tips Susan shared are a good place to start, and we can apply those to all small publishers.

My favorite tip (as in, I hadn’t heard it before) was the advice to follow the publisher’s social media accounts specifically to check on their promotional efforts. Just as we use our author name to attract readers by building a reputation for quality, publishers attempt to do the same. Fans will follow quality publishers to hear about new releases, and publishers’ social media accounts can give us insight into their reputation and promotional policy.

What was your favorite tip for what to look for with small publishers? Do you have any tips to add to the list? Are you currently with (or are you considering) a small press? How did (will) you choose which one to partner with? What aspects or services are most important to you?

Comments — What do you think?

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Susan Sipal

Thanks so much for hosting us, Jami! And if any of your readers have questions about small presses in general, or Musa/Euterpe in particular, I’ll try to answer in the comment thread as best I can.


Juliana Haygert

I guess the beauty of today’s writing industry is that we have options, and we don’t need to choose only one and stick with it forever. I signed with 2 small presses—a novelette out in Dec with one and a novel out August 2013 with another—and I’m pretty happy so far. My editors are great, respond to my emails promptly, and the “family” feel is awesome too. That doesn’t mean my search for an agent is over. It’s just on pause right now since I’m neck deep in edits 😉 Why did I choose to go with small presses? Lots of reason. In no particular order: I want to try all ways of getting pubbed, including small presses. I like having someone looking over my manuscript and helping me make it better and editing it (yes, you can hire someone to do this when self-pubbing, but then it’s out of your pocket and editing isn’t cheap, especially content critique). I write shorter stuff like novellas and novelettes and no agent wants short works. I’m a chicken to try self-pubbing (but someday I’ll. I think) and it’s easy breaking into the big 6 game. An agent has to really love your ms to take on it and they always say they pass on mss that are pretty good, but the big 6 market has limit space and they need to be picky, thus choosing only what they consider is the best of the best. It doesn’t mean our stories aren’t good…  — Read More »

Susan Sipal

Juliana, you make some incredibly good points and I appreciate your sharing from your experience and adding to this discussion. You’re hitting on what is so exciting about the market today — that there are so many GOOD options for writers to choose from.

Good luck with your edits. And thank you!

Teresa Robeson

I’ve heard of Musa Publishing before through their publication, Penumbra magazine. Thank you, Jami, Susan, and Ellen for an enlightening post about going with small presses. And thanks, too, to Juliana for sharing her experience.

I completely agree with your strategy, Jami, of making decisions on a story-by-story basis. 🙂

Susan Sipal

Thanks so much for mentioning Penumbra, Teresa. It’s definitely done very well and has garnered a lot of positive attention and praise for Musa. For any speculative fiction writers out there, it’s our pro-rate paying monthly eMag.

Teresa Robeson

Susan, I write spec fic and definitely have Penumbra on my list of magazines to submit to. I’m really glad it’s doing so well!

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Hi Jami!
Thanks for having Musa Publishing. Very inciteful.
I started out with a small publisher and was thrilled with their experience, vision and author partnership. I can’t say a single bad thing about Liquid Silver Books. All I have is good things to pass on. They were quick to reply to emails, their contract rocked, their cover artists are very talented, they have fantastic author support, etc.
I’m now on to bigger and better things, looking for an agent and hopeful for notice from one of the big six, but I wouldn’t change a single thing about my experience with LSB.
I’d do it the same way all over again.
Have a great evening!

Susan Sipal

Thanks for commenting, Tamara. I’m glad your experience with Liquid Silver was so positive. I’ve heard good things about them.

Good luck with your future submissions!

Stina Lindenblatt

Great post! With all the new small presses popping up all the time, it’s hard to know which ones are worthy of our babies. This post will help give us a little more confidence in our choices.

Susan Sipal

Thanks Stina! And I think Absolute Write is one of the best resources for researching not only agents but small presses as well.

Todd Moody

Great stuff as always! Thanks for broadening our horizons, Jami and thanks to Susan and Ellen for sharing their insight with us. I agree that their niches to be filled in every market, and finding the right one for each story is key.

Susan Sipal

Todd, I agree with you and Jami on this — it’s finding the right place for each story. That’s how I approach my own works.

Thanks for commenting!

Julie Musil

Hi, guys! Thanks so much for this great post. I tell ya, I’m keeping my eye on all these small publishers. I do worry about which will last. I’ve heard good AND bad stories. Great idea to follow AbsoluteWrite forums. Thanks for the tip!


[…] site, which is now defunct because Delicious bought them out. I admitted in my last post about small presses that I don’t know enough about them to recognize a good […]

Tobin Elliott

Very good article and I agree with everything you mention, except for one thing:

“Find out what other writers are saying about the publisher you are considering. The Absolute Write forums are excellent for this.”

I would caution anyone on the Absolute Write forums. They are highly opinionated, they demand citations (yet rarely offer more than opinions drawn on their “expert” knowledge), and are steadfastly against many self-pub and small-pub options.

I know this because I worked with a small press that someone asked about on the forums. They took one line out of context on the publisher’s site and then proceeded to rip into them, stating completely incorrect opinions and yelling over anyone else that tried to defend them. They were like sharks in bloodied water.

Occasionally I go in to see who they’re hanging out to dry and it never seems to be any different.

My point is, use (and post) on AW at your own risk.


[…] year, my friend Susan Sipal shared her advice about finding a small press partner. One of the things she mentioned was checking out the publisher’s listing on the Absolute […]

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