Indie Versus Small Press, Which is Better?

Well, I got Prizm up. So, this little image on the side of the blog page here actually clicks through to the right Amazon page now. Hurrah! 

Can you pass the wine, dear, no not the bottle, the carton, thank you. It is truly cause for celebration. I mean, really. That book has taken quite the journey since its inception in 2007. Didn’t take that long to write, of course. It had other detours. Which leads me to this blog post. 

Some people may be wondering whether or not to self-publish (go indie) or go with a small press. I had that question too. I don’t anymore. In my mind there are two levels: big New York House and Indie. The in-between doesn’t work. Not for me and here’s why.

I have gotten two novels published with small presses. Each time I made the mistake of thinking that going with a small house would open me up to a fan base. I thought that if I was on their roster, I would be introduced to their loyal cult of eager readers. These things were assumptions on my part and I have no one else to blame. Really, I don’t. 

I was very hungry for validation. I wanted that seal, you know, the one that looks like a passport stamp and says, “This Work is Certified Good” displayed on my book covers. I wanted someone else to say, “Kid, you got a future here!”

Yeah…all that went out with the manuscript you wrap up in brown paper, tie together with twine and mail to yourself because you’re too poor and too romantic to get a real copyright. 

In order to understand this ridiculous mindset, you have to understand this next part. As a young man growing up, I loved bookstores. We had a B Dalton’s or something very similar in the local mall of my one horse town in Minnesota. And I would go in there and stare at the books, the covers, mesmerized and in love. When I found out about Dungeons and Dragons, well, no other places on earth could hold such wonder for me.

Every few months when I would visit my mom in dirty, stinking Minneapolis, down on Hennepin Avenue in that section eight apartment that smelled like boiled cabbage, after eating government issued cheese and powdered milk, we would go to the big bookstores. Well, it was Narnia all over again and better, Dark Narnia.

In those days, my parents (dad and step-mom) wouldn’t let me have that stuff. Now, get a load of this, it wasn’t drugs that I smuggled into my room, no pot or booze (though once I made a terrible, chalky wine out of apple cider in a glass jug at the bottom of my closet for six months) or even nudie photos. No sir, I smuggled in books. Novels and artwork.

Once my dad caught me bringing in The Art of Dragonlance under my over sized T-shirt. Long and tiresome (oh, my God) family “discussions” were had over the image of the dark wizard with a dragon’s head hanging in block and tackle behind him (Raistlin Mejere, in case you’re wondering) and so, I read my secret books at three a.m., my eyes wide, mind ablaze with all that wonderful, dark imagery. 

I remember staring up at the wall, the whole wall, where Piers Anthony’s books were displayed thinking: who is this guy and how do I get a wall of books devoted to me? I started writing Tales of Mulglania when I was twelve and got about two pages into, well, maybe four, handwritten…oh, it was so painful, I had no idea what I was doing and, well, I gave it up, but the images, the story, would bloom in my mind like some kind of angelic vision, and I would wander all around the parks and deserted farm roads, eyes cast skyward, divining visions and fancying myself some kind of other worlds prophet.

Well, my dream was and is to see my books on the shelf. To go into B Dalton’s or Barnes and Noble and see that wall of all my books. So, now you can see why, in going with a small press, craving approval and validation, played such a huge part.

I don’t think I am alone in this. I think artists need that. After all, they spend untold hours creating things with the purpose of having them viewed and appreciated by other people. That’s all it is. Not having your stuff viewed and admired…well, it’s like being a ghost, I mean, you’re dead. No one sees you.

Therefore, I went with two small presses and wish I hadn’t. Without slinging any mud, for this is not what this post is about, I found that what I can do, on my own, produces a far superior product. In the one case, no editing was done. Zero, zilch. I didn’t believe it, until I got the manuscript back and looked. Oh wow. Nada. And the cover, oh, as kindly as I can put it, was not competitive.

But then, who can I blame? In theory, I should never had submitted a manuscript with even one tiny error. Okay, true, but if I’m going to edit it myself, promote it myself and…the artwork I am commissioning now is (sigh) miles and miles and miles above what I was getting for “free.”  Only, it’s not free, you pay dearly. 

It is a hell of a thing, I suppose. A small press will want you to promote your books anyway, every step of the way. You will have to work harder at promotion too, because you won’t be able to do things like change pricing on Amazon, update descriptions and categories and otherwise steer the destiny of your book as well as if you owned the rights.

In one case I found that I had signed away audio rights. It’s too bad because my own voice is perfect for that piece. I don’t say my voice is perfect for everything that I write, but that one, it is. When I inquired about it, the publisher did not want to relinquish those rights and was conveniently absent when I asked about actually producing the audio book. I will eat my shoe if they make an audio book out of that thing. Without hot sauce too.  

But there again, my fault. I should have paid attention, should have…what, cared? I was too enamored that someone else thought the work was “good enough.” 

In the end, the work was always “good enough.” Better than “good enough.”

All that is the downside. The upside and it is an “up” is in one case I got to see how a pro editor operates. That helped me. Though honestly, the thing that helped me more was reading. It’s almost laughable, but if you just read a lot, so much of this stuff becomes apparent. 

I don’t think you should do it all yourself. I mean, you need perspective, you need someone to say, “air brush the nipples” so to speak and hunt for typos, tell you when one paragraph will work quite nicely instead of three. Well, I do, but you can pull all that together yourself. 

I still want a New York publishing contract (or several), not because I think it will help me produce a better product particularly, but because it will open up distribution lines and exposure. 

Yes, I still want to see that wall. 



3 thoughts on “Indie Versus Small Press, Which is Better?

    • Andrew Michael Schwarz

      Oh, there must be! It would far too tragic a world if not. But I think you have to be very selective and maybe even a fan yourself to know. So many of them seem to be digital bargain basements.

      I went with two small press/e-publishers. I managed to get the rights back on one and will have to wait it out on the other one. But both didn’t/don’t offer much and nothing I couldn’t do myself with a better result. Cover art is poor. Editing in one case was non-existent. Zero marketing. And no control over pricing.

      On my own, for $210.00 I can turn out a great cover, retain all rights and make not just e-books but print and audio books, and sell on all the same platforms and venues.

      Now, if a small house was going to a) introduce me to an audience/readership b) market me c) turn out a better product than I am capable, I would want to go and probably would go that route.

      Maybe some small presses have better distribution lines and cater to a crowd that trusts their tastes and therefore buys from them. I mean, that has to be true, right? It’s just, how do you know before signing up?

      • judypenzsheluk

        I have to agree with you, Andrew. A few of the small presses I’ve looked at don’t appear to offer much, if anything, that I can’t do myself. There are a couple that look very good (and I’ve read books by their authors), but of course those presses get a lot of submissions and can be as difficult to break into as trying to land the big NY agent/publishing deal. Will continue the journey and the dream. Best to you.


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