Small Press vs. Large: One Size Does Not Fit All
July 7, 2021 § 11 Comments
By Christina Consolino
My debut novel, Rewrite the Stars, launched in March with a small press. Reviews have been generally positive, something for which I’m immensely grateful, and some readers have even been so kind as to reach out via email. They’ve taken the time to say how the story has touched them or to commend me on the research I did to adequately portray a character living with PTSD. These emails breathe life into me. As an introvert, with a screen between me and the correspondent, it is easier to engage with my readers, and I enjoy the interaction.
Sometimes unexpected reviews arrive in my inbox with words that surprise me. Case in point: a message from a fellow author that said, “Wow. Your book is really well written.” Said author went on to imply she’d not expected a well-written book to come out of a small publisher.
Why not? I thought. I put as much (or more) time and energy into that book as any other author, including those published with the big houses.
That particular comment made me wonder about the viewpoints of other authors with respect to small publishers, and I took to observing questions and comments in various author-centric online venues. Multiple attitudes stood out to me:
- Small presses are fine, but I have more potential than that.
- Small presses are for authors who can’t find an agent.
- Small presses won’t do anything for your career.
I didn’t make any comments in those forums, but here’s what I might have said in response to those points of view:
- Readers and reviewers judge our stories. Go write the book that lives up to the potential you believe you have.
- Agents pass on a lot of good books, and agents don’t always sell books they’ve taken on. Agented authors often still publish with small presses.
- The first book is published, and I have that work and experience to point to if I want to pursue a bigger publisher next time. It’s my choice.
The author’s comment (and those views I found online) reopened my eyes to the bias people still hold against work published by small publishers. Somehow, we’ve convinced ourselves that the large publisher is still the gold standard. Want to read a book with great writing? Try one released by a large publisher. Want to read a novel with a compelling storyline? Make sure the author is agented. It’s the same bias I continue to see against those authors who choose to self-publish. It’s a bias that shouldn’t continue to stand. And yet, it does.
I don’t have a good answer, but I might have a good reminder. We’re all unique human beings with individual stories to tell. We each have different perspectives and experiences, and only we live our particular lives. When I sit to write in the mornings, I don’t share my table with anyone else but my cats (usually Benedict and Arnold, but sometimes Heathcliff wanders by that early too)—and they don’t write (at least not yet). So what’s put on my page comes entirely from my mind, through my own lens.
Later, as my stories go through revision, that process will be unique too. Perhaps I make entire passes or tackle one chapter at a time. Maybe I look for one character and revise their arc or check on setting and description. But again, I’m working with my lived experiences to inform that revision, which are unique to me.
And finally, as I ready my work for possible submission, that journey will be all my own. Other authors can have similar stories to tell, but they did not receive the rejection from the agent that said, “Not for nus [sic]” or the acceptance on the short story that talked about the “urgency in the character’s actions.” They didn’t juggle sending out submissions while taking care of my four children, working multiple teaching jobs, and dealing with my aging parents, one of whom has Alzheimer’s.
A question interviewers like to ask debut authors is: “What can you tell us about your journey to publication?” Writers jump on those stories, finding camaraderie in the similarities and marveling in the differences. If we’re so willing to consider that the journey can differ for anyone, why can’t we accept that the end publishing goal might also differ?
But that, my friends, is the beauty of the current publishing world. What works for me might not work for you, and that’s okay. Just because some of us willingly choose to publish with small presses (or self-publish) does not necessarily mean that our work is inferior. “One size fits all” doesn’t apply here, and it’s time for us, as writers, to realize that.
Christina Consolino is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in multiple online and print outlets. Her debut novel, Rewrite the Stars, was named one of ten finalists for the Ohio Writers’ Association Great Novel Contest 2020, and she is the co-author of Historic Photos of University of Michigan. She serves as senior editor at the online journal Literary Mama, freelance edits both fiction and nonfiction, and teaches writing classes at Word’s Worth Writing Center. Christina lives in Kettering, Ohio, with her family and pets.
Some of my aspirations involve small presses. If the ones I have in mind one day send me so much as a kind, encouraging rejection letter I would be over the moon because the quality of what they print is AMAZING.
(Nowhere near sending anything btw, but I know who I will send it to when it’s ready, and it isn’t one of the big ones).
Thanks, Christine! We all have to do what we feel is right for us. I have an agent, but that’s no guarantee my work will sell. Publishing with a big house also guarantees no success. Like Jackie above, some of my aspirations involve small presses, because I’ve been impressed by what they publish.
Yes! This was a wonderful read this morning and a post I will save. As an author with two books from small presses, I have encountered this bias often, as if there were something “less” than about my memoirs because they didn’t catch me an agent. Thanks for this.
Well said, Christina. Congratulations again on Rewrite the Stars.
Wonderful post and congratulations on publishing your novel. Because of your post, I will definitely buy the novel. It’s strange, but I have always thought of small presses as being sort of academic and “clubby” and expected the books they publish as being of superior quality. We writers are certainly an idiosyncratic bunch–I guess no different than the rest of humanity. Best of luck to you on your book sales and the public response to it,
p.s. As the mother of three grown sons (two who were 11 months apart), I well remember running to the top of my fridge where I stored my portable typewriter (I’m OLD 🙂 ) to write while the oldest two still took long naps. They were difficult days, but the best of my life. I am retired and have more time to write, but no little boys to cuddle with anymore!
You wrote to several of the issues and biases of small presses, but I would also like to add that more than one successful small press book has later been purchased by a large press that finally realized its potential. And yes, I will go on, it’s unfortunate but true that large presses release their fair share of poor writing but they hope it will sell for other reasons. Lastly, isn’t it surprising how the writing market has now exploded and would be authors are coming from every direction? Too often that direction does not involve true desire or talent as much as hoped for glory and career. Congratulations and good luck on your book, Christina.
I’ve never once considered the publisher before I bought a book—I base my decision on the jacket copy and the hook on the first page, a great review, or other people’s recommendations. A big publisher may make it more likely for a book to find it’s way to me, because it’s in all the bookstores, but it’s no guarantee of quality. Whereas some brilliant books I’ve read lately came from small presses.
From September to March I sent out more than 100 queries, both to agents and small publishers. I heard back from almost ALL of the small presses in a short time frame. Even those who passed were exceptionally kind and encouraging. Agents? Mostly radio silence. And small presses have tiny staffs, so the fact that they still reached out even when passing said a lot. I ended up with the press that published my memoir in 2013 and I couldn’t be more thrilled to be working with that team again. Not sure I would do an agent search again.
Thank you for this. I agree that a bias against small presses does exist, but I take the opposite view. Because a small press has fewer staff and resources, they must be more selective when choosing work to publish. In my experience, a smaller press is likely to provide a high quality story
Sorry- I hit send before finishing. Provide a high quality story. I will look for yours.
I’m always at least a day late (and here, I’m weeks late), but thanks to you all for reading and commenting. This community of supportive writers is what keeps me going!