When it comes to getting published, most of us think of the Big Five or of self-publishing. We're missing the entire world of independent publishing, which often releases some of the most exciting books on the market.
Depending on the size of your platform and your book, you may benefit more by working with an independent publisher than even one of the Big Five.
How can this be? Let's begin by looking at a few titles.
WHICH BOOKS CAME FROM INDEPENDENT PUBLISHERS?
Graywolf Press published this provocative debut novel which "demolishes the arbitrary borders between psychological realism and science fiction, comedy and horror, fantasy and fabulism." It was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Europa Editions brought us Elena Ferrante's New York Times bestselling series, which is now an HBO series. When my mother hurt her back and had to stay in bed for days, I sent her Ferrante's quartet. It's primarily a story about the friendship between two women, and was published in 2012, at a time when four books that chronicle the experiences of women as they become wives, mothers, and leaders, wasn't as trendy as it is now.
New Directions, one of my favorite independent publishers, released The Emissary. It turns a dystopian story in which children are born old and weak into a light, humorous tale. Oh, and it won the National Book Award in Translated Literature.
Catapult published the memoir All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung. Memoirs are notoriously difficult to publish with the Big Five when the author doesn't have an existing platform or an extraordinary story. Chung has a unique tale to tell about being adopted as a Korean child by a white family in Oregon, but ultimately the strength of this memoir comes from her profound insights and an ability to take the reader through the emotional vicissitudes of what it means to belong.
It was a National Bestseller and the Best Book of the Year by the Washington Post, NPR, Time, basically everyone.
When it comes to accolades and reviews, the prestige of independent houses isn't outdone by the Big Five.
What do independent publishers offer?
As Europa Editions Editor-in-Chief Michael Reynolds says:
Independent publishing is safeguarding bibliodiversity in this market ... it's mostly the independent publishers that are willing to take those chances and those risks. To run those risks with authors that don't necessarily present themselves as having a super strong platform or an existing audience.
Elena Ferrante famously doesn't do any publicity or marketing. The Big Five rely more on authors who come in with ready-made platforms that can be leveraged and grown. Independent publishers are willing to consider the book first and foremost.
Sure, it needs to sell, but the primary question is: Does this manuscript feel important?
As Michael shares in our interview, independent publishers like Europa don't have to meet a large quota of titles each year. Their mandate is to find books that entertain and enlighten, and usually come from diverse voices.
- Europa looks for books that have a strong sense of place.
- New Directions focuses on experimental American poetry and prose, as well as contemporary international writers.
- Graywolf Press looks for underrepresented and diverse voices.
You probably noticed that the books we covered above are unique, either because they blend genres or involve foreign locations or authors. If you have a manuscript that doesn't quite fit the typical mold, and you don't have a huge following, you might want to consider independent publishing.
These days, it's encouraging to know that these publishing houses accept that authors should focus on writing rather than on marketing themselves.
What are the disadvantages of working with an independent publisher? (Let's talk about advances)
The general structure of the publishing deal is the same as with the Big Five. The author receives an advance, the publisher owns the rights, the author earns royalties.
However, advances offered by an independent house are usually more modest. They're not handing out six-figure checks. Independents with average sized lists will usually offer $2,000 to $10,000. You'd be unlikely to receive more than $20,000.
On the other hand, the Big Five has doled out seven-figures for debut books. The seven and six-figure deals get the most publicity and give the impression that many of the deals by the Big Five are significant.
This is not the case. The majority of authors with the Big Five, especially new and unproven ones, receive relatively modest advances.
Rachel Gardner says a first-time author's advance varies widely but is typically from $5,000 to $15,000. Other authors cite initial advances as from $1,000 to $10,000 or $5,000 to $10,000.
The most important thing to consider is that if you don't get at least $50,000 from a Big Five imprint, you're not likely to get much of their marketing and publicity attention. They have lead titles that cost big bucks, so they're going to direct most of their efforts towards those books.
On the other hand, even if you receive a modest advance from an independent publisher, you're likely to have their attention. Unfortunately, their pockets aren't as deep when it comes to marketing and publicity either, but because the average indie only releases about 35 books per year, they tend to devote attention to every title.
Would your book be in bookstores?
This is one of the most common reasons authors opt to publish traditionally. (Although it's lower on the list compared to other factors.)
Independent publishers will usually maintain good relationships with booksellers. As Michael Reynolds says, supporting books that are excellent and under-the-radar is a way for booksellers to differentiate themselves from Amazon. Their choices need to be more curatorial.
Booksellers often rely on independent publishers to help them introduce readers to gems they may otherwise have overlooked.
Europa is so good at this that they often get placement at the front tables without paying for it. Listen to the clip to learn how Europa manages to pull this off, and how an author should pitch their own book to their local booksellers.
Which books is europa looking to acquire now?
Michael's answer corresponds with some of the current trends in publishing. If you have a manuscript that may be ready for submission soon, it's worth hearing what Europa is looking for.
Keep in mind, just as with the big publishers, Europa only accepts agented submissions.
You probably now have a good sense of whether your book may be aligned with what independent publishers are looking for. Hopefully, you're also encouraged by the fact that among these publishers, the author platform isn't as important.
Here's a list of over 150 independent publishers or small presses along with their mandates.
What do you think about going with an independent publisher? Let us know in the comments!