Small Publishers and Ethics


This month, we’re going to have an honest talk about small publishing houses. The good, bad, and ugly.

Every writer starts with a dream: get published, have their books on shelves across America, and be famous/die rich. Or some version of that… nevermind that bookstore chains are dropping dead left and right. As we wade deeper into the literary community, that dream tends to wither and shrink and we cry out, “my book is worthy—why won’t someone give it an honest read?”

Market saturation and competition means that publishers don’t care about good stories. They are a business. They care about SELLABLE stories; it’s all about the cash flow for them. It may sound heartless, and it is. It’s also good business… apparently business is good.

After your dreams erode enough, writers are thrilled when somebody, anybody, shows interest on a publishers end. That’s why there are so many scam publishing companies: they prey on our desperation to cling to that dream. I’ve written extensively about scammers, but what about legitimate small publishers?

I’ve had some experience with them. My first book was published with a small publisher which was sold to another publisher and then shuttered, leaving me in limbo. That may have been for the best. That publisher was a micropress didn’t really seem to know what it was doing, in retrospect. Their closure, and then my continued desire to write stewed for a few years and inspired me to start again, in earnest.

Additionally, I’ve been published by some other smaller publishers. So far, it seems like I do the best when I am at the helm of my books’ destinies. Honestly, I often feel like I know more about the publishing industry than most of them, and my desire to capitalize on my own efforts oftentimes puts me at odds with small presses because of ethics.

Small publishers want to stay in business. As your distribution line, you need them to stay afloat so that your book remains on the market. They need to make money… but often, they don’t do anything worth paying them for (many small presses don’t edit in earnest and don’t provide a quality cover—they also don’t do promotion.) Many do things right, but also, many just slam your manuscript through a boilerplate Print On Demand wizard, tack an extra percentage onto the sales price, and then hold your book hostage.


Yes. Now that they have a contract, you can only get copies of your book through them, and it will cost you extra. This is a standard practice, and always has been… but it’s different when the company’s primary model is molded around the POD structure and then you become the primary customer, knowing that you will need books if you’re going to shake some trees and create ground-level sales.

They are in the game to make money—just like the big boys, but they will often play fast and loose with the rules.

I was under contract with a company who tried to redefine a few things on me. I threatened to sue when they wouldn’t simply release me from contract and things turned ugly. Eventually, we calmed down, but I kept an eye on them. They made a number of questionably ethical decisions, including how they handled their royalties.

I am no longer under contract with them. Crazy thing is, everyone learns to do math in grade school and I reverse engineered the money. While I worked my tail off and spent cash on ads, etc. because of little things they charged to me that are typically the publishers responsibility (and were not otherwise noted in the contract) they still took liberty with how they handled royalties and charged them to me. If I received any royalties at all, they were tiny. After hundreds of sales, I made perhaps fifty dollars over a 2-year contract (they made money when I did… and they made money when I didn’t since I was the only one paying for returns—net royalty arrangements are bad news.)

In the end, I did the math again and realized it would cost more money to do anything other than wait out my contract… so that’s what I did.

Learn from my mistake: go into a contract with eyes wide open. Yes, being able to say “traditionally published” is a huge step… but it can come at a huge cost. Measure it before you sign on the bottom line.

If you are reading up on small publishers, it may be handy to have a field guide to the Independent publishing world. Click here to check out my book, the Indie Author’s Bible.

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