Defending the small independent publisher

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Mary Nickum presented content from this article at the 2010 OWAA Annual Conference in Rochester, Minn.
You finished the final draft of your book and feel it’s ready for publication. Now you’re faced with
the problem of where to send it. You’ve already checked some of the best known publishers, but most of them are closed to freelance submissions, requiring an agent to open those doors. Self-publishing is another option, but that requires a cash outlay that may be hard to justify. Enter the small independent publisher.
Independent publishers are not an imprint, nor an arm of another company. They are usually described as publishers with annual sales below a certain level. Generally, in the United States this is set at $50 million, after returns and discounts. That’s compared to larger publishers that generate sales of more than $100 million. Small presses are also defined as those that publish an average of fewer than 10 titles per year.
Currently, there are at least 50,000 publishers in the United States. Although most trade books found in chain bookstores are published by any one of a few very large publishers, the vast majority of publishers are small. Between the two extremes are the established small publishers that have grown to mid-size proportions, publishing about 25 to 100 books per year.


In publishing, the Big Six are the entrenched, powerful entities, the major players in publishing. But independent publishers, when viewed as a group, are a major power unto themselves.
Just to be sure who we’re talking about, The Big Six Publishers are:
1. Random House, the world’s largest English language general trade book pub- lisher, is a subsidiary of media conglomerate Bertelsmann.
2. Penguin Group is the second largest trade book publisher in the world, behind Random House.
And, in no particular order from here:
3. Hachette Book Group is owned by Hachette Livre, a French company.
4. HarperCollins Publishers, under the News Corporation umbrella, is based in midtown Manhattan and publishes a lengthy list of bestsellers.
5. Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, a division of the Educational and Professional Publishing Group of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
6. Simon & Schuster is a major trade house based in New York City, N.Y., that dates back to the early 1920s and was home to one of the industry’s most famous editors, Maxwell Perkins.
The book publishing industry is traditionally divided into the following sectors:
-Trade: Most of the books you find at the bookstore, intended for the general public.
-Professional: Books specific to a particular industry or even a particular company.
-Textbook: Books specifically targeted at students.
-Scholarly: Specialized books, primarily published by the university presses.
-Religious: Books published by religious organizations for their members or potential members.
Small independent publishers may be found in all of these sectors.
Independent publishers may NOT be the answer to your publishing needs if:
-You want your book to be on the table closest to the front door of Barnes and Noble.
-You are working through an agent.
-Your book contains color photos or illustrations.
If that’s not the case for you, keep reading.
Why might an independent publisher be preferable?
They’re open to riskier content, they are willing to take the time to develop an author’s career and they’re specialized.
Also, independent publishers account for almost half the books published annually.
There are publishers that exist for nearly every imaginable genre. There are regional publishers, micro-publishers and electronic-only publishers.
By specializing in certain topics, a pub- lisher develops a keen sense of the market and a set of deep relationships with relevant channels.
Some are more willing to take risks; others are only willing to buy books that are sure to succeed. Some have a long and storied history; others crop up to meet a need, releasing only one or two books.
Search the Internet. Check with bookstores and libraries. Ask other writers you know.
Qualities that might make an independent publisher attractive:
-Plenty of author control: The author agrees to all changes.
-Print on demand: There are no storage issues.
-No agent required: In fact, most agents won’t work with independent publishers.
-Higher royalties: You’ll make more money on book sales.
-Publishing contract is straight forward and simple to understand: You won’t need a lawyer to interpret it.
-Best of all, it’s not self-publishing: There’s no stigma attached, no money up front.
Here are some terms and statements to watch for in your search for an independent publisher:
-Book printer vs. publisher vs. book distributor. Here’s the difference: A book printer is just that, a printer. A publisher works with the author to develop a marketable product and, through established contacts, will assist the author in selling the book. A book distributer gets books from the publishing house to the bookstores. A distributer does not print books or communicate with authors.
-If a publisher wants money upfront, that’s a big red flag. This is the fastest way to distinguish a vanity press from an independent publisher. An independent publisher will never charge money for publication, marketing or any aspect of publishing your book.
-In conclusion, for an author, independent publishers provide another avenue for publication, with many accepting unsolicited submissions, something that’s virtually unheard of at imprints of the Big Six. Independent publishers come with upsides and downsides that differ with each publisher, but for an author, the more options, the better.
For an increasing number of authors, indie publishing is the fastest and easiest way to produce books without the stigma or cost of self-publishing or vanity publishing. As with any publishing venture, do your homework.♦
–A member since 2000, Mary J. Nickum is a retired librarian who is now an editor and freelance writer. Her primary focus is on science for the public. Nickum is editor-in-chief of the Intermountain Journal of Science and currently edits World Aquaculture magazine. Contact her at


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