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It is becoming increasingly common to hear of authors deciding to pick independent publishers as the best option for their books. This might not be the perfect option for some authors, but is it right for you and your book?

In this article, you’ll discover how independent publishers work, you’ll find out the pros and cons of using an independent publisher and you’ll learn if an independent publisher is the correct choice for you.

What is an Independent Publisher?

The term ‘independent publisher’ applies to any publisher that is not one of the big five (or one of their imprints). They tend to range in size from publishing tens to hundreds of books per year, they also range in size in regards to their publishing team and overall profitability.

However, there are a number of key factors that link all independent publishers:

  • Small team.
  • Genre specific.
  • Limited budget.
  • No agent.

Let’s look at each of these:

Small Team

Independent publishers lack the resources of big publishers and will, therefore, have small and less specialized teams. Whilst a big publisher might have whole departments dedicated to such tasks as cover design and editing, an independent publisher might see these tasks falling to a single person or even an external freelancer.

This means that books may not receive the same thorough treatment you’d expect from a big publisher. You may also find that an author is expected to ‘pitch in’ to a much larger degree. This may be in the editorial process, but it will almost certainly be the case in the marketing strategy.

Genre Specific

Independent publishers are often genre specific, publishing books for one small niche within the wider marketplace. This might be military history, picture books or just about any of the other genres.

The advantage of this approach is that the publisher will have an intimate knowledge of the genre and the readership. They will have genre specific knowledge that is missing in a bigger publisher. In fact, it is not unusual for a big publisher to ‘buy up’ a smaller publisher just to secure the genre expertise.

If you are writing in a defined genre, especially one away from the mainstream, you may find the expertise locked within an independent publisher will allow your book to flourish.

Limited Budget

As you may expect, independent publishers will operate on a limited budget. This is not true for all independent publishers, since some of the larger companies make a healthy profit. However, at the smaller end of the scale independent publishers are often working on a very tight profit margin.

The impact of this will be seen throughout the process. Independent publishers will tend to publish fewer books and (on the whole) take less risks. You never see outrageous advances paid to authors and expensive marketing campaigns are out of the question.

There is a flip side to the limited budget and that is that independent publishers tend to be very good at selling the books they do publish. They often don’t focus on securing bestsellers (a process you see in big publishers) and, instead, tend to focus on making each book profitable in its own right. From an author’s viewpoint, this means the chances of a runaway success are rare (it happens but not often and tends to be linked in with a book winning a major literary prize), but it also means that you are unlikely to be ignored by your publisher if your book is not a hit in the opening weeks.

No Agent

Many smaller publishers will accept submissions directly from an author. This means that authors without agents can submit. However, this may leave the author in a difficult position, since they will be left to negotiate the contract by themselves, but an agent is not essential. If you have struggled to find an agent, approaching smaller independent publishers may be a good way to get your foot on the traditional publishing ladder.

Money Talks

When assessing the suitability of an independent publisher for your book, the deal they are offering is critical.

Independent publishers often mirror big publishers in their approach to contracts, but there is some variation.

When you sign a deal with a publisher you are giving them the right to publish your book. In return, they are agreeing to give you a cut of each sale. The publisher will provide all the cash needed for editorial support, printing, marketing and anything else that is required. In return, they’ll give you a cut of about 15% of the price that they sell each book. This is known as a royalty.

There’s two other things to consider in the money equation: advances and other rights.

An advance is the upfront payment the publisher will make for your book. This is not a free gift, but is, instead, an advance on the royalties that they feel they will be paying you in the coming years. Therefore, if you received an advance of $10,000, you’d need to earn $10,000 worth of royalties before you started getting any more cash. Advances are seen as a gamble by the publisher and the bigger the advance the more ‘skin’ they have in the game and the bigger their desire will be to make your book a success. If a book fails to sell enough copies to ‘earn back’ your royalty, you don’t have to pay anything back. However, the chances of getting another book deal are reduced.

There are a few things to consider with independent publishers and book deals:

The first is the size of advance. A big publisher may be offering advances ranging from thousands to tens of thousands, this will not be the case with a smaller publisher. Advances tend to be in the thousands. It is also not uncommon for a smaller publisher to offer no advance at all. If this is the case, the author should be offered a bigger cut of the book sales, in excess of the 15% offered by big publishers. It is also not uncommon for publishers to offer ‘profit share’ contracts. This is where the profit for each book sale is split 50/50 between the author and publisher.

The second important element is that it is much more common for small publishers to allow authors to retain ‘rights’ for their book. Most publishers will want the digital right but beyond that they can be flexible. If you are being represented by an agent, the agent may wish you to retain these rights so they can attempt to sell them to a third party.

The Advantages of Going with an Independent Publisher

Deciding to take the plunge with an independent publisher is a difficult choice but here are a few things that might help:

They Know Your Genre

Independent publishers operate on tighter profit margins and, therefore, tend to stick to one genre. This means that they have unique genre expertise, which might help you sell more books. If you write for a genre that is under-represented by big publishers, an independent publisher might just be the answer.

You Don’t Need an Agent

Finding an agent is a time consuming process with no guarantee of success. Many writers just don’t have the patience to wait for agents to ‘discover’ them in their slush pile. If you don’t want to play the agent game, but still fancy a traditional publisher, then an independent publisher might be the best choice.

You Retain Some Control

Creative control can be a deal breaker for some writers. If this is an important element of the publishing process for you, then a big publisher might not be the ideal choice. Since independent publishers have smaller teams, they tend to work more closely with authors and are keen for their creative input. If control is your thing, then an independent publisher might be worth a punt.

The Disadvantages of Going with an Independent Publisher

The main disadvantages to independent publishers come when they are compared to a big publisher. These may or may not be important to your thinking process.

You’ll Probably Make Less Cash

Independent publishers tend to produce books with predictable sales over time. Though bestsellers do, at times, emerge from independent publishers they are not part of the publisher’s business model. Instead, they focus on publishing books that will make smaller profits over time. This means that, as an author, you’ll probably sell less books than you would have at a big publisher. Well, in the short term anyway.

It’s Not a Big Boy

This might be stating the obvious but independent publishers are not big publishers. If legitimacy is a key driving force, then you may be uncomfortable being published by a smaller publisher.

You’ll Have to Do More

This is listed as an advantage as well as a disadvantage. An independent publisher’s smaller team mean that some of the publishing burden will fall on your shoulders. You will be expected to play a part in the editorial process, you might be asked to help pick covers and you will certainly be asked to play a significant part in the marketing strategy. If you don’t have the time or inclination to get involved, then an independent publisher might not be ideal for you and your book.

Is an Independent Publisher Right for Me?

There are so many factors to consider when deciding on a publishing route, and the choice is so personal, that only you can make that choice.

This said, I think there’s three things to consider.

The first comes down to your goals. If you seek the legitimacy of being traditionally published but have been unable to secure an agent and/or big publisher, then an independent publisher may be a good fit. You will discover that they are easier to access and may be more willing to publish your book. You will also find that you come away from the process with both digital and print copies of your book. There is even the chance your book will be stocked in bookshops.

The second reason why an independent publisher might be a good fit for you and your book comes down to your time commitment. If you are in a position when you don’t have the time or inclination to self-publish, then an independent publisher may well be a good option. They will provide all the resources you require, with you only having to invest a minimal amount of time into editorial and marketing duties.

The third reason for seeking an independent publisher is a little less obvious. If you have written a book that has a clearly defined niche market (e.g. military history, coding or fly fishing), and you feel that you lack the marketing expertise to sell the book via self-publishing, then an independent publisher may be the ideal option. An independent publisher will have a deep and proven understanding of your readership, they will know the books your potential readers buy (and read) and they will know how to access this market.

In conclusion, authors find themselves with independent publishers with many reasons. Personally, I have had books published by not only big publishers, but also good sized independent publishers and even tiny one man band micro-publishers. At the time of publication for each book, the choice of publisher felt correct. I’ve always tried to work with publishers that understood what I was trying to do, as well as provided the best chance of the book being a success.


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