7 Lessons From Publishing My Book With a Small Press

7 Lessons From Publishing My Book With a Small Press

Just over two years ago, I was offered a contract to sign on with a small press for my debut novel.

I was so shocked I felt that it must be too good to be true. The press was small, and it was quite new. I’d read enough horror stories of predatory “publishers” and well-meaning flops to know just how risky this could be.

Should I take a risk on an opportunity right in front of me? Or after querying about 50 agents and getting a decent handful of promising bites, but no offers, should I forge ahead with my fingers crossed?

There was real risk to both paths. I panicked like a deer caught in headlights.

After a great deal of agonizing and painstaking research, I decided I would rather fail by action than inaction.

So I scoured every corner of the Internet I could find looking for dirt on the small press, had phone calls with the editor, emailed with the co-publishers and got the contract perused by a literary lawyer. Then I signed it.

I’m so glad I did.

In the time an average single manuscript goes from query to agent, and agent to publisher contract, I’ve released three books, won the top honor in a state level competition, gotten a significant jumpstart on building a readership and experienced a wild ride through publishing that feels equivalent to a bachelors degree.

And hey, my small press turned out to be pretty great. They’re open and responsive, my editor is wonderful and they’re growing so fast that in my most recent round of pitching, some agents I queried actually knew who they were. All in all, my risk has been rewarded many times over.

Even better, I’ve learned a ton along the way. Here are my top lessons in my publishing journey so far.

1. A slow month is OK

When my first novel released, like every other author, I became obsessed with my book’s Amazon ranking and sales numbers. My first few quarters were (relative for a debut from a small press) promising, but then — predictably — they calmed down.

The first time it happened it felt like the apocalypse.

But truth? It’s just how it goes sometimes. It’s okay. Really.

2. Sales aren’t the most important aspect of publishing a book

A second lesson that quickly followed the first is  you can’t live and die by your sales, it’s just too much of a roller coaster.

Instead, focus on things you have more direct control over: readership and your list of titles.

If you keep releasing and you keep growing your audience, the sales will follow.

small press3. Put yourself out there

Like so many other authors, I’m an extreme introvert. It’s not just that being social is draining; I am also very good at convincing myself no one is interested in what I have to say. But wow, was I ever wrong.

At events, I have been shocked by how many people not only allow me to stop them at my booth, but react with enthusiasm at the story premise and even buy it.

Likewise, I was convinced that other authors already knew everything I knew — until I started presenting to writer association chapters. The incredible response I got to my talks forced me to acknowledge that public speaking is well worth the anxiety.

4. Targeted audience outreach is better than rapid growth

I first started growing my readership through Facebook ads, using the network’s profiling feature to target my ads. As I honed my targeting, I reached above average engagement and saw steady growth from this approach.

Then I learned an author friend was growing her list even faster through Instafreebie and book swaps. So I tried them, too. I saw a huge uptick in new email subscribers with each promotion I joined…and a significant decline in engagement.

Never forget — a small, engaged list is worth far more than a large list that ignores you. It’s not a race.

5. Always be writing

Any time art meets business, it can make an artist go a little crazy.

To me, the best way to counter that madness is to always be planting that next seed by looking ahead and writing my next story.

On a day where a lackluster Amazon review turns up or I feel frustrated with where I’m at, knowing I’m already putting in the work for the next step ahead is a comfort.

6. Always be iterating

The work of marketing your books is a moving target.

In publishing’s constantly shifting landscape, the trends for what works best to reach readers is changing, too. The best way to keep growing is to pay attention to industry news and trends, and to be constantly experimenting with what works best for your readers.

What works today will not necessarily work next month. If you’re not trying something new, you’re falling behind.

7. Respect your limits

Writers also hold a hundred other roles in our lives. We are parents and employees and runners and travelers and so much more.

Writing in itself could be an all-consuming work. Marketing your books could be all-consuming work. You can’t let it be all-consuming. You won’t have anything left in you, and that will come back around and hurt your writing, too.

Live. breathe. Give yourself permission to work a reasonable amount and then rest.

I have learned this year just how depleted I can get when I push myself beyond my limits, and it was awful. Never again.

Just try something

I could go on with this list for a long time. But the biggest lesson I have to share is that there is no better way to learn for yourself than to get out there and try things.

Write. Publish. Promote. Experiment. Do it all over again.

Sure, there are a lot of cautionary tales out there about how an author lost a beloved book to a predatory scheme or how a self-published disaster can harm your odds of getting traditionally published later.

I’m calling BS on it. If you ask me, there is always another story idea to grab and write. There is always another chance to try again. And if you try, that next time, you’ll be all the better equipped to do it better.

I can’t imagine where I would be right now if I had not taken the chance on my small press — everything I have gained from this process has supercharged the opportunities ahead.

If there is some alternate world out there where I didn’t take this chance, I’ve left alternate-me far behind in my dust.

My wish for you is that you have the opportunity to do the same.

What is the top lesson you have learned from your writing experiences so far?

Traveler and blogger Chris Guillebeau

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16 comments

  • Lots of great advice in your post. I haven’t tried Facebook ads but your experience makes it seem like a good option and I’ve added it to my marketing strategies for my books. Thanks so much for your tips!

    • Definitely! Start with a small budget, try several beta tests to experiment with language, images and audience (only one at a time), and as you start to see what works best, start investing a little more. Good luck!

  • From conversation I had with Pulitzer Prize winner (all but last 2 words paraphrased): People who were in the MFA program with me ask, “How come he made it when I didn’t?” The answer is simple: I write.

  • Bryan Fagan says:

    Emily – You made my day. My editor and I wrapped up my first novel a month ago. I am pursing the big agents at this time but a voice in the back of my head continued to whisper ‘small press’. After reading your article I wonder if it was you doing the whispering.

    What you wrote makes a ton of sense. This is my first novel. Nobody knows me. Yes, a NY City agent could give me a shot. I could also find a $100 bill in my driveway but will I?

    We need to start somewhere instead of waiting around hoping. This avenue will at least give me a chance like it gave you.

    Excellent article. Thank you!!!

    • So glad, Bryan. I started out seeking for an agent as well, but I am so grateful for my small press experience — I even won an award for my debut, and that plus all my speaking experience has helped me get agents’ attention now that I am querying a fresh manuscript again. Though I’d love to work with the big five, I also intend to self publish and continue small press work in the future too – each has their own perks and creative satisfaction. Good luck!

  • Giulietta says:

    Hi Emily, I don’t read all my email newsletter way to many of them. but this one called to me and I’m glad it did. Fabulous article and advice. It is better to take action than not take any. I’m looking for publishers for my book, so you gave me another avenue I didn’t really think about. thank you!

  • deb says:

    Emily
    Thank you. I needed to hear every word of this post. I too am done collecting rejections from top agents. I did find one agent willing to pitch the manuscript to the top three Christian publishers… and now I can say I have been rejected by the best.
    Since then I’ve been dragging my feet, not in the mood to be rejected by the small presses as well.
    You’ve given me hope. Thanks again.

  • Skye says:

    This article couldn’t have come at a better time for me. Thank you SO much for writing!

  • Linda says:

    Great article, Emily, thank you. I LOVE this blog site!! Always good stuff!

  • Muhammad says:

    I think this is great !!

  • I love your advice about trying something new or you’re falling behind. I’ve learned that lesson that what worked for one book might not work for the next. Always learning and investigating new ways to market.

  • Stefanie Chandler says:

    I am a newbie; I think that is the term. I have a book “The Crud Box…an Inventors Supply Kit”. It is a picture book for kids 5-10. My question is can a “picture book” be used posted or read on a Kindle pad? I am dyslectic and reading on a computer screen is ruff, so I have never even tried Kindle and those little phone things…forget it.

  • Colin says:

    Actually getting published was a reward. My publications were poems that were selected and published in anthologies. Later criticism is easier to take when editors have already selected your writing for publication. Readership following I’ve learnt can be varied. My first novel seemed to attract older readers. Whereas the second and third appealed to young readers. You do need to be aware of topical interest and be relevant to the period you are writing in. I will return to read your article, Emily, It covers so many points and is very encouraging for writers. Great article.

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