One of the great rivalries in trade/mass-market publishing is that between big and small--i.e., big companies/corporations and small/independent publishers.
With so many corporate publishers dropping mid-list authors, there's been a lot of talk about small houses being a refuge for moderately (but not wildly) successful writers, as well as a good place for new writers to get their big break.
Working as I do for an independent publisher, it's of course tempting to say, "We're great, and those big, powerful publishers like Random House and Simon & Schuster suck." The latter simply is not true, however; and it would be a bit disingenuous for a small publisher to claim that they can give writers as much as the larger publishers.
So, herewith, my honest assessment of what I see as the benefits and drawbacks of big vs. small.
The Big Houses
The Benefits: No question about it: If you are looking to make a living from your writing, a contract with a major house is going to get you much, much more money in terms of advances. Because the big houses often have very successful anchor writers, they have extra money to take chances on new writers. Also, for obvious reasons, many (perhaps most) agents prefer to work with the major companies.
The big houses have the best publicists, too. This is not to say that the quality of their employees is necessarily better than the smaller houses' employees. But publicists who work for, say, St. Martin's or HarperCollins have much more clout in media outlets, especially television (which is the single best way of selling books). TV producers might take a call from someone at Harper; they're much less likely to take a call from us. And good publicity, while not a guarantee of great sales, is very, very helpful.
The major review magazines, as well as mass-market publications and newspapers, prefer books published by the big houses. This is not to say that smaller publishers don't get reviews in good places; it's just to say that it's much harder for us to be taken seriously. Again, reviews in the right places help sell books.
Additionally, large houses have more to invest in cover art and production values. While I think we do great covers for our books, if you put small press books alongside books by the larger houses, you will usually find more innovative and beautiful covers by the larger companies. And there's no more effective advertisement than a terrific cover.
Finally, the big companies have that most important of publishing requirements, distribution. They have sales forces that get your books onto the shelves of the major chains (often by paying for that privilege) and even the smaller stores. Getting into bookstores is probably the single biggest hurdle a new writer faces after publication, and the big houses can pave the way here. And I do think that many novelists feel they haven't achieved a true "legitimacy" as writers until they can walk into any bookstore in the country and buy their books.
I've heard some of my colleagues from independent publishers say that editors at the big houses don't care about their writers, that they're inflexible on deadlines, and so forth. For the most part, that isn't true. This is still an industry where editors sign only the books they really love (or think will sell a lot of copies). Editors want to sign writers they find exciting and fun to work with; they don't sign up books and then let them twist in the wind. However, editors at the corporate publishers do increasingly have their time sucked up by endless meetings, budget projections, and so forth, which often leaves them much less time to work with manuscripts. So it's not unfair to think of these editors more as sponsors of a book/author they believe in rather than editors who sit with pencil in hand and edit every page of a manuscript.
The Drawbacks: It's getting harder and harder to get published by one of the major houses, unless you're already somebody. The delightful exception is St. Martin's, which has always had a mission of helping to break new writers; but even there, there are only so many slots each year. The difficulty of a newbie getting a contract with a big house is tied into those same newbies' difficulty getting an agent. Agents want books that they can sell for big bucks--it's how they make their living. This means that when you query an agent, you'd best play up any small amount of fame you have achieved anywhere.
There's also the fact that with a lot of big publishers, you have one shot at success. If your book doesn't make a very specific sales goal, you may be dropped. (Some more forgiving publishers will look at the sales of your series over, say, three books, then drop you if you haven't met expectations.) This is always a hard decision for the publisher--we don't like dropping writers we've worked to develop and whom we (usually) like as people. But it's the editor's responsibility to make money for the company (and profitable publishers are good for everyone), and decisions have to be made accordingly.
This brings me to a point of more interest to publishers than to writers. The majority (80-90%) of writers do not earn out their advances. This means that the writer doesn't sell enough books to earn back their advance against royalties. This is a winning proposition for writer, losing proposition for publisher. In our gentleperson's industry, a publisher rarely asks a writer to return the unearned advance. But this amounts to a writer not earning his/her keep. I find this unfair to publishers, but it's the way it's done, and it helps explain why advances at smaller houses are so small (see below). Also, many editors and executives in the industry have come to believe that the huge advances that have become required for "hot" new books make modern publishing into a zero-sum game where profits are almost impossible. It's not a good situation to be in.
The Small Houses
The Benefits: We're great!
But seriously--We are run by people, not stockholders, which gives us tremendous freedom to do what we want to do. We can take chances on unknown writers with new and interesting ideas, books that wouldn't get past an agent or a big publisher because they're too quirky or too different.
We're in the business, usually, for one reason: Because we love it. Thus you're likely to find yourself working with a small group of people who are devoting all their efforts to a relatively small number of books. Overall, you just get more attention, more of a "family" feeling.
Most of us allow direct queries. This means that you can query us directly (i.e., not through an agent), pitching yourself and your work. This is a very important benefit in a world where agents are increasingly selective about the fiction they'll take on.
We have lower standards of financial success. In other words, for us to consider a book "successful," it has to sell many fewer copies than it would take for a large house to consider that same book a hit. This can translate to a longer writing career, and continued publication over a longer time frame, which is something that most writers want. This is not to say that smaller publishers don't drop writers from time to time, but the odds of being dropped are lower at the smaller houses.
The Drawbacks: Pure and simple, our primary drawback is our lack of money, which affects us and our writers in many ways.
First, we can't give large advances. Some of us don't give any advances at all. We can't take the chance of spending precious dollars that might not be earned back. And any money that we pay upfront has to be taken out of the promotion budget. This is a throwback to an earlier model of publishing, where a book was seen as a joint investment by writer and publisher. The writer spent the time in writing the book; the publisher invested in the book by typesetting it, printing it, and selling it. If the book sold, both parties shared in the profits; if the book died on the shelves, both parties shared in the loss. At the big houses, the deck is now stacked in favor of writers. At the independents, the investment model remains, and I think it's the right one. All of this means that you're not going to make a lot of money with a small press, and you should plan accordingly. Never quit your day job!
Second, many of us don't have sales forces or widespread distribution. We sell through all the channels we can--libraries, Amazon, direct to consumer--and some of us have relationships with the Small Press Department at Barnes & Noble and Borders, which helps get at least a few copies of our books onto a table in their flagship stores. So, if you sign with a small press, you need to understand that it's very unlikely that your books will achieve widespread distribution in bookstores throughout the country.
Third, some of us are financially unstable. Small publishers (especially micro presses) come and go; and for some it's here today, gone tomorrow. However, the same is true of the medium-sized and larger houses. Imprints are dropped; companies are merged. When Carroll & Graf suddenly closed its doors a few months ago, some respected mystery writers found themselves without a publisher overnight. This is the sad truth of doing business in the 21st century; there are simply no guarantees.
Fourth, our money crunches affect the author in smaller ways. We're stingy with free books--because every book we give away is a book not sold. We don't use atrociously expensive express mail services, usually sticking with media mail or cheaper forms of UPS or FedEx services. We won't send writers out on "tour," because we know that there's no way we'll make up for the expenses in terms of books sold. We expect our writers to work actively on our behalf to sell books, which puts writers in the position of being salespeople, which they don't always like.
Finally--and this is what pains me the most--we don't have all that much cachet in the world at large. I'm the most senior person at my company and have a nice title, and yet reviewers, columnists, and so forth routinely say, "Who? What company? Huh?" Our publicist gets this reaction, too. We're sometimes treated as pretenders with a high audacity quotient; how dare we attempt to publish books when that's what Random House does? This makes it harder to get reviews, though I am proud of the fact that we do get a lot of reviews for our books, simply because our publicist is such a bulldog. A lot of reviewers don't even have the courtesy to respond to our queries. In fact, some review engines have started putting out lists of companies whose books they'll review. If you're not on the list, tough luck. I want to write nasty emails to these people, along the following lines:
If I were to ask you about your political leanings and what you think about companies like Microsoft and WalMart, you'd probably go off into a foaming rage about how evil these entities are and how they are ruining this country. And yet, with your policy of reviewing only books from Random House or Simon & Schuster imprints, you are supporting the exact same model of publishing. So, thanks a lot for your hypocrisy, and I hope you enjoy selling an additional million copies of the latest Janet Evanovich.
In a nutshell: Both larger publishers and smaller publishers have a lot to offer. If I were a writer being offered contracts by either St. Martin's or the house I work for, I'd definitely take the St. Martin's contract, which would just be a better deal for me all around. (We've lost a few contracts this way, and there's never been any hard feelings because we understand that writers have the right to make the choices that would most benefit their careers.) But if I had a great book that couldn't get any attention because I'm not a movie star or a sports figure, I would be absolutely delighted to find an independent house that loves and supports my work. A lot of very successful writers started with smaller houses, then moved on to bigger and better contracts. This is just the way it's done, and we accept it as a mutually beneficial relationship (especially since we keep the rights to the fabulously successful writer's backlist).
How can you help support the worthy work of the small publishers, in the same way you'd like to support independent farmers? Please do the following:
1. Buy small press books, then keep them. Don't sell them on eBay or Amazon marketplace.
2. Recommend our books to others.
3. If you're a reviewer, respond to queries from small houses, then review the books.
4. At conventions, treat people from independent houses as you would treat people from the major houses. You know what I am talking about.
Cheers on this beautiful Saturday -- a much longer posting than I'd expected.