Chip MacGregor

January 8, 2013

Should I start with a small publisher to get the attention of a large one?


Someone wrote to ask, “Do you think it’s a good idea to start with a smaller publisher and try to have some success, as a way of getting the attention of a larger publisher?”

That’s not only a good idea, it’s pretty much the pattern writers follow in today’s market. (Occasionally we’ll see a great novelist get discovered and published by a large house, but that’s become the exception instead of the rule.) The majority of authors are starting small, working with the publisher to sell their book, building a reputation for themselves, and then later moving to a larger house  — or sometimes simply remaining with the smaller house. 

Of course, to do that, the best thing an author can do is write a great book. Greatness gets discovered, in my view. If you write a great book, readers are going to find you eventually. I’ve seen that happen time after time. But whether you remain with a smaller line or move to a larger house is probably going to be part of the “career” conversation you have with your agent. Some writers have done very well at smaller publishing houses, and prefer feeling like the big fish in a smaller pond. You might be much more comfortable with the editing style of a niche publisher, or the familiarity of the staff, or smaller sales expectations that come with a small house. Don’t think that landing at a large publisher is going to be a dream come true — it might be great, but larger houses have unique issues (for example, you can become writer #37 on their list of top authors). A large publisher may offer you access to wider distribution, but that access may not amount to much — and we’ve all seen authors get swallowed up by a big house and just disappear. Bigger can be great, but it’s not always better. Nor will it always pay more, since many niche houses will offer you a 50% royalty on e-books — double what the large New York houses will pay you. As with most things in life, one direction is not the best choice for everyone. 

The advent of self-publishing and micro-publishers adds another possibility to the mix. Some authors are self-publishing first, then moving to a larger publishing house. And many others are doing all of the above — self-publishing some titles, working with niche houses on certain titles, and doing the occasional book with a large publisher. As I’ve noted before, that’s really the new pattern we’re seeing in career development for writers. The days of living from one advance check to another are pretty much over; the days of treating your writing as a business are here. So think through your goals before you decide to commit the next year to writing your novel for a company that wants to prohibit you from writing anything else.

And one addendum — several people have written to ask about doing a printed book with Xulon or PublishAmerica or one of the self-publishing houses. Just so we’re clear, those are not really publishing houses; they are printers. I don’t have anything against an author choosing to self-publish, and have encouraged authors I represent to consider doing both an e-book with Amazon or PubIt, as well as a print version with CreateSpace or Author Solutions. Just understand that a book with a self-publisher doesn’t count as a “small house.” Unless you have a sales channel to move a lot of your books, publishers will completely discount the fact that you paid to have your novel self-published. So be wary of spending a lot of money on print versions of your books. If you have a means of moving copies (conferences, speaking, organizational support, media exposure) it can work, otherwise it might very well be an unnecessary and expensive mistake. 


Share :


  • Daisy Rain Martin says:

    I love my small publisher too, but I’m keeping my options open. I know self-publishing can be successful, but I would have felt like a failure if I had done that. I wanted the validation. Any knucklehead and can pay to have his book printed up and peddle them out of the back of his car. My manuscript was chosen by a publisher–and I STILL peddle my book out of the back of my car! 🙂

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I’ve done the same thing, Daisy — selling books out of my trunk, just to get it out there. Nothing wrong with that. (In fact, it might be an example of the key to writing success!)

  • Georgeann Swiger says:

    Thank you for writing this post. I know there are many paths to getting published, but you made me feel better about small publishers.
    I absolutely agree with you that it’s the quality of the writing in the book that makes an author a true success.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yeah — there are some editors and sales people who will say that quality doesn’t seem to matter in publishing, Georgeann… but I’ve never believed that. I still believe greatness will be discovered, whether at a small house or a large one. Thanks for being part of the conversation.

  • Robin Patchen says:

    This article gives me hope. I admit, I would love to be published by one of the larger houses, but I’m so blessed to have landed at a smaller publishing house. I love the comraderie among the writers and the accessibility of the staff. So maybe one of the larger houses is in my future, but if not, I’m happy with my publisher. It would be nice to have an agent to discuss my career path with, though. Maybe with my next contract.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      An excellent attitude, Robin. LOTS of authors are so focused on growth that they fail to stop and appreciate the success they’ve had. Nice to hear you say you’re happy.

  • Thanks for keeping us in-the-know. With all the shifting landscape, it’s great to have a guide. I know lots of authors who are trying new things with small presses and self-publishing, and finding great success. Sometimes, it’s a matter of fit for the work.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I agree. The keys to selling any product have always been pretty clear — create a good product, get it in front of potential buyers, and talk about the benefits.
      Authors who can do that with their books certainly stand a chance to make money, Connie.

  • Ed Hird says:

    “I don’t have anything against an author choosing to self-publish, and have encouraged authors I represent to consider doing both an e-book with Amazon or PubIt, as well as a print version with CreateSpace or Author Solutions.” Dr Ron Richardson, a Family Systems Theory author and bestseller, published his latest book through CreateSpace. I would be interested in hearing more about CreateSpace, the pros and cons of going with them.

    “If you have a means of moving copies (conferences, speaking, organizational support, media exposure) it can work, otherwise it might very well be an unnecessary and expensive mistake.”

    This does seem to be the bottom line. Are there any stats on such expensive mistakes in comparison to those who have made it work through ‘means’? Or are you talking more observationally?

    Ed Hird+

    • chipmacgregor says:

      That’s an excellent question, Ed. I’ll look for a data study to support that contention, but in the meantime I can tell you that my experience in publishing over the past 30 years is that authors who have a vehicle for moving a self-published, printed book are the only ones who seem to be able to make money with them. For most people who pay to print a book, it’s a money-loser because they can’t sell enough to work off the initial investment.

  • Lisa Van Engen says:

    Thanks for the great information. There are for sure so many new directions to explore.

  • Tim Osner says:

    Very helpful. Great post.

  • Rose Chandler Johnson says:

    I find this article very helpful. It’s great to get this kind of information from you. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.