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.