Publishing with a Small (Traditional) or University Press: When it Might be Right for You and Your Book by Lisa Romeo

Starting with Goodbye This is a guest post by Lisa Romeo.

If we’re gut honest about it, we all have that same dream, right? The one about a major New York City powerhouse publishing our book and their marketing department deciding our book will get a big promotional push. That our book will be reviewed (positively, of course!) in the New York Times, landing on every “must read” list. The dream usually ends with an all-expense paid nationwide book tour.

Then we wake up. Or at least stop staring out the window.

Daydreaming can be fun, and often keeps us going when the writing stalls, when it seems agents won’t even answer an email, when we get a case of green-eyed author envy (as in, Why is so-and-so’s book everywhere I look?).

Eventually though, it’s time to cast our gaze elsewhere. Time to be practical, and to answer key questions: Is chasing after the Big Publisher dream worth the years it may take? Is there another path to publication, one where my book could shine, one I can be happy with, one in which I’d have a bit more control in the fate of my manuscript?

I’m not talking about self-publishing, hybrid, or partner publishing. I’m talking about the traditional publishing model still practiced by hundreds of small (boutique) publishers and by university presses. According to publishing industry stats, some 45 percent of all traditionally published books are brought to the book-buying market this way. Poets & Writers has a combination list of 500 small and university presses  in its submission database, while the Association of University Presses lists 140 publisher members.

Here, we’re talking about a wide range of publisher sizes and output—anything from producing a handful of books per year up to several hundred. Many smaller publishers and university presses focus narrowly in one or several ways—limiting their work say, to one or maybe two genres or forms; to books that address specific subjects, geographic regions, style, or aesthetic; books that push forward particular agendas or social movements; or books that define the publisher’s particular stance or mission. Others are wide open to any manuscript that lands in their submission pile and makes a big impression, any author whose work the editors fall in love with and can’t wait to bring to readers.

Which means it’s very likely there’s a small or university press out there where your manuscript can find a welcoming home. Here are 11 signs that your book (and you) might be a good candidate for the world of smaller press publishing.

  1. You don’t have an agent. Though some small and university presses do work exclusively with agents, a large percentage not only don’t require an agent, but offer precise submission guidelines on their website so authors can confidently submit their work in the way editors want to see it.
  2. You have a highly polished, complete manuscript—and an equally excellent query letter, synopsis, and proposal. If you are fully prepared with all of these elements, you have everything an acquisitions editor or publisher might directly request.
  3. Your memoir manuscript is a so-called “quiet” book. If you’ve heard feedback like: you need a bigger arc…a juicier conflict…a more complex plot…more dramatic characters… it’s likely to find a more welcoming reception from small/university presses which look beyond what supposedly triggers bestseller status.
  4. Your nonfiction book speaks to a devoted, but not a huge, readership. Decision-makers at smaller and university presses are typically determined to bring books to particular, passionate readers who need and want them, rather than selling to the masses.
  5. Your so-called platform isn’t impressive (or even noticeable). Many agents and certainly most large-scale publishers want nonfiction authors to already have made a mark as an expert, logged speaking experience, have a telegenic presence, and thousands of social media followers. Not so in the world of small / university publishing. (Though if you arrive with those credentials, it’s certainly a plus!)
  6. You’d be happy as a bigger fish in a somewhat small pond. Numbers tell a story. Large houses pump out thousands of books per year, while smaller publishers may publish anywhere from a handful to a few dozen to a few hundred books annually. You’ll likely be more appreciated, get more personal attention, perhaps have more input into creative / production decisions and marketing/publicity efforts.
  7. You like rolling up your sleeves and working on teams with limited resources. While some small and university presses employ stellar marketing and public relations folks, it’s more likely you’ll do your own book PR. Then again, even authors with major publishers are now handling most of their own PR, event scheduling, publicity and promotion, often with scant publisher support.
  8. You teach, work in academia, or otherwise move in circles that appreciate small press publication. Many university presses and small, boutique publishers are widely respected in academia, social sciences, and other environments. A university press in particular carries a certain cachet on the CV of an author who teaches at the college or graduate level.
  9. You like to take control of the submission process. With so many publishers in its ranks, of varying sizes, missions, genres, etc., you can build a large list of potential publishers. (Mind you the post-contract timing may be the same—12 to 18 months until publication date—but the submission process may move more quickly.)
  10. You’re reconciled to a low advance. Or even no advance. Thus are the realities of small press and university publishing. Not always, but be prepared.
  11. Your agent has completed the submissions she/he deems appropriate, to no avail. Some authors come to an agreement with their agents—after a series of No’s from large and/or medium-sized publishing houses—that the writer will submit directly to small/university presses, and if offered a contract, then the agent can step back in. This proves exceedingly helpful for first-time authors who will benefit from an agent’s interpretation of the contract, advice, and negotiations with the publisher on the author’s behalf (often resulting in increased advances, better royalty and other terms).

Downsides to small or university press publishing? Of course, just as there are drawbacks to any publishing model available today. Do your research, perhaps beginning with this Jane Friedman article.

In my upcoming NFAA teleseminar (to be broadcast on October 17), we cover how to research and target small and university publishers, how university presses typically operate, and tips for submission strategy. I also discuss my own experience publishing my first book, Starting With Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love After Loss, with a university press, including how I got that offer on the same day as another offer from a small publisher, and then secured an agent who helped me reach a decision and negotiated contractual items. My publisher is extending a 20% discount on my book, when ordered directly from their website, through November 16. Here’s the link: http://www.unevadapress.com/books/?isbn=9781943859689

Hope you’ll listen in!

Author Bio:

Lisa Romeo writes and teaches nonfiction, including memoir, personal essay, and freelance journalism. She is the author of Starting With Goodbye (University of Nevada Press, May 2018). Her work is cited in Best American Essays 2018 and 2016 and has appeared in the New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine, Longreads, Next Avenue, Inside Jersey, Brevity, and many other places. You can visit her website, and connect via Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

2 Comments on "Publishing with a Small (Traditional) or University Press: When it Might be Right for You and Your Book by Lisa Romeo"

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  1. Diane says:

    I’ve both traditionally published with a smaller house and self-published. Still wandering this confusing morass. Really needed to read this today!

  2. Lisa Romeo says:

    Hi Diane,
    I think there are going to be more and more writers like you, who have published in various ways, often with widely varying results as well. Confusing is right!

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