Recently a friend told me that he had written a book and had an offer from “a very, very, very small publisher” They pay 15% royalties (40% on ebooks) but the writer wondered if he was selling himself short, or if self-published would be better until he attracted someone bigger. He also didn’t know what a reasonable advance would be. It occurred to me that we may all have had these same questions at one time or another.
I know a little about the pros and cons of self publishing. After all, I started my own publishing company because I didn’t have the patience to wait for the mainstream to let me in and I wanted to know for sure if anyone wanted to read my work. Luckily, I have found an audience.
I also placed one of my novels, Blood and Bone, with a small publisher (Echelon Press.) With 60 other writers to support, they have not been able to give me the support I can give myself. HOWEVER, they did make it easier for me to break into Borders and Barnes and Noble. Once I started selling in those places they happily accepted my other titles.
I think the primary advantage to NOT being self-published is distribution, and that difference exists more in the minds of booksellers than in reality. My books, manufactured by Lightning Source, actually get to stores faster and more reliably than the Echelon title, yet there are still managers who back away from “print-on-demand” books (if they find out.) A few I’ve become friends with were quite stunned to learn that my books were printed as needed because they had been told two falsehoods: they are not returnable and they take much longer to order.
My advice to my friend was to question the publisher closely about distribution. They need to have a distributor in addition to Ingram and Baker & Taylor. Lightning Source distributes thru both of them but there’s no sales force. If they have all three then a book has as good a chance at getting the “brick and mortar treatment” as anyone else. If, like Echelon Press, they also work with a distributor that specializes in library sales you have a good chance there too. But understand that even with distribution, few stores will stock your title unless you do a signing there.
As for the advance, I think I have some unusual advice. Try negotiating for a smaller advance with a dedicated marketing and publicity budget. If they spend money on promoting your book, you'll get more royalties in the long run.
Also, for what it’s worth, my experience has been that you are more likely to go from small publisher to big publisher than you are to go from self published to big publisher. And who knows? If your book is a hit you might turn a small publisher INTO a big publisher.