Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, October 20, 2008

Going from Small Presses to Big Publishers

Hope everyone had a great weekend, and I'm especially hoping that you recovered from fainting with joy upon seeing Phil's dad on the Amazing Race last night. Oh. Um. Maybe that was just me.

Reader Kathryn Born wrote in.... uh... when was it Kathryn? A while ago. She had a pretty simple but deceptively challenging question: Say you've been published by small presses. How do you make the leap to a big publisher?

I sat on this question until it was begging for mercy.

I have some things you can do and things you probably shouldn't do, but what you're not going to find is a silver bullet or a handy-dandy map from Point A to Point B. Because honestly, it's not easy.


First, the most important way to make the leap is to write really really good books. This sounds obvious, but what I mean is not just good-for-small-presses-good, I'm talking about getting nominated for awards and breathless reviews and and ecstatic word of mouth and getting blurbs from famous authors good. Every awards season there are a few books that manage to get nominated for some bigtime awards even though their publishers are not household names. It helps to be one of those.

But even if you aren't getting nominated for Nobel Prizes, it helps to sell a lot of copies. Again, this sounds obvious, but you're working on an uphill playing field. Chances are a small press is not going to have the distribution, advertising budget, and resources to really promote your book the way a major publisher would. So you're going to have to do a lot of that legwork yourself. This could involve hiring an outside publicist or banging down doors yourself, but demonstrating sales figures that are stunning for a small press is a great way of proving that you're ready for the leap.

Basically, what this boils down to is that you have to position and present yourself to an agent and/or to an editor at a major house as an up-and-coming author and someone that a major publisher might be able to make into a star. Your audience is growing. You're ready for a breakout. It's absolutely essential to both cultivate this attitude as well as have the books and sales figures to back it up.

This is really difficult, because you're going to be working against some institutional difficulties. If you have a small-press sales track it could pose some challenges for a publisher hoping for a good sell-in. A big publisher may have to work double-time to break you out. If they're going to make that investment, they're going to want to be confident that there's a very good chance of success.

But it does happen! Tom Clancy's first novel, a little number called THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, was originally published by the US Naval Institute Press. Sure, that was a while ago, but let's not forget the modern examples of self-published novels (smaller than a small press!) such as ERAGON and THE SHACK that were picked up because they were a) really good and b) selling very well.


Making the leap from a small press to a big publisher is hard. Making the leap with a sequel is really, really, really hard. Unless your series has broken out in a major way, chances are a publisher is going to shy away from an orphaned sequel.

Now, that goes for serial plots. But if you have a recurring character and the books stand alone, it's possible to continue to build the audience for that character as you move to a major publisher. But a new series or stand-alone entirely is often best of all.

So think very carefully and strategically about the project that you are going to focus on to make the leap. It should build off of your past success and be really good, really smart, and something that leaves little doubt that you're primed for a breakout.

Consult with professionals as necessary. This all assumes you have an agent.

Now, I know full well that waving my hand and saying, "Go write tremendous books, do all the promotional legwork, defy the odds with your sales, win some awards, find an agent, and oh yeah, think of a mind-numbingly brilliant idea for your breakout book" is not the easiest list to pull off. But, as the recent New York Observer article pointed out, as the big house publishing industry moves to a blockbuster model, small presses will increasingly fill the gap of really good, riskier books that the big houses are overlooking, particularly debuts. And inevitably, those small presses are going to be testing grounds for bigtime talents.

So it's not an easy landscape, and it requires talent, self-promotion, luck, self-promotion, talent, and luck. And talent. But this is the direction the industry is moving, and the only thing to do is to go with the flow, rise with the tide, and any other water metaphors that are applicable.

Tomorrow will begin an incredible, indispensable, inspiring, inseriouslyawesome two-part guest blog by a very successful published author on what you can do to promote your books. Definitely, definitely stay tuned!


Margaret Yang said...

Would some people also change pseudonyms at that point?

Nathan Bransford said...


Possibly, although it depends on whether the author is building or going for a completely fresh start. It varies from project to project.

Gwen said...

Thank you, Nathan! How fortuitous that you should post this now... I have just been wondering about small presses, and also about publicising one's book... I am very excited to read what you will post tomorrow. :)

lotusloq said...

Ah! the elusive, ever touted talent! Can I get me some of that on eBay, do you think?

Thanks for all the great info! Looking forward to your guest!

Vieva said...

I think this goes into the dumb question file -

But how do I FIND those small presses that print what I write?

ORION said...

Very good blog post- I know several authors in this position-
I also have read some amazing books from those same small presses...

writeidea said...

The Harry Potter series was originally published by Raincoast Books, a small Canadian Press. So even JK Rowlings had to go the small press route.

ryan-field said...

Looking forward to the promo blog.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I have watched a number of the erotic writers make the jump from e-press to New York. Lauren Dane comes immediately to mind, although she's only one of a host. (Anya Bast, too, I believe)

As for Phil's dad, yeah, that was a shocker. But not quite as much as watching him hug the girls who were eliminated -- Phil's face was priceless.

A Paperback Writer said...

Bloody depressing, really.

jeanoram said...

It was pretty cool seeing Phil's dad. "This is my dad," he says. Sweet.

I think, really, a lot of your advice in this post is good for any starting out writer--whether big or small press in hand. Write a good book!

Anonymous said...


Speaking of Canadian presses, (see comment from Write Idea) would you agent someone who got a publishing deal with a Canadian Publisher (obviously without an agent)? Why or why not?

Sheila said...

How do small publishers view this? Do they pretty much accept the fact that they may discover a talent, just to see that talent jump ship? Do they become bitter about this? Are you burning bridges that you might need in the future?

Or is it more like a triple-A player making the jump to the big league - more power to you?

Nathan Bransford said...


Attitudes vary, but Chuck Adams has some interesting perspective on that question in the interview I linked to on Friday.

Anonymous said...

Not to be, you know, that guy, but Harry Potter was originally published by Bloomsbury Publishers in London, not Raincoast in Canada. Although it's true--Bloomsbury was small. I think she got a 1,500-pound advance and her initial print run was 1,000 books. Based on the enthusiastic reception in England, her books later sold at auction to Arthur Levine at Scholastic in the USA. The rest is history ...

Anonymous said...

Not to be, you know, that guy, but Harry Potter was originally published by Bloomsbury Publishers in London, not Raincoast in Canada. Although it's true--Bloomsbury was small. I think she got a 1,500-pound advance and her initial print run was 1,000 books. Based on the enthusiastic reception in England, her books later sold at auction to Arthur Levine at Scholastic in the USA. The rest is history ...

Sheila said...

Reading that article is what put the question in my head - I felt so bad for Chuck losing his author. He comes across as a very humble and gracious man, and I had a feeling others might not be so gracious. I just thought that might pose problems for an author.

Sara Merrick said...

This was a really interesting topic and one I've not seen addressed before. Nathan, if you've submitted to the big houses and they've rejected your author, do you go to the small publishers?

hannah said...

My first book came out in e-book with a very small publisher and sold very few copies (mostly due to lack of distribution, but, let's face it; I wrote the book when I was fourteen and it was hardly Nobel Prize material).

I was unagented at the time, but, once I began querying agents, I mentioned this first book in the bio section of the query. Honestly, I can't know what effect this had, but about a year after I began the agent search I landed an agent and a deal with a major publisher.

For me, a publication with a small press provided a stepping stone to getting an agent. From there, I didn't have to be Nobel Prize worthy (I'm still only seventeen)--I just had to be good enough to get a deal.

Nathan Bransford said...


It depends a lot on the particular project and what the author wants to do.

denese said...

You know Nathan, I'm not someone who aspires to be a paid writer, necessarily. But, after reading your response to the question-- "how to go from a small press to a big publisher" my advice is the same that I'd give to my children, other family members or friends. That is: Do what you love, and all good things will follow (or not): Big publishers will follow or not.

I think that if you write (or work) because you want money, the money will NOT follow. If you write for fame, the fame will NOT follow. It's just one of those paradoxes of life.

Your advice is good, and is probably true, but it is true for the small populations of someones who can't help but write great things that garnish acclaim.

Adam Heine said...

Nathan, if you're an author trying to debut, could starting with a small press actually hurt you in the long run?

For example, is it worth it to put more effort into pushing a mediocre first novel at small presses, or would it be better in the long run to focus on finishing the much-better second novel and hope for a better deal?

Speed Reader said...

What kind of sales figures from the small press would a big publishing house be interested in? I'm sure it ranges, but can you suggest a ballpark range?

My Little Stories said...

Very nice insights on publishing.. Thanks! I'm not an aspiring published author but I do love to write. But for those who want to make writing as a career, starting with a small publisher do make sense. I guess if the author jumps to a big publisher later on, the small pub will also get some media coverage. I think everybody wins in this case.

Nathan Bransford said...

adam and speed reader-

Both of those questions are hard to answer because they depend so much on the specific situations. For Adam's question, it depends a lot on the expectations of the author, the genre, the particular publisher, etc.

And Speed Reader, it's really tough to generalize, but I'd say at least 5,000. More important than hard numbers though, is that the book does well relative to its situation. If it takes off on its own, even if it hasn't sold as many copies as it might have had it been published by a big publisher, it can still look impressive.

Nancy D'Inzillo said...

Not to totally contradict Denese's point, but. . .By all means, do what you love, but realize that in the publishing world of today, just writing is not necessarily going to be enough. The big houses have particular markets, and, as Nathan says in his entry, the "edgier" books these days are often being championed by the small presses. The small presses don't have the same kind of marketing resources, and, as an author, you have to be realistic if you publish through a small press that you're probably going to have to do a lot of the promotion yourself, because, let's face it, not all books sell themselves, even despite their fantastic content. Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems like the days of the writer just writing the book are over, not only to you have to write a strong text, you also have to promote it.

Adam Heine said...

Thanks, Nathan, and fair enough. Does it help if I add that the genre is sci-fi/fantasy (sci-fi, if I have to pick one) and that the author hopes to, one day, sell midlist or better with one of the larger publishers?

To be more specific, I have one novel that no agents are biting on. It's my first, so fair enough. I figure when I run out of agents and big publishers, I'll look at small presses. At the same time, I'm writing a second novel that's much better (mainly from what I've learned), and I want to know if throwing the first novel at small presses would hurt me, help me, or not matter.

If it's still to hard to pin, no worries. I understand. It probably won't change what I'm doing anyway :-)

Speed Reader said...

I totally understand how it's hard to quantify, so thanks for the guess-timate. There's a regional publisher in town that does pretty well in the surrounding states. I am told that a fiction book that sells well with them is selling appox. 5000 copies. I have also been told that a publisher is hoping to 5000 nationally (in the context of YA fiction) so if you can do 5000 locally/regionally then that is a big plus for moving up to the big publishers.

Are there any cases where going with the small publisher first would be looked down on and hinder an author? Again, I'm looking at the fiction market, particularly YA.

Nathan Bransford said...


I don't know if you can go wrong either way. Don't jump at an opportunity that doesn't add up or doesn't feel right, but if the right small press is enthusiastic and it feels like a good fit... go for it. But don't take a deal just to take a deal. If it doesn't happen, you try again with book #2. Can't really go wrong if you're patient and making a decision based on what's best for the long term.

Nathan Bransford said...

speed reader-

I think the key is a combination of demonstrating success and having really good books that a publisher feels they can take to the next level. It's a tricky combo and an inexact art between the two, but if the ingredients are there I don't think someone is going to be looked down upon for going with a small press.

Adam Heine said...

Thanks, Nathan. Good advice.

Aubrey said...


To follow up on your convo with Speed Reader (who happens to be my friend), you said that publishing the first of a series with a small publisher then trying to do the sequels with a big publisher is pretty much a no-no. Is there a chance that the debut novel to a series would be picked up by a large publisher and re-distributed, therefore making a series more plausible?

As you used the example of Eragon, I was wondering. He self published though, so I wondered how it would work when using a small publisher.

P.S. Thanks for this post! Timely as ever!

Stacey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nathan Bransford said...


It depends, but if you go with a small press it may have a more uncertain path. For instance, take THE TIME TRAVELERS WIFE, which was originally published by MacAdam/Cage. MacAdam/Cage then licensed the paperback rights to Harcourt, a bigger publisher.

So yes, a book may be picked up for a paperback run by a major house, assuming the small press decides to sublicense paperback rights. But that's no guarantee.

As for the question of the sequel, if that situation were to happen, it's possible that someone like Harcourt might want to continue the series. But absent that very particular situation, it would most likely be best to start fresh if the author wants to change houses.

John R. Austin said...


Related topic on all size publishers. Check these stats from an article by Walt Shiel at Are they true or not?

The “Hard Truths” About Book Publishing
Article by Walt Shiel

Let’s consider some of the “hard truths” about the publishing industry.

If you’re at all serious about publishing, whether self-publishing or not, you really need to be aware of some basic statistics about the industry. They aren’t pretty and may tend to be discouraging. But would you rather jump into these treacherous waters with a head full of platitudes and myths… or with a clear-eyed view of how things really are?

I think you are far better off understanding what’s really going on and what you, as an author and would-be self-publisher, are really up against.

So, without further belaboring the point, here goes.

Book publishing in the U.S. has exploded over the past few years. Here are the number of new English-language titles published per year in the U.S., as reported by R. R. Bowker (the keeper or U.S. ISBNs and publisher of Books-in-Print):

195,000 titles in 2004
295,000 in 2006 (a 51% increase in two years)
411,000 in 2007 (a 39% increase in only one year)

In 2004, there were just under one million books in print (new and backlist). Last year, there were almost three million in print. Offset printing (the traditional method using the large roll- or sheet-fed printing equipment that is cost-effective for larger print runs only) accounted for only about 1% of the 411,000 new titles printed in 2007; the rest were printed using digital printing technology (print-on-demand) that is only cost-effective for short print runs.

Why do you suppose the number of new titles more than doubled in three years? Can you spell subsidy publishing (in the guise of the plethora of self-proclaimed “self-publishing companies”)?

Three decades ago, there were only 357 publishers with books listed in Books-in-Print. Today, there are only six major (New York) publishers, maybe 400 mid-size publishers, and almost 100,000 small publishers (which includes the large number of self-publishers). More than 10,000 new (mostly small) publishers go into business each year. Of course, many of those small publishers fail every year, too, but that’s common in most businesses (lots of new start-ups quickly fail).

The six major New York publishers are Random House, Penguin Putnam, HarperCollins, Holtzbrinck, Hachette (formerly Time Warner Books), and Simon & Schuster. Of those, only Simon & Schuster is still American-owned. Ever wonder why more and more foreign authors are being published by major “American” publishers?

Now that you know how many new titles are published and how many publishers are publishing them, you might wonder how many are being sold? That is a far more difficult question to answer reliably, since publishers are notorious for overstating actual book sales. However, we can turn again to Bowker for some statistics:

93% of all titles sell less than 1,000 copies

Overall average sales for all titles is about 500 copies

7% of titles account for 87% of sales (mostly from the big NY publishers)

So, where are those books actually sold? If you guessed mostly in bookstores, guess again. Here’s the breakdown (the ranges are because it depends on what source you rely on):

Chain bookstores account for 25-33%

Independent bookstores (including used book stores) account for 3-10%

Online book retailers account for 21% (almost all

That means 36-52% of all book sales come from non-bookstore outlets. What’s a non-bookstore outlet? Gift shops, grocery stores, drug stores, “big box” stores (Wal-Mart, Costco, etc.), book clubs, back-of-the-room sales, direct-to-consumer sales, and on and on. The opportunities are limited only by your imagination and marketing efforts.

You can choose to self-publish and compete in the bookstores for that 28-43% of the total market, which means you’re competing against Random House, Simon & Schuster et al who can afford to buy those end-cap and front window display locations. Or you can choose to compete primarily in the online and non-bookstore markets that represent the remaining.

The choice is yours and should be driven by your detailed marketing plan for your book. You do have a detailed marketing plan, right? Trying to sell books without a marketing plan is like taking a long trip into unknown territory without a map — you might reach your destination but the odds are against you.

If you don’t really know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there? Or when you’re way off course?

Walt Shiel is the Managing Partner and Publishing Mentor at Five Rainbows Services for Authors & Publishers, a subsidiary of Slipdown Mountain Publications where he serves as Publisher. Besides offering a full range of affordable publishing solutions, Five Rainbows can tailor a mentoring program to help you achieve your specific goals for your book! And be sure to check out Walt’s View From the Publishing Trenches blog.

Stacey said...

Hey, just wanted to say I deleted my post because you have already answered my question in your query info. ;)

Speed Reader said...

Thanks! This is a very interesting and informative post! I am still amazed how hard it is to get a good story published. It's nice to hear that there are some alternative routes to consider.

Aubrey said...

Yes! Thank you so much Nathan! I don't know if you know how much all of us appriciate what you do on here! I am so addicted to your blog, and I have not even written a novel yet!

Kathryn711 said...

Hey, thanks for answering the question! Also about re-publishing and re-distributing.

Speaking of "Time Traveler's Wife" I got to interview the author and of course asked her how she got started. She looked for agents out of the "Poets and Writers Guide" just like everyone else. She despaired of getting an agent. Then she found the smaller press and then an agent came through - and it all came together. Then she was mentioned on the Today Show and the rest is history. I actually have the audio interview if anyone wants to hear it. (I coverd the kickoff of the Chicago Publishers Initiative).

Thanks again,

December/Stacia said...

Well, I went from epublishers to indie print press, then wrote a new book I was very excited about, got an agent and a three-book deal with Del Rey. So for me it was really all about the work. I guess it's possible that the great reception and reviews my small-press book got helped, but I don't think it made a major difference; my editor loved my book.

Lauri Shaw said...

IMHO, it sounds like most small press authors have only a slightly better shot with large publishing houses than do first time novelists with clean slates or self published writers.

And that an author's past sales figures can actually hurt his or her chances with the majors, even if those figures were beyond the author's control, e.g., hands tied by a publisher's limited distribution or lack of an adequate publicity budget.

It would be interesting to know what percentage of authors picked up by the majors are previously published by small presses, versus first novels or self published writers.

I suppose that for a writer, it never hurts to be able to think long term, like what you'll want to put your name on in ten years' time. Too many writers out there seem willing to take any deal they can get. Just because something can be published doesn't always mean it should be.

A man who has patience will always have time on his side. (And I think that goes double for a woman.)

Marilyn Peake said...

Hi, Nathan,

I read your blog post yesterday and have been thinking about it since then. It came at a very good time for me, as I struggle with decisions about where to go next in my writing career. I found your blog post very motivating, although I still feel baffled about so many aspects of the publishing industry. I’m currently in a situation with one of my small press novels that has me completely flummoxed, and hope I’ve made the right decisions. I was happy to discover as I read your blog that I’ve done many of the things you recommended. I feel lucky to currently be published by a wonderful small press. I marketed my first novel, a YA fantasy adventure, and the next two novels in that series with great enthusiasm. The series has received many wonderful reviews and been named a finalist in a major book award contest. Best-selling author, Piers Anthony, wrote a review quote for the first book in the series and sent me an email, telling me that he loved the novel. The series has been purchased by libraries. After the first book was published, I discovered that a college library had purchased it for their Education Department. I’ve met people online who recognize my name because they’ve seen my series on display shelves in their local libraries, news that I was delighted to learn. I heard from a reviewer whose babysitter was very excited when she discovered copies of my YA novel in her house because she and a friend were writing a school book report about it. A TV Producer is currently developing a TV show in which my YA series will play a prominent role, and she’s having puppets of my characters designed for this purpose. A Hollywood TV/movie agent has expressed interest in representing me if the TV show becomes a reality. To make a long story short, every time this book series has started to sell quickly, something has happened to block it – technical things like the distributor was sold to another company, libraries don’t use the new distributor, bookstores won’t buy small press books, the list of difficulties goes on and on...and on. I finally gave up trying to market that first novel, am still actively involved in the TV show, and am writing an entirely new novel, adult science fiction, with the hope that I will be able to interest a literary agent in my new project. In the meantime, I’ve also had short stories published and have edited and compiled several books that have won awards and received great reviews. Some days, I’m just very tired and wonder if I’ve made the right decisions.

Speed Reader said...

To address Lauri Shaw's comment, I don't believe that going with a small press is the golden ticket to making it big or a shortcut in any way. But Nathan, wouldn't you agree that if you had good success with a small publisher that when you queried agents for your next book that they would be more interested in you (assuming your story resonated with them, etc) vs. a new author that has no credits to their name other than writing the story they are querying? Again, I know there are many factors that go into finding the right agent, but success with a small publisher would surely be a stepping stone, right?

Carolyn said...

What a great post, particularly the last bit about how the larger publishers will be dropping their midlisters (which is, admittedly, a consequence I infer from your prediction of a shift to blockbusters.)

I think this is already happening.

shilohwalker said...

Making the leap from a small press to a big publisher is hard.

not to mention exhausting...but it's very, very worth it.

Linnea said...

Without going into the messy details, I had a NY agent, he didn't do his job and we parted company. Somewhat jaded by the experience I shopped my novel to small presses as large houses won't generally look at you without an agent. Fair enough. I'd worked long and hard on the novel and wanted to get it published. I focused on small literary presses with good reputations and was fortunate enough to have one love my story and want to publish it. The novel was nominated for a readers choice award and is on high school reading programs in Canada. I hope to interest an agent with my current wip and sell to a larger house so this discussion has me all ears!!

I wish I was an Apple said...

I love reading this blog. It keeps reassuing me that I will never be a bestselling author, that I am uncommonly common and the odds of me ever gasping over an invitation to exercise my imagination for a moderate sum is as unlikely as Sarah Palin's VP nod---wait a minute!

Anonymous said...

I'm writing from a UK perspective, but I'd say publication by a small press can have both a positive and a negative influence when it comes to attracting interest from a major publisher - and thus, perhaps, comes out neutral overall!

The positive aspect is that you've demonstrated that you're able to work professionally, meet deadlines, cope with editing, etc. If you've been well-received and can point to having established the beginnings of a fan base, that's certainly going to count in your favour as well. But from my experience, when it comes to attracting both an agent and a major publisher, it's the quality of the book you're submitting to them that counts way above any other consideration. If they love it, they'll take you on regardless of your small press experience. If they don't love it, nothing else on your CV matters a jot!

There's one other downside, as well, which was explained to me by the PR representative at my new publisher. Apparently there's a certain "bonus" of attention afforded to a debut author by the media, not to mention various prizes for Best First Novel. This gives the PR and Marketing people a greater opportunity to promote your work. In my case, I couldn't help feeling that I'd squandered that bonus on a book that had no marketing or publicity (beyond what I did myself, of course.)

This is particularly relevant in the UK, where a very small minority of books get picked up by the supermarkets or promoted heavily within the chain bookstores, and sell in huge numbers as a result. And since the publishers have to grant ludicrous discounts and/or pay to have their books prominently displayed, these options are simply not available to a small press.

So in conclusion, as I've waffled on a bit here, I'd say what really matters is to concentrate on writing the very best book you can. Everything else is a side issue in comparison.

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