Last week, I had a turn at "Mentor Monday," a Sisters in Crime program where I fielded questions on SinC's discussion list for a day. At the end of the day, I received and responded to a comment from an author looking for a publisher for her first mystery novel. (For more information about Sisters in Crime, and programs such as Mentor Monday, visit the SinC website.)
"As an author of historicals I've written my first mystery and am trying to find an agent or publisher, but your words today have steered me away from small publishers, at least for now."
If I've left you thinking that you should stay away from small presses, then I've left you with the wrong impression. You absolutely should consider smaller, independent presses. There's no question in my mind that right now, the best of the small presses are doing a better job than are the worst of the big companies. That's especially true if you're looking at the long run, with hopes of building a backlist and a career. If all you're looking for is a quick buck for one manuscript, then, yes, by all means your target should be a Grand Central or a Simon & Schuster -- if your manuscript fits into the narrow confines of what they're looking for. But the fact is that these companies are ill-suited to building and sustaining a long-running series. The number of instances at either house over the last 10 years or so is so small as to be insignificant. On the other hand, this is the kind of thing that Poisoned Pen or Soho does every day. The jury's still out on Midnight Ink and Bleak House, but both are truly promising ventures.
Of course, not all small presses are created equally. You need to research this carefully, take a long look at what those companies are really doing. Visit stores -- read the shelves, look for publishing company logos to see if those companies' books are being represented. Ask a lot of questions of a lot of people -- booksellers, librarians, already published writers. Ask booksellers -- chain and independent, but especially independents -- about whether that company's books are obtainable. Be specific -- try to get someone to go online and check B&T's Title Source or Ingram's ipage for specific titles. Ask about availability, stock level, discounts and returnability, because those things really matter.
If your goal is to have a real writing career (such as they are in this business these days), you need to remember that it's much, much more important to be published well than it is to be published at all. The first novelist whose first publishing experience is a disaster never ever gets to be a first novelist again. Given that in this business, it's easier to generate excitement for a first novelist than it is for someone publishing a third book -- you may or may not like that, but it's true -- then you need to do everything you possibly can to make that first publishing experience the best it can be. Sometimes that means turning down opportunities when they're not right. (That can be as true with big companies as it is with small ones.)
I counsel aspiring writers to imagine what they hope will happen with their books. Are they looking for something to share with friends and family? Do they hope to see their books on the shelves of a store like mine? Do they expect their book to be in every airport newsstand display in the country? Every goal is legitimate. Once you identify yours, you need to backtrack and figure out what are the steps that will set you on the right path. It's really important to do this, and to do it right, because each goal requires different steps. If you're looking to be an airport author, in today's market that means writing a particular kind of book and selling it to specific companies in specific ways.
Because each goal requires different steps, the choice you make when you take your very first step will likely lock you in to a particular path, leading you down one road and foreclosing other opportunities. If you want one thing, aiming for a big NY publishing house might be your only option. If you want something else, you might find that AuthorHouse is the right thing to do. I'd never tell anyone to aim only for big companies or only for small ones. I would not necessarily even tell folks to avoid self-publishing or micro publishers, though if this is your choice, you have to be really, really careful and hard-headed, and be prepared to work harder, and invest far more time and far more money to achieve even a modest level of success. That's emotional success -- if this is your choice, don't even think about a monetary reward!
The most important point is this: regardless of which way you choose to go, don't be fooled about what you're getting. It's not impossible to change paths, but the few examples where folks successfully move from one road to another should not encourage anyone into believing that it's easy or that it's likely. What looks like an "easy" choice at the beginning can make reaching your ultimate goal that much harder.