Monday, April 4, 2016

6 Things to Consider Before Starting a Small Press

Roseanna M. White is a wife, homeschooling mom, novelist, cover designer, and senior editor at WhiteFire Publishing, which she and her husband founded in 2005. In the last ten years WhiteFire has grown from publishing only Roseanna's titles to having 30 authors and 50 titles, including best-sellers and award winners. Considered a trailblazer in the industry, WFP is honored to be called one of the most respected small presses in Christian publishing. 


A while back, I posted about 5 Tips to Successful Self-Publishing. As many of you know, my self-publishing venture was actually the start of a small press that now publishes 30 authors in addition to me. So how do you know when you should invite other authors to join your venture and when you should stick to your own books? Well, here are a few things required of small publishers, and looking at these will help you decide if it’s something you want to do or not.

How Much Time Do You Have for the Process?

A nowhere-near complete look at our titles...

Publishing a book takes time. A lot of time. If you’ve ventured into the self-publishing waters, then you’re learning that. In addition to just writing a story, you have to learn how to format it for Kindle. How to lay it out for print. (Yes, there are templates for this on CreateSpace, but they have limitations.) You have to make sure your book has a fabulous cover. You have to learn about ISBNs and barcodes, about copyrights and registrations. Then you have to figure out how to sell the book.

If you decide you want to open your publishing imprint to other authors, you’re responsible for all this for each book. That adds up to a lot of time that will detract from what you spend writing. You need to know going in if that’s something you can do, and something you want to do.

How Good Are You at It?

Interior layout used to give me headaches. Now I love making the pages as beautiful as the cover.

Aside from if you want to do it…are you good at it? I mean, there’s a learning curve, and generally speaking authors who sign with a new, small publisher understand that there are going to be some bumps as you go. That it’s a journey you’re taking together. But if you find yourself stumbling through the process and it’s not getting any better, if the product you’re putting out is substantially inferior to the product put out by other small presses, then you might want to think twice about doing it for books other than your own.

How Much Money Can You Invest?

Subscriptions and memberships add up. Some are worth it. Some aren't.

We started our publishing company with very few funds—but “very few” isn’t quite “none.” While Amazon likes to claim that you can publish a book for free, there are always costs involved. Cover design. Editing. Layout, if you want anything beyond the basics. Book printing. Advertisements. You can do it for not-much, yes. But make sure you have a reasonable budget, and that you can stick to it.

Part of this will involve choosing which companies you're going to work with for production and be associated with. Are you going to go exclusively with Amazon? Then KDP Select and Createspace could work for you. Do you want higher quality printing and the option of wider distribution? Then maybe you should look into Ingram's programs, and add the Nook platform to your repertoire, and the iTunes store. These will add cost, so you have to determine if the return on investment makes it worthwhile. Will you handle all the set-up yourself or pay a third party to do it for you, either in up-front costs or in a percentage of sales? Is it worthwhile to pay for a membership in a small publisher's association? Will you go to conferences to try to attract potential authors? How will you get the word out that you're accepting submissions?

What’s Your “Thing”?

The "Wild Writers of WhiteFire" in 2013. Don't let the respectable look fool you.

Successful small presses have a goal, a motto, a thing that sets them apart. Perhaps they focus on a niche market, like Christian sci-fi/fantasy. Perhaps they only do romance. Perhaps they publish cozy mysteries. Whatever your thing, you need to know it, embrace, and stick to it. At WhiteFire, our foundational motto is “Where Spirit Meets the Page.” We publish books written with passion, which always have a punch to them—whether it’s a ghost in a genre where you wouldn’t expect one, an exotic setting, or tackles a difficult subject like human trafficking. As we’re debating each title submitted, one of the key deciding factors is if it has that stand-out quality that sets it apart from other books in its genre. If its thing aligns with our thing. We’ve turned down many a book that is solid, but that just doesn’t have that certain something that defines a WhiteFire book.

You need to determine what you're going to focus on to start, and what you might be open to in the future. Fiction? Non-fiction? What kinds of each? Which genres will you focus on? Start with these general questions, and narrow it down from there to your particular niche. And then...

Set Your Standard
No, this isn't an actual email. But I've had to start a few similarly...

What will your standard be? Some small presses make it clear up front that they’ll work with any author who meets a set of criteria. Some require manuscripts already be professionally edited before coming to them. Some only do reprints of older books. Some will provide one round of edits. Or two. Or three.

If you decide to start a small press, you need to know from the get-go what you’re going to offer your authors, and what standard you’re going to hold them to in return. WhiteFire is one of the few small presses that provides three rounds of editing, and that, along with our acquisitions committee that is super picky, has made us distinct. It also limits the number of titles we can produce in a year. Other companies focus on quantity. Or on their particular genre. 

You need to decide what you expect, what authors can expect from you, and how you're going to select them. You need to have a process for acquisitions. Do you make all decisions on your own? Do you have a few people you can talk to about it? An official committee? What defines your decision—are you considering potential sales or just the story? How much hand-holding are you willing to do with authors? How much work can you afford to put into a manuscript? These answers might change over time, but it's a good idea to always have it set out for yourself/your team.

What’s Your Motivation?

GTWer Rachelle Rea, signing her contract (left) and her second WFP novel (right), The Sound of Silver

Why are you considering starting a publishing house? Is it just because you think you can do it better? That you want to stick it to the publishing man? Did you kinda stumble into it when a friend asked if they could use your imprint? Do you love this kind of work? Do you want to help others bring their books to life? Do you see a gap in the market that you're excited to fill?

I hear a lot of grumbling from authors about the perceived-evils/failures of traditional publishing houses. But as someone who has self-published, worked with traditional houses, and helps run a small press, let me share with you what I’ve learned: the big houses have arrived at the places they have for a reason. They have their limitations, yes, absolutely. There is certainly room for small presses in this world, just as there is for indie authors. 

But the deeper you get into the process, the more you understand why big pubs are (1) picky about what they publish (2) reply with form letters (3) have such a long time between acquiring a book and publishing it (4) require authors to do legwork (5) make decisions based on money. (They have buildings. With offices. And people in those offices who expect a paycheck. They pay to have thousands of books printed for each title they produce. They have to warehouse those titles. They have to pay for insurance for their employees. Their expenses are huge. So their books have to make them money.)

Small presses have the luxury of fewer overheads. We usually use print-on-demand technology, so we don’t have to store books or pay for those print runs up front. We don’t have the huge number of employees to pay and insure. Having fewer expenses makes us nimble. We can adjust quickly to market demands and changes. We don’t require the same number of sales to make a profit.

But it requires a love for the work. A love for working with authors. A love for producing books. Spite is never a good reason to start a business, and that’s what a publishing house is, no matter its size—a business. The authors I’ve seen who start a company out of spite end up burning out quickly. Because all spite does is make you focus on them—proving something to them. But it needs to be about your dream and your authors.

Do you have that love of the process?
Do you love working with others?
Then maybe you’re ready to consider starting a small press.  
 If you decide it’s for you, I’ll leave you with a few quick pieces of advice:

  •  Don’t rush books to press. They’ll suffer for it, and so will you. Set yourself up with a good amount of lead time to make sure the book, and you, are ready to hit publish.
  • Don’t publish books as a favor to someone. If you don’t love the book, you’re going to come to hate it after working with it so much, and that could destroy the relationship you’re trying to honor with this “favor.”
  •  Stick to your guns. Know your goal and standards going in and do not compromise on them. Ever.
  •  Get help. A three-man show is infinitely better in publishing than a one-man show. If you can find someone to help with a few steps of the process, you will all be grateful for the shared load.
  •   Have a long-looking plan. Know where you want to be in a year, in three years, in five years, and work toward that.
My husband and I have been at this for ten years. We've learned a lot...and we still have a lot to learn. Sometimes it still feels like we're stumbling along, and other times we think we've finally got the hang of this thing. It can be so rewarding, so much fun...and it's always work. Luckily, we knew that going in. ;-)


  1. Thanks for the great post! I can't imagine I'll ever open a publishing house myself, but it's so interesting to learn what goes into the process behind it. Thank you!

    1. It's definitely not for everyone, LOL.

  2. Loved this post, Roseanna. :) Thank you for all these insights and questions and sharing your experience with having a publishing house.

  3. Thank you for this post, Roseanna! I've been thinking more and more that starting a small publishing company is something I want to do in the future (I want to help bring great books to the world, and I want to fill a particular niche) and this post was incredibly helpful.

  4. Roseanna, thanks so much for sharing this with us! It's been such a joy to watch WhiteFire grow over the years.

    1. And thanks for always cheering along when I message you with random exclamation points at each new milestone. ;-)

  5. Roseanna, thank you for putting so much effort into not only your novels which are my favorites, but the small press that has made my dream come true thrice over. I could not be more grateful for how much I've learned over the past year and a half (has it been that long already?). My stories are what they are today because of WhiteFire's dedication to its thing, excellence, and a quality editing process. I can't wait to hold Emeralds!

  6. Very helpful, THANK YOU!