An Offer From a Small Publisher

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Aug 02 2010

I recently received two very similar questions, and rather than answer them separately I thought I’d lump them together.

I received a contract in the mail from a publisher today. I do not have an agent. I queried widely without success prior to submitting the manuscript to a few publishers that accept unagented material. I have a lawyer friend who has reviewed the contract and says it’s pretty standard, but I want (and have always wanted) to work with an agent. The publisher wrote within the offering letter that many elements of the contract are open for negotiation, and I know several items are not worded in my favour and should be changed, but I do not feel qualified to do so.

Should I try to find an agent now? How should I go about doing so? Is it acceptable to contact some of the agents who rejected my query – as these are the people I spent time researching and I know I would like to work with? How do I get my contract offer out of the slush pile?


if you submit your work to a small publisher and they’re interested in publishing the book, is a small press too small for an agent to be interested in representing a new author? Should the author not accept the publisher’s offer if an agent is willing to look at their work and submit it to a large publisher instead?

First off, I think both readers should review the posts I’ve made on similar subjects. If you go to Turn that Deal Around you’ll also see a link to another post that talks about what an agent can do for you if you get an offer from a publisher.

Let me take a stab at these questions. . . .

Whether you get an offer from a small press or a large press there is no guarantee that an agent will want to handle the deal for you. A good agent will want to read the book first before making the decision, to make sure your writing is something she wants to add to her list. That being said, I know there is a myth that goes through writers’ circles not to even bother looking for an agent if it’s a small press because agents aren’t interested in small presses. I’m not sure who started this rumor or why it continues to spread, but it’s just plain ridiculous. Agents are interested in getting good books published and every agent worth her salt knows that sometimes that means going to a small press. We also know that a lot of really great careers start at small presses. Sure, sometimes the money is smaller, but if I’m looking at an author’s work I’m seeing a career, which means, in my mind, the money might start small, but I’m seeing bigger things to come.

If a small press deal comes your way, the time to get an agent is the minute you get the offer. Sure, you can pay 15% to negotiate the contract, but typically once the contract is sent you’ve already agreed to a number of terms, including advance, royalties, and territory. These are the big ones and, frankly, these are what an agent will negotiate to make her money. If you have the contract in hand, those are already finalized. If you’ve had a publishing lawyer look over the contract and negotiate on your behalf, you probably don’t need an agent at this point.

As I said in the previous post referenced above, talk to the agent before you accept the offer. Simply let the publisher know you’d like to bring an agent on board and you’ll get back to her. There are a ton of agents out there and it’s unlikely you’ve actually submitted to them all. The other thought to consider is that it’s unlikely they’ve all read your proposal. For those who only rejected on query you might want to go back to them this time to see if the offer pushes them to want to read your work.


14 responses to “An Offer From a Small Publisher”

  1. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I hope the questioners also checked these presses out on Writer Beware or Absolute Write.

    The first question makes it sound like the contract just arrived in response to the submission. I may have got that wrong. But if that's what happened it would definitely send up red flags to me.

  2. Avatar Anonymous says:

    The words "small press" are starting to become synonymous with e-pub because some of them put the books out in print on demand as well as digital. An epublisher–at least, the ones I've dealt with– will follow up with a contract via email after reading the full without any prior communication with the author.

  3. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I agree with anon @ 10:17.

    The contracts are pretty standard and there's so much competition out there I don't know many authors who would take the chance of losing a deal to negotiate a contract…whether it's good or bad for them.

  4. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Why bother to get an agent involved now? You've already done all the legwork and it's unlikely the small press will hand over that much more $$–maybe just enough to pay the agent's fees.

    An agent may just slow the process down and their 15% will be one big chunk out of your small advance–their loss! You can always try with Book #2, esp if #1 did well…

  5. @Anon 12:11: Some authors may want an agent to make sure that there are no clauses in the contract that could screw them over down the line, especially if they don't understand legal language and don't have a lawyer friend to help them out. Some may hope that interest from the small press will help an agent negotiate a better deal elsewhere. That could mean more money or just willing to provide better publicity, making book #1 do better overall. I know I've seen more than one guest post on various blogs from some author or other who had an offer from a small press, got an agent, and the agent was able to negotiate something much better. (To be fair, I've also seen many posts where said agent advocated going with the small press over a large publisher.) Some may just really want an agent to handle things over the length of their career, and see interest from a small press as a good way to try to hook an agent. If the author doesn't mind forking over the 15%, then it's just a matter of preference.

  6. Avatar Sheila Deeth says:

    My first eBook's just come out with a small publisher. I spent ages sending longer pieces to agents and publishers without success, and have to admit, when this offer came along, I didn't even think about agents. I guess I'm feeling like maybe I need to see if my writing floats first, then try to swim.

  7. Avatar Stephanie says:

    I'm in the same boat as Sheila. I sold my novel and two novelettes to a primarily digital publisher. No agent. I'm hoping this well help me in the future. If my sales are good…this will show agents that my writing career is going somewhere. And maybe they will want to help me get there faster!

  8. Wow, how timely is this??? I am in this same boat except I do have a partial request out to two agents. Should I contact them and let them know of my offer? Don't want to seem pushy, but I don't want to keep the publisher waiting,either…

  9. Avatar Mira says:

    scarlette prose,

    just a layman's opinion, but goodness yet. I would let those considering your work that you have an offer on the table, even if it's with a small publisher. I think that's in keeping with the spirit of Jessica's post.

  10. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Good post!

  11. Avatar Anonymous says:

    What if you sell on proposal now and don't have a "book" for an agent to read over first?

  12. Avatar Anonymous says:

    What if you sell on a 2-paragraph proposal now and don't have a "book" for an agent to read over first?

  13. anon 10:17:

    I'd have to disagree with you on that–I would much rather pass on the deal than sign a bad contract that's going to hurt my career down the road (restrictive option clauses, unfavorable term/reversion of rights, etc).

    If you're negotiating your own contract, ask for what you want. I feel that if the publisher refuses to consider any of your requests, it might not be a company you want to work with anyway.

    In my experience, if it doesn't involve their writing you a big check up front, small/digital pubs are willing to negotiate other contract clauses with you, which could actually be more important than money as your career grows.

  14. Avatar HigleyBrowne says:

    Interesting. I guess my question kind of follows along some asked above: I have partials and fulls out to agents for an Urban Fantasy. If you were one of those agents, would you want to know if I got a contract from an E-Pub regarding my RomanceErotica?