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Small Presses: A Side-Door to the Publishing World

Updated: 1 day ago

Getting published as a debut novelist is no cakewalk, and if you’ve struggled to find a literary agent, you might be wondering if there’s a way to be traditionally published without one. Spoiler alert: there is.


Let’s learn how Doctor Pat Spencer, whose work, Golden Boxty in the Frypan, has garnered praise from the BookLife Prize and secured a #​5 ranking in the All Author Book Cover Competition, found a side-door to the publishing world—one that didn’t require a literary agent.


We’ll uncover how to find these presses, how to know if they’re right for you, and how to write your pitch for them. Ready? Let’s dive in.

Photo of author Pat Spencer.
Doctor Pat Spencer

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Find a Small to Medium Press

Pat had always had success in nonfiction. In fact, she says she sold everything she wrote; from a regular column in Inland Empire Magazine, to a New York based trade journal, to a non-fiction educational book within her expertise as a cosmetology teacher. However, when she finally turned to her dream project, a novel, she says it became “a very bumpy road.”


Like many authors, Pat began her fiction publishing journey by sending query letters to literary agents. She says,

I queried about a hundred agents, and I got a couple of very flattering declines. Most of the agents just ignored me.

At a loss for what to do next, she joined a writing critique group, and based on their advice, self-published her first book.


However, through that process, she discovered that the technical aspects of self-publishing were not really for her. She says, “So I thought, ‘What do I do now?’” She did what any self-respecting author does. She went online. She says, “I discovered that there are traditional publishers who do not want to work with an agent. These typically are fairly small to medium sized publishing houses.”


Pat decided that this might finally be the right route for her, so she did a little more searching. She says,

The research is not as hard as you might think. I started out logging on and typing in something terribly simple, like ‘publishers that don't need an agent.’

The best resource she found for locating these sites was Reedsy. She says, “Reedsy has a wonderful and free online directory that you can log-on to and click on the type of writing you do—fiction or nonfiction, etc., then check the box that says “Accepts Unagented Submissions.” This brings up a list of those small to medium publishers who don't require an agent or are accepting direct submissions. It provides a contact name, website address, and a paragraph on what the publisher is looking for.” Pat further filtered these results for her specific genre.


If you’ve decided that small presses might be the right choice for you, get started by doing a web search. In addition to Reedsy, a few other resources are: Poets & Writers (Under “Publish Your Writing” sub-menu “Small Presses”) and QueryTracker (must have a paid subscription for full access).


Research for the Right Fit

Although there are a plethora of small presses out there, it’s very important to check for two things. One is: is it a legitimate press? The second is: Is it the right fit for me and my book?


On the first front, it’s important to be sure the publisher is legitimate and actively publishing. She says, “I think most do their best. People aren't wanting to be sued.” Still, one resource Pat suggests checking is the blog Writers Beware, where some publishing houses with bad reputations, as well as other author scams, are listed.


On the second front, Pat suggests more research. She recommends checking the publisher’s list of books. She says, “One thing that is very popular right now is for writers who have published one or two books to then declare themselves as a publisher. And all they've published is their own books.” Pat was clear that this isn’t necessarily a red flag, but more of a preference. She continues,

Now I'm not saying you shouldn't join a new endeavor because that's how new endeavors get going. People believe in them, and they invest in them, time, money, or effort; and then they become a success. But you want to be careful because not every writer out there is predisposed to be a good publisher. It's really hard work.


Pat says another thing to look for when searching a publisher’s list of published works is “who authored the books.” She says, “It's also important to look. Maybe they have twenty books published, and they look pretty good, and five of them were published this year. For a small press, that's pretty good. But then when you look at the books, they're all written by the publisher, the managing editor, and the marketing person. They haven't published anything other than books written by their own staff. Publishers post their books on their websites, so take the time to find out when they were published. Were all their books published years ago and each book has only ten reviews? And is the book’s ranking a number that is in the millions or greater? The larger the number the worse their sales ranking.”


She encourages authors to spend time with this research. “You also need to make sure that the publisher is what you want. It's a good fit. You can also ask the publisher to send you a sample or two to make sure their books are well edited and well formatted.”


Once you’ve decided to go through a small publisher, make a listing of great matches using the criteria Pat did: check that the press is legitimate; see who authored the published works; and closely observe formatting and editing of the published works.


Write Your Query Letter

Is a query letter for a small press different from a query letter for an agent? Pat says,

They're both pretty similar. The only difference I found was that you may be addressing your email query to “Dear Editor” rather than a specific name.


“In setting up the query letter for the agent, I always make sure that my one, two, or three sentence elevator pitch—my logline—is at the beginning and then follow it with a statement that the book is complete. I give the genre, word count, two comparison books, and describe the typical reader. I insert a short bio, and bit about my marketing techniques and presence on social media.


“I do the same thing for a query going directly to publisher, except that the letter is less personal. Both agents and small/medium publishers not wanting an agent want to know that the book you wrote is the type they publish and that it is a very good book. So, in the end, the letter directly to a publisher was less personal.”


If you already have a strong query letter you’ve been sending to agents, you can simply remove the agent personalization. If you’re starting from scratch, make sure your query is formulaic. A query is not the time to get artsy. It should include: your one or two paragraph book blurb (also called a short summary), the genre, word count, comparable titles, and a short biography.



Pat's perseverance paid off, leading her to a fulfilling publishing experience with a small press. Now with a new contract in hand for her upcoming trilogy, as well as a recently published how-to book, A Baker's Dozen For Writers: 13 Tips for Great Storytelling; she sets an inspiring example for new authors. If Pat's story resonates with you, and you're ready to take control of your publishing journey, why wait? Start researching today. Explore potential small presses, and step into the adventure of bringing your book to the world.




P.S. If you’re writing your query letter and are struggling to find comp titles, check out our comprehensive Comparable Books Report. All you have to do is upload your short book blurb, and we’ll go to work distilling a list of ten recent comp titles you can use in your query letter. Get yours now!

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