This blog post also appeared on the Indie Book Week blog on 27 May.
It’s hard to overstate the changes to the publishing landscape over the last decade. The doors to the gates that regulated who got published have effectively been blown off their hinges, and authors are now awash in possible avenues to get their work out into world. For those trying to navigate their way through all the choices, the field seems to narrow to two primary options. On one end of the spectrum is self-publishing, where the author is in total control of the entire process, which can be both a joy and a nightmare. On the other end is the traditional two-step of finding an agent in order to find a publisher, in which even the first step can be a multi-year process. There is, however, a third, middle-ground, option, called direct submission.
In traditional publishing terms, direct submissions are often referred to as over the transom, when an author submits a manuscript directly to a publisher without an agent. These manuscripts end up on the publisher’s slush pile; if they are read at all, it is typically by the most junior staff with a few moments free. But there is a growing number of publishers—usually small publishers and university presses—that work primarily or even entirely through direct submissions. These presses expect to work with authors throughout the publishing process, and that close relationship is one of the best things about working with a small press that accepts direct submissions. Authors often have significant input into the design and layout of the cover and interior of their books, something that even big-name authors rarely get. Small presses are often willing to take chances on books that are outside of the mainstream. They aren’t expecting their books to be John Grisham or Stephen King blockbusters. It’s worth remembering, though, that Tom Clancy’s debut novel The Hunt for Red October was a direct submission to the Naval Institute Press, which had never even published a novel before, and which still accepts direct submissions from authors at any time. It’s more typical for small presses to have open reading periods at set times of the year, in which authors can submit manuscripts by a certain date. Others hold contests in which the winner is published. Some publishers charge a reading fee for direct submissions, but that fee should be nominal; you are not paying them to publish your book. Literary Marketplace offers a list of direct submission small presses free to their registered users.
The downside of working with a small press that takes direct submissions is generally a lack of resources. A small publisher might help to develop a marketing plan, but the author will primarily or even solely be responsible for execution. Authors may need to find and pay for their own editing. Even at the big houses, though, it’s the new normal for authors to do a significant amount of their own marketing. As for editing, an increasingly scarce commodity, it is often the agents who do the lion’s share.
As an author, you can certainly do everything a small press would do for you, from cover design to distribution, and you could do it on your own timetable, but for a novice there’s a steep learning curve with lots of potential landmines. For me, direct submission was the right choice: it allowed me a lot of creative control and a relatively short publication timeline, while also producing a product that gets “credit” for being traditionally published, and giving me the peace of mind of knowing that I wasn’t in it alone.