So, you've finished your manuscript and read it several times, fixing all the parts that sound awkward or repetitive, and deleting all the parts that suddenly, mystifyingly, have nothing to do with your plot. If you have critique partners or a writers' group, you've let them read the book, and have listened to their well-meaning but ridiculous opinions.
Just kidding. Their opinions could be useful. What seems perfectly clear to you may bother everyone else, and occasionally when this is the case, it's your fault! Even if you're in the right, you may have to fix it. If your character is wearing black leather jeans, and you know such things exist because you own a pair, but everyone who reads your book says, "Leather jeans? Jeans are made of denim," then there's a good chance your editor is going to say, "Leather jeans? Jeans are made of denim," and even if you have the guts to tell your editor, "You're wrong and I can prove it," there's a good chance your readers are going to say, "Leather jeans? Jeans are made of denim," and since you can't model your leather jeans for everyone who reads your book, the readers will have no choice but to say, "I'm never ever going to buy anything else by this author who thinks jeans can be leather," at which point the only thing that saves you from ending up on skid row is the fact that you have six other names you write under. That and your hidden bank account in Bimini.
You're ready to send your manuscript off, which is easy if you have an agent, but if you don't have an agent (yet), you're trying to decide where to send it. Or rather, where to send your query letter. Should you shoot for the top? The few big publishing houses that accept un-agented submissions? Or should you start with a small press, hoping to quickly pad your résumé with a published book so that you have a better chance of attracting an agent who can get your book to a publisher you've actually heard of? Let's look at the advantages of each choice.
Advantages of a Small Press
1. If they buy your book, you may be holding the finished copy in your hand in six to nine months, depending on how small they are. With the big publishing house you may have to wait two years because they have so many other books lined up ahead of you, books by authors with established sales records, who keep churning out more books, which get moved in front of yours, until eventually yours is scheduled for October, 2042.
2. A press that puts out only a couple books a year has an editor who has time to go through your book several times, increasing the chances it will be free of typos, contradictions, and excessive exclamation points.
3. When you phone Seedling Press, you can speak directly to your publisher, editor, proofreader or publicist. They're all the same person. When you phone Sequoia House, you get a voice mail system that insists on sending you to "Sales."
Advantages of a Big Publishing House
1. If they buy your book, you might make some money.
Why don't small press books make money? In a perfect world, the best books would make the most money, but in the publishing world, the big presses are all subsidiaries of a startlingly small number of conglomerates, conglomerates that may also own the bookstore chains, but even if they don't own the chains, they have massive clout with the chains, clout they can wield because they produce occasional blockbuster bestsellers with huge publicity campaigns that bring in big money and keep the stockholders happy, and who cares if five thousand small presses go under every year because they couldn't get their books onto Barnes and Noble's shelves, as long as ten million people can get the next Harry Potter book the day it comes out?
Are your chances of selling to a small press greater? Not necessarily. A lot of small presses are run by publishers or editors or book lovers who decided quality was more important than the bottom line, quit the rat race, and started their companies to help a few deserving authors get their start, authors who might hit it big one day, at which point readers will go looking for their earlier works, at which point the publisher can finally open those boxes of books that have been sitting in the garage for six years and cash in. Assuming the books aren't covered with mold and mildew.
The point is, small presses want quality too, and coming up with two quality books a year is easier than coming up with two hundred. If they get five queries a week, and 98% of them are trash, that still leaves five decent manuscripts a year, from which to choose the two they can afford to publish. So the odds aren't great. The good news about submitting to a small press is that your book isn't competing with books from all those irritating authors who have agents. Because agents know that 15% of nothing is nothing.
Tomorrow: The Weekend Starts Early, with Q & A, Query Critiques