Savvy business practices are crucial to the success of an independent publisher. An estimated half of all entrepreneurial enterprises in the United States fail within the first five years, and only a third last ten years. If these statistics sound intimidating, fear not—here is a handy list of the ten best business practices in small-press publishing to guide you.

  1. DO start small. Entrepreneurs new to the publishing industry sometimes produce too many books in their first year and overstretch their resources. They then have to retrench the following year, which negatively affects their finances as well as customer and colleague confidence. The same principle applies to expanding too quickly.
  2. DO pick a good niche. Small presses can’t compete with the big companies in the mass market, so it’s best to carve out a market share by targeting a niche you already know well and can tap into easily. This is also a good way to build a brand and customer loyalty. Indie publishers that have successfully leveraged their niches include our own Ooligan Press, which focuses on books significant to the ethos of the Pacific Northwest; Copper Canyon Press, which specializes in poetry; and Forest Avenue Press, which is dedicated to high-quality literary fiction.
  3. DO choose your distributor wisely. Publishers can’t get their books onto store shelves without distributors and wholesalers, but if these companies go bankrupt, they often take their clients with them. Do your research before making a deal and be ready to go elsewhere if your distributor starts struggling.
  4. DO rely on your backlist. Whereas the big publishers can afford to constantly roll out new titles in hopes of saturating the market with a bestseller, small presses focus on books with long-term value that resonate with a passionate niche market. Backlist titles are the true bread and butter of indie presses—they can produce enough revenue years after initial publication to keep the company afloat and provide capital for new books.
  5. DO be professional. Maintain good relations with other publishing professionals. Communicate clearly and frequently with coworkers, contractors, and authors. Establish goodwill with media contacts. Even your books should exude professionalism—nobody is interested in books with shoddy editing or design.
  6. DON’T start without a good business plan. This should go without saying, but it seems to be a common mistake with rookies. You need to know exactly what needs to be done to get your business running and how you’re going to accomplish it before you ever fill out a form or spend a penny.
  7. DON’T file your publisher as a sole proprietorship. This lumps your business in with your personal finances, so if the venture takes a big hit, you may lose your house. Incorporating your publisher ensures that you survive no matter what happens to your business.
  8. DON’T do it for the money. If you’re hoping to get rich from selling lots of awesome books, you’re in the wrong business—publishing is a labor of love. You’ll likely need $100 thousand or more just to cover startup costs; afterward, to earn back the necessary cash to cover costs and roll out the next title, you have to spend the necessary cash to compensate the author, make the book, and convince enough people to buy it.
  9. DON’T underestimate the power of contracts. Rookies often try to write author contracts themselves and never even consider establishing contracts with employees and freelancers. The usual results: neither party knows what the other expects from them, and everybody gets shorted. Shell out for an attorney and use the standard industry contracts—it’ll save you time, money, and headaches in the long run.
  10. MARKETING, MARKETING, MARKETING. This is where most of the money in publishing goes, and for good reason: the most beautifully written and packaged books by the best authors do you no good whatsoever if you can’t convince people to buy them. Allow for the biggest marketing budgets you can, know your audience, and be creative.

An entrepreneur can never discount luck as a factor—sometimes a publisher grows or fails due to things beyond the owner’s control, like the economy or fickle trends. Most small-press owners cite timing as the biggest wild card in the business. But for the most part, the success of a publishing venture is up to you—so keep this list of dos and don’ts above your desk and go forth and publish.

For other tips on guiding a small press startup to success, check out these articles:

“Better Than Fall Back: The Small Press Option” on Jane Friedman’s blog

“The State of the Small Press in Portland” by Laura Stanfill of Forest Avenue Press

“Why Small Publishers Fail” on Writer Beware

“Why Do Publishers Plan to Fail?” on

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