Guest Blog Post: Why Small Publishers Fail

I’ve used up a lot of column space on this blog warning about the risks of submitting to small presses, especially brand new small presses. In my opinion, this is currently the most dangerous area for writers–not so much because there are a lot of scams (though there are quite a few) but because so many small presses are undercapitalized, run by inexperienced people, have deluded goals and aspirations, or all three.

Today’s guest post by multi-published author and Absolute Write Water Cooler moderator Cathy Clamp takes an illuminating look at some of the things that can go wrong at a small press–not just for authors, but for staff–based on several real-life examples (the names of the publishers have been withheld, but Cathy has provided them to me and I’ll provide them to you if you email me). Cathy also explains why it’s so important to ask tough questions of new publishers, and why grilling them isn’t “mean” (an accusation often made at Absolute Write) but essential.

This is a really long post, but it’s well worth reading in its entirety.

For more information on small press dangers, as well as advice and resources to help you protect yourself, see Writer Beware’s Small Presses page.


by Cathy Clamp

Absolute Write and its Bewares, Recommendations, and Background Check Forum host a lot of threads asking about new independent publishers, as well as announcements from new independent publishers seeking authors, editors and cover artists. Not in all, but in many cases, they’re start-up pubs founded by individuals who are either former authors or former editors.

When the threads open, we moderators allow people to ask questions about both what the publisher is seeking and about the company’s suitability as a new market. Quite often, the publisher (or an employee or an author pubbed by them) notices the discussion and drops by to interact with the members. That occasionally leads to problems, because legitimate questions by the members and moderators about the company’s business practices can feel like “attacks” on the integrity of the people running the publisher.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it’s the authors and the publisher that we’re trying to protect. I know it doesn’t seem like it, but really—we’ve seen dozens of publishers come and go since Absolute Write has been in operation, and we tend to fret when it seems like the people involved are inexperienced about the business of publishing, because things can go wrong so very fast in this business.

Once you spend much time working with publishers, you realize that the business of publishing is counter-intuitive to the rest of the world. Normal business strategies used in other industries frequently won’t work in publishing, so experience in “running a successful business” seldom applies to becoming a successful publisher. Nor does being a published author automatically give a person experience in the behind-the-scenes business of publishing. It takes study and hands-on experience. Someone without both of those elements is going to struggle more in setting up shop.

I think it’s important to demonstrate just HOW wrong things can go by providing some real-life examples of situations that have happened to well-meaning and enthusiastic new publishers. To protect all parties, no names have been used (although in some cases, a gender may be given.)

This is a (pre)cautionary tale to those either starting a new publisher or planning to sign on or hire on with one. At the end of the scenarios, I’ll give you a list of what the companies failed to do to protect themselves and their authors.

Scenario #1 — The publisher, a self-pubbed or aspiring author, opens a company with fellow authors as “co-owners.” Some of the co-owners become the editors for the publisher.

The co-owners don’t actually put up any cash to ensure that there’s capital to do things like form a legal entity, hire an attorney to prepare the contract, or design and host a website. They trust that the founder/publisher/primary co-owner has made all these arrangements. But the publisher doesn’t realize what needs to be done. So she never actually files the paperwork for the legal entity. Instead, she opens the publisher as a d/b/a (doing business as) of herself–meaning that it’s a sole proprietorship, not a partnership.

The publisher throws everything into the business. She racks up credit card debt, takes out second, third, and fourth mortgages, leases professional office equipment and . . . doesn’t sell enough books to pay the loans and cards and leases. But she doesn’t discuss this with her co-owners. She endures the worry and pain alone. Soon she doesn’t have the money to pay the editors anymore. Or the author royalties. Or the website host.

She files bankruptcy. Unfortunately, because the publishing company was a d/b/a, it’s a Chapter 7 bankruptcy–of a person, not a company. Author contracts become personal assets that the Bankruptcy Trustee seizes to pay debts. The royalties aren’t secured debts, and the editor salaries aren’t secured debts–but the mortgages are. The credit cards are. The equipment leases are. So everybody loses everything. The company closes. Authors don’t have their books back (because the bankruptcy trustee forbids the reversion of rights) and the editors never get paid.

Scenario #2 — The publisher starts the business and hires author-friends to become editors (rather than making them co-owners.) But the publisher doesn’t have written agreements with the editors telling them what their duties are. She doesn’t tell the editors that they’re not only responsible for structural editing, they’re also responsible for making sure the copy editor stays on schedule, for proofing galleys, for writing back cover copy, for assigning ISBNs, for creating website blurbs, and for working with cover artists to make sure work is done on time.

The publisher feels the editors should know that this is standard business practice with any publisher (which it is, by the way) and presumes that the editors are doing their jobs. Until everything stalls. The cover artist is never contacted, the ISBNs are double (or triple) assigned, the copy edits go to the authors without the editor’s knowledge before the structural edits are even done, the blurbs never get put up on the website. Essentially, the books never make it to the point of being sold. Ever.

The editors leave en masse, deserting the company and the authors. The publisher folds.

Scenario #3 — The Publisher assigns a book to a co-owner editor where the author is a pain to deal with. The author and editor argue constantly about editorial suggestions and the author wants to spend HOURS on the phone with the editor, so the editor can tell them what a wonderful job they did. In other words, they’re needy.

By call number 15, the editor is so fed up with the author that they contact the Publisher to say, “No more! Give this author to someone else.” Except the editor is the fourth person to have the author, it’s a terrific book, and the Publisher says. . . well, “Suck it up and do your job.”

The editor isn’t amused and does his best to avoid the author’s calls. The editor also avoids even looking at the manuscript because it reminds him that he’ll eventually have to talk to the author again. With no contact and no edits, the author takes to making snide comments on websites, and on the editor’s blog and MySpace page (yeah, this was a while ago.) Annoyed, the editor lets the deadline for edits pass. The deadline for publication also passes.

The author sues. The editor shrugs–to him, that’s the publisher’s problem. Unfortunately, he’s wrong. Because, being a co-owner, his pockets are just as full of gold as the other owners’. He’s found liable for breach of contract because there were no ownership documents limiting liability.

Scenario #4 — The editor is working on the third book of an author’s contract. The editor is also an author who has contracted books with the Publisher. The manuscripts have the exact same due dates, from edits to copy edits to publication.

The editor complains to the publisher that he can’t both do his book and work on the author’s. But the publisher has nobody else to assign to the author’s book to, so the editor is stuck. The editor makes the decision to finish his book first and then work on the author’s book. But then the editor gets sick/injured and cannot work for several weeks. The editor doesn’t realize that the author has a specific time that the book MUST be out to catch a particular event (I think it was a themed holiday or something). The editor wasn’t part of the negotiations of the author’s deal.

The author complains to the publisher and threatens to sue. The publisher comes down hard on the editor and makes a similar threat. The editor rushes, but the author’s book fails to meet the publication date. The author hears through the grapevine that the editor’s book did reach the shelf on the due date and sues the publisher for loss of income. The publisher countersues the editor (because the editor is a freelance contractor, not an employee or co-owner). The author wins in court–but the publisher is not the one to pay. The editor is.

Scenario #5 — The publisher opens its doors and uses authors as editors on a contract basis, paying by the word or page. The publisher hires a cover artist, also on a contract basis.

A dozen books later, and the artist hasn’t been paid for his work because the books aren’t making a big profit. The publisher pays part of the artist’s bill, but then can’t afford to pay what royalties are owed. The publisher also can’t pay the editors. The editors stop working until they get paid. The cover artist refuses to allow any of the covers to be displayed on the site until he’s paid in full (which is what his contract stipulated) and contacts the web host to demand the covers be removed.

The authors, not realizing there’s any problem between the publisher and artist, continue to use their cover art to promote their books. The artist finds out and separately contacts the authors  to advise them they cannot use the art, and goes into long detail about why the publisher is a thief and cheat. The authors, panicked, contact their editors and demand to know what’s up. The editors don’t know and direct the authors to the publisher (but privately send their own emails asking what’s going on.)

The publisher, feeling picked on by both sides, refuses to talk to anyone and ignores calls for months on end. The publisher also makes snarky statements on the front page of the company website, and deletes private messages and emails on the company forum that speculate as to the problem. The publisher begins to privately contact authors to ask for “donations” to keep the company afloat.

Tempers rise. Multiple lawsuits follow, with nobody ever getting paid and the authors never getting back the rights to their books.

Scenario #6 — The publisher opens its doors and brings in friends with no publishing or writing experience to help run the business. To make it seem like it’s a huge company, instead of a two- or three-person shop, the Publisher adopts different personalities online and, sometimes with friends in tow, wanders around the virtual universe commenting on every website, every review, every blog where any of the books published by the Publisher are mentioned.

They give dozens of five star reviews on bookseller sites, argue with reviewers in comments or forums about what a reviewer says about the book (especially if it’s panned.) They make personal attacks on third parties, frequently without the knowledge of the author. By the time the authors learn about the flame-war going on across the web, their names are frequently mud and they have to scramble to make amends if their books are to have any hope of selling.

So, what did these publishers do wrong? Here are some of the things:

1. The person(s) founding the company never created a paperwork trail that included a corporate/LLC/partnership documents, binding freelance contracts, employment agreements for W-2 employees (where you pay taxes on income) specific to their company vision. Not an “off the internet for free” or “buy it off the shelf in the office supply store”–but hiring an attorney and an accountant to work up a real company structure.

2. The person(s) founding the company didn’t put any investment dollars into the company. Often the company runs on a shoestring until money starts to flow in. But the nature of publishing is that most of the money goes out before it comes in. Websites cost money (up front), cover art costs money (up front), equipment and printing costs money (up front). Etc., etc. Ultimately the publisher winds up paying Paul with money owed to Peter. That’s just not a sustainable business model.

3. There was no communication between the publisher and their staff. “We’re going to be a friendly team” doesn’t work when there’s no communication. The publisher should provide the staff, in print, with clear guidelines of what duties are required of their job. Heaping everything on one person is the path to failure.

4. The Publisher entered the fray. Yes, there is a desire to protect the authors of a fledgling publisher. It seems to be a financially sound thing to do. But, in reality, the publisher, editors and artists should never interact with reviewers or fans to argue about the reviewer’s opinion of a book. They should never demand (or strongly suggest) that their authors buy or review each other’s books. They should never make snarky statements about authors, reviewers, or watchdogs of the industry. Finally, the publisher, editors and artists should never ask for “donations” from authors in order to stay afloat.

Instead, they should be professionals. Always. They should freely discuss their plan to keep afloat and the business standards they intend to use. They should willingly open themselves to scrutiny by those who hope to profit from the publisher–because that’s what professionals do.

What happens after one of these scenario melt-downs? Well, then we get a flood of people at Absolute Write, asking why we didn’t ask more questions. Why we industry professionals didn’t warn people at the beginning, when we knew that meltdown was likely to happen. We used to try to explain that everybody gets a chance to open their doors and give starting a business a shot–but over the years, we’ve gotten to the point where it’s easier to ask the tough questions up front and risk hurting the feelings of one publisher, than soothe anger and frustrations of dozens of authors after the blood and dust settle.

So, if you’re a new publisher, know that yes—we WILL ask the tough questions. We will question your plan, your goals, your experience, your qualifications, your background, and sometimes your integrity. These are questions that people looking to place their “baby”, their novel or nonfiction book, need to know. Editors trying to hire on with a new publisher, and cover artists placing their work, also need to know. They deserve to know whether you, the publisher, have your plan in place and your ducks in a row.


Cathy Clamp is half of the USA Today bestselling author team of C.T. Adams and Cathy Clamp, who write paranormal romance and urban fantasy. Cathy’s/C.T.’s current releases and sample chapters of all of their books and anthologies are available at


  1. Absolute Write is a joke.

    She's talking about asking the tough questions of publishers, but the very site she's from doesn't allow members to ask the tough questions of the mods…such as herself.

    If you're a writer (a true writer) avoid this form at all cost. Your better off just writing than wasting your time with these kinds of hypocrites.

  2. Toot your horn Vicky . . . you absolutely have no dignity or class. This is a non-profit site . . . treat it as such. Karma baby. It sneaks up on friends.

  3. Excellent post with valuable information. I had one of my manuscripts with a very small publisher, and it was hung up there for more than 18 months (yes, my fault for not pulling it back sooner)with nothing happening. It was time wasted that I should have used pursuing more financially stable publishers.Advice: if you sense that nothing's happening, it probably isn't!

  4. Anonymous, if you're talking about the publisher I think you are, people DID ask tough questions — but the publisher welcomed and responded well to those questions. The reason why the 3rd degree doesn't go on as long as it does for some other publishers is that the questions actually get answered in a non-defensive manner more quickly.

    I'd say it's an example of how things are different when a publisher behaves well on their thread, rather than a case of playing favorites.

    Someone who's been around AW for a while would have the advantage of knowing what goes over well and what goes down in flames, and could make use of that knowledge. That doesn't mean anyone is giving them special treatment

  5. Great piece with many truths. I've had my trouble with small publishers, and while I'm still here they are gone.

  6. Yes, close those small publishers down! What with the authors having to educate them (authors are usually great business people and should actually be paid to lecture other small business people), I'm amazed writers have time to create a book.

    I'm with Christine- writers are victims and small publishers are ghouls. They are taking down not only our economy, but that of Sweden.

  7. >Most small businesses that fail screw over customers, suppliers, anybody they can while trying to save the ship. Though it may not be deliberate (as in fraudulent), it winds up with about the same results. Authors that go with these small presses are extending significant 'credit' to the enterprise. They are damn well justified to ask pretty much any questions they want.<

    CindyLW, I couldn't agree more! At the very least, the shafted Printers, Employee's, Government (taxes), Suppliers, Landlords, etc are considered "Creditors" in a Publishers bankruptcy case (not that they will likely see any money either but..), while Authors and Illustrators (the books) are considered "Assets". Publisher goes under, the Author/Illustrator not only is not in line for any payment, the copyright may take years to be returned to them.

    Yes, I think someone taking that kind of risk with any business can ask a few questions.

  8. >And while you can take the approach of "asking the tough questions", you could also take the approach of educating the new small publisher and pointing them in the right direction for information such as the Independent Book Publishers Association which has a ton of information on their website. SPAWN, Small Publishers, Artist, and Writers Network or are also good resources. Even the book Self-Publishing for Dummies would be helpful for those just starting out. <

    So, not only is the Author/Illustrator to SUPPLY the product to be sold by this person/'s company, but also teach them on how to be sell it?
    If a small Publisher isn't even aware of how to do a Google search for "publishing101", but just wakes up one morning saying, "hey, I think I'll be a Publisher", it's now up to me to HELP them with THEIR dream? Like it wasn't enough to work on MY dream, do MY homework, research, work for a year or more constructing the product/book, I must now do their job too?

    THIS would be a person best not to be in any business at all. A bank would turn them down flat, without any sort of business plan or any knowledge OF that business.

    If I decide one day I want to open a restaurant, cause it sure looks like a lot of fun on TV, is it up to my produce supplier to help me learn how to operate the establishment, or help fund it by not taking payment?

  9. I agree with Cathy. All small presses should be closed down. There's no need for them anymore. Big publisher's are the only fair outlet and there's room for all authors to be published by them. Really.

    Also, most writers should quit sumbitting. Unknown writers take up a lot of time and it hurts everyone. Mediochre writers clog up submissions inboxes.

    And if a few small publishers stay around, they should demand guaranteed sales levels from their authors to protect the small publisher from financial loss. This will have the added advantage of allowing the small presses to pursue their true mission statement which is to "…screw over customers, suppliers, anybody they can…"

    And if some unpublished authors still want to for whatever reason to publish with a small press(trust in the big presses, they'll always give everyone a fair chance, won't they?)both writers and small press owners should grill each other endlessly with the assumption that the other side is an enemy. It's worked well for management and unions over the years.

    It's always the other side's fault and this is why one-sided presentations are so brilliant.

  10. Great Blog. As a self-publisher I see how it's easy to fall into one of these pitfalls. Small press publishers often go into publishing with a lot of enthusiasm, but don't understand that 90% of all books fail to find an audience or pull a profit.

    And because they don't understand that fact they don't do things to minimize their risk. So they spend money without a plan or organizing.

    I went into self-publishing understanding that it'd be a loss and I'd be operating on a shoestring budget. So I published my titles small runs, and and didn't expect big profits. With a limited promotion budget I knew it would be a challenge to get sales.

    I also understood that reviews didn't sell books, and promotion would all be on me.

    Most small presses can barely afford the print run let alone promotion.

    When I submitted review copies, I understood whatever the reviewer posted would be their opinion, and once it was out there it was out there.

    Not making great money with self-publishing, but I came into it knowing that. I think that many small press publishers walk into publishing without a realistic perspective of what the business is about.

  11. I had a long drawn-out sad, bad, frustrating experience. Will I recover? I sure hope so. Were there signs along the way? Yes, definitely.

    Best thing about it? I now have a suspicious mind.

  12. Quote: "Don't these things go without saying? (That's why I don't understand the "analysis" aspect.)"

    @ Anon 1:12

    Unfortunately, they don't, or we'd have a lot more people avoid learning by sad experience.

    Too many people come into publishing from both sides who are uninformed, misinformed, or naive. And the only way to educate is to repeat the same, sometimes obvious truths again and again.

  13. Thank you for this great article.

    I'm about to approach a small publisher recommended by a writing buddy, so it couldn't be more timely.

  14. What a great post, and a terrific list of things to follow for anyone starting a small press.

    I'm wondering, do we have a scenario where things went right?

  15. If the valued publisher at AW is the one I'm thinking of their thread is currently on the first page of the BRBC forum. I have to say that until recently they did seem to be getting an easier ride from all of the mods/long standing members than the other publishers on that forum. The mods/long standing members have justified it by saying that this publisher didn't come out all guns blazing and answered questions professionally. I still feel that they are biased because they are friends. If that publisher was anyone else they would have pointed out the problems from the get-go.

  16. "While I understand that the purpose of the Writer Beware Blog is to warn and protect authors, I would like to point out that the biggest financial loser in most of those scenarios is the publishers/co-owners of the small press."

    As it should be. That's a risk taken with any enterprise. Small publishers have a habit of doing serious damage to their authors while attempting to save themselves.

    "Ask every question. Question every answer."

    Most small businesses that fail screw over customers, suppliers, anybody they can while trying to save the ship. Though it may not be deliberate (as in fraudulent), it winds up with about the same results. Authors that go with these small presses are extending significant 'credit' to the enterprise. They are damn well justified to ask pretty much any questions they want.

  17. While I understand that the purpose of the Writer Beware Blog is to warn and protect authors, I would like to point out that the biggest financial loser in most of those scenarios is the publishers/co-owners of the small press.

    And while you can take the approach of "asking the tough questions", you could also take the approach of educating the new small publisher and pointing them in the right direction for information such as the Independent Book Publishers Association which has a ton of information on their website. SPAWN, Small Publishers, Artist, and Writers Network or are also good resources. Even the book Self-Publishing for Dummies would be helpful for those just starting out.

    You could also point out that in order to make a little money in publishing, one has to start out with a lot of money. (I can't remember where I read that.)

    It really is in the writer's best interest that a start-up small publisher succeeds instead of fails. Whenever a market closes that is one less market for a writer to sell their work. You can help with that or you can hinder that; the choice is up to you.

  18. @P. David Gardner:

    I'm Anonymous who you addressed. I actually don't read the forums, so I have no comments related to that or what a "valued member" would be. This is my first time here, and I came via a link from a colleague.

    My point is that navigating the _world_ (not just publishing) is caveat emptor. And the scenarios described above are so full of red flags and the people in them are quite obviously inept and experienced in business, in publishing, and in editing. I would hope the red flags speak for themselves. Further, I would hope no one calls that kind of thing publishing.

    I think the way to tell who's "legit" and who isn't is the same in all domains: by a person's behavior. And by all means, investigate and question before getting entangled–whether it's a business venture, a relationship, a job…anything.

    Don't these things go without saying? (That's why I don't understand the "analysis" aspect.)

  19. This is a very good point, Florrie! I'm a huge supporter of independent publisher associations! Our first publisher was a niche small press that was a member of an independent publisher group. The group was invaluable as a resource for both the publisher in getting distribution contacts and us, as the author for co-op promo and such. Any small press wanting to truly make it should investigate their local (or state) group. 🙂

  20. Granted, the type of entity isn't as big of a deal as the fact that there IS one. That really is a big deal. Even co-authors should have paperwork to protect themselves & keep things legal, so why shouldn't publishers?

  21. I don't agree that anyone gets a free pass. I'm not certain why so many people seem to think that all Mods at AW Are in lockstep with each other. We're not and we don't play favorites. At least, I don't. I'll be the first to admit that I don't visit every single thread in the pub room. There aren't enough hours in the day. But there are no free passes. If you truly feel someone has been shown favoritism, let Victoria know. Really.

  22. I'm leaving this comment as 'anonymous' so I don't ruffle any feathers, but I wanted to tell you about my experience.
    My first publisher was a new, small company. I was just thrilled to have my first piece accepted and assumed the publisher knew what they were doing. Seems not. After the first quarter, the publisher said they were having minor financial issues and could we wait for royalties till the next quarter. We said that was fine. But the second quarter came and still no money. When we queried, the publisher stopped responding to emails. Turns out the money we were owed had been spent. I never received a penny. It wasn't a huge amount I was owed and they did restore all rights to me so I could take my work elsewhere, so I didn't bother pursuing it when I could see it would be a waste of my time.
    I am now with another publisher and I can see the difference straight away. Though still a fairly small company, they are much more professional and I receive my royalties promptly with no fuss.

  23. After pointing out what publishers should NOT do, Cathy (rightly) states:

    “Instead, they should be professionals. Always. They should freely discuss their plan to keep afloat and the business standards they intend to use. They should willingly open themselves to scrutiny by those who hope to profit from the publisher–because that's what professionals do.”

    Absolutely. For 30 years, the Independent Book Publishers Association’s mission has been to teach small and independent publishers how to run their publishing company as a business. And that, of course, includes meeting (and exceeding) professional and ethical standards. Certainly there are some small publishers who are guilty as charged in Cathy’s scenarios—just as there are many large publishers who may skate beyond the bounds of professionalism in different ways. But I encourage authors not to assume that all small publishers are unprofessional. The majority of IBPA’s 2700 members include small and independent publishers who joined the organization in order to learn how to publish efficiently, effectively and ethically. In publishing, size doesn’t matter—what matters is whether the publisher runs his or her business honestly, legitimately and professionally. As Victoria advises, I encourage all authors to perform their due diligence before signing ANY contract. A publisher who runs his or her company in accordance with acceptable industry standards will welcome those “tough questions.” Ask them.

    Florrie Kichler, President, IBPA

  24. @Anonymous at 4/04/2012 3:50 PM:

    What makes a publisher a "valued member" of AW?

    One who is transparent in its dealings with authors (and readers).

    One who has experience in what they are doing, rather than just thinking one day, "Gee, let's be publishers!"

    One who answers questions on the forum in plain and straightforward ways, rather than deliberately obfuscating information valuable to authors.

    One who puts this information on their web sites, operating in the clear, rather than hiding this information.

    I doubt the possession of "papers" (LLC or regular corporate) is a big tipping point.

  25. These scenarios were rather painful to read and it would be great if they weren't true, but I'm not sure there's any point in analyzing what these folks did wrong. There's just so much idiocy here, it's more like naive people playing "publisher" the way kids might play house, or just outright fraud.

    To me, these don't have anything to do with publishing or editing as a profession/industry. It's just a lot of stupidity–which is found all over.

  26. You will ask the tough questions UNLESS the new publisher is a valued member of AW. Valued members of AW get a pass on the tough questions, like the one who hasn't formed an LLC or filed any other corporate paperwork for her new publishing company…

  27. I had no idea there were so many smaller publishing houses around or that some had gone down in the way they did. Thanks for such an interesting read.

  28. I have no doubt that some of the people running small publishing companies started up because they had good intentions, if not small wallets. But in the end, you can always tell the amateurs from the pros, once they join in on public discussions about their ventures.

    Still, it's sad to see things degenerate when they call in their cadre of sock puppets for moral support, and sadder still when the actual publishers themselves, or their employees, chime in and reveal their own inabilities to manage not only their business and authors, but their own persona in public forums.

    I always make it a rule to avoid publishers who denigrate authors who dare to question the publisher, who ask the hard questions. Authors are not trying to shame the publisher. They just want enough information about the new publisher in order to make an informed decision.

    You know, kind of like when you investigate cars before you buy them. Or a new home.

    And there's nothing wrong with that.

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