Middleworld — Where the Publishers are Neither Too Big Nor Too Small

Miniature Story Book -- photo by alphadeltago's photostream, Flickr

Okay, so here’s the situation. You’re a therapist writer. You’ve decided to write a book. Maybe it’s on a mental health topic; maybe it’s on something else. You’ve done your homework. You know your subject matter, your genre, your angle, your goals, your audience. You may even have completed a few chapters. That’s all good.

Then somebody comes along and throws you a curve by asking you a simple question: “How many actual books are you going to be able to sell to your primary audience?” Gee. I didn’t expect that question.  In my case, I know that the primary audience for the book I’m writing (The Therapist Writer) is mental health professionals who want to write. But exact numbers?  I realized I needed to get my numbers act together.  As my GPS says…

Calculating… Calculating…

After a lot of Googling (which wasn’t helpful), and some phone calls to mental health organizations (many refuse to disclose membership numbers), I finally consulted a copy of the Occupational Outlook Handbook 2010-2011 (the new edition covering 2012 is due out soon), and I came up with a total of “700,000” mental health professionals in the U.S. with an expected growth rate of 15% by 2018, bringing the total number of therapists to 805,000 by 2018. And since I’ve always heard that in the fund-raising world a 1% response to a fund-raising letter is average, I threw that number into the mix…

Calculating… Calculating…

The number I came up with (1% of 805,000 mental health professionals) was 8,500 potential book sales over the next couple of years. (Anyone with a better set of numbers please let me know!)  In my world, 8,500 sales isn’t bad.  But in the world of traditional publishing (think New York), 8,500 is lousy. It’s small potatoes. Without at least 25,000 fans panting to buy my book, my chances of getting a New York agent to broker a book deal with a big time trade publisher are slim to none. So forgetaboutit. It’s just never going to happen. My book is far “too nichy” for that world. Now what?

As a therapist writer, this could happen to you. Not to be mean, but I’m afraid that book you’re working on about Sandtray Therapy just isn’t going to be a hot item at Random House. Then, is your only alternative self-publishing? That’s certainly an option, maybe even a good one in some cases, but don’t throw in the towel just yet. There’s a whole middleworld of publishing houses out there known as “the independents,” or “small presses,” or “academic publishers” or “university presses” that are still considered traditional publishers, same business model, and they might be just perfect for you.

According to Los Angeles literary agent Paul S. Levine, the publishing world is roughly divided into two parts. Half of the book business is controlled by the “Big Six” global publishing conglomerates (Random House, Harper Collins, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, Penguin and Hachette (and a slew of imprints under the umbrella of each). The other half, Levine states, is made up of some 56,000 smaller publishers or “independents” which he defines as “those who publish three or more books in one calendar year.”

Also mixed in here are the academic/university presses, some 100 of them that publish anywhere from a few book to 100 books a year, many on specialty topics (archeology, history, music, biographies, politics, music, theater, dance, art, baseball, gardening, health, sports, travel, school texts, nature, interior design, pop culture, writing —  and many areas of  psychology.) Because everything is topsy-turvy in the publishing world these days, some of the university and academic presses have had to go mainstream and put out commercial books, so they’re not just printers for stuffy books anymore. If you’re afraid your book isn’t stuffy enough for them, this should come as good news. You may have a shot.

Why Are the Independent Presses Worth Looking Into?

For today’s writers, one of the best things about the small, independent presses is that many of them don’t insist that you have an agent, which is rare in the “Big Six” world. That’s one huge gatekeeper out of the way! You can send in material (such as a book proposal) unsolicited, without prior permission. These publishers are more open to niche topics and if you do hook up with one of them, they’ll give you more personal attention and help you make your book “perfect.” On the downside is time and money. This all takes time and there’s not much money for advances or marketing. If you’re in a big hurry to get your book out there for upcoming workshops, seminars and conventions, then self-publishing, using print-on-demand technology, might work better for you.

Best Resources

The two best resources for finding out about the independents, small presses, academic publishers and university presses are these annuals: 1) the 2012 Writer’s Market (check out their “Family Tree” chart showing the conglomerates and their imprints), and, 2) Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents 2012. Writer’s Market refers to these houses as “small publishers” and defines them as those publishing ten books or less a year; Herman calls his list of 500 or so presses the “independents” and defines them as publishing one book a year on up. He has a separate section for “university presses,” whereas Writer’s Market mixes the academic and university presses in along with other publishers, but has a separate section for the “ten and under” small presses. There’s a lot of cross-over so it can be confusing. Writer’s Market also highlights “new listings” which might be worth looking into because they may be less inundated with material from other writers — so far.

What to do in Middleworld

If your book is “too nichy” for an agent and the “Big Six,” but you’re not up to self-publishing (which is exciting but a lot of work), look at the publishers in Middleworld:

  • Look through the two directories mentioned above;
  • Read the sections for “small,” “independent” and “university/academic” presses;
  • Put checks by the publishers that don’t require agents (Basic Books and WW Norton do require agents; Adams Media and Guilford don’t);
  • Come up with a list of about 15 publishers that appeal to you and seem to have a strong presence in your subject area;
  • Check out each pick with http://www.writerbeware.com and http://www.preditorsandeditors.com just to be safe and make sure they’re not flakes;
  • Go on each of the 15 web sites and see what their writer guidelines say. You may have to hunt for them — try “Contact Us” or “Submission Guidelines” or “Authors” or “Writer Guidelines;” or “Submissions;”
  • Don’t deal with any so-called “publishers” (vanity presses in disguise) that use words like “subsidy,” “co-publishing,” “joint venture.”  That’s the dark side of  self-publishing which is another conversation;
  • Send off whatever the publisher asks for — and don’t wait by the mailbox. They’ll answer eventually. In the meantime, keep educating yourself about publishing; keep networking with other writers, and keep writing.
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2 responses to “Middleworld — Where the Publishers are Neither Too Big Nor Too Small

  1. Merrilee Gibson

    Thank you. This information was most helpful. I’m actually contemplating a book which is not on a mental health topic (even though I’m a licensed psychotherapist. So, your information gives me hope and a few places to start. Again, many thanks.

    • Merrilee,I’m so sorry, but I just saw this. I’ve been guilty of blog abandonment while I was finishing my book, The Therapist Writer, now finished and up on Amazon and it’s also a Kindle. So glad the blog post was helpful. Write that book! Best, Sylvia Cary, LMFT

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