There are a lot of small press start-ups these days — the rise of electronic and print-on-demand publishing has lowered the bar for entering the business by quite a bit. This is, I think, a good thing; small presses can take on books that have small (but dedicated) audiences, books that the major publishers might not want to take on. But it’s an unhappy truth that if you have a lot of small press start-ups happening, not all of them are going to succeed. In fact, a lot of them are going to fail spectacularly.
Unsurprisingly, this does not make life easier for writers. Sure, once you’ve finished your book, you’ve got a lot more places to send it than writers did just a couple of decades ago. But now you can’t just ask, “Is this publisher likely to accept my manuscript?”; you also have to ask, “Is this publisher likely to stay in business long enough to publish my book and pay me what it earns?”
This requires research, and listening to the industry chatter, and watching which way the wind blows.
One thing that you can listen for, when publisher-shopping: Does the publisher in question reject more manuscripts than it publishes? If so, that’s a good sign. One of the things publishers are for is rejecting manuscripts — they do it so the readers don’t have to. Readers trust the publishers to have sorted through the vast piles of truly dreadful material and pulled out the good stuff.
“Truly dreadful” isn’t an exaggeration, by the way. The industry term for unsolicited manuscripts is “slush,” and it’s exactly as uncomplimentary as it sounds. Probably 99% of it is absolutely dreadful. Anybody in the world who can afford the price of a ream of paper and some postage can send in an unsolicited manuscript, and on a bad day at the publisher’s office, it can seem like most of them do.
I’ve read slush. Publishers who accept unsolicited manuscripts tend to put off reading them for as long as possible, just because most of them are so very very bad; as a result, sometimes the editorial department will declare a “slush kill” and draft all the editors and editorial assistants and — sometimes — visiting writers and just about anybody else in the office who’s known to be literate and in possession of a pulse, and there will be a massive effort to go through as many manuscripts as possible and sort out the utterly at-first-glance unpublishables from the ones that might merit a longer look by somebody a rung or so higher up the ladder. A lot of things get thrown out at this stage: obvious plagiarism; blatant insanity; sheer incompetent prose; stuff meant to be taken seriously that nevertheless has the first reader giggling insanely; stuff so utterly dull from the very start that going on to the next page is a chore. Most of what’s left still isn’t going to get published; not being actively dreadful isn’t the same thing as being good.
None of this is fair. Publishers aren’t in the business of being fair to aspiring writers. If they’re in the business of being fair to anyone, it’s to the readers, who are trusting them not to provide a bad product.
So if the small press where you’re interested in submitting has a track record of rejecting manuscripts that don’t meet its standards, that should count as a point in its favor.