At its basic level, the difference between self-publishing and publishing with a very small press is this: when you self-publish you receive all the revenue from your sales, and you are responsible for all the tasks to bring your novel to the market. When you contract with a publisher, you agree to give the publisher a portion of the revenue, and they agree to perform some of the tasks of bringing your novel to market.
When you are responsible for a publishing task, you can hire someone to do it or do it yourself. If you do it yourself, you need to have or learn the necessary skills, and it takes time away from other activities (like writing the next book). If you can’t or don’t want to do it yourself, it takes up-front money.
You wrote the book, and you polished it as well as you could—or at least as much as you chose—and now you are at the decision point of what publisher (including yourself) you’ll choose. Before selecting a publisher, it’s important to understand what they will and will not do to earn their share of the revenue stream.
Developmental Editing: Many presses perform a developmental edit of your work. You should understand how thorough that edit will be and who will do it. Some presses have full-time staff. Most use either a stable of on-call people or, in small presses, the owner performs that work. A full developmental edit, which is what I do for Wolf’s Echo Press clients, considers and offers suggestions about story inconsistencies, character inconsistencies, theme development, pacing, sub-plots, and character arcs—all with the intent to bring out the best in your story.
Some small presses provide little or no developmental editing. That may be fine if you have run your novel through a qualified critique group or have a stable of good beta readers, but even then, friends may have their own blind spots whereas an outsider brings a fresh perspective.
Copyediting and Proofreading: Once the story is locked down, it still needs copyediting and proofreading. My theory is that your name and the publisher’s name are both on the title page and both should want to produce a clean document. It’s nigh to impossible to create an 80,000-word, error-free book. How close does your publisher come and what is their process?
The best way to check the quality of the copyediting and proofing is to read, or at least skim, several of the publisher’s published books. You can often download free sample chapters from a publisher’s website or read the first portion of a book on Amazon.
Even if you have a perfect understanding of Chicago Manual of Style (or whatever style you use), I believe no one can proofread their own material. We read what we “know” to be there instead of what is actually there, and it’s especially hard to catch your own homonym errors.
Print Layout: While you are checking the quality of the copyediting and proofing, pay attention to the way the publisher laid out the print copy. Is it clear, readable, and attractive? Does it meet industry standards, or does it cram type onto a page to reduce the number of pages. Do the justified lines occasionally cause wide spacing between words? Do pages begin with a single line that should have been attached to the rest of the paragraph on the previous page? You worked hard to choose the right words, will the publisher display them in a manner that does you proud?
Electronic Layout: Do the electronic versions of the publisher’s books also look attractive? Go through the same evaluation process as for print.
Book Covers: Again, look at the publisher’s published works. Is that what you want for your book? If you already have a cover, will the publisher consider using it, and will they change the royalty terms?
Print Distribution: Where and how does your publisher distribute your book? Many small publishers use Print on Demand (POD) outfits such as CreateSpace, KDP, and IngramSpark to create print versions of your book. These are the same sources you would use if you were doing it yourself.
What retail stores (if any) will your book be automatically distributed to? Most nano- and micro-publishers have no ability to get a book into Barnes & Noble or Walmart. Does the publisher allow returns—or give you the choice to allow or disallow returns? If returns are allowed, are they charged against author royalties?
Electronic Distribution: Does the publisher insist on a strategy (going-wide, staying with Amazon only to take advantage of Kindle Unlimited) or, as Wolf’s Echo Press does, allow the author to choose an approach if they wish?
Marketing Efforts: What marketing, if any, does the publisher use? The sad fact is that books rarely sell themselves, and most of the responsibility for marketing falls on the author. Does the publisher take out ads? Engage in reduced-price sales events? Will the publisher share costs with the author? If Wolf’s Echo Press agrees to a marketing effort, it splits the costs with the author.
Royalties: Although it may be the first thing an author considers, if there are no book sales because of a failure in anything above, it doesn’t matter what the royalty terms are. Let’s assume you will have sales, so how are royalties split between publisher and author? Is it the same or different for print and electronic copies? Wolf’s Echo Press pays 50% of net revenue for both print and electronic.
Taxes: One advantage of using a publisher is when it comes to tax time. They provide you with a single IRS Form 1099 that shows your paid royalties for the year. Self-published authors must maintain and aggregate that information themselves.
Inevitable Typos: Despite everyone’s best effort, what happens when a reader contacts you because they found a typo on page 117? Some publishers (like Wolf’s Echo Press) will correct electronic versions of the work so future readers have a better experience. Others can’t be bothered. Similarly, what happens if some of your back-matter changes?
This is not an exhaustive list of things to consider, but if you do your homework, you should have a good feel for whether a publisher is right for you, or if self-publishing is the best approach.