We tend to focus on the big-name publishers like Random House or Knopf. But there are thousands of other well-respected presses with long histories that I would be proud to see publish my own writing. The difference between a “small” or “indie” press and a “vanity” press is whether you must pay the publisher. You might choose a “vanity press,” for convenience and service, over self-publishing.
An indie press should have good relationships with distributors that will get your book into stores. An indie press can also release your book in an electronic form and help you with marketing it online.
You can’t just mail your manuscript to the big New York houses; you’ll need to get an agent first. But indie presses will accept unsolicited manuscripts and are more likely to take on a book that a mainstream house will consider too risky. They may be looking for experimental or shocking work, but not necessarily. The widely-popular novel The Time Traveler’s Wife was first published by MacAdam/Cage Publishing. Water for Elephants was first published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
For a comprehensive database of small and independent publishers, go to Duotrope.com. Before you send out a manuscript, look at the publisher’s list and see if you sense a similarity in taste. In your cover letter, you’ll want to say, sincerely, that you chose this publisher because you admire the books it brings to the public. Make sure that your manuscript is truly ready for serious readers. You’ll need to copy-edit it carefully or hire a copy-editor and you may first want a critique from a writers’ group or a professional editor.
Your imagination, story, and writing skills will sell your novel or memoir, and your knowledge and insight will sell your non-fiction. But taking care of the details and getting high-quality help will ensure that you’ve given your work its best chance. All writers–at all levels–need editors.
Only people with little knowledge of writing or the publishing world think that they can pour out their hearts, mail Random House a fat mound of paper with typos and weird margins that no one else has seen, be received with open arms and go on to make millions. It’s a lovely fantasy. Write a short story about that writer! With the fantasy off your chest, you can take your next steps.