Big presses do many things small presses can't--like give big advances, have books in every chain across the country, organize book tours and otherwise extensive marketing. They have teams of artists, copy editors, interns, etc. Small presses have their small teams of editors, writers and sometimes artists who work more for love than money or fame--BUT we can do a lot that big presses can't. We can give authors a chance.
I've gotten some really great query letters, requested the manuscripts, only to discover that all the greatness was indeed in the query letter. Helpful Hint from the Bogwitch: Don't polish those first ten pages and that query to gleaming glory only to have the rest of it fade into a grammatical nightmare complete with plot holes you could fly a dragon through. Getting those first pages read might feel great, but it is not going to result in an offer to publish.
Being a small press editor with dozens of queries a month rather than hundreds, I can give feedback to these writers, show them what worked for me and what didn't. I've given a grammar lesson or two. (I've come to realize that fewer know the difference between that and which than I ever imagined possible!) I've written a personal rejection for each author I've turned down, and hopefully given them at least something to take away from the experience.
I've also gotten some really terrible query letters. Letters poorly crafted, grammatically challenged, and addressed to Sir/Madam. Being a small house getting dozens rather than hundreds of queries, we can read them anyway. I received a query I've dubbed WORST QUERY OF ALL TIME! But it had one element so different from everything else I've read that I requested the manuscript anyway. I opened the file without much hope of even a diamond in the rough, and discovered not just a faceted diamond ready to mount in a setting, but true beauty. The writing in the query did NOT reflect the writing in the novel. I've only read a few pages so far--though I'm dying to devour this one!--so we'll see if it carries through. The point is, just about anyone but small press would have read two lines of that query (if they got past the wrong salutation*) and form rejected. We, being a small press, were able to take the time to read past what we know to be the hardest part of writing a novel, and beyond.
*Ah, those query letters directed to names that don't exist in Hadley Rille Books, or to Sir/Madam. I have to say, I always thought it was small and petty for editors and agents to reject on that reason alone, but I also have new-found respect for them too. I am currently swamped with reading--happily so! But swamped. I imagine when one is getting several dozen a week instead of a handful, there has to be a first cut delineation. A letter addressed to the wrong person could well be that first cut.
When you're querying a publishing company or agent with the work you've toiled over, why would you not then take the time to find out who you're addressing? You want this person to SEE YOU, and yet you don't see them. Hadley Rille has an "About" page that lists all the staff and what they do. It's not hard to figure out that Eric Reynolds is our editor-in-chief, that Terri-Lynne DeFino and Kim Vandervort are the fantasy editors. That these authors did not take the time doesn't sit well with me; but it wouldn't be an automatic rejection as it could well be in a bigger house or agency.
The last point I'll make is this--small presses can give writers not quite ready for big press world a shot. There are some good stories out there that, with a bit more work, can be great. Small press editors, because we work with maybe four authors a year rather than dozens, can nurse one of those really good stories to greatness. The novel I accepted isn't perfect, by any means. It needs another revision that includes a major shift in the sequence of events that lead up to the climax. A bigger press might have passed even if they thought it had potential. They're just too busy to handhold. But I loved the story. No, I didn't love it. I LOOOOOOOOOOOOOVED it. I knew just what it needed to make it shine, so I accepted it. I am so excited about this novel, I just got chills writing those last couple of lines.
Small press world isn't for everyone, as I've said over and over again. For some, it's just too much work without enough payoff. For others, it's a stepping stone to bigger things. For me, it's a world of possibilities otherwise ignored.