A discussion with a friend who, unfortunately, had fallen victim to an unscrupulous, unprofessional obscure publisher prompted me to write this. I know I've said this before, but it's important enough to bear repeating: in the world of digital publishing, just as anyone can call themselves an author and slap a half-baked whatever on Amazon, anyone can call themselves a publisher and get authors to sign away their precious book rights, without any experience, credentials or connections whatsoever.
There are small presses and there are small presses. It's important to distinguish between the genuine intrinsic limitations of any small press - less connections, less budget, less possibilities to get a book out there - and the unethical practices of a crook and a scammer (demanding money upfront, neglecting to share timely reports, lack of transparency, contracts that lock the author in without the chance of escape while offering very little in return).
When signing a book deal with a small press, one has to be realistic. I have a contract with Mason Marshall for Wild Children and its upcoming sequels, and I'm happy with their level of professionalism and dedication. On the other hand, I'm well aware that my publisher is not Random House. They can't commission posh graphic designers that charge thousands of $$ per cover. They can't give out big advances. They are limited in what they can spend on promotion. I knew that when I signed, so all is fair and square.
There is an opinion among many authors that if you're not getting a book deal with a major publisher, there's no point in signing with a small one, because they can do very little for you which you can't do for yourself. There is some reason in that, if you have money for at least some upfront costs which come with self-publishing. If, on the other hand, you don't have any ready money, and your publisher (professionally, without cutting corners) takes care of the editing, proofreading, cover design, formatting, and at least some promotion, it may be a worthwhile exchange. Yes, you can self-publish without any budget at all, and I have done this, but it's tough and requires time and work. Some authors weigh the pros and cons and decide to sign with a reputable small publisher, to free up their time for work on new projects, rather than tackle the whole thing themselves. It is a legitimate choice, as is self-publishing.
Of course, blindly giving away one's book rights to any crook on a dark street corner is not a choice, it's a trap. I strongly recommend reading this article by SWFA on small presses. It is relevant for all authors, not just those who write sci-fi or fantasy.
It's easy to become desperate when you're in the trenches of querying. Authors, don't forget: your book rights have value. Don't be tempted to give them up too quickly just because a random someone is waving a contract in front of you. Don't be swayed by compliments on your genius, or shiny bubbles of fairyland promises. Do your background checks, study the market, and make an informed decision.