I know you spent years on The Tattooed Witch and a long time trying to find where it would fit in the New York market, so you might have some perspective on this. My publisher has the Right of First Refusal for the novel. At this point, I'm wondering if I might want to turn the contract offer down and try taking it elsewhere. Although I've had a good relationship with the company so far, they have a small reach, minimal promotional budget, no hard-copy book releases (you get a printed book after you've sold 100 e-books), and little credibility in most circles (i.e. most reviewers and awards pass up their books because they've never heard of the company). As a writer, I want to take steps that will help me move forward with my career. While it's important to have a platform and books out there for readers, it's also important to build credibility.
I've been in the submission boxing ring. It isn't fun. I don't want to burn a valuable bridge without at least knowing there are some other ways to go. It is possible my writing isn't yet mature enough for me to land a spot in better presses in the small press world, but publishing my novel would give me a chance to demonstrate progressing skill to a publisher. This novel might fit in another small press that has a bigger reach. I don't want to make a poor publishing decision by signing a contract when I could just as well have exercised the right to shop it around elsewhere. I know this is something as a writer I need to decide, but I would value your input - all these little pieces together help me to process and get some reassurance. One thing I value about being connected with a writing community is how we share ideas.
First of all, things may be changing in the big house publishing world. I've heard recent rumors that some of the big houses are beginning to consider unsolicited manuscripts. Personally, I doubt this very much, or, if they are, it may take years before they get to your manuscript. In my experience, the only way to be fast-tracked through the big houses is through an agent. Further, it's as hard to land an experienced and successful one, as it is to land a Big Five publishing contract. If you *do* land a good agent, it won't be immediately. They're all back-logged with queries, and despite what they may say in terms of turn-around on their websites (ie. six to eight weeks), more likely it will take months of patient waiting before you get a 'yes' or a 'no thanks'. In my case, it took over a year and the first response was more of a 'let's talk about it' and not a 'yes, we want to sign you'. Further, an agent will only take you on because he or she sees promise in your work and thinks they can sell it. In my case, my agent hoped that the big houses would sort out where they might place The Tattooed Witch in a bookstore; they wanted a sure thing, something that clearly fit into a specific genre. Unfortunately for me, the consensus seemed to be that they felt the fantasy elements in the book would turn off the romance readers, and the romance in it would turn off the fantasy lovers. As it turned out, I've received many positive comments from readers for exactly these reasons. The book is stronger because it is a hybrid. If you want to get into New York, learn from my experience and stick to strict genre guidelines. To reiterate, you will: 1). likely need agent. 2). it may take you months to land one, and 3). your small press wants your book NOW. They also have the Right of First Refusal which is a contractual obligation. Time and legalities are going to be problems.
Personally, I have an issue with any press (small, mid-size, or large) that makes me sign away my next book and expects me to hand it over to them. Five Rivers does not do this, for which I'm thankful. Obviously, your publisher sees promise in you and wants to keep you in her stable. The Right of First Refusal is a tricky issue: you've signed a contract with a clause that gives them 'dibs' on any of your forthcoming books that are within a particular genre. I'm sure an agent could easily find a way around this if they wanted to take you on as a client . However, most agents will not want to deal with small presses - there just isn't any money in it for them. In the end, the decision is up to you. You can have a sure thing with the small press who already wants you, or you take your chances and hope to interest an agent who might entice a big house.
One thing you might do: sign with your small press publisher once again, but refuse to agree to the Right of First Refusal option in your next contract. You'll be writing other books in the future, yes? This might be a good way to avoid unpleasantness with your current small house, as well as give you time to think about new work and the time it will take to interest an agent. Plus, there are benefits to dealing with a smaller press, especially if they lean more towards e-books. For one, the book has a chance to become successful and isn't likely to be remaindered after six months. Further, smaller houses will often take more time to promote your work.
I hope this helps. I'm no authority. There are likely options I haven't considered. Good luck!
AND THAT SAID, IF ANY OF YOU has experience in dealing with (and/or denying) the Right of First Refusal, please drop me a line or comment. As my friend says, it's great to be part of a writing community. This is what Suzenyms is about. There is so much expertise out there from which we can learn. I welcome you to share.