Thursday, 26 February 2009

Don’t Discount the Little Guys: On the Benefits of Small Publishers

Ask any new author whether they’d rather be published by a big publishing house or a small but attentive local publisher and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t choose big. I’d like to suggest that this is a misconception. Even if it were a possibility, and with all due respect to the five biggest publishers (Penguin, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Random House, Time Warner), getting published by a big press may not be the best option for a new author. Here are some of the key reasons why.
  • Getting a first novel or poetry book published by a mainstream publisher is a difficult task by any standard, but the big houses are often constrained by tight quotas, by large overheads and mandated profit margins, by purely commercial (rather than literary) considerations (and the demands of shareholders), and by the need for big name acquisition and the subsequent costs. Most won’t take unagented submissions and even if they do, may not look at them. So the entry portal for a large house is very small.
  • Naturally the bigger the house the bigger their resource pool, budget and so on but these funds are often not available to new authors, whose slice of the funding pie may be correspondingly small to fund the famous ‘names’ that the house has. Even if their book is accepted by a big house, first time authors may find themselves receiving surprisingly small advances, and more importantly, very limited editing, publicity, and promotion. With the big houses, you are one author amongst thousands, and your personal success is generally not that important in the overall scheme of their lives. In small houses, your success is critical, and you’re only one of a very small number of authors, so you count.
  • One of the biggest problems with big houses is the limited timeframe for promotion. A book is usually only “hot” within the first two months from publication. This means you need reviews from galleys, and if you don’t sell well in the early stages you may be dropped, pulped, or ignored. Large houses will often only do large print runs, which means that a book has to sell significant numbers of books to make back the investment (more than 5,000 copies is an average lower limit for large houses). Smaller publishers generally don’t have those sorts of constraints. A book can be considered viable with much smaller sales than those expected by a large publisher and will often be promoted and kept ‘on the books’ in print (especially if it’s POD and no stock is required) over many years.
  • Smaller houses often provide much greater rights to your book, and higher margins, even if the initial advance is low to nonexistent. This may well mean that you end up earning much more from your book sales.
  • Smaller house are often faster to market with books (partly due to fewer constraints and a flatter structure), more flexible, and more willing to personally edit your book to perfection.
  • Small publishers often have much closer contact with their authors. They collaborate on covers, work together on galleys, and can even involve authors in the production process. There is a wonderful intimacy which you will never find in the large houses.
There was once a time when the small houses produced poorer quality printed books, but this is no longer the case. The cost of printing is cheaper than it ever was, and most small press books are printed on the same quality paper and with the same quality printers as the big house books (some have higher printing quality than the big houses because they are able to focus their resources). The Internet too has given smaller houses a leg up, and they are making the most of global promotion opportunities in a much faster way than the big houses – utilising Amazon and reaching targeted markets with the kind of dexterity that can only come when you aren’t hampered by the constraints of a pro-forma performance appraisal.

There’s also a broader aesthetic implication to consider when sending your work out for publication. Small presses tend to support diversity and innovation. As they aren’t reporting to a board of directors or stockholders, there is much more freedom for them to make selections based on quality rather than sales potential. So supporting small presses means that you’re supporting diversity in publishing and ensuring that the wide variety of stunning voices that are out there continue to be available. Poetry in particular has always existed outside of financial considerations, and the number of poetic titles being published by large publishers is miniscule. Good poetry books are being published almost solely by small presses, which continue to support new poets out of very small funding pots, and primarily for the love of it. Most small presses work primarily for the love of it anyway, regardless of what they publish, and choose books based on that one criteria that every writer wants his or her reader to have
a deep and abiding love of the book. In other words, if a small press is publishing you, it isn’t because you’re Ethan Hawke or Jewel, but because they absolutely love your work. What more could a writer ask for? How about a long book life, small (possibly very small) but steady profits, superb, thoughtful, personal and collaborative editing, and aggressive, innovative marketing? If that’s what you’re looking for, small presses are the way to go. Of course not all small presses are divine. There are plenty of sharks out there. But a majority of small presses are operating on a tiny budget and a massive heart. It’s enough to keep you writing.

Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. Her short stories, editorials, poetry, reviews and articles have appeared in a wide number of printed anthologies and journals, and have won local and international awards for poetry (including this year's Roland Robinson literary award), and fiction. She is also the author of the critically acclaimed novel Sleep Before Evening, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment: How to Review Anything and three other poetry chapbooks Quark Soup, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Cherished Pulse and She Wore Emerald Then. She runs a monthly radio program podcast


  1. Because I follow Maggie's advice we became close networkers and that worked into collaborating on poetry chapbooks. Oh, the glory of cooperative efforts.

    I still love reading her articles. Thanks for featuring her.

    Carolyn Howard-Johnson
    Blogging at Writer's Digest 101 Best Websites pick,

  2. i concur 100%, maggie. my book ALLAKAZZAM! [by daniel abelman] would probably never had seen the light day, if not for a small independant publisher. lets face it: we struck it lucky with bewrite

  3. Thanks, Carolyn and Daniel, for you comments. Hopefully we'll have more articles by Maggie in the future.