The small press industry works on a shoestring. Departments of marketing, PR, editorial and design often do not exist and instead become merged into one, with a couple of freelancers. Small presses exist for the same reason that large publishing houses do - for the love of books and in the name of good stories - but they operate to publish narratives and people which do not exist within the structures of ‘commercial’ fiction/non-fiction. This is often their strength; small presses create space in the industry where it did not exist previously.
Often due to their small structures, small presses brim with personality, both online and offline, and this is often their key to successful sales. The barriers between publisher, book and author are stripped back, and because readers can get to know the people behind the mechanisms, this can lead to a loyal following. However, a great book by a small press does not automatically achieve national attention through innovation alone.
One recurring issue that book publicists face is how to make a book release into ‘news’. Of itself, the release of a book is unlikely to attract national attention, independent of controversy (I think here of the Fifty Shade of Grey effect!). Of course, there are newspaper review sections, and when I look at the UK’s leading newspapers, I make a habit of logging which publishers newspaper editors have chosen to review each week. Each week, I log the same publishers. This might lead you to believe that journalists do not get approached by small presses in the first place. This is not the case. The problem is that small publishers do not have a PR team working to attract national media for each book campaign, and it is likely that emails will be disregarded, until the press wins a large publishing prize, and attracts ‘gravitas’.
However, it is not all doom and gloom, because within this no-budget space, small publishers have learnt to create their own public relations network, using other publishers’ outreach and not-for-profit spaces. While commercial fiction/non-fiction circles may compete over rights and authors, small publishers are notorious for championing other books. We do deals to support other catalogues, we review small press titles, we create joint events to split event spaces and we recommend authors to submit to small presses where they are not suitable for our own. Each small press publisher will likely attribute their knowledge of the industry to another: pooled knowledge replaces industry events (often price prohibitive) and advice can lead to business expansion or to funding opportunities.
Another underground network championing small press titles, particularly over the last few years, is the network of independent bookshops and regional chains. I have seen Blackwell’s dedicate shelves to indie books, Foyles celebrating Faber’s limited-edition short story season, and I have found that for books with a regional interest, bookshops are happy to support. Libraries are also invaluable: a librarian’s recommendation is an invaluable source of PR.
The concept of regional support leads me on to the work which, as a Manchester-based publisher, I have recognised is needed, in order to establish a support network for small publishers in the North. There is a strong focus on London-centric events, often disregarding opportunities to compensate Northern authors and publishers who travel to these events. With a view to creating space for Northern publishers, I created the Northern Publishers’ Fair in 2019. Suddenly northern publishers weren’t down £80+ on the train fare to the annual small press fairs in London and it was clear from audience turnout that there was appreciation and interest for this kind of event. There is also the Northern Fiction Alliance, a collective led by Comma Press, devised to showcase the diversity, creativity and risk-taking that sets Northern publishers apart. With support from Arts Council England, NFA members have travelled to international book fairs (Frankfurt, London, Book Expo America) to showcase the work of their authors on a global platform.
This creation of space, facilitated by small press collaboration, allows for transferable learning for publishers who currently run their PR campaigns solo. Regionally, strong PR networks can be formed through literature charities, libraries and cities recognised under UNESCO as a site for literature development. These organisations regularly facilitate my offline and online spaces for promotion and amplify my voice as a publisher – for free. Furthermore, there are strengths in collaboration: the shared promotion between small publishers celebrates the diversity of the book industry, opening up readerships so that readers have access to a vast catalogue of book recommendations, not just local publishers, or those they interact with online. Whilst we often lack marketing budgets, look at the space which is carved out by small publishers through collaboration and word of mouth. Just imagine if we had money?!
Isabelle Kenyon is the managing director of Fly on the Wall Press, a socially conscious press for short stories and poetry, and the author of chapbooks: This is not a Spectacle, Digging Holes To Another Continent (Clare Songbirds Publishing House, New York, 2018), Potential (Ghost City Press, 2019), Growing Pains (Indigo Dreams Publishing Ltd, 2020) and one short story with Wild Pressed Books (Short Story 'The Town Talks', 2020).