Why small presses matter

Why small presses matter

At the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in March, over 12,000 writers converged in San Antonio, Texas to attend and participate in panels, craft lectures, and readings. Typically, the AWP bookfair hosts over 800 presses, journals, and literary organizations, and the vast majority of these are small press, or affiliated with small and university presses. It’s a large cohort of writers who care about traditional publishing but who also recognize the value of the small press contribution to the literary landscape.

And yet, even a decade ago, many writers looked at small presses -  publishers operating in a traditional model, but who are separate from large conglomerates - as something of a consolation prize. Even now, industry blogs sometimes use derogatory language like a “shadowy middle-ground” to describe small presses, a characterization that both authors and editors will find wildly inaccurate. This shows how small presses are often conflated with “independent” writers—which is how many of the self-published crowd describe themselves—or the perception that small presses only exist as a stepping stone to something larger.

Things are changing, however. Take a look at the longlist for the PEN America Literary Awards, which honors books of exceptional merit, and small presses dominate the short-fiction category and also chart for novel and memoir. In addition, small presses are making waves by being nominated for other major prizes, like the Pulitzer in poetry and non-fiction, and getting attention in the trades and mainstream media.

As the publishing industry continues to shift—and adapt—many respected writers are looking at small press first, representing a coming of age for indies who have struggled through the same changing ecosystem of print as big publishers and news outlets.

For example, Liz Prato, a finalist for the Oregon Book Award and a New York Times recommended author, has written that she didn’t even contemplate a big publisher for her essay collection that was published by Overcup Press in 2019. Lilly Dancyger, a well-known magazine writer who is the editor of an anthology that got a lot of attention last year on an imprint of Hachette dumped her agent and signed with Santa Fe Writers Project. Christina Chiu, formerly of Henry Holt (now a part of Macmillan) has a new book of fiction coming out from 2040 Books. Beth Lisick, a bestselling author on William Morrow (now a part of HarperCollins), transitioned to small, Brooklyn-based 7.13 Books.

There’s different drivers for this. Some authors feel ground down by watching a lead title get an incredible amount of traction, while their own book is headed for the remainder pile, and they may also prefer the more advantageous contract terms that small presses frequently offer. Small presses are also, in many ways more actively addressing the whiteness and maleness problem of the publishing industry by creating imprints and entire houses devoted to women writers, LGBTQ+ writers, and writers of color.

Indeed, small presses are often the only presses who take hybrid work seriously, create a space for overlooked forms—like choreopoems—to be accessible to a wider audience, and publish experimental novels. This helps both cultivate the development of new voices and give established writers room to spread their wings. And, authors who feel like they want more input on cover designs, final edits, and the overall process of book production, might be happier on a smaller press who will listen to their opinions and concerns.

That’s not to say that small presses are the only houses taking risks, it’s just to say that consolidation in the marketplace of publishing has meant that big presses are beholden to a more specific economic model, one which can be punishing to authors (especially debut authors) who do not “earn out” their initial advances or who simply have too-soft sales in the critical early months. That’s a real risk for writers who may be released from their agent, branded as a low performer, and haunted by diminishing returns for the remainder of their careers. Small presses look at book sales much more as a marathon, not a sprint, and that's better for writers who might need more time to ramp.

Still, advances on even the largest of the small presses are not the advances that make the industry news, and small presses often do not have the media and marketing teams available to get books noticed by Costco and other mega-retailers; in fact, they may be plagued by distribution problems if a title does take off. Many small presses are deeply aware of what they have to do to compete, so they play nice with Amazon, modernize their own ecommerce experiences and websites, and they get real with authors, encouraging them to hire publicists and finance book tours, something that is not feasible for every writer, but is often necessary for a title to get any attention.

Also, part of what generates pre-publication publicity is reviews and interviews, and it is not uncommon for small presses to either decline to invest, or radically under-invest in Advance Reading Copies (ARC) or Advance Reading Editions (ARE); the result is that review copies are either not available, only available as a digital file—which some reviewers will reject—and this immediately puts the book at a disadvantage.

However, growing small presses are bringing more public relations and marketing expertise in-house, even if it will likely be a long time before there is any kind of true parity in the market. Some titles do sell extremely well: for instance, a book like Kristen Arnett’s Mostly Dead Things, which was received positively and widely covered. To even crack the bestsellers lists, which Arnett and her publisher Tin House did, a book needs to sell around 5,000 - 10,000 copies weekly, depending on the outlet. An average small press print run is often more in the 500 - 1500 range. Sometimes this run sells out, and often it does not.

The critical difference is that many small presses are not measuring their success only by raw sales, and the quality of the writing speaks to the legitimacy of this segment of the industry. The uptick in subrights sales for small press, notably in audio, which can be a very lucrative market, begins to marry the labor of love with balance sheets.

As more and more authors potentially feel disenfranchised by the larger counterparts, or feel like they never had a shot in the first place, small presses are uniquely positioned to get writers to market, and literature is better for it.

Wendy J. Fox is the author of the collection The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories and the novels The Pull of It and If the Ice Had Held. Her work has appeared in Buzzfeed, Self, and Business Insider as well as in literary magazines including Washington Square, Euphony, and Painted Bride Quarterly. More at www.wendyjfox.com