Why small presses matter

From The Bookseller:

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.

. . . .

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.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller