Thoughts on Publishing: Small Press Publishers

Right now there’s lots of talk about whether you should publish with one of the majors or whether you should self-publish. There is another option for the author with a book to sell: the small press.

Small press publishers are defined by how many books they put out a year and how many copies of those books they print. Some small presses release only a few books a year; others release a few every month. Small press books generally have print runs of a few thousand copies or less.

One of the traditional advantages small presses have had is that their shorter runs mean they need to print fewer books to make a profit. This has allowed them to fill niches that the majors usually ignore. This is an even bigger advantage today. The majors are more willing to follow trends and more willing to only publish bestsellers than they used to be. This gives small presses wide latitude to publish anything that the majors aren’t accepting. If you want proof, look at what types of genre fiction the majors put out, then compare that with what the small presses are releasing in those same genres.

Print-on-Demand (POD) is the great boon to the small press. With POD these presses have the ability to print as many or as few books as they need when they need them. The prices their books sell at might be higher than the prices mass-market paperbacks are sold at. The good news for the small press is that the majors keep raising the price of paperbacks. Right now a small press novel sells anywhere from $4 more to double what a mass-market paperback does. That margin is likely to decrease as time goes on.

The ebook is another positive development for small presses. The ebook allows a small press to release a book at the exact same cost as a major publisher spends. The ebook gives the small press a reach beyond bookstores. The only problem is there’s no consistency on pricing. I know one small press who sells their ebooks at prices only a few dollars less than what the majors are charging.

The internet is a bit of a mixed blessing for the small press. One important plus is global reach. Before the internet a small press had the problem of how to get word out about their books. Now a truly good website with the right meta tags, perhaps augmented by pages at social network sites like Facebook, can give a small press the same access to the world that the majors have.

The pairing of the ebook with the internet is also a positive. One problem the small press has had to face is how to get books to readers if the press had trouble getting into bookstores. This is especially true of chain stores which sometimes make difficult demands regarding returns and discounts. The internet allows direct access to readers; the ebook gives instant access. Together they offer the small press the opportunity to avoid the chains and their unfriendly policies.

On the other hand, there’s the problem of getting noticed. Small press books, novels in particular, can have a hard time getting access to review sites. Small presses don’t have the money to buy banners or other ads. This leaves book marketing up to the authors themselves, with or without help from their small press publisher.

Authors (published and otherwise) should pay more attention to the small press. While they face some of the same pressures the major publishers do, I think they’re in a better position to survive those pressures. Small presses are often run by one person or a few people. They can decide how profitable they want their press to be. This frees them from the demand to produce bestsellers, and to produce more while spending less than last year.

That’s the real danger the majors are looking at. Their corporate owners want more revenue at less cost. That could mean fewer print books from the majors, as well as overpriced ebooks. The former would result in fewer books on store shelves. However, that provides an opening for the small press, assuming the stores are willing to deal. If the stores have the will to be flexible with the small press, their shelves could be filled with product. That scenario could end up shifting publishing in a very dramatic way.

It’s all speculation right now. But it does suggest that authors ought not assume that their only choice is the majors or self-publishing. They ought to consider their third choice, the small press publishers. They could be just what the author needs.

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