Davids and Goliaths face off in 21st century publishing: Will the ending be rewritten?
A small press (not to be confused with vanity press) commonly publishes fewer than 10 new titles per year OR nets less than $50 million in annual sales. AKA “independent presses” and affectionately as “indie publishers,” small presses are popping up like baby bunnies among the “hare-y” giant conglomerates. Keep an eye on these small but mighty warriors. As a collective, they might be one of the single most dynamic and influential forces in this new era of publishing.
An army of many finds strength in numbers. The digital revolution has paved the way for a surge of new publishers entering the industry. And this is a harmonious existence, because small presses are rarely in competition with one another, and their proliferation simply allows for new niches to be served:
- While the big publishing companies continually merge, now down to a critical mass of six major houses, 8,000+ new publishers emerge each year [Publishers Weekly].
- 78% of titles published are now coming from small presses or self-publishers.
Fostering refreshing oases and loving families. In adopting literary gems that don’t fit the blockbuster, big house parameters, small presses are sating hungery niche readers and building some seriously solid alliances:
- Archipelago Books exclusively publishes English translations of classic and contemporary literature by non-U.S. authors and arranges for universities across the country to host and sponsor book tours for their titles, some of which become part of the university’s curriculum.
- Ugly Duckling Presse, specializing in poetry, experimental prose, and art books, has partnerships with 24 bookstores across the U.S. that have standing orders for ALL the books this indie publisher releases.
- Melville House’s bookstore is an event venue hub for a number of New York’s best indie presses, including Akashic, powerHouse Books, Archipelago, Ugly Duckling, Hanging Loose Press, and Umbrage Editions.
You can have your cake and eat it, too. Getting personal love and care from a small press family AND being the next “it” author–sound like a dream come true? Indie fairy godmothers are transforming Cinderellas left and right:
- Paul Harding, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, published Tinkers with Bellevue Literary Press, a project of the NYU School of Medicine with a focus on science and medicine.
- Austin Ratner’s The Jump Artist, also published by Bellevue Literary Press, won the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature in fiction–he walked away with $100,000, and the prestige, of course!
- Melville House has published substantial works from Nobel Prize for literature winners Imre Kertész and Heinrich Böll.
- The Royal Physician’s Visit by Swedish novelist Per Olov was published by Overlook Press. Simon & Schuster picked up the paperback rights for a cool $77,000.
- Archipelago Books released the English translation of Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun in 2006 to rave reviews from the NYTimes and Publishers Weekly. Khoury went on NPR, embarked on a national book tour, and blew up on Amazon.
Money makes the world go round. And small presses are contributing to that cycle of life, slowly and steadily. Will they win the race?!
- Most small press advances are between $3,000 and $7,500; with these parameters, they can generally turn a modest profit on 3,000 copies sold, as opposed to the 25,000-50,000 or so bottomline that a large house targets.
- Hawthorne Press published Monica Drake’s Clown Girl in 2007; it sold out of it’s initial run of 6,000 copies in less than two months and quickly reordered another 5,000.
- Chelsea Green, the leading publisher on the politics and practice of sustainable living, reported their best year ever in 2008, selling over 100,000 copies of New Organic Grower, 150,000 copies of The Straw Bale House, and 300,000 copies of The Man Who Planted Trees.
- Authors are retaining up to 50% of sales revenue with most small presses through a combination of higher royalty cuts and the ability to keep the chunk of change that would normally go to compensating a behemoth house with thousands of employees.
Do you work at an indie press? Tell us about it. Email firstname.lastname@example.org