In a world of inflation, 'bonkers' supply chain problems, and generally rising costs, we look at what it means to publish with a smaller press, and the pros and cons... for many authors, it is best to go for what they dream of, and actually want for their book. This may well mean not 'going for second-best' as Madonna sang - never publish with a small press if what you really expect and require are large press services. Small presses can be great homes for some writers, some of the time... but don't think publishing is always a world of fancy all-paid tours and giant advances...
What is small press publishing?
There are as many definitions of a small press as there are small presses, but one thing they are not are large commercial presses. Black Spring Press Group is a micro-press, a sub-set of small press publishing.
What is a micro-press?
A micro-press probably has 10 or fewer or no full-time or even part-time employees. They may only publish one or a few books a year, if any. They may not have an office but work out of cafes and homes. They likely need to engage in a lot of fundraising, since they may well operate at a loss (not being primarily commercial, see below) and therefore may well rely on patrons or family gifts or friendly loans, and usually, government funding of some kind. A micro-press making a lot of money is probably an imprint connected to a larger press, or is in fact, better defined as a small press.
The micro-press challenges
Almost all the advantages of a larger publishing company are unavailable to or difficult to come by for a micro-press, and even many small presses. This includes economies of scale, and in-house marketing teams, with large budgets; as well as in-house sales reps. Larger presses can afford to pay larger advances, sometimes as high as half a million or more pounds, to secure a superstar book or author, and can advertise widely on billboards and posters as well as on radio, TV and other new media online. They usually can guarantee review space and large bookshop orders for their authors. They can usually gain large pre-orders, as well as audiobook, deals, and foreign rights deals, guaranteeing profits for at least some of their books. They may plan extensive tours. They print in large print runs, so the price per book is relatively low. Their parent companies sometimes even own TV or film studios, allowing for adaptations to be seamlessly planned.
Micro-presses have little or no control over delivery, distribution, sales reps, or other retail issues, and cannot rely on having influence or clout at the top tables and rooms where it happens; they are the first to feel the rise in printing, paper, and shipping prices. It is harder to retain staff and negotiate loans. Like many small businesses during the last few years, they may well face cash flow challenges, and basically survive month to month. They operate on a shoestring.
Why publish with a micro-press?
Micro-presses rarely turn a significant profit with a book, and few small presses have genuine best-sellers – when they do, they are often sold on to larger presses soon after. Micro-press best-sellers would be any book selling over 1000 copies; 6,000-10,000 would be a major success.
Print runs may be less than 1000, less even than 500, and can even be print on demand. The only reasons your agent may recommend you to be published by a micro-press is because they have a good literary reputation, or good book designers or editors, or are open to less commercial, more experimental, or unusual books. Agents will usually try to find an author a larger publisher first. They are often not the first-choice option, since advances will be smaller or non-existent; and there will be less financial support for the author at every stage of production.
Small presses usually punch above their weight with excellent editing, or more attention given, and can be more flexible when it comes to scheduling. They are also more likely to take risks on first-time authors, and books other publishers and agents may well have passed on. They also will publish non-agented writers. They are an open door in an increasingly closed world, and allow many under-heard communities to finally have books out.
For some readers, and writers, the indie and the small press world is the only legitimate, authentic space to locate writers they can trust - writers working beyond a purely profit motive.
What good can micro-presses achieve beyond the profit/best-seller challenge?
If your aim is primarily financial, probably best to avoid the micro-press, since their main reason for being is love of literature not generating massive profits - if you wanted to start a business to make money, you'd not likely start a micro-press in the first instance.
Regardless, sales reps, distributors, bookshops, book retailers - everyone basically who will become involved in helping a book get seen and sold - will be expecting the author, if even remotely possible, to be very active online and in the social media sphere, from TikTok, Instagram, FB, etc; and actively seeking readings, talks, appearances and signings.
According to most sales reps, authors who are not famous, or don't have a fanbase or following, are less likely to sell many copies at all; it is true, the rare example of a surprise book prize winner, or word-of-mouth slow burner best-seller, does arise from the indie world, but that is the exception that proves the rule.
If your aim is literary-artistic, or to engender a culture shift, start a new movement, make a point, issue a manifesto, or announce your brilliance by finally getting into print, they are for you.
They may allow new ways of thinking to be seen and heard. They can become a focus, a platform, and a way for talented poets and writers to publish books that get placed in key libraries and databases, to leave a trace. They are radical, and generative. They make things happen. From the company's POV, they can trial new formats, new approaches to the idea of communication, content, and the idea of the book. Some of the greatest writers of all time were published by very small presses. Many are not. The choice is yours.