Publishing Today: Small Presses

While I’m preparing for my annual trip between houses I thought you might enjoy a brief trip through publishing. Today, the second installment: Small Presses

small pressesTo begin the series, last week we discussed traditional publishing. And yes, there will be a quiz.

Remember what you learned? Those powerful companies, particularly the Big Four (or Big Five, depending on how you look at it), fill your local bookstore with books they’ve carefully evaluated and processed. Plus traditional publishers oversee the process of publication from the moment a manuscript is selected until its last cent of profit.

Now I’m going back on last week’s promise.

Before we launch into independent publishing, as I assumed we would do, let’s first give some space to the many small presses who publish books you love.

What’s a small press exactly?

In the U.S., a small press is usually considered to be one that records sales of less than $50 million a year. According to Wikipedia, these presses account for about half the market share of the industry. (And no, it’s unlikely any of them use a vintage printing press like I’ve pictured, but isn’t that one a beaut?)

Small presses are often less motivated by the almighty dollar and more by a desire to see certain kinds of books brought into print. They frequently specialize in a specific genre, like Poisoned Pen Press, which publishes only mysteries, or Black Balloon Publishing, which prides itself on publishing the weird and unclassifiable. These presses often inhabit a particular niche which larger publishers might not find profitable enough, like regional literature, and they expand possibilities for authors and readers alike.

Why would an author prefer to write for a smaller press with a smaller print run and thus fewer royalties? Eliot Peper wrote a thoughtful piece about this at entitled Publishing With a Small Press: Straddling the Indie-Traditional Gap. Peper tells his own story and says that small presses often have more flexible contract terms. Unlike independent publishing, they run the production and distribution processes for you. Small presses also aren’t as reluctant as the Big 4 to think outside the box, all reasons to publish with one if independent publishing seems too time consuming or confusing.

A small press is not a “vanity” press.

The term vanity press emerged when crafty entrepreneurs realized a profit could be made by enticing new authors to publish manuscripts that neither traditional nor small press publishers wanted. An author’s vanity was hooked because they could now report they had been published. Period. In traditional publishing models, authors are paid for their work. In vanity press models, the author pays the publisher. The author doesn’t own the print run, and she doesn’t control the way it’s handled. Authors receive a few copies to show their friends with promises that rarely come to pass.

Want an important hint? If a publisher asks you for money, the answer is no.

These days there is no reason that with a little work you can’t learn the mechanisms of publication yourself, save paying the useless middle-man, and spend your money on a brilliant cover and targeted marketing instead of lining vanity pockets. We’ll get to publishing on your own next time.

Do small presses and independent publishing have anything in common?

Discussing small presses is a great way to ease into the topic of independent publishing. Many indie authors create their own “small presses,” or “imprints” primarily to publish their own books. They feel that using the name of a small press lends legitimacy to their work and helps get reviews. Sometimes they branch out and publish other authors, too. But single-author presses are very different from the established small presses I’ve discussed already.

Next week I’ll talk about how independent publishing came to be–starting on clay tablets and moving forward. Are you reading independently published novels? Do you know?

Comments that include questions will be appreciated here or on my Facebook Author Page. I’ve already received some to explore. I love that.


  1. Janet Warren on September 14, 2016 at 2:49 am

    This is very interesting to me even though I have no interest in writing, myself. I am curious and like to know how things work in the world and I love to read.

  2. Pat Kennedy on September 14, 2016 at 8:49 am

    So, I wasn’t going to read this because I didn’t think I would be interested….but I must tell you, I did read it and it was interesting! I should have known! Silly me.

    I am a book snob. I will buy books at my local Library, and support the Friends of the Library, because I love books and I suppose I keep many because they seem to be old friends after I read them. Personally, I prefer hard covers. They are sturdier and they have a good feel in my hands. They last. Go the distance, if you will
    be keeping it.

    I am not happy with paperbacks in general, because they get messy. Who makes the decision whether the book is printed in hardcover or paperback? Of course I am aware of the financial aspects. And of course I know the hardcover versions usually come out before the paperbacks. But is it because Printing Companies, aka The Big 5, decide what will be a success! And what is a maybe?

    How about the really good selections I have found at the Dollar Tree? How do those books get shuffled off to those stores? I have found great treasures there and surprisingly often too! Why? Don’t they sell fast enough or with high enough reviews or ratings?

    And, back to the quality. Or the size of a book. The shrimps little cheaply paperbacks vs the nicer larger paperbacks that are prettier, and easier to read, and hold up so much better. Such a huge difference in so many. Who decides?

    I realize you can’t answer all my questions, but perhaps you can add some of them to future articles?
    Thanks bunches! You got my brain in gear!

    • Emilie Richards on September 14, 2016 at 2:18 pm

      These are great questions. And yes, I’ll answer them in a future blog along with some others I’ve received. I love doing this.

  3. Nancy Lepri on September 14, 2016 at 2:25 pm

    Very informative. Thanks, Emilie!

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