Smaller Publishing Houses Provide for a Rich, Diverse Literary Landscape

Gerry LaFemina


On a warm Friday night in October in Frostburg, Maryland, a small college town in the Allegheny Mountains, some 75 people sit in Main Street Books listening as four editors introduce a writer each from their respective publishing house.  Two are poets, one is a horror writer, and one is a literary fiction writer whose stories take place in these mountains.  The audience is attentive, responsive, and later there is a question-and-answer session with the publishers and writers at the local branch of the library.


This is the kickoff event of the Frostburg Independent Literature Festival, one of many such events celebrating independent publishers happening every month around the country.  At first glance, the four publishers seem very different: Post Mortem Press is a for-profit publisher of horror and macabre fiction; Abecedarian Books is a subsidy publisher, in which authors go through an editorial review process to be accepted but have to foot some of the bill of their books; Furniture House Books, which publishes poetry in limited editions and which functions as a kind of guerilla-publishing firm, willing to shake up the establishment; and Washington Writers Publishing House, a nonprofit publisher focused on the work of writers from the D.C. area. 


Despite the differences in their business models and the work they produce, the editors all say the same thing: What they do is about the writers.  It’s about publishing work they believe in.  It’s about getting good books into the hands of readers.


Like the record industry before it, the publishing industry is changing.  Jeffrey Lependorf, Executive Director of the Council for Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) says that, “This is the best time for independent publishing since the D.I.Y. publishing movement of the sixties.”


Technology, that double-edged sword that seems to have been the weapon that felled Borders with the rise of online bookseller, is also the boon of independent publishers: design software allows for books to be laid out inexpensively, print-on-demand allows books to be printed in smaller quantities so small publishers don’t have to have warehouses (or garages or basements) with unsold copies of their back list titles, and social media allows independent authors and publishers to keep in touch with their audience.


And their audience is growing.  Two of the five National Book Awards finalists in Fiction for 2011 were published by small presses:  a university press (Lookout Books, an imprint of the Department of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington) and an independent publisher (Bellevue Literary Press).  The same was true in Poetry.  And in Non-fiction, one of the five finalists was from small publishers.


Part of the reason for the success, Lependorf insists, is that such presses are “mission driven to publish literature first.”  Small presses don’t often give the big advances to the writers they sign, but for many writers, choosing to work with a small press provides the ability to have a book out with a publisher that will give their book individualized attention.  Although many people may argue about the rise of MFA programs in the past 20 years, the proliferation of MFA graduates has produced a generation of writers not adverse to publishing with small presses.

Poet Bruce Weigl, author of 10 books of poetry, says that he had been initially excited to publish two books with a New York house, but then says, “You know how many ads they had for those books?  None.”


This isn’t an unusual situation.  Small presses, Lependorf notes, produce fewer titles and therefore  can give more attention to each of them.  Although there may be fewer staff and limited resources to do marketing, the people doing the marketing tend to know each book and believe in it.  “It’s a boutique experience.”  For both the reader and the writer. 


Producing work for a smaller audience that cares isn’t unusual.  Poets have been doing it for years, and it’s a trend happening in other media.  Vinyl record sales, aimed at a small audiophile audience, are the highest they’ve been in years.  A recent article in The New Yorker described a similar transformation in the television business with boutique YouTube stations creating unique programming, without the overheads or 24-hour programming requirements of broadcast TV.


Like most boutiques, small press publishers are keen to trends before they happen and understand niche audiences: experimental fiction has a home on FC2, formal and narrative poetry on Story Line Press, experimental poetry on Roof Books.  There are presses publishing writers of various backgrounds, of various philosophies, from various regions.  Or as the CLMP website puts it, “The field of literary publishing incorporates a wide diversity of presses and magazines: those with budgets of less than $5,000 to those of more than $1 million; publishers working in large cities, rural areas, and every place in between; and representing an astounding array of aesthetic and editorial missions.”  They are also, for many of the smallest publishers, a labor of love.


Like all such labors of love, small press publishing is about relationships.  Eric Beebe of Post-Mortem Press notes, “One of the reasons I think we have been successful is that we work collaboratively with our authors . . . . [T]he author plays a significant role in cover design as well as unique marketing schemes.”


This relationship between press and writer and audience is significant.  As Cheryl Dumesnil notes about her anthology Dorothy Parker's Elbow: Tattoos on Writers, Writers on Tattoos (co-edited with Kim Addonizio), which came out in the major New York press, Warner Books, “It was one of 70 books being released by the press that month, so of course it would receive less attention. It's like being a student in a 250-student biology lecture versus being a student in a 20-person seminar. The book ‘mattered’ to the marketing department for about a month, and then it slipped off their radar screen.”  Small presses on the other hand can give a book time and attention for months after the release, and usually keep a book in print for years.


“With University of Pittsburgh Press and Ig Publishing, I feel like part of a team engaged in the collective effort of making a book happen,” Dumesnil adds about her small press experience.


Furthermore, the smallness of such presses allows them to adapt quickly to new trends in publishing–from e-books to print on demand to social media as a way of building readership.   Many presses work with independent distributors, such as SPD (Small Press Distributors) in order to get into independent bookstores.  Small presses “are lean and mean,” Lependorf says, “whereas the major houses are aircraft carriers and turn slowly” in the face of change. 


Big New York publishing with a big advance still remains a dream for many aspiring writers, but looking at the catalogue of books available via SPD, one gets a glimpse of just how many writers are willing to live a dream relationship with an editor, a publisher, and an audience that may be less lucrative financially, but offer a more rewarding publishing experience. Small presses provide for a rich, diverse literary landscape, one as rich and diverse as America itself.

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Curtis Cronn, Flickr
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