Dedication and faith are the foundations of many small press and independent publishers. By printing primarily what interests them and focusing on authors they trust, this group is growing rapidly. Whereas many major publishers consolidate and lose money on book returns and operating costs, small presses flourish because their books meet high standards for appearance and content, and are handled efficiently and profitably.
According to a Publishers Weekly estimate, 7,000-plus new publishers emerge each year, adding up to 50,000 small independent titles printed in the United States.
Many small press publishers rely upon genres, specializing in topics such as mystery, horror, self-help, romance and science fiction. A small press may be owned and operated by an individual, such as punk musician Henry Rollins.
Rollins, a celebrity author and publisher, not only makes music, acts and writes books, but he also runs his own record label and book publishing company. He specializes in his own books, of course, as well as poetry and off-center titles.
Milestone Press is another successful small publishing company founded by a family of cycling enthusiasts who concentrate on adventure destination guides. The company’s mission statement is simple: “We produce reliable, up-to-date guidebooks that give you outdoor adventure enthusiasts all the information you need to have a great experience in the Southeast, a region we know and love.”
According to owners Jim Parham and Mary Ellen Hammond, Milestone’s publishing list is small and grows slowly, because they put a lot of energy into revising and updating their books on a regular basis, and making sure new ones meet their standards for user-friendliness, clarity and accuracy.
Despite the failures, the rewards are there for the small publisher. Barnes and Noble reports that purchases from the top 10 publishers dropped from 74 percent in 2001 to 46 percent in 2004.
A shift has been made to independents, small publishers and university presses, said Whitney North Seymour, Jr., founder of the Small Press Center. His company provides support and a venue for the exchange of ideas and techniques to make small press publishing easier.
“In today’s environment, the personal computer and desktop publishing are almost universally available, particularly in this country. Individuals who want self-employment and want a creative challenge, who love books, who want to bring to the public the ideas of talented writers and artists that large publishing houses may, for one reason or another, eschew, may well find a niche as a small press,” Seymour said.
Book Awards and Reviews Matter
With all the small press and independent publishers flooding the market with books, how do you know if the book is worth purchasing? Many librarians and book buyers rely upon awards and reviews to separate the “wheat from the chaff.”
The Independent Publisher Book Awards, launched in 1996, were designed to bring increased recognition to the deserving, but often unsung, titles published by independent authors and publishers. It was the first awards program open exclusively to independents, and nearly 800 “IPPYs” have been awarded to publishers throughout North America.
Also, the Independent Publisher Online (formerly Small Press Magazine) is a reliable source of the best independent publishing “news, reviews, and how-tos.” The online version is distributed monthly to 40,000 subscribers worldwide, many of whom are librarians, agents and buyers.
Beth Schetroma of the J.V. Brown Library in Williamsport, PA, purchases about 1,000 hardcover fiction titles and about 1,200 fiction paperback titles for the library each year.
“We get most of the ‘big name’ authors like John Grisham, Nora Roberts and James Patterson sent to us automatically through our Brodart FASTips subscription, so I choose more of the mid-list authors and titles,” Schetroma said.
National book awards also influence her choices, she said, because the library has many customers who care about award-winning titles.
“They request the winners and finalists, so I try to keep on top of them,” she said. She also relies upon book reviews, particularly from the Library Journal and Booklist.
“There is so much fiction out there that I have to have some way of whittling down the choices. I pay attention to reviews, but if I know an author is popular in my library, I’ll buy the book even if it doesn’t have a good review,” she said.
Small Press Has Benefits
Book awards and positive reviews certainly have helped small-press author Mary Gunderson, a food writer for national magazines and newspapers in the Midwest. Her book, “The Food Journal of Lewis and Clark: Recipes for an Expedition”
(History Cooks 2003), was acknowledged as the official cookbook of the National Council Lewis and Clark Bicentennial. It earned a Gold Medal as Best First Book (non-fiction) from Publishers Marketing Association, and the Independent Publisher awarded her a 2004 IPPY for Most Original Concept and a Top-Ten Outstanding Book of the Year.
“The book I envisioned was a new concept, truly a history book with authentic recipes that are still appealing to 21st century palates,” she said. “Independent publishing is very challenging. It’s satisfying to have a vision, make it happen, and have it be well received.”
For Gunderson, the small press had its benefits.
“An author needs to know her/his book and audience. For niche market books, it’s excellent to find a publisher who specializes in promoting and selling books to a specialty or regional audience,” she advised. “Also, an independent publisher has more control over the product and potentially will make more money on the book.
“From my experience, some of the most interesting things in publishing are going on in the independent and small press. In some circles, it’s more prestigious to have a ‘name’ publisher. But, prestige doesn’t necessarily pay the bills,” Gunderson added.