Small-press Print-on-Demand Publishers
A lot of ink and virtual-ink time has been spent on self-publishing, but I haven’t seen a lot on small press (a good, notable exception is a recent article in Angie’s Diary).
It is an interesting journey, and I have an intimate association with it, as I own two imprints (IFWG Publishing and IFWG Publishing Australia). This journey runs in parallel evolution with self-publishing, and I will make mention of it in this article.
Small-press publishers have existed since the creation of printing, and in fact, before. However, with the rise of large presses and their continued influence on the industry until recently, small-press were bit players.
The reason for this was because all the costs of quality publishing—including editing, proofing, printing, binding, marketing—were all terribly cost-prohibitive.
Those that did manage to make a living were small in number and did so because they had specialized niches, or operated with very low-quality production (Roneo/stencil printing, etc.). With the invention of print-on-demand (PoD), a major cross-section of these prohibitive costs was annihilated, enabling ease of publishing, including self-publishing.
Certainly, in the case of small-press publishers, PoD has been revolutionary. I don’t know how many of these publishers are out there in the world, but there must be thousands. Many fold after a few years, but they are replaced by many more who are established.
The positive aspects of this revolution
- It enables genuinely talented and motivated small publishers to be established and gain experience/footholds in the industry.
- It helps fill niches in the industry that are not well supported by larger presses—in areas of genre fiction, experimentation, poetry, specialized fields in non-fiction, chapbooks, etc.
- It assists talented and skilled authors to be published where otherwise their introduction into professional writing is stymied or aborted.
The negative aspects of this revolution
- Setting up a small publishing house is so easy, anyone can do it. It is not regulated. There are too many cases where there are presses devoid of business and publishing skills, insufficient to produce the industry-quality product. In some cases, self-publishers form presses to try to add to the ‘legitimacy’ of their product, when, in fact, their prime motivation is to publish their own work under the press’ banner.
- The number of small publishing houses producing poor products in the industry causes reader opinion of the small press, in general, to be poor. This has a negative effect on sales for all small presses.
- The tsunami of new titles, the vast majority by self-publishers—and the vast majority of substantial low quality, has a negative effect on sales by legitimate, quality small publishers.
- Regardless of the business acumen of the owners of small presses, they will often cut corners of the publishing process due to lack of experience, or financial constraints—all publishers know that quality cover design, quality content and copy editing, multiple proofreading cycles (by separate, trained people), and quality block design, are critical to a high standard product. Too often these elements are, in one form or another, neglected, and it always shows.
- Marketing is the universal bane of small-press publishers, regardless of capability. Marketing costs a great deal of money and in its absence will seriously lower unit sale numbers. Most small press publishers cannot afford more than basic marketing and rely heavily on authors assisting in the process (this latter phenomenon is common among all tiers of publishing, at this time). Small publishers who do inject effort and money into marketing will suffer in other aspects of the publishing lifecycle.
- Many small-press publishing houses consist of one or two individuals. Having such small numbers means that personal circumstances (illness, family tragedy, financial issues) can have a serious flow-on effect on publishing operations—causing delays and failing commitments.
I have listed more negative elements for small-press publishing than positive, but they should not be considered a comparison of equally weighted factors. In my view, the leg-up of PoD for small-press publishers is an exciting opportunity for those who are serious about contributing to publishing and is well worth the effort.
Legitimate and serious small-press publishers are experienced and trained outfits, regardless of size. If consisting of one or two individuals, these companies have strong outsourcing networks to cover the craft and skills they do not have. For example, my company, with its two imprints, comprises three members, each with particular skills.
I am a trained editor (member of Editors Victoria), and I have a trained editor working for me part-time. I have half a dozen superb cover designers, and we tap into two professional internal block design groups. We have another group of trained proofreaders available to us. It all costs money, but it is more than just that—it ensures that the final product is optimized, professional, worthy of purchase.
Having said this, I can imagine where I would be if PoD didn’t exist, and the answer is simple indeed. I would, in all likelihood, not be a small publisher, and there would be fewer authors in this world gaining the opportunity to be published with high-quality production, and getting the leg-up of the first few rungs of the ladder to professional writing.