small press month

The Unsubtle Forces Aligned Against the Small Press

So, it's small press month (there's a small press month, you say?), and with any luck you've seen a slight uptick in small press related cyber-ink over the month of March. This, then, is my humble offering...a little take on what I see as the three main problems facing small presses. Of course, I'm just one crank blathering here...and I'd love to hear what you think about what the small press can do to expand its audience.

File Under: Bully-pulpit

The Unsubtle Forces Aligned Against the Small Press

Every March there's the smallest little bump in interest, the subtlest increase in chatter, and the small press lands on a few more radars than normal courtesy of Small Press Month. And, so we're clear, I'm jazzed about that...even if it is basically a token gesture towards an every-growing-though-still-ignored corner of publishing. Too pessimistic? Maybe. But "Small press month" is as good a time to reflect as any. So where is small press publishing at now?

Hard to say. When it comes to those spots I'm most familiar with, I say the easy answer is: everywhere and no where. Because unless you know the presses to go looking for, the mostly undiscovered writers to seek out, and unless you take the time to find, buy their books, and post ratings and reviews -- then the sad truth is most small press books don't exist. I mean, the books get made, sure, are usually bought by folks who already know about them (& thank the stars they are!), they're hopefully read...then stuck on a shelf. But among book-buying masses in general never comes in contact with the small press in any way.

How can that be?

Well, to me, it seems to be by design. And for a country and a world that very clearly adores the trope of the scrappy underdog, fighting a cold, uncaring system, it seems the world is terribly late to small press publishing's plight (and by "late," I mean "largely unaware of it!").

Many publishers make and sell their books through their own website, announcing titles to their mailing lists, and sinking or swimming based on those initial sales. That's a workable model, easy enough to maintain, but -- of course, severely limited by the number of actual buyers on said list. Of those small presses with slightly wider sales network, many get a tiny corner on Amazon, but only because Amazon owns their print-on-demand company (and is happy to take a wet chunk of the printing dollars as well as from sales, just for allowing small presses the privilege). Those small press books are left to the whims of algorithms that are designed to sell more of what's already selling, and promote only what's already being talked about. So, unless there are daily sales, weekly spikes, lots of social media likes and shares, that small press book you love basically doesn't exist in the larger apparatus of book selling or book buying.

Listen, I'm not so foolish as to assume that the larger press or its readers give a damn about the small press. They might not. But they also might. And there are some pretty damn significant mechanisms in place that keep the deck is systematically stacked against the small press, preventing great small press books from finding some equal footing on which to compete for book dollars.

From the top down, the small press is restricted access to the larger machine of publishing.
In fact, the only place you'll probably hear about a small press book is from the authors and publishers themselves...something that, culturally, has now become akin to the pushy door-to-door vacuum salesman of yesteryear jamming his dirty loafer in your front door. The mechanisms I see, the ones causing the obvious bottlenecks, are:

1) ISBNs
2) Production lead times (and the cash on hand necessary to survive them) and
3) Distribution. And, probably a 100 more problems I don't see.

First, ISBNs. If you've ever looked into them, you know they ain't cheap. And the sale of them has been engineered to keep out small presses (I think). I'm willing to listen to alternate theories that explain why a single ISBN costs $125, 10 cost $295, while 100 can be had for $575. How many small presses do you know have $575 set aside...just for the right to have their book's info and metadata legitimized by the '70s era ISBN book selling apparatus? To keep out the riff-raff, as far as I can tell. Unless you have six bills, or $30 for every format of every title, you aren't a "real" book in the eyes of the bookselling machine that powers almost all retail. And worse, you aren't a "real" book in the eyes of most buyers, bookstores, and even some libraries. You gotta pay to play, apparently.

Secondly, lead times for production. In order to launch (at least traditionally) a book with a distributor, and with proper time for blurbs and to line up press coverage, conventional wisdom says you need at least 18 months. You send out advance reader copies to folks, or to get a book in the queue for reviews at the kind of places people read to find new books. Again, what small press do you know that has the money to put hundreds of dollars into ARCs, and paper, and cover stock, and then sit waiting patiently for a year or more, earning none of that money back, in hopes of someone somewhere actually reading the damn thing and saying something nice about it? Does it have to be that way? Hell, I don't know. Maybe it does. It seems to work for the big guys (and some really smart small ones like Two Dollar Radio). But I can't help but wonder, with business moving at such pace these least when it wants to...if there couldn't be another way. I don't see too many people clamoring to change it, and until they do, nothing will change. Once again, it's not big publishing that feels the squeeze here (it's their system -- they designed it to work like this!). The small presses, that have dumped every free dollar (and then some) into the new box of books fresh off the UPS truck, and need to recoup those costs if they're to put out their next book...those are the ones left out in the cold by a year+ launch schedule.

Lastly, distribution. This is the one that, much to my chagrin, seems like it could be most easily solved by the democratic checks-and-balances of a robust Internet. I feel like someone somewhere could invent a website that connects small presses, maybe on an opt-in basis, to the interested bookstores and libraries nationwide, based on realistic expectations of the limited sales potential of small runs, of and taking just a humble little sliver of the action in return. I have to believe there is someone out there with the technical know-how and the egalitarian, revolutionary spirit to do this. Because there are great presses out their, making books that should be on shelves, waiting for an unsuspecting read to stumble on to. That one cool bookstore near your hometown university, that edgy coffee shop, hip restaurant, local brewery, or even small library -- I have to believe there are enough folks out there with the guts to gamble on small press stuff. It should be easy for them to get their hands on some small press stuff. Easier than it currently is, anyway. That's my $.02.

I'm a small press guy, have been since my first acceptance letter way back in 1999. I get that this matters to me and that others might not be moved. But if you are moved, if you've read this far, then maybe, just maybe, you have an idea, some scheme that could push small press books further.

Think about it.
Try it.
Do it.

See what happens. I can imagine no better way to celebrate Small Press Month than by doing just that. I mean, what do we have to lose?