The Small Press Experience

I’ve been very fortunate to have several books published by small presses. My first experience working with a small press was with McFarland Publishing, a company based in North Carolina that publishes academic nonfiction with a focus on popular culture. They published the book I wrote with Tom Powers on Doctor Who. Shortly thereafter, another publisher of scholarly texts called Cambria published my book on Don DeLillo.

While I was certainly excited to have both of these books published, my real passion has always been writing fiction, so I was especially pleased when PS Books and then The Permanent Press published my first novel, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl. I’m even more pleased to report that The Permanent Press will publish my second novel, The Grievers, next May.

For the most part, my experience with small presses has been extremely positive, but I also know that publishing with a small press isn’t for all writers. Knowing a few things about small presses can help you decide whether or not they’re the right kind of publishers for you to pursue.

Small presses are publishing companies that put out somewhere between one and twenty titles a year and aren’t imprints of larger publishing conglomerates. Most of these presses have small print runs or, with increasing frequency, use print-on-demand or POD technology to produce their books. Frequently, a small press will have a specific focus, like promoting the work of regional authors or exploring specific social issues or themes.

Depending on your point of view, there can be several drawbacks to publishing with a small press. Small presses, for example, frequently can’t afford to pay advances or for other expenses like publicity and marketing. Indeed, small presses might ask you to take care of publicizing your book out of pocket. Likewise, distribution can be a problem; small press books rarely make their way into chain bookstores. Finally, since small presses print so few titles, they can be a difficult market to crack.

Given all of these drawbacks, seeking small press publication might not sound especially enticing. One question I usually encourage writers to ask, however, is a fairly basic one: Why do I write? If the answer has more to do with being part of a community than becoming rich and famous, then seeking a small press to publish your work might be the right move for you.

Because a small press generally has a specific mission or goal, the fact that they choose to publish your book suggests that you share the same goal. What this means in practical terms is that you and your press are in the publishing game for reasons other than selling a lot of books. Yes, you and your publisher would like to sell a lot of books, but you’re writing and they’re publishing for other reasons as well.

Along similar lines, the definition of “success” is usually different for a small press than it is for a large publishing conglomerate. To a small press, a successful book might be one that received excellent reviews and sold a respectable number of copies—“respectable,” of course, being a relative term. To a small press, selling 500 copies of a book might not be so bad—depending, of course, on the press and the numbers of copies of each title they’re accustomed to selling. To a big publishing house, by way of contrast, 500 copies would definitely be the kiss of death.

Another great thing about working with a small press is that you’re usually dealing with “real people” rather than a faceless corporation or a series of interchangeable editors, and you don’t have to use a literary agent as an intermediary. As a result, there are opportunities for real dialogue with the people who are making decisions about your book. For example, if I have a question or concern about one of my books, I can call my publisher and ask. His name is Marty. He’s a great guy. He even invited me and my wife to his house in the Hamptons for a weekend a couple of summers ago.*

So if you’re looking to quit your day job and making a living off your book sales, then publishing with a small press probably isn’t for you. I’m not saying it can’t happen, but the odds aren’t really with you. If, however, you write because you want to be a part of a community and you value the personal attention that an independent publisher can offer, then working with a small press might be the way to go.

*Marty, if you’re reading this, I’d love to visit again sometime.