The Future of the Small Presses

13 May

Talking to a writing group recently, discussion led us to consider the future of the small presses. Just as the various changes affecting the publishing world – print on demand, ebooks, rising costs – are challenging the traditional world of publishing represented by the big presses, so are the small presses equally challenged. On the one hand, the various benefits accruing for authors to self-publish their work are benefits for the small press publisher; on the other hand, the same problems afflicting our larger brethren are affecting us.

Caught in the midst of change if is, of course, impossible to predict accurately what will or will not occur, but it clear that we will see some major changes, especially as new generations of tech savvy authors rise to take advantage of nascent technologies.

Traditionally, a publisher was a necessary evil for all but the wealthiest of authors. Most people could not afford the cost of having a book printed and, even if they could scrape together the money, did not have the room to store the huge numbers of books necessary to make production affordable. Adding to that the need to market and sell the book, it is easy to understand why very few went it alone and why even fewer were successful. The big presses dominated through financial clout and the possession of warehouses to store their goods. The small presses couldn’t compete on the same level, but, by gambling on more than a single author’s work, stood a chance of surviving, even prospering, although many did fail shortly after beginning.

Now, of course, with print on demand publication and, even more so, ebooks, authors no longer need to pay exorbitant sums to have books printed and are not faced with finding space to store all those unsold copies. At worst, an ebook that sells no copies will just take up some space on your hard drive – and, with the option to sell through, say, Amazon, you don’t even have to worry about providing a marketplace for your book. Okay, if you just sit back and hope people stumble upon it amongst its thousands of rivals in the Kindle store, you probably won’t make many, if any, sales, but, in theory, you don’t really even need to put any effort in to market or actually sell your work. Which means, of course, that you don’t really need a publisher. Just type it up, make it available and sit back and hope for the best.

Now, whilst that possibility is already denting the might of the big presses, the fact that they carry a certain kudos and can still market books in a way few independent authors can, does mean that people will still want to be published by them for some time to come. But, where does that leave the small presses? Essentially, small presses were largely doing what self-publishers can do for themselves these days. Does anyone really need them any longer? Aren’t all self-publishers their own small press?

Well, I don’t think that the small presses are completely doomed. Yes, we will face severe challenges and many will doubtless fail, but many others will doubtless appear, taking advantage of new opportunities and adapting to changing times as ever they have done. I don’t think that magazine and anthology publishers will totally disappear, for a start. Not only do magazines and anthologies offer variety, but they act as an outlet for writers to present their work to potential new readers. Even if you are providing substantial tasters of your collections, you cannot guarantee that people will visit your site or trawl through Amazon to look at your work. Having a story or poem in a magazine or anthology boosts your chances of being read by people unfamiliar work who will, then, hopefully, want to read more of your writing.

But, that does leave small press publications of single author works. Doubtless, we will see a decline in small press-published novels and collections of a single author’s output as the authors decide to publish their own work. However, it is probable that they will not cease completely – not every author has the time or inclination to put in the effort to properly edit and lay out their work, let alone publicise it, nor the money to buy in such services, so some will surely continue to turn to the small presses to handle everything for them. And, of course, there is more kudos in having a book released by a publisher than in releasing it yourself, in having someone publicly back your writing, so that we will likely see some prestigious lines continue.

However, I do think it likely that small presses will evolve to be less about publishing per se and more about acting as facilitators for authors. Small presses may act as umbrella promoters for multiple authors, acting as portals for their publications, or sales outlets, and concentrating upon releasing magazines or anthologies that allow authors to present samples of their work to readers. Hopefully, editors will play a part in ensuring the quality of published work, even if they are less directly involved in selecting and publishing the work itself. Small presses may become collectives rather than the personal fief of an editor willing to invest their time, money and effort, raising funding for projects from their members and providing feedback, advice and support.

The small presses will definitely change, but I don’t think they will die.

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One Response to “The Future of the Small Presses”

  1. Hayden May 13, 2013 at 8:01 pm #

    Small presses (at least those in my market) also adapted much more quickly to e-books and are much savvier than big publishers when it comes to that. I think they were already publishing stories of different lengths in e-book formats before any of the big publishers finally caved in under pressure. Being open to experimenting with new technology helps.

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