Why I Love Small Presses

Just a quick note on one of the many reasons why I love small presses.

A few days ago, my friend and publisher Martin Shepard of the Permanent Press sent me a few books he thought I might like. One of them was a novel that was published in 2007 and sold about 400 copies. A subsequent novel by the same author, Marty explained, only sold 140 copies. Yet Marty and his wife, Judith, decided to go ahead and publish a third novel by the same author. In Marty’s words, “Hey, if you like a writer, no reason to give him or her up just because sales are almost non-existent.”

As someone who’s spoken to a good number of editors and agents (and who reads extensively about the publishing industry), I can say with complete certainty that I’ve never heard anyone associated with a major publishing conglomerate say anything even close to what Marty said in his brief note. He publishes books because he loves them — and loves sharing their work with the world — not because they might make a buck or two.

To me, this is what the small press movement is all about.

Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century

John B. Thompson’s Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century is a must-read for anyone with an interest in the book industry. Throughout the volume, Thompson walks the reader through the major phenomena that have turned publishing into the uber-peculiar institution that it has become — namely, the proliferation of massive retail chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble, the rise of literary agents in the wake of (of all things!) William Safire’s Before the Fall, and the emergence of massive publishing conglomerates. Additionally, Thompson explains the inner workings of several larger and small publishers to give the reader a sense of how books eventually (and, in most cases, improbably) get into the hands of consumers, and he also pays considerable attention to the ways in which e-books have changed the playing field for everyone in the business. The prose is dry, and the book is as thick as a telephone directory, but anyone who, like myself, is fascinated with publishing will find no end of insight in this meticulously researched volume. In fact, I went so far as telling a friend of mine who chairs a graduate program in publishing and editing that if the students in his program aren’t reading this book, they’re not getting the education they’ve paid for. I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you want to understand the publishing industry, read this book.