When Publishing, Think Small:
A look at small press
Tor. Roc. Baen. In military terms, these and other large genre publishing houses are the armed
forces, and any author would love to be drafted into their ranks. But thanks to budget cuts and
mergers, the big boys have demobilized and redeployed. And previously open markets have gone
In non-military terms: now that fewer markets exist, what's a hungry, bill-paying author to do?
Where's a forlorn little manuscript to go?
Both the author and the little-manuscript-that-could should make their way to the right small
press. According to Shane Ryan Staley of Delirium Books, "The small press is the foundation to
any given genre. By supporting it, buying books and contributing, you're strengthening the genre
Small press fills another important purpose: some genre manuscripts may get rejected because
they would not make a profit. Or perhaps the content is too imaginative and extreme for the
mainstream reader to enjoy. Presses that publish in smaller numbers can afford--figuratively and literally--to take risks that larger presses cannot.
Small press opens up markets that would otherwise be closed to both new and established
authors. And with a small press, a well-received, award-winning author who does not appeal to a
mass audience can find his/her home.
Not all small presses are alike. Each of the small presses that spoke to me has their own raison
- NESFA Press publishes reference books of SF and fandom, as well as reprints of classics.
- Phobos Impact approaches authors for their SF and fantasy books.
- Delirium Books prints hardcover, limited-edition horror.
- Golden Gryphon Press produces hardcovers, limited-edition chapbooks, and trade
Their publishers shared their views on the state of their art.
Why does small press exist?
They exist for two reasons: love of the genre and the inevitable increase in the amount of good material [that] is not in print. There are niches for small presses where for one reason or another the professional publishers don't go. Several times as much SF has been written today than had been written through 1970, but the SF
market hasn't expanded proportionally. Additionally, the economics of publishing seems to
make new novels by far the major area for professional publishing, because that's what people
buy in large volumes. This makes it uneconomic for the professional publishers to do much
reprint SF, either novels or especially short fiction. This means there's excellent material for us to publish.
- Mark Olsen, NESFA Press
Small presses exist because there are a lot of us out there with more passion than sense, and who
eventually feel that the limitations of big publishing--the huge overhead, the push to publish only
billion-sellers-limit the variety and quality of books that can be published. It is certainly my hope
that Phobos Books will move from small press to…let's call it "less-small press," and that our
variety and quality will help us get there.
- John Ordover, Phobos Impact
The primary role of the small press is for discovering new talent and keeping that talent published
until the mass markets finally realize the authors' talents.
It's also crucial for authors who already have been published in the New York houses, as a venue
for publishing books that aren't as salable to a mass audience. Short story collections come to
mind. New York houses don't seem to be buying many today, so even some of the most
established authors are getting short story collections published in the small press.
As for small presses replacing big ones, I don't see this happening. Most small presses serve a
niche reading population, and it takes a corporation to move books to the masses via chain store
distribution. Something most small presses aren't equipped to do due to budget constraints..
- Shane Ryan Staley, Delirium Books
The straightforward answer is that people see a niche that the large publishers are ignoring or leaving, and jump in. In Golden Gryphon's case, we focus on short-story, single-author collections of the hardcover variety. The demand for these books is relatively small, and
the big guys would rarely show a profit. A small press, with its lower costs, can perhaps make a
go of it.
- Gary Turner, Golden Gryphon Press
How important is small press to the genre?
Historically, [small press] played a major role in jumpstarting SF book publishing. There was a time when nearly the only major publishers of good SF were the professional magazines and a few small presses. Today I think they fill an important niche role,
broadening and enriching.
It keeps the variety of authors and books up, which is what Phobos Books does, and keeps
classics that would otherwise be out of print on the shelves or at least available, which is what
some other presses do.
The first eight authors I had published were, at the time, new and had no extended book-publishing credits. In fact, more than half of those I had published their very first books. Three
years later, six of the eight had signed contracts in the mass markets and were now on virtually
every bookstore shelf in America.
I know many of the New York publishing houses have "scouts" that often call me and pay keen
attention to who's being published here. After an author lands that first book with a small press
publisher, I believe this really helps their chances of getting picked up faster by a major
Small presses publish books that would otherwise not see the light of day. There are many
authors that first get published with the small press, and then move up to the big publishers.
Why does small press buy books that the traditional publishing companies do not?
NESFA Press, because it runs on donated labor, can make money reprinting 1,000 copies of short SF by a dead author. A professional publisher who tried to do that would be a small press in a few years. The books we publish are not saleable if you're trying to make a living at it! If our costs were the same as a successful professional publisher like Tor, we'd be losing huge
amounts of money each year.
Well, there is salable and salable. A small press can turn a nice profit on 1/10th the number of
copies sold-or even less-than a big press can.
Horror had a boom in the '80s and was extremely salable. Recently, horror hasn't really made
much of an impact on sales overall in the mass markets. Although a book may be a stellar, top-notch piece of fiction in the horror genre, there's a great deal of New York houses that would pass on it just because it is horror. So there's where the small press becomes crucial in keeping a genre alive.
It's all about profit and risk. Significant profits are realized by popular authors, so these are the writers that big publishers concentrate on. A small press has less overhead, and so can publish books that are not as profitable.
Why did you start your small press?
NESFA Press was started to publish indexes to SF and grew into much more because it has been a lot of fun.
Because I wanted to control my own destiny and put out books that I think would do well.
Having developed multiple novels that I had no profit participation in [at Pocket Books], it was
time for me to go out on my own and own a piece of the pies I was baking, so to speak. FYI, I
didn't start Phobos Books, I bought into it.
I started Delirium Books in 1999. At the time, even the small presses in the horror genre were
publishing a steady stream of already-established talents. There were few newcomers getting in
the doors. I was an author being published in the zines back then, and some of the authors I was
published with were remarkably talented, much more so that some of these older, established
names in the genre. I decided early on in 1999 that I would serve the genre better to become a
publisher and provide an outlet for these newcomers.
My brother Jim was the editor at small-press Arkham House for 21 years; when they parted
company, he started Golden Gryphon and unfortunately passed away three years later, just as it
was getting going. Marty Halpern and I then took over operations, because we really, really like books, and believe that Golden Gryphon filled an important niche in the industry.
Do you get space on bookshelves next to large publishers?
The specialty stores, yes. Otherwise, no. We were in Borders for a while, but their return policies made that uneconomic, and we cut them off.
We are on the shelves right there with the big boys. I think the bookstores only care about
whether they think the particular book will sell, and how much. Agents and authors seem to care
most about whether the checks clear. Book reviewers seem to respond to the kind of book more
than anything else.
Not at all. Delirium specialized in limited editions. And about 80% of our books sell out pre-publication or 6 months after publication, and we sell mostly through the Delirium website and
independent bookstores across the United States, Canada, and England.
Sometimes, depending on the bookstore and the author. The large chains prefer books by authors that have sold well in the past, which of course exclude many writers.
Does the internet help your sales?
Definitely. We sell through our own web site and through Amazon.
Having our books available on Amazon, BN.com, and other online booksellers means that almost
everyone can find our books, no matter how many copies are on the shelves at the brick-and-mortar stores.
Immensely. The Delirium website impacts sales greatly.
The internet is a double-edged sword. It certainly has made books more available to all than ever
before, but it has hurt the business of the small independent (and large chain) booksellers, which
have faithfully stocked our titles. I like the availability of the internet discount stores, but I wish
they didn't hurt my independent bookstore buddies.
What should an author consider if they are thinking of submitting to a small press rather
than one of the large publishing companies, the Big Guys?
They should take the time to understand what the small press publishes. It's amazing how often people offer to send us their unpublished manuscripts!
If an author is considering submitting to a small press, they should really do their homework--small presses often have very specific tastes--they publish, for example, only werewolf books, so
there is really no point sending them your quest fantasy novel. It is also very important to check
out the people running the place. Do they have a publishing background and understand the
industry's ins and outs, or are they just seduced by the "glamour" of publishing? On the upside, if
they are professionals and they do buy your book, they are very likely to be extremely
enthusiastic and carry that enthusiasm all the way through to publication. You won't be
competing with 1,000 other books for in-company attention.
I'd suggest that any author first try to get published with the Big Guys. They will market the book better and probably will pay better too.
If the Big Guys pass, then the most important thing to do is to research the small press, and make sure that it publishes the type of work you wish to submit. Weekly, I receive inquiries about non-fiction, poetry, graphic novels, and children's books, which we do not publish. Any small press has a fairly narrow marketing genre and won't extend out of it readily.
I'd recommend authors thinking about pitching in and helping to promote their books if they get
accepted. In this day and age, publishers actually look for marketable authors, ones that will sell
well, in addition to writing great stories. Not many authors realize that you can, in fact, make just
as much money in the small press than you can in the mass markets. The key is getting out there
and establishing a fan base that will buy your books. In the small press, it takes a team effort
from both the publisher and author to make a book a success.
The advantage of a small press over the Big Guys is that you work closely with the publisher, editor, and perhaps cover artist. You get more personally involved with the publishing experience, and have more input and control, than with the Big Guys.