POD is not for everyone. The limited control over design, bind and materials will put many off, although a number of small press publishers have created recognisable brands in spite of the limitations, including Broken Sleep Books and Dostoevsky Wannabe.
But POD is just one way in which technology and innovation have helped the small press to mitigate against financial vulnerability. Other publishers have attached themselves to university institutions, such as Boiler House Press (UEA), Ignition (Oxford Brookes) and Atlantic Press (Falmouth), which can offer some support and stability. For Ignition’s editor Niall Munro, the advantages of being associated with a university certainly outweigh the disadvantages. “We have had to attend faculty meetings and present our rationale for setting up a press (largely because of – albeit small – financial risks),” he says. “But on a practical level, we benefit from administrative support when it comes to accounting, postage, and distribution. We maintain a small press model in many respects, however: there are only two of us running the press on a day-to-day basis, we do not receive direct financial support from the university, and we have to make sure that we balance the books.”
Atlantic Press’s publisher Steve Braund speaks of the “mutual benefits of running a small press in conjunction with a higher education institution”, Atlantic having run in parallel with the MA Authorial Illustration Masters at Falmouth University for 20 years. The press runs with help from the students, who not only sometimes write, design and illustrate books for the press, but also attend fairs for them. “Many students have taken up internships with the press over the years, giving them first-hand experience of this area of publishing, including all aspects of design, production, printing and distribution.”
Many more small presses rely on Arts Council England funding, sometimes considered the golden ticket of small press survival in England. Small presses Peepal Tree, And Other Stories, Carcanet, Bloodaxe, and Comma are among the most significant small press recipients of ACE support, with each receiving hard-won funding as National Portfolio Organisations.
Some publishers have preferred to remain independent of institutions, and so they have developed other models to raise revenue and maintain security. Prominent amongst these is Unbound’s crowdfunding model, through which they have published a great many successful titles that have featured on just about every prize shortlist, with their first major success coming in the shape of Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, winner of the Gordon Burn Prize and the Bookseller’s Book of the Year 2014, and longlisted for the Man Booker. A similarly pronounced success story was Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant, a collection of essays from BAME writers, which began life as an Unbound project and helped launch its editor’s career as one of Britain’s best-known and most impassioned campaigners for inclusivity and representation in publishing.
The ability to crowdfund could be thought of as an effort to democratise publishing, placing production in the hands of the audience, rather than editorial gatekeepers. In practice, however, it might favour established writers who already have a platform and a following. Perhaps inspired by Unbound, cookery writer and Guardian columnist Jack Monroe opted to fund the production of her third book, Cooking on a Bootstrap, through a Kickstarter campaign, despite her first two (highly successful) titles being published by Penguin Random House imprint Michael Joseph. She reached her £8,000 funding target in a day and had exceeded it by over £60,000 by the time the funding window closed. The second edition was published by PanMacmillan’s Bluebird imprint.
If you’re not a bestselling writer already, one of the key problems with crowdfunding will be raising the money. And this is no small amount. You’re looking at tens of thousands of pounds on Unbound, with a common target in the region of £15,000 per book. It’s a lot to ask of your friends and family.