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A Pressing Concern | How Are Small Presses Making Ends Meet?

Words by Harry Webster, with Luke Thompson

Small presses take big risks – artistic and financial – so how can they sustain themselves in a risk-averse literary marketplace, which tends to champion tried-and-tested authors and ‘safe’ formats?

A small press can be more sustainable, more independent, more mobile and better focused than its mainstream relations. It can represent a cause or a position, a form or a style, a species or a subject. The joys and benefits of small press publishing are innumerable. But any small press editor will tell you, the problem is not making great books, the problem is selling them.

Being little or occupying a niche can make a small press vulnerable. In December we saw Galley Beggar Press fall foul of a bookseller that suddenly went into administration while still owing them £40,800. Galley Beggar responded creatively, starting a crowdfunder campaign that raised the full amount within 24 hours. Similarly, last year we saw Salt, another one of the better-established small presses, ask their Twitter followers to buy #justonebook to get them back on track.

Such urgent cries for help are, fortunately, rare, but they remind us how fragile small presses can be. There are other ways of eluding disaster, of course, and the small press has always innovated when it comes to adapting business models or adopting technologies. One fairly simple technology and service that has changed how many publishers work is print-on-demand (POD) digital publishing. POD services have meant that publishers do not need to invest in huge print runs to keep books in print, and editors can avoid boxes of books piling up under their beds. Whether you’re printing 20 copies or 2,000, the POD unit cost is the same, and for small runs this is low.

Urgent cries for help are, fortunately, rare, but they remind us how fragile small presses can be. There are other ways of eluding disaster, of course, and the small press has always innovated when it comes to adapting business models or adopting technologies.

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.

If you’re not a bestselling writer already, one of the key problems with crowdfunding will be raising the money… £15,000 is a lot to ask of your friends and family.

From the author’s perspective, it also means you have double the marketing work to perform. Firstly, you will need to push and push to get the crowdfunder over the line, but once it’s there and the book has been produced, you then have to go out and sell it all over again.

With so much author-investment built into Unbound’s model, it could also be considered a kind of hybrid publishing. Hybrid publishing is an increasingly popular method of reducing publisher risk and is a development of the kind of self-publishing often (pejoratively) called vanity publishing. There are variations to the process, but essentially the writer contributes towards costs, which might include the costs of editing, designing, printing and marketing the title.

A good example in Cornwall is Simon Parker’s Scryfa, which has been running for around 20 years. Parker prefers the term ‘cooperative publishing’ because “authors are involved in the process at every stage, including choosing formats, fonts, images and production materials, and checking proofs”. It is a not-for-profit venture, he explains. “The beauty of it for authors is that they are published by an established small publisher while receiving the entire print run and having full control over marketing and sales.” At Scryfa the author will pay for editorial and design advice, as well as printing costs, but marketing and distribution are up to the author.

Red Door Press runs a similar model, except instead of handing over all the books at the end, they help to market and sell their books and then split the income equally with the author (according to their website).

The hybrid model has numerous variants of what you put in and what you get back, and there are also a range of risks for the writer. As with ‘vanity’ publishing, the publisher need not care as much about the book if they do not have to sell it to survive. And then, how do you know how scrupulous these companies are? How much are they charging for editorial and design work? This is not to question the two publishers listed above, but just to point out a potential risk the model poses to the author.

And is this not also a risk in competition models? Competition models often augment income for a publisher, or at least pay for themselves. That is, a poetry publisher might run a pamphlet competition with a £20 entry fee, the prize for which is to have the pamphlet published. Publishers like Cinnamon Press and Eyewear have both used competitions as part of their publishing models, while Ireland’s Fish Publishing uses them uniquely.

So, do these models that reduce the risk to the publisher increase the risk to the writer? We’ve described many ways of mitigating against risk, but is there an argument in favour of the publisher’s risk too, at least from the perspective of the writer and the reader? Does the publisher work harder to get their books in front of a reader when they know they have to do so to survive? Does the risk mean that the publisher has to really believe in a book to publish it? Do publishers then become more invested in projects, productions and writers?

The models detailed here are by no means exhaustive. The breadth and innovation of small press publishing models reflects the breadth of publishers’ motives, and the motive is rarely money. Many small presses work to break even, some work at a loss, and there are a few, like Argotist Ebooks, who do not take any money for their publications, but make them available as free PDFs online. What many seem to desire in small press publishing is simple: just enough to make more books.

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