LitCity312 Essays: Big Publishing, Small Publishing & Lessons to be Learned

There’s no denying the fact that the publishing industry is in a state of constant flux. Mergers and acquisitions continually reshape the landscape (the Big Six is actually now the Big Five), and the business model that the entire book trade is built upon seems antiquated, fragile, and ripe for disruption. However old fashioned and delicate it may seem, though, how much is actually changing is debatable. Publishers large and small continue to search out “big books.” Authors still send query letters to agents in hopes of finding an advocate to help them negotiate the intimidating streets of The Big Apple. And agents themselves still begrudgingly sift through the “slush pile” in search of the next massive earner. To the casual observer, it seems that now more than ever, things are always as they have been.

But, as we are about to see, that’s not entirely true.

A closer look at the publishing industry reveals that some things have indeed changed. There’s been a huge surge in the number of independent presses seen operating across the United States. Digital publishing seems to be more than just a passing trend. And while big book publishing seems to be stuck in the perpetual rut of habit, small press publishing is doing it differently, but they’re also facing a different set of challenges.

It’s the age-old question in business: Is it better to grow big or to stay small? For many business owners—presses included—it’s not always a question of preference, rather it’s a determination made for them by the market. Businesses either position themselves for growth or they don’t. However, there are clear advantages and disadvantages to being both large and small. Bigger publishers typically have capital reserves that allow them to find more solid footing in the market. Smaller publishers are sometimes more agile and respond to market movements more quickly. But what’s not often looked at are the lessons that each can learn from the other.

In the next few pages we’ll look at how taking the collective intelligence from both large and small publishers can result in a better publishing industry business model—no matter the size of the press.

Big Publishing

In John B. Thompson’s publishing industry deep dive, Merchants of Culture, he identifies six advantages big publishers enjoy. They are as follows:

  • Rationalization and consolidation of the back office

Big publishers enjoy a reduction in overhead costs by consolidating things like sales forces, warehousing, distribution, and digital publishing services. They can also eliminate redundancies in areas such as finance, royalties, and rights.

  • Better terms with suppliers 

Typically, terms offered from suppliers depend on volume: The higher the volume of work, the better the terms that are offered. Since big publishers are doing a larger amount of work than the smaller publishers, they enjoy significantly more leverage. For example, they can pressure printers into doing quicker and smaller print runs, thereby decreasing waste and increasing profitability.

  • Stronger position in getting books into retail channels; better visibility

Because they’re bigger, they’re easier to see. Not surprisingly, big publishers have larger sales teams and can call on key book buyers more frequently. Their reach also goes further. Big publishers can simultaneously call on independent booksellers and access the capital needed to buy better placement for their books.

  • Ability to pay higher advances 

With access to capital comes the ability to pay higher advances for “big books.” According to Thompson, publishers are actually competing in two markets: retail and content. Having access to more capital allows big publishers to compete for the books they really want and keep successful authors from going elsewhere.

  • Able to absorb financial hits 

With smaller capital reserves comes increased financial instability. Large publishers can afford to take risks on new books that might not pan out because they can afford to absorb the financial cost if it doesn’t. Whereas paying a substantial advance to an author who doesn’t earn out could bankrupt a smaller publisher, a larger publisher can write off the loss and move forward.

  • Big houses can make investments in IT and infrastructural systems that are vital for publishing houses

The publishing industry has undergone a massive digital revolution, and many parts of publishing have gone completely digital. Large publishers typically find it easier (based on capital reserves) to digitize their assets, create data archives, and take advantage of emerging revenue streams.

Small Publishing 

In just about any industry, good things can come in small packages—just ask Muggsy Bogues or Prince. Publishing is no exception. While it may seem that big publishers hold all the cards, being small is not without its advantages.

  • Flexibility & Agility 

To some extent, being small allows for quicker reactions to information in the marketplace. Because smaller publishers have fewer employees, less overhead, and less decision makers, reacting to something in the marketplace is less of a challenge.

  • Niche

Whereas big publishing tends to have a “something for everyone” mentality, small publishers can carve out a niche and operate within it. This allows for, among other things, much more targeted marketing.

  • The “Economy of Favors” 

According to Thompson, big presses benefit from economies of scale and small presses benefit from something called the “economy of favors.” Thompson intuits that small presses see themselves as “part of a common vocation and shared mission.” (p. 156) This economy of favors operates in a number of different ways:

  • Small presses share knowledge, expertise, and contacts
  • Competitive rivalries are eclipsed by a shared sense of purpose
  • Small presses usually get better rates from freelancers
  • There’s an affinity between independent bookstores and independent presses; also from Barnes & Noble, too, because they don’t want to be seen as crushing small businesses.
  • Strategic partnerships with alignment of interests 

As we noted previously, there’s a shared sense of purpose among those in the small press publishing arena. Strategic partnerships are much more common in this space because the folks involved are usually working towards a common goal—getting the “right” books published. (As opposed to simply a book that will make a lot of money.)

  • Direct and personal 

Thompson doesn’t call it an “economy of favors” for no reason. Because small press publishing is much more personal, people are more willing to make concessions or even do each other favors. Sometimes all it takes is a phone call to a freelance designer or printer for a small press to get exactly what it needs. (At a price point that works.)

  • Costs are usually kept to a minimum, though this is sometimes out of necessity

Quite simply, being small usually doesn’t cost as much as being large. There’s less overhead, fewer staff members, smaller print runs, less expensive PR campaigns, and more grass roots, do-it-yourself marketing.

  • They are much less dependent on agents

Since smaller presses simply don’t have the money to pay big advances, they’re much less dependent on agents to find books for them. This allows smaller presses to develop direct relationships with authors. This can allow for more meaningful, long-term relationships between those authors and their publishers.

 Lessons to be Learned

So what are the lessons that can be learned when looking at both large and small presses? Based on what I’ve learned from Thompson’s book, and the many survey responses I’ve read from the small presses we contacted at DePaul, here some items to take away.

1. Publishing is a business. 

Many of the folks that start small presses do so out of sheer passion and love for books. They get in the publishing business to publish books that are meaningful to them. They love reading and romanticize the idea of creating art. And while we can all relate to this in one way or another, there’s a fundamental problem with taking this viewpoint: Publishing is a business.

Many of the small presses that answered the survey said that they wished they’d known prior to getting into publishing was that small presses are, first and foremost, businesses—and needed to be treated as such.

Perhaps to a fault, big publishers understand this. They develop marketing plans and growth objectives, as well as processes and procedures regarding book launches and acquisitions. Their decisions are well thought out and are always made with one thing in mind: to realize the organization’s objectives.

Small presses would be wise to see their businesses in the same way. They would be wise to ask questions like: Who’s my market? How will I reach them? What are my profit objectives? What is the hard cost to publish a book? Will I market my press or just my authors? By doing so, small presses will be in a better position to survive the lumpiness of an ever changing market.

2. Relationships matter. 

Both large and small presses understand that businesses depend on relationships, but it seems that small presses take them more seriously. Thompson called it the “economy of favors,” but survey respondents referred to it simply as being resourceful. Whether they need book cover design, specialized print runs, better shelf space in bookstores, or simply insight in an area where they are not as well versed, small presses value the relationships they build, and aren’t afraid to ask for advice or help.

Large presses, in large part, utilize their size and financial strength to dictate whom they do business with and how those businesses perform for them. Because of this, big publishers can sometimes be viewed negatively by small presses, printers, and other vendors. In this respect, bigger publishers can take a page out of the small press playbook and look to facilitate friendly, mutually beneficial relationships. At the end of the day, it’s about publishing good books for readers to enjoy.

3. Money isn’t everything.

Perhaps one of the biggest gripes that small presses have about big publishers is that the books they publish and the decisions they make all revolve around money—what some have called “the corporate commodification of all culture.”

Many small presses are driven by an editorial and aesthetic imperative, not just by finances. Big publishers would probably do well to adopt a little more of what the small presses are doing in this regard. Perhaps giving into a culture of easy reading isn’t all that good for culture at all. Perhaps if big publishers took the notion of engaging people in a transforming society more seriously, the reader trends in the US would improve.

4. Embracing Change

Change is hard for any industry, and publishing is no different. Large presses have a bit of an advantage when it comes to reacting to change because they typically have more capital and more resources to apply to whatever change is coming. For smaller presses, change can be harder. They may not have the resources as readily available to negotiate a change, or they may just resist it all together. Either way, small presses need to be open to change now more than ever.

Because with an industry as volatile as book publishing, the difference between success and failure is sometimes found in the ability to adapt, to roll with the punches so to speak. Embracing change is a lesson that both large and small publishers would be wise to learn.

5. It Pays to Invest in Marketing

Although this may seem like a no-brainer, according to the survey responses I read, marketing is an area where small presses struggle. Whether it’s making the decision to promote the house over the author or engage readers through social media, marketing needs to have a well thought out plan that perpetuates over time.

The big trade houses take marketing seriously and allocate a significant amount of money to their book marketing campaigns. Small presses would be wise to do the same. They need to think about how they’re going to reach their desired readers and ask themselves some simple questions:

  • What does my digital presence look like?
  • Will I be using print collateral to market?
  • What is my social media engagement commitment?
  • What role will the author play in marketing?
  • Where is my targeted reader?

There are many more questions that can be asked, but it really boils down to marketing 101. Who is my intended market and how will l reach them?

To sum it all up, whether books are published by big houses or small presses, some of the same rules will always apply. In one sense, publishers are all in this together. They all, regardless of size, want to promulgate reading and publishing good books. By keeping our attention tuned to what both sides of the industry are doing, we’re sure to find new ideas and new ways to make the publishing industry flourish. After all, that’s what big houses and small presses—and even readers and authors— truly want.

Note: As a student in DePaul University’s MA in Writing and Publishing program, I’ve had the opportunity read John B. Thompson’s book, Merchants of Culture—a deep dive into the state of publishing today—as well as the survey responses submitted from over 140 independent publishers to questions that range in topics from digitization to marketing to the importance of reading in today’s culture.

Editors Speak at StoryStudio Chicago

Maria and Panelists

Maria Hlohowskyj, Brian Solem, Ben Tanzer, Sarah Dodson

On what was a warmer-than-usual Saturday afternoon this March, StoryStudio Chicago hosted a panel of local literary magazine editors in their comfortable loft space in Ravenswood. The room quickly filled up with writers, taking every available seat, and all of them eager to hear what editors had to say about the submission process. The panel of experts included: Sarah Dodson, executive director of MAKE Literary Productions; Ben Tanzer, director of publicity & content strategy for Curbside Splendor; and Brian Solem, co-founder and editor of graze.

Storystudio Chicago’s Creative Programs Manager (and DePaul MAWP alum) Maria Hlohowskyj served as the moderator. Being a writer herself, Maria asked all the pressing questions writers might have had about submitting work to these well-known and respected Chicago magazines.

The panel was a great excuse for me to get out and discover the wonderful resource that is StoryStudio Chicago. It feels like a writer’s space the moment you walk in, and it was the perfect spot to drop by on a Saturday afternoon to hear from local literary leaders. I found two interesting pieces came out of this event for me: Of course, the first was insight into the submission process, and second was the growing collaborative community now forming around Chicago literary ventures.

When it comes to the submission process, here’s what we learned:

  • Always read the magazine before you decide to submit.
  • Most editors seem to prefer digital submissions these days, but they’ll always want to produce a physical copy in the end.
  • It’s okay to follow up with editors about your submission.
  • Get out to events and meet the people who run the magazines you like and want to submit to.

I found the last tip the most fascinating, and it certainly hints at this community that is forming in Chicago. Ben Tanzer was the first to mention that he enjoys meeting the writers, and he also said writers should be submitting their work now because this is a very exciting time for the literary scene in Chicago. It’s becoming greater and bigger, he said, and you should submit so you can be a part of something great. We should try to have as many people as possible be a part of it, and I couldn’t agree more.

All of these editors were clearly friends in the journey. I asked how they worked together, if these literary leaders were as collaborative as they seemed to me, and they all agreed this is something they are in together. They root for each other’s success, and Brian mentioned that the other panelists were inspirations to him as his co-founder and he worked to build Graze.

After the panel, the editors stayed and talked to each person who had questions or comments to share with them, and they were among the last people to leave. This is not something many panelists at events I’ve been to have done with such enthusiasm — often editors can seem inaccessible or unapproachable. But in this exciting time for writing and literature in Chicago, it’s clear that we’re about to enter a far more collaborative space, one that values writers, editors, and readers alike. After all, we all have one common goal: sharing our stories with the people who want — and possibly even need — to hear them most.

Be sure to check out Curbside Splendor, MAKE magazine, and graze magazine. And to learn more about StoryStudio Chicago, visit their website and drop by their free class open house event on Thursday, March 27th at 6 PM.

Panelists Talking

The panelists stayed after to talk with the writers.


The panelists spoke to a room full of writers