Friday, 24 January 2014

Failure of the Small Presses

When I first started writing for publication I favoured the small plucky presses manned by a team of enthusiastic oddballs over the (Royal)-We-are-Overworked-and-Too-Popular-For-You intimidation of larger presses. It made sense to start with the underdogs and move towards venues with larger readerships, as I wanted to have stories published without the wait and slog of resending to motivate me as a writer. As I acquired a decent roster of small plucky press credits, the time came for me to try my work in more popular magazines, and the frustration of having to wait a long time to be turned down was less prominent—I was able to let stories vanish into inboxes and work on novels without the need to be validated by frequent publication. Over that period, I noticed the wait for responses became longer, and the likelihood of no peep of a response became stronger—even among small presses.

I have an innate craving for the underdog. I love the rabid underdoggery of small presses. I prefer reading esoteric literature ignored by the masses. I find difficulty in books more stimulating than flowable prose and conventions. My own writing refuses to make itself accessible or find a snug niche to help publishers sell. If the large presses represent a willingness to adapt one’s writing for a mass audience, to be understood by thousands, the small presses are meant to represent the tendency in literature to be cryptic, stubborn, unpigeonholable. I have an ideal view that the small press world should be one integrated community, where underdogs bark and bray to publish innovative, daring and original literature, and to be “accessible” in a way that large presses are “stubborn” when it comes to communicating with authors.

Alas, doggie’s lost his bone. There is a distinct failure among small presses (I am leaning more towards those that publish novels over short fiction here) to offer an alternative to the large-press wall-of-silence that comes when a manuscript is posted into oblivion. Small presses manned by a staff of two, in full-time employ, with full-time families, cannot possibly offer feedback to writers who submit manuscripts, and one has to wonder—why are these people running presses, if they aren’t kicking against the frustrations that tussling with large presses bring? Why do small press owners never seek to prioritise offering (brief) feedback to manuscripts or to speak to authors about improvements? If small presses can’t take the time to fart out a small paragraph of encouragement or advice to authors, can they ever expect to receive work of the standard they desire?

The problem is, small presses, like large ones, want masterpieces in their inboxes ready to publish with a minimum of editing (although large presses do have editors and want to work with authors to improve manuscripts). They aren’t willing to waste their skill as editors or teachers on work that has definite promise, or could become a masterpiece—why waste time when a masterpiece may turn up on their doorstep from one of the thousand or so MA programs?—and even if a masterpiece shows up, there’s nothing they can do if it won’t sell. The small press is even more helpless in the marketplace, and innovation is the first thing to die when it comes to finding a selling hook—money being the natural slaughterer of all things beautiful. These things aside, I still feel the small presses have an obligation to communicate more with authors. If the supposed guerilla DIY presses are simply as silent and unwelcoming of manuscripts as the big presses—the author continues to be the one getting stiffed.

One press I submitted to boasted “we are the future of publishing.” After sending my manuscript for consideration, I received no confirmation response, and over four months has passed without a reply. Some future.


  1. I've been fortunate with the small press I work with. All of my books have done well and certainly beyond my expectations. And their editor is really nice.
    Being with a big publisher - now that kind of scares me.

  2. Your words resonate. My experience of the small press is that they are overworked, don't have much clout with the large bookshops, and leave the marketing/promoting to the author, thereby necessitating the learning of new skills and reducing available writing time. They might be more receptive to original works, but after publication, you are on your own - virtually.