Small Presses: The Alternative to the Big Six

Photo by Christophe Libert

Companies that are not part of the Big Six labyrinth are a vital part of the publishing business. The Big Six may dominate the bestseller lists and the giant book stacks at Barnes & Noble, but small presses, also known as independent publishers, foster creative innovation by serving niche markets.

The term “independent publisher” or “indie” covers companies of all sizes, from the relatively large ones to pretty small ones. Self-publishing authors can be considered “independent publishers.” Many websites, organizations, and publications for independent publishers include self-publishers in their audiences.

So I’m using the term “small press” to refer to those companies—even the relatively big ones—that are traditional publishers. That is, the small press category doesn’t include book producers or companies that exist only to publish the works of their owners. The latter is a self-publisher, and the former is not a publisher at all.

John Kremer over at assembled a list of The Top 101 Independent Book Publishers. These are just a handful of the many small presses who are contributing to the U.S. publishing industry.

The primary trade group for small presses is the IBPA—Independent Book Publishers Association, which has about three thousand members. Although the IBPA was founded by a group of small press owners, it is now open to self-publishing authors and individuals who are not publishers. The association provides instruction and marketing support for publishers of all sizes. I first heard of it in relation to its annual conference, Publishing University.

According to IBPA, “the segment of the book business that consists of small and midsize publishers is the segment that is growing fastest in terms of dollar and unit sales.”  This makes small presses a key segment for authors to watch.

I say this not only because small presses are easier for new authors to break into, but because small presses are solving—or never had—some of the problems that plague the Big Six and their multitudinous subsidiaries. Problems like overhead eating into profit margins. Problems like every decision going through eighteen committees. Problems like 70 percent of books not earning out their advance. For example, some small presses pay no advance, but offer a higher royalty. See “Why the traditional publishing model is broken.”

There’s nothing wrong with aiming high—with starting your search for a publisher with an agent who might get you into one of the Big Six. But don’t discount small presses just because of their size. Many of them are making names for themselves in their market niches precisely because they are small and nimble.

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