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Small Publishers Change the Playing Field

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“Books will never die. But the book market’s sick. Both the industry stalwarts and the publish-on-demand upstarts have structural issues. They’re ill-suited to evolve alone. They need to cross-breed!”

This quote is from the website of Tortoise Books, a relatively new, independent publisher of fiction and memoir.  Though I don’t agree that the book market’s sick, I do believe that financial realities have made it more exclusionary than it’s traditionally been.  If you’re a non-fiction author who lacks big social media numbers, a viral TED talk or similar platform-enhancing credits, your odds of finding a major publisher are long. 

Similarly, if you’re a novelist who lacks an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop or another top program and a famous writer mentor, you too are unlikely to receive an offer from a traditional publisher.

Fortunately, a bunch of small publishers are disrupting the industry and providing options for the excluded. Zando Books was recently started by well-known publishing executive Molly Stern to provide an alternative to big publishing, offering a more collaborative, flexible process.  All Seasons Press is another small operation recently launched, focusing on authors with conservative political perspectives (based on the belief that many liberal houses have excluded conservative authors). 

While small publishers have always existed, they often were simply smaller versions of big publishers.  These new independents are attempting to create different models.  They recognize that a lot of worthy authors are falling through the cracks because of the intense financial pressures traditional big publishers face.  While self-publishing and hybrids also provide alternatives for these authors, they aren’t right for everyone—some authors resent having to pay to play or lack marketing resources. 

Start-ups in every field form around a need, and publisher start-ups are no different.  A growing number of excellent authors need someone to publish their books, and entrepreneurial publishers are responding. 

The question, of course, is if these disruptive publishers can disrupt profitably.  As everyone knows, publishing is a terrible business, maybe better than restaurants but not much else.  I’m not clear on how small publishers, no matter how innovative, can sell books authored by individuals who lack superior platforms.  I’d like to believe that the law of curious readers applies (a law that I just created in a moment of optimism).  More than most customer segments, readers are inquisitive; they’re willing to take a chance on unknown authors with great stories to tell or expertise to share.  Yes, some readers gravitate toward brand name authors, but a lot don’t—they relish the thrill of discovery, of finding a book in the dusty corner of used book store and falling in love with it.

Maybe, as big publishers focus increasingly on brand name authors, readers will be moved to look for something different.  More to the point, authors should be willing to consider something different as well.  Big publishers offer many advantages, and if you can get an offer from Simon & Schuster or HarperCollins, you should take it.  But not everyone is a social media maven or possesses the right MFA pedigree.  The good news is that more alternatives exist than ever before, and it’s worth exploring them if you’ve got a great book but lack a great platform.

Chicago-based Bruce Wexler has ghostwritten or collaborated on 200 books over the last 25 years.

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