At the Cape Town Book Fair in June, a Small Publishers’ stand was organised by the Centre for the Book. Compared with last year’s stand, it was huge – about 35 publishers were represented and were widely diversified in subject matter (such as poetry, children’s books, memoirs and even cookery books) as well as quality of content and production. Such an array is demonstrative of the amount of independent publishing taking place in South Africa, as well as the dedication of the publishers involved and, as such, is commendable.
However, such activity begs the question: what is meant by a “small publisher”? Does this mean a noncommercial publisher, an amateur publisher, a publisher that does not employ people, a publisher that works from home, a publisher that has limited access to capital, a publisher that has limited distribution, a publisher with a limited marketing budget, a publisher that does not undertake huge print runs, a publisher that does not publish huge numbers of titles, a publisher that is marginal or – still worse – a publisher that is of lesser importance?
Noncommercial: A commercial publisher is one that undertakes the publishing of books for the purpose of making a profit in order to provide a return to shareholders. A prime issue here is the marketability of a book and its likelihood to appeal to a wide audience in order to generate revenue. In this respect, small or independent publishers may be regarded as noncommercial. This does not mean they do not intend to make a profit or try to reach as wide an audience as possible, but there is often an acknowledgement that the nature of the books published may not be likely to have a popular appeal. Many works produced by small or independent publishers have a distinctly small, limited audience, notably poetry.
Amateur: A small or independent publishing operation may be regarded as amateur because it is not usually a fulltime business, as is the case with commercial publishers. Sometimes access to technical equipment may be an issue, and even knowledge about the publishing process may be limited compared to commercial publishers. But having said that, the work of small publishers is sometimes, from both a quality of presentation and content point of view, either equal to, or even better, than books produced by commercial publishers.
Does not employ people: Small or independent publishers are often one-man or one-woman operations, with the layout, design and proofreading undertaken by one person, and printing being outsourced. However, some independent publishers, particularly those who have received funding, are able to outsource the entire production process. This situation often differs little from many medium-sized commercial publishers, some of whom may have a minimum staff compliment of about five people. Even among commercial publishers, tasks such as the evaluation of manuscripts, layout, design, and proofing are outsourced to freelancers. In this regard, there is not a tremendous difference between independent and commercial publishers.
Works from home: As already mentioned, many small or independent operations are the work of one person, are not a fulltime job, and are often undertaken in the evenings or weekends at home. Hence the terms “home publishing” or even “kitchen table publishing”. But many commercial publishers have operated from homes at some point, usually during the start-up period – and thus may well have been regarded as “amateurs” during this phase. And renting or owning offices do not necessarily guarantee that the works produced are of a quality standard.
Access to capital: Medium-sized or commercial publishers have a greater access to capital than do smaller publishers, whose books are either self-funded by the publisher/editor/owner. Sometimes the publisher will be able to obtain public funding, such as from the National Arts Council or the Arts and Culture Trust. However, having said that, these days, and particularly in South Africa, is it become a fairly common practice for even larger publishers to produce books on condition that some form of funding has been provided. This should not in any way be confused with vanity publishing.
Distribution: Book distributors in South Africa, as elsewhere, are often reluctant to work on behalf of independent publishers, and this can be a definite stumbling block, especially for new publishers, even start-up commercial publishers. Commission costs for distribution can be high, and this can easily bite into a small publisher’s profit margins. One can try to undertake one’s own distribution, but large bookstore chains are often unwilling to deal directly with a publisher, and to be deal only with a bond fide distributor. Distribution is thus often a problem for independent publishers.
Marketing: Small or independent publishers generally have a limited, or even nonexistent, marketing budget to undertake nationwide launches. They also often lack the “credentials” that a commercial publisher may have to be able to organise interviews on radio or television. But having said that, having a substantial marketing budget or department at one’s fingertips does not guarantee the success of a book. Many books have in fact sold very well solely by word of mouth.
Print runs: Commercial publishers tend to publish vast print runs of books undertaken by litho printers. Such a print run works on the basis of larger volumes, lower cost. Independent publishers often go the cheaper digital printing route whereby small print runs – up to 500 copies - can be made, and then additional copies printed if required. In terms of quality, there is very little difference between a book produced by a litho printer and that of a good digital printer. Again, many independent publishers who have been able to obtain funding have produced large print runs by litho printing route.
Number of titles: Independent publishers generally publish far fewer titles per year than commercial publishers – after all, it is not their livelihood and they do not have the time, or the access to capital. But again, there are exceptions. Gus Ferguson, for example, in a period of about 12 years published well over 100 titles through his Snailpress and Firfield Press imprints, in addition to about 30 issues of his Slug Newsletter and his poetry journal Carapace as now reached issue 64. Other independent publishers, such as Deep South, intentionally limit their output.
Marginal/lesser importance: Throughout history, many small or independent publishers have produced groundbreaking works. The Hogarth Press’s publication of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land is an example, as well as presses such as City Lights in the US, which published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. Much groundbreaking work in SA has been published by independent presses, and a few years ago Botsotso published Post-traumatic, one of the most important short fiction anthologies published in SA in recent years – an anthology which several commercial publishers passed over. Groundbreaking work usually initially has a limited appeal – and thus is not the terrain for commercial publishers.
From the above, it is clear that the perceived differences between “small publishers” and “commercial publishers” are in fact not so wide, and by referring to independent publishers as “small” we risk diminishing their importance and contribution to enriching our literary culture. For this reason, I feel the term “small publisher” should be replaced by “independent publisher”, though I am aware that some “small publishers” may feel uncomfortable with the term “independent”.
But what the hell - long live independent publishing!
© Gary Cummiskey, 2007