A couple of days ago I had to have a conversation following the completion of one of those forms you have to fill out in your life. One of the questions was about occupation, so I listed myself as "editor/publisher." The form had nothing to do with business life at all, but when people hear that I'm a publisher, they often ask questions about the business.
This particular woman told me that her husband had recently signed a contract with a small press after several years of frustration with "getting noticed" by the establishment. I sympathized with her because, of course, we all know how hard it is.
But I felt good after that call, because I thought to myself: This is one of the reasons that smaller and independent presses may be the future. I'm not saying that the big publishers will ever go away -- and I don't want them to. I don't see them as competitors, really; and I have a lot of respect for them. But I've worked for them, and I've seen how editors' time gets sucked out of them, with the never-ending series of meetings and so on. And are they even publishing companies any longer, or are they the written-word aspect of the media/entertainment industry? I think the latter, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Society needs big, important, and/or popular books to discuss, rally around, and/or hate -- and the big publishers do publish so many really good titles.
But writers who don't have 100,000 followers on Facebook, don't already have big names, don't have a huge platform--these people deserve a chance, too. And that's where we come in. I know that people have submitted to me when they've reached the end of their rope with the big boys. I'm not offended. It's an opportunity for me, for the press, to find those voices that get drowned out among the noise and competitiveness of contemporary publishing. I'd say the overall quality of manuscripts I get now is somewhat lower, on average, than those I got when I worked at other companies. But the books I've published here are as good as any of those published by the biggies-- and, IMHO, often better.
What bothers me, though, is hearing writers dismissively described as "small press authors" or their work described as "small press books." Um, that is actually an honor, not a mark against someone. Small presses get a lot of submissions, and our standards aren't any lower than those of the biggies. And how many slots do the biggies have each year? Writers need us, we need them. On the bright side, I've seen many reviewers and bloggers who are open to and embracing of small presses, and I thank them for it.
But back to us being the future, or at least a big part of it. The key thing is that we don't have the overhead. A lot of these presses are in suburban locations, run out of basements or home offices. Why should that be a bad thing, as long as quality works result? Office space, especially in the big cities, is tremendously expensive. Isn't it better to put the money into good publishing - to spend the money where it counts - than to have expensive office space? Small presses do it for love; we have the passion. I'm not say the bigger publishers don't; I'm just saying that we have it, too, and can lavish our attention on the relatively small number of titles we publish.
For all these reasons, I wish that writers wouldn't see us as their last, not-very-good option when everyone else has turned them down. I suppose some of that is inevitable, but HINT: Don't say it in your query letter, please. And remember that even the mega-corporations often started out as small publishers.