Ask Nick: Publishing 201: Why Are Small Presses Almost Always So Awful?

Hello, and welcome back to Publishing 201—an occasional column in which I'll answer your questions about writing and publishing, so long as they haven't been asked and answered a million times already. There is plenty of 101-level advice out there, and thousands of writers who can repeat it, but very little has been written for writers further along in their careers or aesthetic development. If you have a 201-level question you'd like me to answer, reach out!

Why don’t small presses pay what they say they’re going to? Why are they constantly falling apart? Why do prominent writers even publish with small presses when they so often fail to pay and then fall apart? Why is everything so awful all the time!

—Man in the Mirror

What a phenomenal question, and from a handsome genius to boot!

The most important thing to keep in mind when examining small presses is that small presses—whether book publishers or little magazines or websites—make no economic sense. Thus, almost by definition, the publisher of a small press is behaving irrationally. Anyone who knows how to run a small business, or a large one, would look at the numbers and decide instead to invest in a dry cleaner operation, or just to passively buy a mutual fund and hope for the best. Many venerable small presses are thus non-profits partially subsidized by grants, or are somehow attached to a university.

But small press as a business?  As run usually by failed or minor writers with a few friends? Even when run by someone with a business background? Oh no, oh no oh dear oh no. Indeed, one should be especially suspicious of a small press run by someone with a business background, as they at least will have no qualms about cutting bait early.

Small presses make no economic sense. Anyone who knows how to run a small business...would look at the numbers and decide instead to invest in a dry cleaner operation.

Even large presses are not really economically viable, which is why print magazines are vanishing and publishing houses consolidating, but at least large presses exist to give their owners a measure of cultural power through which they hope to achieve political goals. This is why the mediasphere internationally is an unforgiving reactionary hellscape, and why there’s a new book about Donald Trump every month. Some of the larger small presses are just a rich man’s hobby, but most only have shadowy “investors” in the form of whatever settlement check the publisher got after tripping and falling on a grape at the supermarket three years prior.

The sad and horrible fact is that most small presses are labors of love. By this I don’t mean a love of the written word or some community of under-published writers, I mean that the owners of small presses are seeking love, and one way to be loved, in the short term, is to splash around some money and the dubious promise of prestige and literary reputation.

Now, running a small press is difficult. The initial outlay can be extensive, and everyone you interact with is also a love-seeker. When one opens any business, the first people one meets aren’t customers with full wallets, but would-be vendors, jobseekers, glad-handers, and the like. Open a dry cleaner tomorrow and the first people through the door will be unqualified folks looking for work, kooks wanting to hang flyers about the school play in your window, a Little League team hitting you up for sponsorship, someone with a sob story about a shirt they need for a job interview that may keep them from becoming homeless in a week and so can’t they pleeeease get a “nice guy” discount of 70 percent, a batty weirdo complaining about non-existent smells and carcinogens, and the like.

In publishing, it’s worse. Writers, mostly not very good ones, line up for a chance to be published—the big presses have already rejected them all. Printers and distributors are expensive, and web designers always miss deadlines and make expansive claims about SEO and ecommerce that never quite materialize without wasted time and extra outlay.  There’s months of payouts before a product hits the web or the bookstore shelves, and then almost nobody buys anything. A small press spends thousands of dollars in the vague hope that the public will spend dozens of dollars of which the press will receive two bucks per sale. With online magazines, make that a tiny sliver of a penny per read, or perhaps nothing at all.

So, love! Love is the great motivator, not money! And as love is noble and money profane, a small press publisher gets to slide for a while.  One way to quickly buy some affection is to publish anthologies—instead of love from one writer, you get love from twenty. Anthologies don’t sell very well, and there’s a glut of them, but again, economics isn’t the issue. Anthologies are also easier to compile than novels to contract, and it’s a way to get those big names associated with the press for a few hundred bucks rather than ten thousand, but economically, launching a small press with an anthology makes almost no sense. Everyone does it, almost everyone fails, and yet they all keep trying, like fools.

Another common trick is to base one’s press around a political or social movement. I recall one, years ago, that wanted diverse authors and a diverse readership, and it even lasted a while until the couple that founded it broke up. But they were love-seekers too, and didn’t care from whence it came, so they put the oppression faced by the so-called otherkin (people who believe their souls to be those of supernatural beings) in a place alongside racism and sexism. “We don’t want vampire stories,” my favorite sentence from their submission guidelines read, “we want Vampyre stories.” And they were successful insofar as they kept mucking about for years.  Most such presses last for a book or two, then vanish. Occasionally the publisher learns something and becomes a prominent writer or commentator, but only if they leave their small press behind and never mention it again.

There are useful small presses based around politics or social concerns, but they tend to be non-profits. A for-profit entrepreneurial press that sells diversity as a side dish is not likely to be any better than one that just mimics commercial publishing on a smaller scale.

So why do writers, prominent ones with careers that is, keep signing up to work with small presses with a business plan that starts,  “Now that grandma, the only person on Earth to ever love me unconditionally, has died and left me ten thousand dollars…” ? Because for a while, there usually is some money. I made several thousand dollars for an app-based publisher a few years ago. I knew the publisher was never going to take off, but in the short term they had money to spend on me, and on the writers whose stories I secured for them. I’ve published fiction in the first issue of more now-defunct webzines than I can count on two hands, and got paid for all of it.

But sometimes, when a small press hits the trifecta of being run by a minor writer with a business background and a social theme, the implosions are especially intense, and quick. That’s the thing about love: nothing is worse than a romantic who gets bitter.  Suddenly it’s the writers’ faults for wanting to be paid, the readers’ fault for wanting the books they pre-ordered available within three months of the announced street date, the Internet’s fault for not making every story and essay go viral even though they’re about important subjects—did you know that racism is bad?! Ah yes, and it is definitely the fault of cis white men (or whomever) for going to a bookstore to buy books by Stephen King instead of buying the 29,857th small press anthology, our very own Terrors from Typo Town.

Then out comes what Anna Weiner in her memoir of the tech industry, Uncanny Valley, calls "garbage language"—it's all about brand-building, reorganization of business units, content models, logistics, pivots toward asset maintenance, and other meaningless honking that translates into, “I was here to buy friends and fame and now I've run out of money but still have no friends or fame. It’s all your fault.”

But no, it is actually the publisher’s own fault.  A proper businessperson wouldn’t start a small commercial press; only an under-published writer who wants to be important to some scene would. A proper businessperson would examine the marketplace and conclude, correctly, that readers prefer novels to short fiction, and would launch with a novel. Only a scenester who wants to make friends on the cheap would start with anthologies or short fiction collections. A proper businessperson would at least launch a webzine with some sort of call to action: links to online bookstores, clickable ads, online classes (hi Litreactor!). Only someone with dead grandma money and a dream would offer to splash out a lot of money for both writers and editors.  The operative word here is offer. Actually paying, on time, that’s for chumps.

Any questions?

Nick Mamatas

Column by Nick Mamatas

Nick Mamatas is the author of several novels, including I Am Providence and Sabbath. He's also published over 150 pieces of short fiction; his work has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories, Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, and dozens of genre publications and literary journals. Much of his recent fiction was collected in The People's Republic of Everything.

Nick is also an anthologist: he co-edited the Bram Stoker Award-winning Haunted Legends with Ellen Datlow, the Locus Award nominees The Future is Japanese and Hanzai Japan with Masumi Washington, and the hybrid cocktail recipe/flash fiction title Mixed Up with Molly Tanzer. He recently adapted Junji Ito's manga Frankenstein into English, leading it to an Eisner award.

Nick has written extensively about digital culture, radical politics, publishing, and the book trade for Poets & Writers, The Smart Set, Village Voice, Fine Books & Collections, In These Times, and many other periodicals.

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Deets999's picture
Deets999 from Connecticut is reading Adjustment Day April 6, 2020 - 7:10am

Hi Nick,

Great article! I have a question;

I've gotten 2 short stories published now and continue to submit more - I love when I can go through Submittable, even if I do have to pay that small reading fee some times. 

My question is - do you think the people on the other end are actually reading my full story, particulaly when it's a long one? My current short story is 11k words, which makes finding a home for it tough.

Even on shorter pieces, the amount of rejections can be staggering and I often wonder if they are reading the whole thing, or make a decision after two pages because they simplty don't have the resources to read the whole short story. And while I can understand that when there is no reading fee involved, I don't think that would be appropriate when I am paying a few bucks. Let alone, when the story gets rejected, it's usually a canned email which lends not even a fraction of insight into why it was rejected.

Curious your thoughts on this and related topics as you see fit, thanks, Brian. 

Dan's picture
Dan from Santa Monica, CA is reading Beautiful You by Chuck Palahniuk April 24, 2020 - 2:36pm

It's safe to assume that most editors only read the first page (or so) before making a decision to reject it or continue reading. Some publications do offer feedback if you pay for it (usually $5 to $10). But editors will never have the time to personally respond to every rejected submission. They barely have enough time to read the first page of every submission. The editors are always overwhelmed and underpaid (or not paid at all). This is why it takes them 3 to 6 months to respond. An editor once told me he used to provide feedback with every rejection until too many writers responded with coarse language on why he was wrong.