The fate of the small publisher.


The problem with the revolution in publishing is that many more people can become publishers, but should they?


The question that we have to ask is what can small publishers offer? We now have the technology that allows any author to produce an e-book and sell it through Amazon. With a little more technical know-how this can be extended to the rest of the electronic formats. With only slightly more know-how the author can organise print on demand and sell their own paperbacks.

So what is the publisher for?

Firstly some authors do want handholding through these technical bits so there is still a job to do there, but it is now very much a subsidiary one. Production also includes such things as editing, proof reading and providing covers. These services can be very expensive if done properly. It is a matter of some contention whether these costs should be carried by writer or publisher.

The second and most important job is selling the book. This involves such things as organising publicity, getting word out there, getting it in shops and in front of the reader.

There are two problems with this; one is that in the world as we know it, in all candour, nobody really knows the infallible route to success. (This includes Amazon and the big name publishing houses who are as in the dark as the rest of us.) Indeed, for all the endless stream of websites offering to pimp your book for you, it’s probably still true that word of mouth is the best seller. The other problem for the publisher is that in spite of what the author might hope, most publishers realise that the author has to do a lot of the work. The best the publisher can probably do is guide them so that they do the work in the areas where they get the best return on their efforts, and also perhaps open doors so the author can strut and fret their hour upon the stage to new and more influential audiences.

The downside of this is that all this costs money. You cannot publish a book for free and it’s probable that ninety percent of books most small publishers publish will lose them money.
Hence the small publisher is really somebody with a proper job that pays the rent, (and subsidises the business.) Some people do up old houses as a way of reducing themselves to exhausted penury, but running a small publishing business will probably achieve the same effect for less physical effort.

Obviously there is the hope that the small publisher will discover a writer whose sales put the company back in the black and help fund all those hopefuls who haven’t yet made it. This appears to be one of the popular ‘business models.’ I use the phrase ‘business model’ because it’s a little more flattering than the more accurate ‘delusion.’ The main problem with the model is the successful writer. No sooner do they become successful and prove they can sell books than a bigger company comes along, offers them money, and whisks them away from you. The small publisher is effectively left with the writers none of the bigger companies want.


Is there any way round this?

Specialist nonfiction might be a way forward. You’ve got a product which is easier to market, and the target audience is better known.

Another option would be to build on top of an existing enterprise. Somebody who has been successfully publishing roleplaying games could be able to sell fiction relevant to the games to the buyers of the games. Again, you’re selling to a target market who you know. Games Workshop with their associated ‘Black Library’ is perhaps one of the most successful versions of this.


There are probably other successful business models out there. But what you must remember is that whilst writing books can be anything from an art form to a type of therapy, publishing them has to be a business, because if the bills cannot be paid, the publisher cannot exist.


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8 thoughts on “The fate of the small publisher.

  1. Mick Canning August 11, 2016 at 2:37 pm Reply

    Oh, the real world, Jim. Dang the real world!

    • jwebster2 August 11, 2016 at 2:47 pm Reply

      fear not, I rarely let the real world intrude and when it does I stand there most sternly and make it wipe its feed 🙂

      • Mick Canning August 11, 2016 at 2:51 pm

        Ah, maybe I need to deal with it in the same way.

      • jwebster2 August 11, 2016 at 3:10 pm

        you’ve got to be firm with reality, if you’re not it gets above itself and starts thinking it matters!

  2. M T McGuire August 11, 2016 at 11:37 pm Reply

    I think it’s like making wine. There’s an old saying, if you want to make £1m producing wine, spend £2m on your winery. Writing is very similar, there are a few folk who make it big because they have … I dunno, trodden in Unicorn pooh on a rainy day during an equinoxial gale when there’s an R in the month or something … and there’s the rest of us. I’ve no idea what the answer is, I just keep on keeping on and go for things I can control, like having a mailing list etc rather than relying on Amazon or social media.



    • jwebster2 August 12, 2016 at 7:36 am Reply

      I remember a story by PG Wodehouse where he has a publisher comment that ‘word of mouth’ is the only thing that really works. I think that’s still right, it’s just now word of mouth between friends can spread electronically. I think the mailing list is a good idea, but I make a point of forwarding news of books being promoted to friends I know who will like them. From one individual to another, not just broadcasting it to everybody 🙂

      • M T McGuire August 12, 2016 at 10:08 am

        Absolutely and what I’m working on, with my mailing list, is getting to the point where they feel the same way as that friend of yours receiving a book recommendation, when I share things with them that I think they’ll like. I’m probably being hopelessly optimistic even trying but nothing venture, nothing win etc…

      • jwebster2 August 12, 2016 at 10:25 am

        The one way to guarantee you don’t succeed is to do nothing

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