Ask Yourself: Do We Really Need Small Presses?

Small presses—otherwise known as indie publishers—are a lot of people’s go-to for their first novel, anthology, etc. Why? Because it’s hard to get a deal with one of the Big Five. They have to see potential in you as an author and, frankly, it’s a little intimidating—especially since they’re known to give unprecedented multi-million dollar deals. And even though those deals occur once in a blue moon, it makes the industry feel competitive. So people gravitate toward indie publishers to get their work out there.


But what would happen if, say, all the indie publishers disappeared? We’d be left with self-publishing, which is slowly becoming less taboo, and the Big Five. Our options would greatly slim down. And President Trump’s proposal to eliminate funding for the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) has small presses fearing for their future.


In 2016, the NEA had a budget of almost $148 million. Along with supporting arts in the communities, that money helps fund a large number of small presses around the country. The Small Press Distribution (SPD), based in Berkeley, California, is one of many groups supported by the NEA and “serves more than 400 small publishers.” The SPD has received around $1.2 million dollars in grant funds, four percent of which has come from the NEA budget since 1998. According to Executive Director Jeffery Lependorf, the cuts to the NEA “would have a dramatic ripple effect on independent publishing.”


“While four percent may sound like a small percentage of [our] overall budget, those monies more or less flow through to our hundreds of publishers,” Lependorf told Publisher’s Weekly. “A four percent cut to the income of our presses could easily make the difference between just covering costs and just failing to cover their costs. It’s the difference between existing or not existing.”


But, so what, right? Do we really need small publishers? The answer, my friends, is yes.


Small publishers are the ones who take chances on new writers. They’re the ones who break the boundaries, ignore the guidelines, publish the unique and quirky. They’re the ones who give a voice to writers who’ve had no luck with the Big Five. Small presses like Graywolf and and Coffee House are even promoting new work by writers who hit it big once and never returned to the mainstream press.


My personal favorite, though, is Dorothy. Deemed a “publishing project,” not a press, by founder, experimental writer, and book designer Danielle Dutton, Dorothy publishes only two books a year—but boy are they worth it. Dorothy was born when Dutton discovered that an admired poet, Renee Gladman, “had written a trilogy of novels about the invented city-state of Ravicka.” Dutton offered to publish these books, and thus Dorothy became a small project that publishes “the razor-sharp and visceral work of writers.”


“The fiction community that my own writing was coming out of at the beginning was really loose and close to poetry,” said Dutton in an interview with The Paris Review, “and it seemed like that there was no cross-reading going on. So I published Renee Gladman, who started as a poet.”


Each of these small presses shows that the publishing industry is full of people who know what they want and know how to go after it. After all, the Big Five’s genre requirements are giving small presses the opportunity to thrive. How? Their lack of boundaries. The creativity and flexibility that these presses support is hard to find with the Big Five, who like to publish books into categories and genres. And while great works have undeniably come out of this process, there are many writers who don’t fit into the box—myself included. The willingness to publish works that blend and tear apart genres has opened the doors for more writers to have their work acknowledged.


And I can tell you right now, if we were to sit down in a coffee shop and discuss the fate of small publishers in the wake of the NEA cuts, I would tell you that the ones who are determined, who can find a way to stay alive, will keep their doors open. There’s nothing, not even a President, that can stop a writer’s creativity.