March is Small Press Month.
I could have just as well said March is Big Kahuna Month (it isn’t). Big as compared to what? The discerning reader will want to know. Does it celebrate wise men Kahunas (see dictionary.com) or ad men Kahunas (see imdb.com) ?
Does Small Press Month celebrate media or muscle?
The designation is a mini-media shout out for “press”, as in independent publishers, and “small” as in annual sales under $50 million - with fewer than ten titles published a year.
Let me put it this way: If the Big Publishing Houses were corporate banks, the small presses would be credit unions. More accessible. Friendlier. Geared towards a particular neighborhood.
A database on the Poets and Writers magazine website lists hundreds of small presses, alphabetically and by genre: poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. I found a small publisher for my memoir on a list from the Writer magazine. Both of these sources are reliable, which begs a distinction that must be made between small presses and vanity presses.
The small press (like larger university presses) accepts quality manuscripts – and rejects substandard ones. Small presses also distribute their books and pay royalties. Vanity presses are virtually printers. They accept all manuscripts and sell the manuscript-turned-book, in volume, back to the writer. End of contract.
Writing magazines regularly feature articles like “Bigger Isn’t Always Better,” by Jeff Reich. He says the less-is-more perspective allows a small press to focus “on quality not quantity.” Big Name Publishers like Big Name Clients. They often opt for celebrity over craft – and hire a ghost writer for the celebs who can’t write.
Small presses give folk like you and me a chance to tell our stories. Case in point: Terrence McCarthy, a regular guy, writes a compelling memoir, You Had To Be There, about his career jumps from reporter to ad writer to counselor on a psychiatric ward. The manuscript won’t make it through the likes of Random House or Penguin Books - because Terrence isn’t well known enough. An independent press like Signalman Publishers in Kissammee, Florida offers Terrence the chance to put his story “out there” even though Terrence is not trending on Yahoo. Not yet anyway.
John McClure, president of Signalman Publishing, says, “small publishers can and do release titles that offer the reader unique insight on a topic without the filter of commercial success blocking it.”
Yet, small presses can be profitable. Only after corporate publishers repeatedly rejected Paul Harding’s Tinkers, did the new, unheard of Bellvue Literary Press (named after the New York hospital) publish the novel. Then Tinkers picked up a 2010 Pulitizer Prize.
McClure recalls that My Utmost for His Highest- a popular book of devotions –was first published in 1936 by a small press in Ohio. Now it’s the utmost meditation seller on Amazon. That’s right – number one in its category! And its 1930s small press — Barbour Publishing — has grown along with the book’s increasing sales, releasing 150 new titles and 1000 stock titles a year these days.
“A small press is essentially the same as a large independent or university press, except that... well, it's small, “ says Brian Clements, founder of Firewheel Editions, a non-profit press in Newtown, CT. Clements copyedits Firewheel’s selections, designs them, and puts thought into his books’ marketability and distribution. Firewheel has seven editions of Sentence: A Journal of Prose Poetics to its credit as well as its latest venture - Kugelmass:A Journal of Literary Humor -which Clements produces together with editor David Holub. Prose poetry isn’t going to attract most Dan Brown, Stephen King, or Suzanne Collins fans. Kugelmass can’t be expected to compete with The Onion. Yet, when Firewheel Editions stays true to its prose poetry mission in Sentence, and, at the same time, takes Kugelmass’ funniness seriously, readers are offered greater choice.
That said, March is Small Press Month shouldn’t evoke the muscle of March Madness as in NCAA , but a quieter strength in the world of literature.