I love new things. I bought a Kindle the first day I could. I go to film festivals and dig around for underground music. In my reading choices, I try to do the same. Although I don’t always succeed, I’ve tried more and more to read new writers and new perspectives. But, like the music and film industry, publishing has a limited risk tolerance. Not only with unknown authors, but also with unconventional narratives and controversial subjects. The result is a disproportionate number of progressive titles come from the small nimble presses that dot the publishing landscape outside the conglomerates in New York City and London.
But, what is a small press?
Traditionally, a press that reports sales of less than $50 million is small. I’m sure Tachyon Publications and EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing would happily take $49 million in sales and hold on to the small moniker. A more applicable definition might be publishing less than 10 titles a year. Now I’m ruling out Night Shade Books, Subterranean Press, and a host of even smaller publishers who, in the new digital world, have much more extensive catalogs than they did even five years ago. What’s the answer then? Perhaps the best definition today would be a press without the resources of a larger publishing enterprise. That excludes Pyr and Angry Robot, who are both backed by non-fiction publishers. Given both have a fairly large presence in the genre readers’ consciousness already, I’m willing to go with it.
And that gets to the crux of what I hope this column will achieve. How many wonderful small press titles don’t find a readership because they lack visibility? Limited publicity budgets (if any) and books that don’t fall into traditional marketing niches, challenge small presses to get the word out through conventions, ‘zines, and, in the modern world, blogs. Word of mouth remains the best way to sell books, but the mouth piece has changed, no longer the well informed bookseller who helps identify diamonds in the rough. It’s become a big box book world, reliant on algorithms and advertising to break through.
With that in mind, SF Signal approached me to ask, and maybe answer, important questions about the small press world. Why they exist and how they make ends meet. At the end of it, I hope to have generated some word of mouth about the excellent work being done by these presses around the world.
I begin with Small Beer Press, founded by husband and wife Gavin Grant and Kelly Link who first teamed up in the late 90’s under the Hugo-nominated zine Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. I have no idea what a rosebud wristlet might be, but it sounds smart. Still publishing the zine, Link and Grant have expanded their domain to include chapbooks, original novels, and short story collections. Since Small Beer opened its doors twelve years ago, the pair have published over sixty titles.
While I mentioned above that small presses struggle with awareness, it isn’t necessarily with the insider crowd. Small Beer is a great example of being widely read in literary circles. They’ve had work nominated for the Impac Prize, Story Prize, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards; and been chosen as best of the year by Booklist, Time Magazine, Salon, Village Voice, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Locus. It goes to say that people who know good fiction, know Small Beer. I wonder though how many readers of this article could tell me a book they’ve published?
Before I received an e-mail from a Small Beer publicist, I couldn’t have named one. Not one. They offered me a copy of Maureen F. McHugh’s new short story collection After the Apocalypse. I recalled McHugh had been nominated for a Hugo ten years ago (China Mountain Zhang), but with no recent work to speak of, I figured it was another tiny press hoping for attention. I accepted the review copy with little hope I would finish it.
How uninformed I felt when upon finishing McHugh’s collection. I dubbed it the best piece of fiction released in 2011. It’s a proclamation I stand by to this day. Some have agreed with me (to one degree or another), including the Shirley Jackson Award jury which recently awarded McHugh with the Best Single-Author Collection Award for 2011. Even so, I fear it was not read nearly enough.
A gut reaction to that proclamation might be to blame the press and McHugh’s modest following. I’m sure both played a role, but short fiction isn’t an easy sell anymore. Not that less short fiction is being written, that doesn’t seem to be the case, but the demand to read it has eroded (or at least to pay for it). Major publishers seem to produce fewer anthologies each year, and single author collections have gone the way of the dodo. Tor has even gone so far as to publish dozens of shorts for free on Tor.com. Among the magazines, there’s an impression that their primary readers are writers who want to be published in them. But, for those readers who still crave the format, short fiction collection have become a niche in which small presses have found success.
Small Beer Press exemplifies this as well as anyone, providing an outlet for short fiction savants like McHugh, Ted Chiang, Carol Emshwiller, Nancy Kress, Ray Vukcevich, Kelly Link, and Karen Joy Fowler. They’ve also given a home to the odd and obscure. Hal Duncan, author of the critically lauded Vellum and Ink, recently published An A-Z of the Fantastic City with Small Beer. It’s a travel book of fictional (and not) places, and, I would think, unpublishable by a larger press.
Beyond these more niche pieces, Small Beer also manages a line of original novels, many by authors recognizable even to casual readers. John Crowley, Ursula K. LeGuin (translator), Ellen Kushner, and Elizbeth Hand highlight the field, but Small Beer has brought new perspectives as well. One such is Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo, a 2010 release that’s gaining new popularity with her recent nomination for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (also newly released in the United Kingdom from Jo Fletcher Books).
Lord’s novel marries Caribbean and Senegalese traditions into a fable not dissimilar in tone to José Saramago’s Cain, which likewise deploys humor and parable-like set pieces to peel back layers of myth. It’s a beautiful work of fiction that symbolizes Small Beer’s eye for talent, but also their unique perspective that trends toward fabulism and progressive points of view.
Looking ahead, I find more to get excited about with short story collection from Ursula K. LeGuin, Elizabeth Hand, Peter Dickinson, and Kij Johnson. Most significant of all though, is a new LeGuin translation of Angélica Gorodischer’s Trafalgar. While I can’t speak to the quality of the translation or the novel, I believe one of the great frontiers that remains in genre fiction is the importation of it from other countries. The English speaking world has been exporting genre fiction to the world in droves, but it has been a largely one way street. I hope that Small Beer and LeGuin’s commitment to Gorodischer’s work might be the beginning of a larger movement by small presses to fill a need as yet unmet.
I hope this article won’t characterize Small Beer Press as a clearing house for things big publishing doesn’t want. That’s a misrepresentation of the highest order. Instead, I would say they publish the things big publishing can’t and won’t. In some cases because the economies of scale make it impossible, in others because they don’t dare. Too often the mistake is made that small presses are the publishers of last resort for authors and agents as they’re rejected by New York City. The reality is that publishing is a business, one that de-emphasis risk and glorifies saleability. That line of thinking ignores, in some cases, the art of the written word, and the breadth of perspective available if we’ll only look for it. I’m excited that Small Beer Press is searching for these perspectives. The least we can do is keep an eye on what they find.