Big vs. Independent Publishing Houses

It’s time for something totally different. This isn’t a book review nor is it really about books. HO THERE! Don’t worry. I meant it isn’t about specific books. It has – of course – everything to do with books.

For the last few months I’ve been doing an internship at a lovely, small, independent publishing house in London. I did do a course on ‘The Publishing Field’ beforehand, but I can now say that I honestly didn’t know anything about independent publishers. Because I thought you guys might find this interesting, I’m going to give you a brief summary of what I’ve learned during my internship.

So, what is the difference between big publishers and small, independent publishing houses?

1) Getting manuscripts

Imagine starting a publishing company. You have a nice website, a beautiful logo, but … no books. What are you going to publish? You’ll probably start with books from your friends and family. Who else knows about you? Who else is going to trust a publisher who hasn’t published anything yet?

It’s really remarkable how many people are writing ‘books’ when you’re a publisher. All of a sudden everyone you know has a friend, a sister or a father who is writing the most amazing book ever. And of course you cannot really say no. You don’t want to hurt their feelings. So it’s hard to decline a book as a small publishing house since you probably know the writers. Especially when it’s non-fiction this can be very difficult. How are you going to tell the writer that his wife is boring and he should change that character?

On the other hand, indie publishers don’t have to make money. Of course they want to, but it’s not their main goal. They don’t have important CEOs looking over their shoulder saying  they have to make XX million this year. As is often said, the big publishers are always, always looking for the next bestseller. They have to.

But when a small publishing house grows a little and gets other manuscripts, and not only those from friends and family, they can actually choose what to publish. They can publish what they love. They publish the books that are quirky and wouldn’t be published otherwise.

A great example is the publishing house ‘Visual Editions’ who re-invented our reading and storytelling experience. Check out Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes, which they published in 2010. It’s really something else (and I like that – a lot).

2. Selling books

This was the biggest SHOCK for me when I started my internship. Amazon, Waterstones, Barnes & Noble – in short, all the big booksellers are not willing to help you as a small publisher. And yes I was naive, because it’s about business, it’s about making money, and indie publishing houses are just too small.

This neglect of indie publishers is partly because print-on-demand doesn’t really work (yet) in the United Kingdom. The system doesn’t seem to understand that when someone orders a book, that book should arrive let’s say at least 1 month after ordering it (the system says it will take 3 days…). We have had horrific experiences with books not arriving at all, books that were ‘out of stock’ (but weren’t), or just plainly not visible. I really hope they will soon fix this as this is harmful for many small, indie presses who use this system.

So whether or not you sell books depends almost solely on the author. The writers needs to go to bookshops, demanding that their books must be stocked there, they need to make an online profile (write blogs, make short videos, post on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook), they have to force their family, their friends, the friends of their friends and the friends of friends of their friends to buy the book.

Of course writers who sign with big publishing companies often need to do a lot too. They also need to have an online profile, do book signings et cetera. But the difference is that a whole marketing team is behind this. With a small publisher, the writer actually has to organize readings and use their contacts to get reviews, they have to decide what their online profile is going to look like and hire someone to make a website – a small publishing company simply doesn’t have the money to do this for them.

3. Being innovative

So as became clear the small, indie publishers don’t have money since they don’t make money. Especially with regards to marketing it makes the selling side of publishing very difficult.

However, I think there is one advantage they have over the big companies. Small, indie publishers are willing to take more risks. In a way, they have to be innovative since they cannot compete with the big publishers on other levels. So they develop new ideas, find funding and then turn these ideas into real products. As Visual Editions does. Other examples are Persephone Books, who only publishes neglected twentieth century (mostly female) writers, or Write Bloody Publishing, who publishes poetry and plants a tree for every first print of a new book.

As you can see, being an independent publishing house can both be liberating as well as very difficult and annoying.

Have you guys had similar experiences in the publishing field? And what would your ‘quirkiness’ be if you started an indie publishing company?

I sometimes dream about publishing books about specific works of art. I’m often impatient and judge certain works too quickly, but when someone explains to me what they feel or see or experience, I all of a sudden see that work in a different light and appreciate it more (sometimes even like it). If you would publish those books, you could share your experience with each other, even with complete strangers, and broaden your view about art – but that’s just a dream 🙂


3 Replies to “Big vs. Independent Publishing Houses”

  1. What a wonderful experience, indie publishers are brilliant, thank heavens we have them, really otherwise books available become so mainstream and same same. I also love that they bring us a lot more translated fiction and works from authors that constantly get rejected by the commercial model.

    I met an author recently who told me he’s called a store in the US which carries lots of books and was told they only stock books that sell 200 copies/week and when they stop selling that number, they stopped carrying them! It wasn’t a bookstore though, it’s more of the dept store/supermarket business model I believe.

    Great post and thanks for following my blog, I look forward to reading your reviews as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I complete agree with you! Thank heavens for indie publishers and quirky books 😉
      Bookstores not wanting to stock indie books (or just not bestselling books) happens a lot actually… it’s such a shame.

      Liked by 1 person

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