How to Start a Small Press

By Gavin J. Grant

LCRW

First, an old joke that still makes me laugh:

Q: How do you make a small fortune in publishing?
A: Start with a large one.

You need to begin with money. Publishing a book (trade paperback, 256 pp., 100+ galleys, 2,000 copies, good art, professional prrofreader [sic], friendly royalty rate) costs in the region of $10,000. Publishing two issues of a literary magazine (perfect bound, 72 pp., 2,000 copies, etc.) will cost about the same (assuming you choose to pay the contributors—and you're a nice person, so you will).

So, first things first: get a real job and prepare to stay up until 4 a.m. a couple of times a year. In the meantime, you could always start a zine: 200 copies of a photocopied zine cost much less than any of the above. When I started LCRW my rule of thumb for the cost was inspired by the billboards in winter in Boston offering cheap flights to Florida and the Caribbean. Since my blood was thicker then and I didn't mind the cold (don't believe anything else you hear), I figured I could spend what I'd drop on a weekend in the sun on a zine, say $200-400, without it seriously impacting my bookselling self's bottom line.

If the above costs haven't put you off (hello lovely philanthropists, hello dot-com survivors!), here are a few pointers, places to go, and then a diversion.

Begin with your bookshelves. Which books do you love the look of? Conversely: which do you hate? A quick trip to the bookshop should give you some pointers. If you really can't tell the difference, get someone else to design your publications! Which magazines do you admire? The success of McSweeney's brought text design (and very small typefaces) back to the fore, but don't copy, innovate! Just don't use every font you have.

We used to give convention presentations on How To Publish a Zine. (Executive summary: pen, paper, copy shop, post office.) It was great fun and some people went on and published zines—and some didn't, which was part of the point. Doing a zine is fun, but it's hard, too, and besides, what's the point if it's no good?

The first and best thing you can do if you want to start a small press is talk to people—lots of people!—until you find some you can work with. As Karawynn Long, publisher of Per Aspera Press, says:

I really can't imagine having even conceived of our press on my own, never mind having followed through. Managing Editor Jak Koke and I are both eyebrow-deep in publishing and are still constantly wishing we had a third, and sometimes a fourth, person.

She went on to emphasize that what Per Aspera needs is someone with a skill set that would complement what they already have. A very important point leading to another bad joke: How many editors does it take to ship books to bookshops? Hmm.

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Industry estimates abound, but there are at least 50,000 small presses in the USA alone—and that's not counting many zine and newsletter publishers. Many of them are going it alone: don't make that mistake! Since you're skimming this online you can get tons of information on how to start a small (or medium or micro) press on the web. Use the Speculative Literature Foundation's (SLF) amazing and solid list of resources. Dan Poynter's (continuously updated) The Self-Publishing Manual is well worth the cover price. Hell, Factsheet 5 may even start up again and give you all the info you need in one place. Join an email list or five (you can whittle them down as you find which are useful). I've been on Pub-Forum for years. There's a lot of deleting (even on digest mode), but when I need an answer, there are always generous people willing to help. Pub-Forum gets a little off-topic around elections (or even just weekends), so some of the Yahoo! or Google publishing lists might be a better fit. Strange Horizons (SH), Night Shade, TTA Press, and the SLF have some useful lists and threads.

Which pushes me nicely along to what I really want to be talking about: online support networks.

Why—or maybe how?—is SH still here? Why do people return week after week? Is it the same people every week? Every month? To some extent, yes, but by its very nature, SH is reaching out every week into new subsets of readers, some of whom get in the habit of coming back, supporting, submitting, and taking part.

SH is run by a distributed network of thirty-five-plus dedicated and energetic volunteers (you can volunteer, too!). SH might have existed pre-internet, but would have been a logistical nightmare. For all I know it actually is a nightmare, but it's never appeared that way. Every Monday on the dot, there's a new issue: new fiction, poetry, reviews, and editorials. Bang on time there are two fundraisers a year. And always they're there with the new content, the new ideas, ooh!

This is the sort of setup I'm recommending you build for your press. I'm not saying you need thirty people or massive amounts of time, an impressive database, experts in every field—wait, I am saying you need massive amounts of time and I am suggesting you reach out to experts in related fields. Do you want to edit or do you want to write, illustrate, solicit, read submissions, write contracts, copyedit, proffread [sic. Pay for this!], design, typeset, market, advertise, bill and collect, distribute, ship, schlep, and whatever else may come up? Reach out to people who want to be involved and who may or may not realize how valuable their skills could be to a small press. Only you can make them realize how valuable they are! Prestige, it's the new opiate of the masses.

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In recent years there's been an incredible rise in peer-group-published zines which, powered by said peer groups' continued and increasing expectations, reliably publish ever-better zines and chapbooks. This is the easiest way to get into publishing and—if done well—can only be good for both readers and writers.

As an aside, this explosion in small press publishing has given many writers their first taste of publishing, editing, and designing their own product (excuse my gaucherie) that may have interesting consequences in years to come. I talked recently to an agent who more and more was being asked by publishing houses to hand in finished products: i.e. proofread and typeset press-ready manuscripts. Who do we now know can produce manuscripts like that? That's what I'm talking about!

So. How to Start a Small Press:

  1. Get a job.
  2. Get your gang together.
  3. Ask other publishers for help.
  4. Work on your PR—or get someone to do it! There are some very small-press-friendly reviewers at Locus, SF Site, and so on—and that's not even starting on the blogging community (step on down, Mr. Cheney, Ms. Bond, et al.), and, if books are your thing, Publishers Weekly is very supportive of high quality new endeavors.
  5. Work hard (after all, you could be on a beach in Florida!) but remember to have fun!

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A Second Opinion: How (Not) to Start a Small Press

  1. Continue your hermetic existence.
  2. Quit your paying job to "focus on the press."
  3. Use a sans serif font. But use a serif font for the European editions. That'll shake things up!
  4. Good: Velobind your books. Better: Wirebind. Best: Saddlestitch (staple) your 700-page masterpiece!
  5. Borrow from family to buy a letterpress to "get in touch with the history of publishing."
  6. Save cash ("$1 a page? $20 an hour!? Ha!") by proofreding [sic] your own books.
  7. Refuse all requests from freeloaders and bums for "review" or "reading" copies of your precious, precious books.
  8. If you should consent to send out review copies: number and stamp them "Not for Resale." Haunt eBay and Bookfinder until they show up. Buy them. Write long, rambling letters to Maud Newton, MobyLives, Beatrice, etc., on the evils of The Establishment. Ignore their silly pleas about tiny overflowing New York apartments.
  9. Send out review copies on publication day.
  10. Offer bookshops a 20% discount and if they complain tell them they're lucky to get that.
  11. Spend all day surfing the web.
  12. Never update your own website.
  13. Sharpen your rants on:
    • the unfair prices and practices of the ISBN Agency and its evil hegemony,
    • the blindness, the crass stupidity, the unspeakable idiocy (etc., etc.) of reviewers, and
    • the fantastic quality of your slush, never mind your publications (which will happen any day now).

Gavin Grant Photo

Gavin J. Grant is a freelance writer, editor, and designer. He started a zine in 1996. All the simple, mimetic names—such as Fiction, Story, Zine, etc.—were taken so it ended up being named Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. He only occasionally regrets it. He runs Small Beer Press from Northampton, MA, coedits The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, and cohosts the KGB Fantastic Fiction Series.