A broadside against mainstream publishing

The publishing industry is largely controlled by conglomerates. For the most part, all the newspapers’ end of year round-ups and start of the year previews will be books by the mainstream publishers. The front tables of booksellers – absolutely key to strong sales – will be occupied by books from the major publishers because booksellers require publishers to contribute to the cost of the promotion – an expense few small presses can afford. Also a promotion will need a new print run to meet the required level of stock – which is expensive, and risky, given the stock is on a sale or return policy.

So what does this mean: a great novel by a small press is unlikely to get reviewed, almost certainly will not be given prime space in the booksellers, and unless it wins a prize, will sell significantly fewer copies than have been printed.

Maybe you’re asking yourself: If these novels are so great, why aren’t the bigger, richer publishers commissioning them? Because bigger, richer publishers seldom take risks. Marketers – who aren’t known for their artistic sensibilities – are a central part of the commissioning process these days (“who’s the target market / what brand assets might we leverage?”), and when the apex predator in the food chain is the shareholder, commissioning decisions are made on a combination of marketing advice and P&L sheets; very seldom on the imperishable nature of great writing.

That said, there are editors of great integrity in the big houses, but they are fighting a rear-guard action.

Really, the BIG problem is agents. Time is money for agents, and big advances are central to their business model (and bonuses). Only big publishers can afford big advances, and big publishers only offer big advances when they believe the novel can achieve – you’ve guessed – big sales. It’s about bigness. Small presses aren’t big.

Sometimes difficult novels achieve big sales. And occasionally they come from small presses. But it’s rare. And not to be relied upon.

At the end of last year I met with (arguably) the UK’s most successful agent and when we discussed this subject he said (to paraphrase): The industry is not good at spotting outliers. Agents are good at supplying the publishing industry with what it needs to keeping going, but more often than not it doesn’t vary much from what has been previously successful.

That’s why we need small presses: they are good at spotting the literary outliers. Their radar is calibrated differently from agents, or mainstream publishers. Small presses don’t ask how many copies will this sell, but how good is this – what is its value as literature? Quality is the only criterion.

Posted by Neil Griffiths, on


19 thoughts on “A broadside against mainstream publishing”

  • Great piece – sadly your comments apply equally to children’s books and in particular picture books which are very expensive to produce for small publishers. Yet what children read in their formative years is hugely important.

  • Very well put. The big publishers *should* be able to take more risks, with their big balance sheets to support them if things go wrong. Even from the solidly business/marketing/shareholder perspective, it *should* make sense to devote at least a small portion of their book acquisitions to attempting to find the outliers. Nine fail, one makes it big, and voila: success. And they’ve still got the big stable of celebrity chef autobiographies to keep the money flowing. But you’re right that it doesn’t seem to happen like that. So it’s left to the small publishers to take risks from a much less stable position. I read about the new prize you’re organizing—good for you! That is a truly worthwhile thing to do with £2,000. Good luck with the fund-raising/guilt-tripping.

  • Spot on. I was once told by an agent that there was nothing at all wrong with my novels, but that the market was such that the books were unlikely to be what a mainstream publisher would take on. (Too ‘character’ based for crime novels.) He thought I would be published by a small press, but that there would be no money in it for him, so he wouldn’t represent me. He was absolutely right. I am published by a small press and there is virtually no money in it. But while the money would be great (let’s not kid ourselves otherwise) it’s not why I still write. But without the continued, usually poorly rewarded, efforts of small publishers, there would be no outlet at all for so many good books.

  • Viva The Republic of Consciousness. Do you take ex-pats? Pom writers living in the RSA? With a few outsider stories to tell..? Ps. Dos you know that there is *no such thing* as a literary agent in this benighted land..?

  • You’re my new hero. Scholastic editor contacted me 2 yrs after reading my submission to say she loved it and it had stuck in her mind more than anything else she’d seen. She didn’t publish because it wasn’t commercial enough. Small press, Mother’s Milk, picked it up but we are struggling to make sales for all the reasons you give.

  • Dear Neil, I am just starting up so not ripe to enter, but just wanted to say that you are a true champion for championing this! My press is Ragged Lion Press, website raggedlionpress.co.uk. I’d like to recommend to you Bottle of Smoke Press, who do my printing for me; Bill Roberts has been printing for 15 years and is the real deal and his press should get all the attention it deserves. Website is bospress.net

    Many thanks!
    Edwin Sellors

    Editor of Ragged Lion Press
    London, UK

  • This is brilliant news, Neil. Thank you so much. I’m the founder of Mother’s Milk Books (I’m Ana’s publisher – I’ll wave hello to you from here, Ana) and like most indie publishers I’ve put thousands of pounds from our family’s savings into setting up the press, and we are still in debt. Most days I wonder why I’m doing this, because it’s so hard to sell books with so little support, but I keep going because I’m convinced that the books I’m being sent are exceptional and need to be published. If you’d like to know more about my press, please do visit the below:

    and as I’m as passionate about indie publishing as you are, myself and another indie press founder, Sara-Jayne Slack of Inspired Quill, recently organized this event. It was really well-attended and people were super-enthusiastic about it. It was free for those attending and the publishers gave up their time for free. Something most agents and the imprints of the Big Five wouldn’t even consider.

    Anyway, many thanks again for raising awareness about the brilliant (and tireless) work done by indie presses. 🙂
    I hope to be able to enter a book or two for your award, although I’m aware that most of our books may not be suitable (YA, short stories, high-concept thriller…). But I’d certainly like to know more.

  • Hi Neil, apologies for contacting you here, but I couldn’t find another way. I am a friend of your cousin Sarah Allen and she told me you write for the Guardian. I have just published a petition to ask the government to ask the Nigerian government to look into the plight of women and girls in IDP camps in north east Nigeria. I am in touch with a journalist in Nigeria and he has asked me to try and raise awareness in the UK of the desperate situation these girls are in. I would be really grateful if you could give me the contact details of anyone at the Guardian who would be able to help.

    • Hi there. I haven’t actually written for the Guardian for 7 years, and it was only for the books pages. I do have a few contacts via contacts so I will try and see what I can do. My email is neil@blincpartnership.com – do send me more info if you want.

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