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.