In Praise of Small Presses

Updated on September 4, 2016
LJ Bonham profile image

L.J. Bonham is a freelance author, novelist, and historian who lives in the Rocky Mountains with assorted critters.

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Science-Fiction and Fantasy's Life Blood

Where would Science Fiction and Fantasy be without small presses? Adrift in a mediocre sea filled with mass market, focus grouped worlds, characters, and stories. Small presses are the genre’s lifeblood. Often run by one person, perhaps just a few, these under-capitalized and overworked publishers are home to the wild-eyed dreamers, the outcasts, and the eccentric authors who drive the literary leading edge. Almost every innovation in Science-Fiction has come from small presses pushing the envelop and reader's expectations beyond the horizon.

What is the most important benefit of small presses?

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Small Presses, Big Talent

No small presses? No Chithulu, Ray Bradbury, John Dalmas, or Ursula K. le Guin. No Bizzaro, no Avant Guard, no Furry. We have these and more because somewhere a half-crazed, overworked, behind on the rent, devoted editor saw one small spark in an unknown author’s work and brought it to the world.

Many years ago, the small Naval Institute Press published a manuscript rejected by every major publisher. The thriller’s plot, written by an obscure insurance salesman, featured submarines, and—well, they thought—the Navy has submarines. Tom Clancy had his chance, and the world got The Hunt for Red October. Somewhere, editors at the Big Five houses are still pounding their heads on their desks for that one.

This is the small presses’ beauty. They see opportunity and innovation where the majors only see something which does not fit into a neat, "it’s always worked in the past," pigeon hole.

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Unfair Criticism

Small presses sometimes receive unfair or disproportionate criticism. Slow royalty payments and limited marketing budgets can frustrate novice authors unused to the business practices common with the Big Five houses. Yet, small presses—often run by authors—are among the most author friendly publishers. The Big Five usually seize an author’s rights for the author’s lifetime, and beyond. Much shorter terms, often between five and ten years, are the norm at many small presses. While most do not deal with literary agents, this results in a much higher royalty percentage in the writer’s pocket. Some agents disparage small presses as not worth the serious author’s time when their real (unstated) reason is because they do not pay advances—the agent’s life blood. Small presses are hidden gems lying in the grass between all the snakes.

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Courage to Dream, Courage to Act

Small presses are far from perfect. They are works in progress, more oft than not begun by people who were Sci-Fi addicts first and business people second. Yet, they have one quality the big houses lack—courage. They have the courage to risk much on the unknown rather than wait for the next Dan Brown or J. K. Rowling to walk through the door.

Small presses—imagine your life, your writing career, and Science-Fiction/Fantasy without them.

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