The Future of Small-Batch Publishing

Musings on Writing & Publishing

The Future of Small-Batch Publishing


(This post first appeared on the BookBusiness Website.)

One of the great backlashes in our era of conglomerates is the steady growth of small-batch businesses. These are very small businesses that cater mostly to customers willing to spend more for a seemingly better and more controlled product offering.

There are many happy consumers who will buy a four-pack of local brew for $16, which when you think about it, is only $4 for a very good can of beer. Compare that to the bar. I live in Maine where we have many small-batch breweries, and one of the things I love about these business owners is their commitment to buy local even though it means paying more.

For instance, Maine’s potato farmers now grow malt barley for local beer production, which is used by many of the state’s breweries even though the cost is far higher than buying “from away.” The farmers also make more on this new crop versus potatoes. The positive impact on rural areas struggling to compete is significant.

Lately I’ve been pondering the future for small-batch publishing, which is what I am doing with my company Publerati. Identifying as a small-batch producer immediately shifts a lot of the norms for how products are acquired and produced. I have extensive background in the “pile them high and watch them fly” mass-market retail product areas. This method makes a lot of sense for high-volume mass- market products, including bestseller books.

Offset printing huge volumes of a title that will sell in huge numbers, and accepting that 20-30% of them will be piled high but never actually fly, is a reasonable business proposition for all concerned along the supply chain, from author to publisher to printer to bookstore to remainder company.

The problem arises for those books that do not warrant a large offset first printing, so are not actually represented by agents and published by the conglomerates. If you agree, as I do, that many of them should continue to make their way to readers through a traditional publishing gatekeeper process, it seems logical to conclude that the methods and rules need to change.

For me, so much of this small-batch publishing revolution hinges on two key developments: the increased use and access to inkjet printing of small quantities to ship; and the ability to get a fresh book printed at an in-store book machine, similar to what Espresso Books offers.

Fresh Beer… Fresh Books

Putting my small-batch consumer hat on for a moment, I like the idea of buying a book that was printed and bound in minutes while I was enjoying a coffee in the store. No one else has thumbed through it. I know it is new. Fresh. I also like the idea that this means there will be less waste going into landfills, or at least I think a reasonable consumer would assume so. This also allows the store to decide how many copies of a particular title to print to meet their local demand. They can print and display some on their own dime, so to speak.

Most consumers (other than writers) don’t think about this next point, but I also like knowing books are being kept in print that otherwise would not. Many major publishers continue to be reluctant to offer their out-of-print backlist books through networks like the Espresso Book Machine, most likely feeling they will make them available on their own “down the road.” It’s the typical gorilla mentality, and one that does not benefit consumers in the here and now.

I like knowing the publisher of a particular title, like the maker of that local cheese, produces fewer products and devotes more time and attention to each one. It’s the individual attention and care given to the creators of the products—the authors—where so much potential exists for small-batch publishers.

I was never comfortable working for a publisher knowing we did not actually produce the products (the content) that paid our bills. Across the spectrum of all products produced and sold, this is not normal. The risk is that more and more authors are shut out from the conglomerates and so look for someone more eager to show some love. This has been happening for years now with publishers like Coffee House Press and the many university presses that have published books thought to be “too learned or narrow” for the lay reader. They have done a great job filling a void.

Ironically, as we consolidate more and more into the “large-few,” it’s the “small-many” who continue to proliferate faster than we can keep up with. Both can live happily together, serving different customers with differing expectations. The large-few have many advantages of scale in distribution and labor. But so do the small-many, as long as they stay true to who they are. Acquisitions of smaller companies by larger ones can be a disaster, as I’m sure many readers here have experienced.

The processes of the huge factory are not the right ones for the small shop, and vice versa. I continue to be hopeful that the efficiencies of scale we are already witnessing in printing and distribution will allow all publishers to operate more efficiently in serving their customers: authors and readers.

So grab yourself a fresh brew and curl up with that just-printed book bought at your local store. — Caleb Mason.