In praise of small publishers

In honour of World Book Day, I thought I would take a few moments to reflect on my growing obsession for small publishers. Once you start to turn your attention to non-mainstream literature, follow literary journals and publications online, or seek out works in translation; the world of independent publishers invariably opens up. As readers we live in a global world, and we engage in discussions with fellow readers spread far and wide, so it seems natural that you will hear about intriguing works that are not available wherever you happen to live. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of time but years can separate releases in North America from those in the UK and Australia. Here in Canada we sometimes end up in between the two. Some small publishers do not yet have distribution on one side of the planet or the other, some may never manage it, but I would argue it is still worth trying to support independent publishers no matter where they are, whenever possible.

Why? Small publishers uncover challenging, interesting works, take chances, bring long ignored literature back into circulation, or into translation. Or both.

2015-04-23 13.08.58My two favourite books last year introduced me to two small publishers: CB Editions with Will Eaves’ The Absent Therapist and Istros Books with Selvedin Avdić’s Seven Terrors. Sadly both are publishers without North American distribution. That does not mean, of course that their books can’t be sourced, but the magic of a browsing reader happening to stumble across one of their titles on a bookstore shelf is lost. The joy of random discovery is denied.

After paying extra attention to the IFFP and BTBA longlists this year, I will now be watching out for titles from Pushkin, Open Letter, Deep Vellum, Archipelago among many others. Becoming more engaged as a book blogger and negotiating twitter has caused me to be distracted by some irresistible “shiny objects” – treasures like the stunning A Gothic Soul which arrived earlier this week, in a package covered in Czechoslovakian stamps, direct from Twisted Spoon Press. Oh yes, I could have downloaded it from Amazon for almost a third of what I paid but that would have been a pale substitute for what is truly a work of art and devotion from a small not-for-profit press.

2015-04-23 13.10.55And then there is And Other Stories. I don’t know how I was so late to the party but it was the release of The Alphabet of Birds by SJ Naudé in January that put them on my radar. Dovetailing nicely with my interest in South African literature, their publication of this brilliant debut of stories translated from Afrikaans as well as their ongoing release of works by Ivan Vladislavić was an obvious draw. But as soon as I learned about their grassroots funding of initial releases with subscription support and their engagement of readers in the process of exploring potential writers from around the world… well, I was sold. I subscribed right away. My only regret is that temporary financial uncertainty led me to opt for a 4-book rather than a 6-book subscription. A number of other publishers utilize subscriber support models so I hope in the future to extend my support further and wider.

Today my biggest thrill comes from walking into one of our local indie bookstores and finding a gem on the shelves. Of course I still end up placing special orders, through the same stores or from overseas. And, when there seems to be no option I order e-books but my preference for paper copies has grown after an initial blush of affection for the digital. I am even the sort of person who, having truly fallen in love with a book read electronically or borrowed from the library, just has to own a hard copy.

There must be diagnosis for this illness. But I don’t want to be cured.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

18 thoughts on “In praise of small publishers”

  1. Great post. There are so many treasures to be found in the world of small/independent publishers. I’ve had a good hit rate with titles from the Pushkin Press Pushkin Collection and NYRB Classics. Peirene always seem to have something interesting to offer too; each novella feels like a mini adventure.

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    1. I am discovering the joys of Pushkin. One of the local bookstores I frequent has a corner dedicated to small presses and they have shelf of Pushkin Collection books. Peirene I have wanted to read for a long time but to date have only read The Dead Lake. Their books are inexpensive in ebook format but sadly there is no paper distribution over here.

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  2. You’ve made me think differently. I’ve often wanted to do this and living in London, I’ve probably got more chance of finding these publishers works in bookshops than most people do – and yet time and again I get drawn instead to ‘big hitters’. What I’m particularly struck by is that when I read blogs I gravitate to those who read and blog about the new, different, unusual ( especially where people blog about translated fiction!). So I guess I’m in a different place to you – I don’t have that ‘illness’ but I’d love to contract it!

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    1. Well if it’s contagious you’ll have to start hanging out in the kind of locations where you get “infected”. Like indie bookstores… London would be a great place I should think. I’ve never been but I do have a 9 hour stopover there in June and may get downtown…

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  3. Excellent stuff – I love the small presses. Pushkin and Hesperus are particular favourites, and Twisted Spoon was a recent, and rather wonderful, discovery. The smaller presses seem to value the book as a beautiful object as well, which is something we need not to forget.

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    1. I love the feeling of being engaged with the process of bringing books to light by supporting small publishers. I am now discovering a number of North American publishers too, much to my surprise. So much of my focus has been overseas for so long.

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  4. Being a fan of secondhand and charity bookshops, I sometimes think that the stock inculcates a drift towards familiarising oneself with books people have been talking about in recent years/months, or have become ‘classics’. I’m currently becoming aware of lesser known publishers / authors through e-books. The trouble there though is in discerning what’s worthwhile amid a slew of publications that have a lower level of sacrifice necessary for their coming into being.

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    1. I started exploring through ebooks, which leads often to trusting a publisher (or at least being willing to take a chance). Many of the small publishers only release a few titles each year, often with a particular focus. We don’t have charity bookshops here and, in my experience, the second hand shops are private and heavily skewed to stocking bestsellers.

      Engaging with other readers makes a big difference, you can begin to sense whose tastes might align with yours. I draw from following bloggers and publishers on twitter, online journals and engaging with the weekly Tips, Links and Suggestions (TLS) blog on the Books pages of the Guardian. Bloggers and TLS are especially helpful because discussions are not restricted to current or popular titles. The only risk is that you’ll end up with a huge list of books to look for!

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  5. Have you heard of Book Depository? http://www.bookdepository.com/ They are an online book retailer based in the UK but the ship most places in the world for free. Might save you a few dollars. I think small publishers are the ones putting out some of the more interesting books right now. They are definitely more willing to try something off the beaten path which makes the whole enterprise so much more exciting for readers everywhere I think. I’m sure there must be a diagnosis for our bookish illness but I have yet to meet a reader who wants to be cured 🙂

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    1. Thanks Stefanie, I do take advantage of Book Depository and Wordery. Sometimes it is my only option, especially for many of the South African authors I like. In some cases, I like to order direct if possible. But I feel that the act of buying a book, off the shelf or through a small bookstore (we even have a decent bigbox chain in Canada) helps encourage the stocking of such titles in the first place. Not sure if that’s true or not, but the act of browsing and discovery is part of the joy of books. Luckily I have no other addictions to feed. 🙂

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  6. A quick check reveals that all but two of my favourite books from last year (well, the top twelve) were published by small presses, including Pushkin (two), Peirene, CB Editions, and others. You’re right to pay tribute to them as many of these novels would not be available without them.

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