Some of these successful small presses were--often on the death of the founder--bought by large publishers and became a separate imprint. Others continued on as they had been; some went under (to the sorrow of their customers.) But the influence of small presses--the importance of them to both writers and the reading public--can hardly be exaggerated.
And for that reason, when small presses run into trouble, it's bad for everyone who writes or reads. That's also true for large publishers, of course. The fall of giants shakes the whole forest. But it's easy to see that, and easy to miss the importance of the smaller understory trees and bushes and vines and ferns and mosses and mushrooms and so on. A small press failing, or in trouble, damages the publishing ecosystem in which the big publishers--the canopy trees--survive. Diversity in size is just as important in publishing as in a woodland biome.
There's been publicity this past week about the problems Night Shade Books has had. And it's no real secret that I had some of the same problems with them that others have had. For those who were involved (or whose friends were involved) in the collapse of Meisha Merlin a few years ago, or who have had problems with other small presses, this is a flashback of the PTSD variety. Because for a writer, betrayal by a publisher (and it feels like betrayal even when it's inadvertent) is trauma, financial and emotional both. Years of work wasted, books tied up in bankruptcy proceedings, series truncated...writers who've been growing their own reputation are suddenly out in the cold, and the effects of the Meisha Merlin collapse, for one example, are still being felt by those who were in it. Being stiffed by a publisher--or knowing friends who have been stiffed by a publisher--creates a distrust of other publishers that isn't fair to them and lessens the chance that that publisher--or another of the same size--will get access to manuscripts by those writers. Manuscripts that might be profitable for both. Before a problem that affects its writers, a publishing house can have a sterling (even golden) reputation for quality in its choice of works, its editing, its production standards...but when writers aren't getting their money, all that falls by the wayside.
And it should...and it shouldn't. Both. Simultaneously.
Publishing is not an easy business. No business is an easy business, but publishing has some pitfalls that running a service business (for example) doesn't. Then again, every kind of business, from a diner to a restaurant supply house to a furniture factory has special problems and concerns. When a publisher runs into difficulty, it's usually for the same reason that other businesses run into difficulty...and in this the publisher has an advantage in that publishing second-rate books (or even really bad books, in the literary sense) won't imperil sales and thus won't do as much harm as bad food will hurt a diner. People will buy second-rate or worse books that tell them what they want to hear rather than much better books that don't. (This infuriates critics but it's one of those realities of the book business that publishers must come to terms with.) People will also buy better books if those books satisfy their desire for, say, a vampire story or a spy story or a historical fantasy. John Le Carre did not go broke writing better-written spy stories than Ian Fleming, nor did his publisher go broke putting them out.
But back to the small presses. Where do they go wrong, and why? And--more important--how can they be helped to succeed, which is good for all of us, writers and readers alike? I don't have all the answers, but I do have some of them.
Any small business must have a business plan, and that plan will have as its goal either to maintain its present size and market share, or increase it. You see a lot of "Grow or go" talked about in the business world--you have to grow or else. But in fact, if you are serving a specialized market of a given size extremely well, growth (or at least not rapid growth) is not necessary. Quality, as that market sees it, is necessary. Many things are easier if growth--especially rapid growth--isn't a primary goal. The infrastructure that's been working will still continue to work, although it will need tinkering of course, as people grow older and retire, and new technology makes changes. But if three employees were enough ten years ago, three employees will very likely still be enough.
That's not true at all for a business that's intended to grow. In our culture, growth is the norm; failure to grow is considered a failure. And pushing a small business for growth multiplies demands on the infrastructure faster than many small business owners anticipate. The growth of the work is a geometric progression larger than the apparent growth rate. If the plan is for growth, infrastructure to cope with it needs to be in place before the growth reaches the next benchmark. In other words, what it takes to produce one book a year--in terms of actual time--is less than half what it takes to produce two books a year, and less than one fourth of what it takes to produce four. Economies of scale work for some components (buying paper in bulk, for instance) but not in others (record-keeping.)
The kind of personality that starts new businesses--the entrepreneur--is often (not always) the kind of personality that is high-energy and optimistic, willing to work very hard and push past obstacles. Prudence and long-term assessment of risks and planning for worst-case instead of best-case does not come easily to these people. That optimism and drive are critical to the success of a small business. They can also bring one down; the entrepreneurial temperament is not prone to self-analysis or admitting mistakes--it's a "drive on over the bodies" personality. So it needs to be tempered by another (owner, source of capital, etc.) who insists on taking off the rose-colored glasses. Who understands that even if you do make the best widgits in the world, and are getting international awards for the quality of your widgits, if you screw up the money management, you'll lose the company. Successful growth requires outstanding organization skills or chaos reigns--and requires that someone with authority has a long eye to the future, including storm clouds over the horizon, and can keep the business on a sound financial basis. Governments may bail out huge businesses who get into trouble--they have no interest whatever in bailing out the small ones.
So, what about Night Shade? Well, Night Shade has publicly admitted its failures with regard to its writers, and apologized for them. Checks are in the mail. Anyone with a grain of sense about publishing wants Night Shade to pull itself out of whatever hole caused this--we need more small presses and their reputation on the literary side was excellent. For the benefit of both writers and readers, we need successful small presses whose output is respected. Night Shade's literary reputation cannot and should not be an excuse for their mishandling of writers...but it should indicate that here is a small press worth saving, if it can get its house in order. I want Night Shade to make it, not because I think they're nice, friendly, charming people over there (though they are) but because as a writer, and a reader, I want a viable, healthy population of small presses in the publishing field. I want Night Shade to prove itself for its own reputation--and for its writers--and for the benefit of other small presses who might be distrusted unfairly.
So what can we writers and readers do? For one thing, we can continue to buy books from small presses that are presently not in trouble, and from Night Shade now that it's admitted its errors and will have public discussion of its future handling of royalty statements and the like. Choke off small press cash flow, and we create the problem, and hurt the writers who are already published there. Readers naturally want to ensure that the writers are getting their money, but that's easily ascertained by asking. Writers contemplating small press publication can check with other writers quietly about the behavior of a press to which they might submit. Once the contract is signed, you're pretty much stuck. Danger signs include delay in the publishing schedule, slow arrival of royalty statements, and failure to answer mail, phone calls, and email in a timely fashion (though "timely" for publishing is longer than "timely" for some other businesses, there is a standard. A small press in trouble does not need more manuscripts--it needs to straighten itself out before acquiring more property. The hope that maybe one of the new ones will be a bestseller and pull the whole out of its difficulty is unrealistic--it can happen but it can't be counted on.
Night Shade still has the potential to recover itself and become once more an excellent and respected small press--and it's taken the first steps, in admitting its problems, apologizing, and starting to send out overdue payments. If it continues in this way, it will survive and even thrive. That's my hope. Not just for me but for the whole field of SF/F and for publishing as a whole. If it can succeed and stay on an even keel, it can become a model for small presses that are just now starting, or started a couple of years ago and are having problems. We need a viable model for small presses doing fiction. I hope Night Shade becomes one.