Small Publishers Book Big Rewards

Nonmainstream presses generated $14 billion in 2005 -- more than half of all book sales -- by targeting niche readers

In January the English translation of Elias Khoury's 11th novel, Gate of the Sun, was released by the three-year-old, nonprofit Brooklyn (N.Y.)-based, Archipelago Books. The buzz started immediately and The New York Times and Publisher's Weekly bestowed rave reviews on the tale, a contemporary homage to the Middle-Eastern epic 1001 Nights, reset in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon.

Soon its author, a Lebanese writer and editor of the literary supplement of the Beirut newspaper al-Nahur, was on a book tour of the U.S. He was interviewed by NPR, and his novel began to climb's (AMZN) commercial summit. In an industry dominated by blockbusters written by brand-name authors and backed by the heft of one of the mega-publishers, Gate of the Sun's path to widespread critical acclaim and success is something of an unexpected triumph.

Founded by Jill Schoolman, who majored in literature at Yale, Archipelago is anathema to the book industry. It is a nonprofit press founded expressly to publish one of the most neglected and least profitable segments of book publishing: English translations of non-U.S. authors. "I felt a great need to bring international literature to the U.S.," says Schoolman. "Such a small percentage of books published here are from elsewhere."


  At a time when the book world continues to struggle, focusing mainly on bestsellers to remain profitable, Archipelago is one of a growing number of small publishers who are upending the industry stasis and redefining the business of publishing on their own terms.

Eschewing the large press penchant for concentrating on the hits with huge print runs like The Da Vinci Code (40 million copies sold to date) or the latest James Patterson novel (The Fifth Horseman was No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list for four weeks before dropping to No. 3), small presses are championing new voices, focusing on niche markets or subjects and genres that have either been ignored by the big houses or simply deemed unprofitable -- such as poetry and foreign authors. They are creating whole businesses by reissuing out-of-print classics and maintaining the tradition of printing literary fiction.

Moreover, while the big publishing companies have been merging, the number of small presses has been increasing, creating a commercial critical mass. According to a survey by the Book Industry Study in 2005, Under the Radar, there are some 63,000 small presses generating $14.2 billion in sales. By comparison, as a result of industry consolidation there are about six large publishers today. And according to the Association of American Publishers, based in New York City, overall book sales hit $23.7 billion last year, up a slim 1.3%.


  "Small presses are really an amorphous market," says Jeff Hayes, director of research at InfoTrends, a marketing research firm and the principle consultant on the Under the Radar study. "There is a range of companies from the Fortune 500 to information and technology to trade associations down to specialty areas, and they have a loyal following."

Not beholden to the same economic models and restrictions as large houses, small presses are creating their own paradigm for success. Taking advantage of technology, they can publish a comparatively much smaller run of copies, a practice deemed too costly for the large houses, who must sell large volumes of copies to earn back their advances and stay in the black. And they have deployed innovative marketing strategies in order to penetrate a fickle market.

That has allowed small publishers to concentrate on books that cater to dedicated bibliophiles of all stripes. New Milford (Conn.)-based Toby Press, founded in 1999, has made a name for itself publishing an eclectic mix of literary fiction, crime novels, foreign authors, and low-priced reissues of old classics.


  New York City's Akashic Books' raison d'être is to publish urban literary fiction and political nonfiction by authors regularly snubbed by mainstream publishers. The non-profit Curbstone Press based in Willimantic, Conn., is devoted to publishing books that reflect a commitment to social issues and human rights and works with writers to help promote literacy.

"Small publishing has a different economic base," says Hayes. "The barrier to entry is much lower. They don't have to print to reach the masses with broad consumer books, and with on-demand printing they can do short prints. They don't have to feed the beast with a blockbuster selling 50,000 to 100,000 copies or sell through the large channels like Barnes and Noble; they can sell off Web sites."

Archipelago publishes 8 to 10 titles a year. As a non-profit, the house relies on donations from foundations and individuals. "I knew we couldn't make it if we relied only on sales," Schoolman says. That way the house can stick to its mission and plow any profits back into publishing. And that allows Schoolman to bring unknowns such as Croatian writer Miljenko Jergovíc and Greek poet Miltos Sachtouris to an American readership.


  Without the marketing muscle or resources of the large houses, small publishers have innovated in order to successfully bring their authors to market. For one, they have created alliances with like-minded independent bookstores with fiercely loyal customers. Small houses also defray costs by publishing their book catalogs online and publicizing new releases and author events through e-mail blasts and blogs.

Archipelago collaborates with universities across the country that host and sponsor many of the house's authors for their book tours. Schoolman has also forged alliances with organizations like the Lannan Foundation and the International Institute of Modern Letters, which has sponsored translations series. "We get behind a [specific] fundraising strategy for every book," says Schoolman, who calls Archipelago a "labor of love."

Archipelago and the growing number of small publishers are writing their own chapters on book publishing success. Indeed, when Gate of the Sun sold all of its initial run of 5,000 copies, it was considered something of a runaway hit. And the novel just went into its second printing -- proving that some of the biggest rewards come in the smallest packages (see BW Online, 4/25/06, "Blooks Are in Bloom").

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