A term that has lost its thread
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Recently, someone who works in publishing pushed back on Belt describing itself as a small press: “Why small? You are pretty big now!”
The “small” in small press, though, means more than “not very big,” and it seems that connotation might be lost. The term is rooted (I am fairly certain) in William Morris’ Kelmscott Press, which championed a return to more artisanal forms of production—handmade paper, pulling paper through the press one by one, a limited number of copies made. Since then, at least in the United States, it has also been used to signal “quality,” particularly literary quality. It had a bohemian connotation—and then an avant-garde one, and then a countercultural one, as the 20th century progressed. It paralleled a similar genre with a similar name, the “little magazine,” used to refer to its commitment to experimental or non-commercial writing as much as its circulation numbers. Perhaps, if those proclaiming that we are now in a “monoculture” are correct, “small press”, like “little magazine”, sits uncomfortably alone, without a larger culture category or adjective under which it can be slotted.
According to the internet, the definition of small press is any publishing house with less than $50 million dollars in annual revenue (“Hey! Hi! Over here! No need to check the balance sheet!” I yell upon reading this). It’s not easy to find lists of small presses, though this one is quite good, except for the inexcusable omission of Belt Publishing on the list.
In order to better explain the function of a small press today, many—including me—swap in “independent” for “small”. The major important distinction now is corporate versus non-corporate, and “independent” is a fine way to signal a press is not owned by a multinational corporation. However, self-publishing authors often refer to themselves as “independent” authors—and the entities that they create to publish their books “independent” presses. So “independent” is also a frustrating term that, depending upon your audience, obscures as much as it explains.
“Small press” does not refer to a financial structure: there are non-profit small presses as well as ones structured as a business; most are now non-profits (Belt is not; it is an LLC). Nor does it refer to any particular genre, though most small presses primarily publish fiction (Belt is an outlier here as well, as it publishes mainly non-fiction).
Beer may be the best way to conceptualize different types of publishing: the Big 5 (Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan) are Miller, Coors, Budweiser; small presses are craft beers. Craft beers are entities be as small as your local neighborhood brewery or as large as Sierra Nevada. They can be delicious or kinda yucky. They can be large and surprise you that they are still “craft” (Yuengling), or start out as small/craft and then be bought and become corporate (Lagunitas). It can take quite a bit of work to figure out which is what, and who owns whom.
So now you know! But also maybe the term has outlived its usefulness, or at least the memory of its historic and aesthetic connotations. Maybe we should find a new term for this sort of important publishing. Got any ideas?
It also does not mean a teeny tiny printing press.