The Diversified Output of Small Presses

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The output of small presses, sometimes called "independent presses," is indeed diversified. A recent issue of American Bookseller ran a feature titled "Highlights of the New Season from Independent Presses." Here are a few selections from that list:

  • The Island of Floating Women, published by Clothespin Fever Press, San Diego.

  • The Dada Almanac, published by High Risk Press Books, New York.

  • ZAP: How Your Computer Can Hurt You and What You Can Do About It, published by Peachpit Press, Berkeley, California. Writing Across Cultures: A Handbook on Writing Poetry and Lyrical Prose, published by Blue Heron Publishing, Hillsboro, Oregon.

  • John Rosemond's Daily Guide to Parenting, published by Thoughtful Books, Marshalltown, Iowa.   
The same issue reviews ten books of poetry, definitely high-risk for larger publishers.

Focus on Four Walls Eight Windows

When a senior editor at a large publishing house is asked to name the best small press, the odds favor he or she will choose Four Walls Eight Windows. Four Walls was formed in New York in 1987 by John Oakes and Dan Simon, two young publishing professionals with a determination to publish the kind of literary works not considered commercial enough for the large publishing houses.

By the end of 1994, Four Walls had published eighty titles, including Michael Brodsky's highly regarded avant garde novel X-Man; the provocative work A Woman's Book of Choices: Abortion,, Menstrual Extraction, RU-486; an important book on the continuing "war" with Japan, Japanese Rage: Japanese Business and its Assault on the West, three of Nelson Algren's fiction masterpieces, The Man with the Golden Arm, The Neon Wilderness, and Never Come Morning; and comic strip artist Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner's Our Cancer Year.

For its spring 1995 list, Four Walls Eight Windows published only eleven titles-four fiction, one on bicycles, one of Samuel Beckett's plays, a war correspondent's memoir of Vietnam and Cambodia, a book on nutrition, an expose of the news that wasn't covered by the media, a look backward in science fiction, and the selected short stories of Sherwood Anderson.

Four Walls pays royalties and cash advances on all its books. For a first novel it pays at least $1,000. For a strong work of nonfiction it pays in the $3,000 to $5,000 range. To reduce overhead, this publisher farms out publicity, copyediting, and design. It does not have an in-house sales staff, relying instead on Publishers Group West, the nation's largest independent distributor, which represents about 180 small independent publishers. Publishers Group West is important enough to have multiple booths at the American Booksellers Association convention, with twenty-five of its staffers on hand.

For foreign rights sales, Four Walls is represented by Writers House, which has subagents around the world. Four Walls sells other rights in-house, and in its short publishing history has already sold a number of paperback rights, and a couple of movie options.

Having started with an investment of under $100,000, Four Walls Eight Windows is clearly a success story in the world of small presses. Should others try it? Maybe, but only if they have the experience and financing. By the way, how did Four Walls Eight Windows arrive at its offbeat name? Says Oakes, "We didn't want to sound like a law firm ... we didn't want to sound like anything."

Life on the Lonely Planet

Would you like to travel to exotic Mongolia, Outback Australia, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka, write about these places and then publish the books yourself? That's what Tony and Maureen Wheeler, founders of Lonely Planet Publications, have been doing successfully since 1973. Their first book, Across China on the Cheap, was hand- stapled and hand-sold. It sold out in about ten days. Says Maureen Wheeler: "We didn't see it as a business; we saw it as a way to finance our travel."

After taking the slow boat to China and making a profit on it, the Wheelers began to turn their travel addiction into a successful publishing operation. The formula was simple: Do books on places you want to go.

At this writing, Lonely Planet has more than one hundred titles in print and a staff of about fifty people. The Wheelers still travel on research for new books. Their newest entry: a Europe on a Shoestring series.


Readers who are capable of writing quality literary fiction and poetry should consider submitting their work to a small press. The chances of being published are slim, as are the advances if one is accepted; yet the reward of being published by a high-quality small press is to be accepted in the inner circle of literature.

Would-be authors would be well advised to check publishers' listings in the Literary Market Place so that they don't send a highly specific type of proposal to a house that doesn't publish that type of material. Small presses are major users of freelance specialists, particularly editors.
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