What Makes Small Presses Successful

by Ann Parker, Pima Community College, Tucson, AZ

As we have seen, all of these small book publishing companies are managing to survive in the midst of the large conglomerate companies that have lots of resources at their disposal to publish and market their books. All of these smaller companies specialize in publishing children’s books from outside the predominant cultural perspective in the US, including books highlighting African American, Asian American, Latino, Native American, and international communities. Generally, as is the case with Children’s Book Press, Just Us Books, and Lee and Low Books, these companies were originally founded to meet a need in the community, namely, the need for books that reflected the experiences of children from multiracial and multiethnic backgrounds, but that were so well written that all children could enjoy them.

These small companies have all continued to adapt and grow to meet the changing demographics and interests of the audiences they attract, which may account for the fact that they are not only still in business but are actually quite successful. Children’s Book Press originally published folktales, but now mainly publishes books that address the contemporary issues of today’s children. Just Us Books did just the opposite by starting a new imprint, Sankofa, which brings back classics by Black authors and artists that have gone out of print. Lee and Low added several imprints that focus on books for children just learning to read as well as imprints that focus on books of science fiction, fantasy, and mystery for middle grade and young adult readers.

All of the companies have been successful in publishing best sellers, from the phenomenal success of North/South Books’ The Rainbow Fish to Garza’s books Family Pictures and In My Family for Children’s Book Press, from AFRO-BETS published by Just Us Books to Lee and Low’s Baseball Saved Us. Between them, these companies have won multiple awards for their books. Their books have been successful for several reasons: they represent a sensitivity in dealing with issues common to ethnic communities; all children can recognize themselves in these stories; and the books are well-written and beautifully illustrated – in other words, of high quality. Finally, particularly in the books published by Just Us and Lee and Low, the stories represent historical figures and events that are often left out of school curriculum but that are of interest to children, teachers and parents.

Smaller publishing companies tend to have smaller marketing budgets, but they also must be sure that their books get attention when the larger companies have so much more resources. As Dana Goldberg of Children’s Book Press says, smaller companies “tend to focus on activities that don’t require a lot of money”; however, at the same time their more personal approach allows them to create more dialogue with the teachers and parents who are the audience for their books. Small companies make sure to promote their books through awards committees, reviews in magazines and journals, conferences such as the ALA, and through using on-line media such as Facebook and Twitter (and blogs such as this one!). The Hudsons at Just Us Books help to market their company by providing speaking engagements and workshops for aspiring publishers, writers, and illustrators. In a sense, these companies are closer to their audiences than the large conglomerates.

Obviously, being a small press means that it is more difficult to compete with the large companies who have the ability to showcase their books at stores such as Barnes and Noble and even Walmart. Often, their books are pigeonholed as being “multicultural” books rather than being seen as quality books that all children will enjoy. Bilingual books are often hidden in the foreign language section of bookstores. Often, the books are only promoted during particular holidays, like Black History Month or Native American History month.

These small companies have advantages over the larger ones, however, and one of those advantages is that they have more access to authors and illustrators from culturally authentic points of view. Lee and Low even started their New Voices Award in 2000 to encourage unpublished, minority authors to submit their work; since then, Lee and Low has discovered many wonderful new authors whose books have gone on to win awards. Just Us Books uses personal contacts to find authors and illustrators who portray Black culture in a positive, culturally realistic way. Larger conglomerates don’t have the luxury of looking for unknown talent, so they often turn to authors who are “branded” or recognized, either because they have published books for adults or because they have name recognition as a singing star, movie or television actor, sports figure, or politician – but not necessarily as someone who can write books that children will love.

Smaller, independent book publishers definitely have their work cut out for them in getting their books recognized and sold. However, they contribute in many positive ways to the books that are published for children, particularly in publishing books that portray children from minority groups in a way that all children can relate to and learn from. As the well-known metaphor goes, books can provide both a window and a mirror by encouraging readers to look both within and outside of their own experiences. These independent companies can take more chances with authors, illustrators, and subjects, often finding those diamonds in the rough that go on to become award-winning authors, illustrators, and books. Since they publish so few books, these companies can spend more time ensuring the quality and cultural authenticity of their books, which might explain why their books win so many awards. However, probably the biggest advantage that smaller publishers have over conglomerates is the fact that, as Heather Lennon of North/South Books says, “I think the best thing is to have a strong identity and sense of what you do best as a publisher.” These small companies, with their focus on providing quality books that provide realistic portrayals of the experiences of all children as well as excellent writing and beautiful artwork, have certainly achieved that strong identity of publishing outstanding books for children. And, as Jason Low of Lee and Low says, “[T]he written word and a good story will always be in demand.”

Be sure to check out other outstanding independent book publishers, including Cinco Puntos, Piñata Press, Salina Bookshelf, Tricycle Press, and Groundwood Books.


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2 thoughts on “What Makes Small Presses Successful

  1. This article was incredibly informative. I am wondering if in your research, you have come across any small publishers who publish books in Khmer? We are trying to find a good resource for translated children’s literature, as well as original Khmer children’s literature. Thus far, we have only found one publishing company in Phnom Penh, and unfortunately, the English translations lack grammatic and syntactic fluency. I know that Star Brite Books will publish a translation of any book in their inventory if the organization making the request: 1) provides the translation; and 2) places an order of at least 500 copies. Does anyone else provide a service like this?

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