We’re proud to host this guest post from Simon Marshall-Jones. Simon is the editor/publisher at Spectral Press, and also a writer, artist, columnist and blogger: born in Wales in the early sixties, to parents who absolutely loved and cherished books – needless to say, HIS love of books was instilled by such a positive influence. Simon attended art college, where he nurtured dreams of being the next HR Giger. After a space of seven years, mostly spent travelling, he then went back to university in Plymouth, to study computer multimedia, the only reward for which was managing to have a stroke. Since then, he has had a much better time of it: Simon now has one wife, one stepson, seven cats, a dog, and two guinea-pigs, lives somewhere in the East Midlands and doesn’t have enough tattoos.
If you ask the average person what the phrase ‘small publishing company’ means to them, invariably you’ll get something along the lines of “someone who publishes cheap books of their mates’ stories and then tries to sell them”. That may have been very true at one time, back in the days of the mimeograph and primitive Xerox copier, when small publishing company personnel (ie a single dedicated person) stayed up half the night collating pages and stapling them together, hopefully in the right order. Certainly, there was a thriving little scene back in the day around the 80s and 90s, when this was exactly how small-press publishers went about producing ‘product’.
Since then, of course, the revolution in digital technology has changed all that – small-press imprints like the one I run, Spectral Press, can now produce professional-looking books that wouldn’t look out of place in a High Street bookshop. And the same revolution has meant that, in real terms, the price of being able to do so has finally brought it into the realm of affordability for a great swathe of ordinary folk out there. Theoretically at least, this is a massive step forward as it implies a democratisation of both process and creativity, meaning that anyone and everyone can get in on the act – but in practise, this is where all the trouble starts.
One has only to go to somewhere like Amazon’s Kindle Store to get an idea of what I mean. Daily, hundreds of self-published books get uploaded, all vying for your dollar. The problem is one of knowing which title out of that deluge is actually worth you spending your hard-earned dollar on. For every good book there are numerous others on offer which are anything but, making that one amazing book harder to find. And just because Amazon is a globally-recognised brand does not automatically certificate the product as being something of good quality – they’re in the business of making money not vetting what makes that money for them. Granted there are dedicated forums and groups on social networking sites to help guide you to those which are worth investing in, saving you time and money, but people have to be made aware of the existence of such sites in the first place. In this Age of Information there is, ironically, just too much of it.
Many people see this democracy as one of the greatest aspects of the e-book revolution – that somehow it has freed writers from the tyranny of the traditional path to publishing, allowing everyone to bypass the ‘restrictive’ major and midlist publishers and still get their work out there. On paper that sounds like an admirably idealist and laudable notion, but that path was there for a reason – traditional publishers served as gatekeepers, filtering out those ‘writers’ who they knew, through long experience, were unlikely to cut the mustard. This makes eminent sense from the perspective of economics – publishers are unlikely to stump up money for a writer they feel won’t provide any return for their investment. Even the debut writers they occasionally published were taken on because they had that certain intangible ‘something’ that went beyond the usual, whatever that may be. Naturally, this having to keep an eye on profitability tends to make publishers (and any other type of company) veer toward a species of conservatism, which inevitably means that some writers who deserve a chance at the big time miss out.
This is where small publishers come in – okay, so in essence they do exactly the same as the majors, albeit on a much smaller scale. However, they’re run with just as much, if not more, passion than the larger outfits. But they serve as gatekeepers, too, bringing to peoples’ attentions the very best of writing in their favourite field, often those writers who perhaps would normally escape the notice of the bigger concerns who have their eyes firmly fixed on the bottom line. A good small-press outfit also serve as a rigorous proving ground for new writers, helping them sharpen and hone their art, aided and abetted by people who are more than willing to pass on their knowledge and expertise. Think that your favourite genre author achieved overnight success? Hardly – much more likely is that they’ve spent a good many years knocking around on the small-press scene, submitting stories here, there and everywhere before generating enough of a buzz for the mainstream publishers to sit up and take notice. And by the time they are noticed, they’re hopefully at the peak of their literary powers, and able to satisfy both the reader and accountant.
In addition, mainstream publishing is often a hostage to whatever latest trend is popular with the book-buying public – in the wake of Dan Brown’s occult mystery potboilers and Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, for instance, there was seemingly a rush to emulate their bestselling successes from both authors and the big publishers. That, in itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing – if there’s a wave, catch it and enjoy the ride. However, in the madness that follows it appears that some basic things are forgotten. Just because it’s popular with the public it doesn’t mean they’ll settle for any old thing. Quality and originality still count. I can only speak for myself here, but what I look for in a story isn’t dictated by what’s popular or what’s in at the moment. Quality of writing and originality of premise are what I go for. And Spectral Press isn’t the only one who operates along these lines – there are hundreds of others out there, too, all attempting to push the limits of both genre and fiction, and simultaneously putting out the work of some of the very best authors working in the field today. Moreover, fad and fashion are rejected as insufficient markers of what constitutes criteria for profitability and good sales.
For me, it all comes down to two watchwords: quality and consistency. Without wishing to deride the mainstream publishers (a practise which appears to be a popular sport for some people) I have found some of my favourite writers from reading within the small press. If I hadn’t taken the plunge, I would never have discovered their existence. And this, perhaps, is one of the paramount reasons why small publishers are important. The most popular writing comes from the mainstream, yes, but not necessarily the best. If the latter’s what you’re looking for, then it could be that you will discover a wealth of surprises by taking a look at some of the smaller publishing concerns out there – as noted above, with the advent of digital means of printing and reproduction, the difference between small-press and ‘professionally’-produced books is so slim as to be utterly negligible.
So, if your friendly neighbourhood bookstore’s horror section is seemingly filled with nothing but tomes of paranormal romance or dark fantasy, all of which sound depressingly similar from the blurb and appear to be designed for reading by prepubescent teenagers, then worry not – take some time to have a look around the internet for some of the smaller publishers in your favourite genre and check out what they have to offer. You never know, you may very well be pleasantly surprised….