Small-scale publishers carve niche

The digital revolution has written a nail-biting new chapter for book publishers.

E-books are overtaking their paper-bound counterparts as bookstores vanish and inflicts unrelenting price pressure on a time-honoured trade.

But small publishers, who might lack a prestigious address and teams of publicity professionals, have an advantage with their smaller startup scale.

There’s a clear shift toward shorter and more precisely calibrated printing runs of new titles, rapidly replacing the mass-production model of the pre-digital era. Meanwhile, the number of new book titles is ballooning, led by a profusion of small press imprints, short-run niche titles and works by authors who self-publish at their own cost.

What keeps many ink-on-paper publishers in business is the latest generation of print-on-demand digital presses, which can print and bind a single copy of a book, complete with cover, in a few minutes – or churn out an unending number of the same title, if demand rises. The books can appear indistinguishable from conventionally printed versions, produced without inky lithographic cylinders. And all the typesetting can be done on a laptop.

Digital presses – the smallest of them can fit into a space as small as 1.3 metres by one metre – allow some publishers to forgo inventory, because they can simply print a single library-quality copy of a book each time they get an order. Even Amazon routinely manufactures certain print-on-demand copies if it doesn’t have the title in stock or if the title is out of print.

As a result, even a small publisher can compete with the big guys.

The number of new titles issued by publishers of all sizes and in all genres has grown steadily for years, according to RR Bowker LLC, which assigns the 13-digit International Standard Book Numbers that are used to track books in print.

By far the biggest boom in new titles, however, has come from self-published authors. More than 391,000 books were self-published in the US in 2012, an increase of 422 per cent since 2007, Bowker data show. In terms of total book titles bearing an ISBN, self-publishing now outstrips all the combined titles put out by conventional publishers like Random House and Simon Schuster, which rose to 301,642 in 2012, up 6.1 per cent since 2007.

Self-publishing, once derided as “vanity publishing,” has gained legitimacy by attracting a new breed of writer, people who often are experts in their fields and willing to market titles themselves through social media and speaking engagements.

At the same time, printing costs have never been lower, and the quality of print-on-demand presses has improved markedly.

Many small press authors publish with the same passion as bloggers, motivated more by something to say than marketability. At the same time, there have been rare but dramatic commercial successes: The 2011 erotic novel and runaway bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey started out as a self-published, print-on-demand book before Vintage Books paid for publishing rights a year later.

“Self-publishing is a true legitimate power to be reckoned with,” said Bowker analyst Kelly Gallagher.

Yet the book trade remains as treacherous for newcomers as it ever was.

“The total book publishing pie is not growing – the peak was hit in 2007 – yet it is being divided among ever more hundreds of thousands of digital and print books,” Steve Piersanti, who runs an independent publishing house in San Francisco, wrote in a recent post.

“Unfortunately, the marketplace is not able to absorb all these books and is hugely oversaturated.”

As bookstores vanish, Piersanti estimates a new title “has far less than a one per cent chance of being stocked in an average bookstore”.

What about online booksellers? That’s even more daunting, said Thad McIlroy, an author, publisher and industry consultant in Canada.

According to figures posted recently on, which once billed itself as “the world’s biggest bookstore,” more than 105,000 new releases had appeared in the previous 30 days alone.

In total, Amazon offers 24.3 million paperbacks, 8.6 million hardcover books and 1.4 million e-books.

“There is a massive imbalance between supply and demand,” McIlroy said.