Skip to content
Posted by Kate, May 28, 2012

Small publishers v large publishers – which is best?

Last Tuesday evening, I went to a CBC meeting. The title of the panel talk was “So You Want To Be A Publisher”, and I was speaking with Sarah Odedina of Hot Key Books and Barry Cunningham of Chicken House.

The meeting was held in the Penguin offices on The Strand. On the few occasions these days when I walk past the vast security desk, through the glass electronic-tag-activated gates and along the marble corridors, I always think how different an experience it would for an author to visit Penguin and to visit Nosy Crow. To get to us, you travel to Southwark, go through a cobbled courtyard past the bike racks to an old, brick tea-warehouse and then you climb up two flights of steep cast-iron external steps (past the geraniums) to get to our always-open door. Yes, Penguin and Nosy Crow are both publishers, but that’s a bit like saying that a platypus and a zebra are both mammals: they really are quite different.

So it was interesting that a member of the audience asked what we, as a panel, felt were the advantages of being published by a small publishing house.

These are some of the advantages, I think.

As an author or illustrator, you know everyone involved in the publishing process – quite possibly you know everyone in the company, in fact. I said that, to me, the publishing process should seem to the author more like a choral performance in which everyone is involved for the duration of the singing, than a relay race in which individuals hand off a book to the next person or department in the supply line and then stop running. When Lyn Gardner, author of the Olivia series dropped by on Friday evening to sign some books for a prize-winning child, Tom, whose direct involvement with the publishing of Lyn’s books is making sure that everything about them on the website is up-to-date and accurate, was one of the people who sat down for tea and almond biscuits, and they planned a trip to the theatre together before she and I confirmed our plans for her time at the Hay Festival. Her editor, Kirsty wasn’t there, and nor was her publicist, Dom. But that didn’t matter. We all knew her and what she was there for.

As an author or illustrator, if you are published by a smaller publisher, you’re almost certainly part of a smaller list (you definitely are at Nosy Crow) so you’re less likely to be lost or overshadowed by many and “bigger” books. When I ran bigger publishing lists, the publishing schedule was carefully annotated, dividing books into “superleads” and “leads” and “everything else”. That doesn’t happen at Nosy Crow.

As an author or illustrator, you should feel that it’s a matter of our own success – even of our own survival – that we do the best for the books that we publish that we possibly can. Not every book can or will be a bestseller, and we buy books based on a range of sales expectations, but we can’t lose focus on a single one of them.

As an author or illustrator, if you’re published by a privately-owned company (like Nosy Crow, but unlike Hot Key Books which is owned by Bonnier, or The Chicken House, which is now owned by Scholastic, though it was an independent company for many years), the bottom line is that people who work in the company are choosing to spend money on acquiring your books and selling and marketing your books rather than spending it on the mortgage, or their children’s shoes, or cheese in Sainsburys.
We are, quite literally, invested in your success.

As an author or illustrator, you shouldn’t feel that anything gets seriously stuck in the works. Of course there are delays, and of course we get busy, and of course some decisions are harder than others. We can’t always respond immediately, but we try to be quick and decisive whenever we can. By contrast, there’s a major publisher we do business with who hasn’t responded to the contract we sent them since September.

As an author or illustrator, you should feel that you and your book are unique. In big companies, it’s generally necessary to establish rules and processes to which books have to conform: they may have to be printed in particular formats; the costing on the basis of which they’re acquired probably has to achieve a particular projected profit margin (or “computer says no”); if they sell fewer than x copies in a particular period of time, they may have to be allowed to go out of print… In a small company, each book – and therefore each author – can be treated on their own merits.

As an author or illustrator, you should feel that every book is being dealt with by someone with the appropriate expertise and experience. At Nosy Crow, the editors and designers are pretty much all old hands: to be honest, there just isn’t a junior editor to delegate to. Many of the senior people who choose to work in small publishing companies have made a decision not to work in big publishing companies. There are, of course, people who have huge skill and expertise in big publishing companies… and over time many of them get pushed up the ladder to become managers. Some of the profit from an author’s books goes to paying the management salaries in the various layers of the hierarchy in a big publishing company.

Which brings me to the final point: as an author, you should know that it is slightly easier for a small publisher to take some kinds of risk: it is, quite simply, easier for us to make a profit because our costs are lower than those of a big publishing company. When I walk along the marble corridors of Penguin, the other thing I think about is that our per square foot rental costs are probably about a third or less of Penguin’s… and we don’t have that many square feet in our open-plan office anyway. So it has, perhaps, been easier for us to take a gamble on “slush pile” debut authors like Paula Harrison and Helen Peters who are currently being promoted in major UK retailers and in whose books we’ve sold rights.

There are counter arguments, of course.

It could be said that a big publisher provides prestige, and there are a few big publisher names (not many) that it’s hard for a small, new publisher to compete with… but most readers and parents don’t buy on the basis of the publisher name.

It could be said that a big publisher has a bigger pot of money… but Nosy Crow pays (at least) market rate advances and royalties and we don’t hesitate to spend on appropriate marketing and retailer promotions. We tend not to spend huge sums on acquiring and marketing one or two “big books”, but that ties into the idea (above) that every single one of our books has to work to the level that we expect of it.

It could be said that a big publisher has a big infrastructure to maximise sales opportunities… but Nosy Crow has managed to get its books sold in pretty much every appropriate UK retailer, regardless of size, and has sold rights to or done distribution deals with publishing companies that are brand names in their territories. Publishing infrastructure (and this is the subject of a different post) is less relevant now than it’s ever been.

Authors and illustrators should – and, given the opportunity, will – do what feels right for them, often with the guidance of an agent. And every publisher is different: there are duff small publishers and very good big publishers. And there are publishers that look like small publishers but they’re actually part of big publishers.

But if I were an aspiring author or illustrator, I know, having worked in both kinds of organisation, what I’d choose.

What’s your view?