The Invisible Publishers – Small Presses

Small presses are not new, at least not small presses devoted to print books. Nor are they “vanity” presses. The small press and little magazine publisher has always been around for the “literati” – those artists, intellectuals, and just plain “punks” who had something significant to say that mainstream culture had little or no interest in.

“Geologic layers” of small press publishing

Like an autochthonous canyon created by a river that leaves layers of rock exposed as it etches its way down through earth over the years, small presses and little magazines have left behind traces of the social issues from each decade over the past centuries. For example, my book, American Women’s Magazines: An Annotated Guide, available worldwide in libraries, traces the suffragist and abolitionist movement from small press publications dating back to the early 1800s. America’s first little magazine written and edited completely by women was the Operative’s Magazine (1841).

In 1842, the Operatives Magazine merged with the Lowell Offering in 1942. Lowell, Massachusetts is the famous site during the Industrial Revolution where young women from farms in New England came to work (12 hours a day!) in the mills. The era marked the beginning of of a call for education for farm girls who worked in the mills. These girls had their own library in Lowell. As a result, the Lowell Offering published 57 women writers. They included Lucy Larcom, a poet who later became well-known and had her work published in poetry anthologies of the day.

In 1845, the year the Lowell Offering ceased publishing, The Ohio Cultivator was founded. The “ladies pages” in in this farm magazine heavily promoted education for women along with the vote for women. In particular, the Cultivator espoused co-education for girls. It thought the girls would learn more useful skills, including medical skills, so they could become doctors. The Cultivator feared that women who lacked a skill would find themselves pushed into prostitution when widowed.

Literary small press publications often reflect social issues within the field of literature itself. For example Harriet Munro’s Poetry Magazine, began in the early 20th century and is still published today. Almost any 20th century poet studied in colleges today had work published in Munro’s prestigious little magazine.

in the 1960s and early 1970s, Margins, a newsprint magazine became the  hallmark for anyone interested in contemporary literature. Margins included the works of the “beat writers” such Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Anne Waldman, Lyn Lifshin, Greg Kuzma, and Allen Ginsberg. Charles Bukowski’s unique brand of short stories and his novel, Barfly, a movie starring Faye Dunaway and Mickey Rourke, made it into the “mimeo revolution” mix of the 1960s as  well.

Many well-known literary poets, novelists, and intellectuals, such as Joyce Carol Oates, Marge Piercy, and Adrienne Rich, built careers in the twentieth century by creating and maintaining a fan base in little magazines and small presses even while publishing with New York publishers. The Nation Magazine, Rolling Stone, and Mother Jones too, became glossy magazines after first being little magazines or “underground publications”. The Berkeley Barb and the Village Voice in New York City are other examples.

Feminist and lesbian literature dominated the 1970s and 1980s with punk rock music in close pursuit. This is where many of Rolling Stone’s columnists got their start as music critics. Maximum Rock n’ Roll is a punk rock ‘zine still in print today.

The pros of small press book publishing

I’m talking here about the pros in comparison to self-publishing of print books. As far as large publishers go, you are probably well-aware of the pros and cons of waiting for your ship to come in with one of them. If not, please see my cautionary tale, “What happened to Karen’s $100,000 Advance?” Here are some pros of small press publishing

•    Professional editors and designers, who have extensive experience
•    Established reputation in the book world
•    Regular customers for previously-published books
•    Marketing channel(s) for advertising your book
•    Distribution channel(s)
•    Costs of production paid for you
•    Tax accounting for your book made easier
•    The press assumes the risk for failure of the book to sell
•    Small advances are available for writers at some presses
•    Local presence and speaking possibilities sponsored by some presses

How to find small presses today

If you decide to think about going with a small press, here are your best sources to find them.

Poets&Writers magazine has a couple of online databases of small presses and little magazines. For a more comprehensive list, The International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Press (begun by Elaine and Thomas Gill in the 1960s) is a great place research the huge variety of small presses and little magazines that exist today. The Alternative Press Index also has documented the small press and little magazine scene since 1969. You can find it online and in large libraries.

Some cities have independent bookstores featuring small press books and little magazines too. For example, off Piedmont Avenue in Oakland California there is Issues, an eclectic collection of all kinds of magazines and small press pamphlets. By the way, little magazines are are a great place to begin to build a fan base while you write your book, as well as to get book reviews later when your book is published.

As for small ebook publishers, I’ve been building my own database of names. Directories, such as EBookism, seem to disappear quickly. Please contact me if you are an small press ebook publisher and/or have come across a new directory of small ebook publishers. I would like to feature more about small presses in future posts on

Remember, do your homework! Check the submission guidelines at the press’ web site before approaching it with your book proposal. When you find an editor who responds positively to your query, use the above list of small press pros to start a conversation about what they can do for your book.


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