Are Indie Presses the Minor Leagues of Publishing?

Are the big publishing houses using independent presses as a farm league to scout for talent? James McGirk reports.

When Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station came out in 2011, it won major awards and seemed in every respect like one of those dazzling debut novels that preceded it: Everything Is Illuminated, The Art of Fielding, White Teeth. Except that it was published by little-known Minneapolis art-house company Coffee House Press. How could the big publishing houses have missed it?

There have been indications that the Big Six—Hachette, Macmillan, Penguin, HarperCollins, Random House, and Simon & Schuster—were steering away from splashy debuts. Sheila Heti, for example, released a book of short stories in Canada, sold a novel to McSweeney’s, and had trouble shopping her second novel before Macmillan, through its imprint Henry Holt and Company, swooped in to publish How Should A Person Be? to much fanfare. Then came word that perennial outsider Tao Lin had linked-up with famed literary agent Bill Clegg, and sold his third novel Taipei to Random House’s Vintage Books.

Could publishers be using independent presses as a sort farm league to scout for talent?

“The Big Six have become risk adverse [sic],” says Rob Spillman, editor of the literary magazine Tin House, which also has a small book-publishing division. “The stakes for them have gotten too high.” Large publishing conglomerates have large overheads, huge Manhattan offices and massive warehouses to maintain, and must employ large sales forces. “Indies have low overhead, are nimble, and rarely work by committees,” Spillman says. “We can do a two thousand print run on a first book and break even. No way any of the Big Six could do that.”

Spillman also notes that the small budgets of indie publishers make it hard for them to compete with the Big Six on book advances. “It is by necessity that the indies are really beating the bushes and looking for the new and interesting,” he says.

The Paris Review’s editor Lorin Stein, who is the former editor of Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, an imprint of Macmillan, says the big houses have always used the indies as a farm league, and it’s a tradition that’s worth reviving. “The blockbuster mentality is bad for readers, bad for publishers, and bad for the art itself,” he says. “It's especially bad when the big houses pour a lot of money into a first-time author whose book doesn't sell. Then everyone's screwed.”

But John O’Brien, editorial director of Dalkey Archive Press, points out that some of the so-called small presses aren’t even that small anymore. He acknowledges that small presses have indeed been seen as the minor leagues for many years, discovering and cultivating talent that are then taken over by the major leagues—he offers as an example the novelist Paul Auster, whose debut memoir was published by Sun Publishing. But O’Brien dislikes this characterization. “I have always thought this concept to be an awful one,” he says. “Especially when embraced by the small presses themselves.”

The novelist Tao Lin also disagrees with the farm-league analogy. He says that large publishers aren’t actively “scouting” the small presses for talented authors to take on. Writers and their agents are approaching the Big Six, “like, constantly,” he says. “There isn't a need for the larger publishers to be searching. They are probably overloaded with being found.”

O'Brien believes the major- and minor-league picture is outdated. The publishing industry has changed so much in the last few years that many of the best well-established writers are represented by the small presses. If anything, it is the large commercial publishers that are the farm teams. ”Many of these writers see the smaller publishers as the places that will take them very seriously and do as much as possible to help promote the writer's work,” he says, noting that Dalkey keeps its fiction titles permanently in print, regardless of the sales numbers.

Chris Parris-Lamb, the agent who negotiated the sale of Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, agrees with O’Brien. He calls these authors who have been dropped by the big publishers midway into their careers the “midlist” writers.

The poet, critic, and fiction writer Anis Shevani says there’s little cross-over between the worlds of the Big Six and the independent presses. “Small press writing is closely allied with the vast creative writing establishment,” Shevani says. “It's a self-sufficient world unto itself, and the reward there is not being picked up by a big publisher but tenure and job security within the academic world.”

Abdicating market share to ankle-biters is a notoriously poor business strategy for an oligarchic industry like publishing. Clayton Christensen’s business classic The Innovators’ Dilemma describes how relinquishing market share of unprofitable sectors of an industry (such as literary fiction) can have disastrous long-term consequences: namely that those efficient ankle-biters eventually gobble up the rest of the market too. But there’s an artistic price to pay for a splashy debut. A large advance can hinder a first-time novelist. Heidi Julavits, who earned a reported half-million dollars for her first novel The Mineral Palace says that, “on the plus side, I could quit my waitressing job. On the minus side, a person doesn't want to be famous for a book advance. A person wants to be famous for a book.”

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However, there are other ways to foster innovation. The Big Six could borrow a page from Silicon Valley and undercut the indies by mentoring writers in exchange for a share of future profits. (M.F.A. programs or literary agents could try this too.) Investing in a career could help launch it into the stratosphere.

In the end, the size of the publisher doesn’t matter a whole lot. Blake Butler has published both within and outside the Big Six. ”The nature of the venue isn't what's important beyond marketing weight and visibility, both of which are nice if you're into those kinds of things,” Butler says. He values his relationship with his editor because it has helped his creativity. “The rest is wrapping.”