This Week’s Column:


... a MobyLives guest column

by Robert Lasner

With the rise of conglomerate publishing, there has been, concurrently, a little remarked–upon rise in small press publishing, too. MobyLives asked one of the several small press publishers who corresponds with us regularly, Robert Lesner of Ig Publishing, for a commentary.

1 December 2003 — In 2000, I completed a semi–autobiographical novel about my experiences with love. I called it "For Fuck's Sake" and decided, with supreme confidence and supreme ignorance, to publish it myself. In order to avoid the scarlet S of publishing—self–publishing—my wife and I decided to publish other books and become a real, honest to goodness press.
      Ig Publishing was born. And one year after our birth, we were picked up by a major distributor, which has brought us into the big time, or at least as big time as small publishing gets.
      My experiences, pre–and post–distribution, have taught me a few things about small press publishing (in our promotional literature we call ourselves an independent press). So, here are a few expert tips from a man who, three years ago, didn't even know what a galley was:

Small press publishing is, to quote Led Zeppelin, "a long lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time." You work by yourself, or with one other person, so you don’t have the benefit of bouncing ideas off of others. ALL the decisions are yours. You are "condemned to be free," as Sartre said.

Along the same lines, you will be ignored by everyone—reviewers, other publishers, authors, booksellers. Distribution will solve the bookseller problem, and will help with the author and publisher problem, but the review situation will remain a "long, hard slog," as someone in power recently said.

What goes on in large publishing has nothing to do with you. Big publishers are owned by huge corporations who generally treat their books as commodities. These companies are making millions of dollars a year, and at Bertelsmann, that's billions. You will be lucky to ever generate annual sales over $1 million. You are nothing. And as Socrates said, "True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing."

Sprinkle in a little bit of everything. While our first love at Ig is fiction, we realized early on that we were a business, and there is nothing better for a business than staying in business. So, we decided that, in addition to publishing fiction, we would also need to travel to the dark side, publishing blatantly commercial books that would keep us afloat. That is why we publish "New York City's Best Dive Bars" and "Meat Me In Manhattan: A Carnivore's Guide to New York," alongside several fiction titles, and reprints by Knut Hamsun and Karl Marx. This diversity allows us to have strengths in different spheres of publishing, and to be able to withstand events that are beyond our control. Case in point—guides and fiction do not sell during times of war and when the U.S. invaded Iraq in March, our fiction and guide sales plummeted, while sales for publishers of political books jumped. You never know when the world is going to take a bite out of your small press ass, so you must always be prepared.

Readers want something different. One thing we learned with "For Fucks Sake" is that edgy stuff sells, even without the benefit of reviews. As a small publisher, you MUST stand out in the crowd. If you think that something you are doing is too risquéé, you are wrong—you can never be too risquéé as a small publisher. There are multitudes out there, somewhere, who are seeking alternative literature. Launching Ig with "For Fucks Sake" turned out to be a brilliant move, as it gave our press an immediate, hard to forget, "Oh, you're the press who published the fuck book" identity. Similarly, small presses have taken the lead in publishing left wing political books and authors, and have become a voice for those disenfranchised by the general political climate in the United States. Small presses are the Howard Dean of the publishing world—in the end, theymay not be able to win the election, but they bring a lot to the race.

Despite rumors to the contrary, big chains will place supportive orders for small press fiction. Borders ordered a thousand copies of "For Fucks Sake," and displayed it in several stores. 'Nuff said.

Distribution will change your life—it changed ours—but even with distribution, you should remain as hungry as ever, sending out books to every possible connection, no matter how remote that connection may seem to be. Be generous with complimentary copies of your books. You never know when a friend of a friend of someone’s brother can be helpful.

If you can, pay author advances as large as possible. We're not talking Hillary Clinton here, but, if you can afford to pay a few thousand dollars, you should do so because, first off, it will prevent you from having to pay out a huge chunk of cash when royalty time comes, and second, your authors—and agents—'will respect you and think that you are much wealthier and more powerful than you really are.

      Finally, here's my best advice. Don't become a small press publisher unless you really love the high financial risk or have a money tree growing in your backyard. It might be romantic and rosy to all you literary types out there, but it's the most thankless, backbreaking work with the lowest profit margin imaginable.
      But it does have its possible rewards—you will appreciate every scrap of attention you get, and, if you are able to somehow grow your press into something significant, you will feel an arrogance unmatched by even our current President.

Robert Lasner runs Ig Publishing in Brooklyn, New York. You can write to him at

©2003 Robert Lasner

Previous column; HOW EWA BECAME EWA ... The proprietor of one of the most popular and idiosyncratic literary websites, Everyone Who's Anyone in Trade Publsihing, files a guest column with MobyLIves about how the site came to be.


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