by Sam Scinta, Publisher at Fulcrum Publishing
Many years ago, I read a quote in an essay collection (I believe it was from Charles Johnson’s Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing, a volume that, unfortunately, I gave away to another reader in the years since) noting that small publishers are the “crucible” of the book industry. In essence, small, independent presses are the ones who take chances on new authors and introduce these voices to the world, who are willing to publish in fields that may not be popular for a mass audience, and who often build publishing programs that focus on mission first, ahead of profits.
After more than twenty-five years in the independent publishing industry, this assessment rings truer to me than ever before. Since I entered this industry in the early nineties, in addition to the major changes driven by Amazon, online bookselling, and e-books, there has also been significant consolidation in the industry. I recall as a young reader browsing at my local bookstores and libraries at the fascinating logos on the book spines representing a range of publishing houses (what can I say, I was a weird kid), struck by the sheer number of imprints and publishers. While many of the imprints survive, the independence of several of the publishers creating them has not.
We now live in a world dominated by the “Big Five publishers,” which almost became the “Big Four” until a private equity firm purchased Simon and Schuster in early August 2023 (and if history is any indicator, the mixing of private equity and a creative business does not have a great future). These large publishers are parts of larger conglomerate operations. Some of the small houses that I became acquainted with when I joined the industry are also gone, either closed or part of other conglomerates. This move to consolidation is not unique to the publishing industry, of course, but it has big impacts that perhaps readers may not identify, at least at first. Chief among these is the quality and breadth of books released by larger publishing houses. Don’t get me wrong; there are still terrific books published every year by the large publishers, and I read many of them. The books from the Big Five dominate both the best-seller lists and the book awards circuit and thus are the titles most familiar to the general public. But when consolidation occurs in any industry, the diversity of selections and quality of offerings often decline over time, and it happens too late for the customer to do anything about it. While books would continue to be published in a world without small, independent presses, the overall quality of books would suffer, and we would lose the platform that allows for the untested and unheard. In essence, consolidation removes the soul and spirit as the driving force for the industry.
Fortunately, against this background of dramatic change, new independent publishers have joined the field, and many small, independent presses continue to thrive. In this field of indies, I see the crucible metaphor playing out daily. New voices from all corners of our country continue to be introduced, providing a platform for those with something valuable to share. Small, independent publishers are taking financial risks in publishing those books that might otherwise get lost or go unreleased in a large corporate setting because they are not guaranteed blockbusters or don’t have a movie franchise tie-in. And these indies take intellectual risks as well, often willing to share voices that have been marginalized or canceled in one form or another. I remember talking with the late Wilma Mankiller, one of the most influential women of the past fifty years, when she approached Fulcrum about doing the follow-up to her autobiography. She chose Fulcrum because, in her words, “any publisher that publishes Vine Deloria, Jr. isn’t afraid to speak truths, and you will in turn allow me to say the things I need to say about how Indigenous women are treated in society.” Small presses embrace topics not because they are popular but because they are important, and when these topics come into fashion and then fall out, as so often happens, indies continue to stick to their mission-driven publishing programs.
So the next time you’re in a bookstore (because, of course, the best place to buy a book is somewhere you can pick it up, open it, and hold it), take a peek at that logo on the spine, Look at the copyright page. And try to find some books that are not published by the largest corporations that dominate the book world. Take a chance on an indie. You will be glad you did.
About the author: Sam Scinta is the publisher for Fulcrum Publishing. Sam joined North American Press, a division of Fulcrum Publishing, as a research associate in 1992, and worked as an acquisitions editor and systems administrator for Fulcrum from 1993 to 1998. Sam received his JD from the University of Denver and worked as a public finance attorney for three years. Sam returned to Fulcrum as vice president and associate publisher in 2001, and in December 2006 was named president and publisher. In 2015, Sam founded IM Education, Inc., a nonprofit focusing on education programming.
Sam is the developer of Fulcrum’s best-selling Speaker’s Corner book series on contemporary political and social issues and has edited two collections, Spirit and Reason: The Vine Deloria, Jr. Reader and Parting Shots from My Brittle Bow (with Eugene McCarthy). He served as president of the Board of Publishers Association of the West, president of the Wisconsin Center for the Book, and board member of the Jefferson County (Colorado) Public Library Foundation.