Beyond the Blockbuster Model: Why Small Press Representation Is Important

At ALA Annual in New Orleans, I attended a panel about furthering library ebook accessibility (see my post Ebooks: New Strategy Needed, Now). One of the speakers, Jamie LaRue, made what I deemed incredibly naive and inaccurate comments about commercial publishing (read: Big Six‚ produced).

My live Twitter commentary sparked a lively conversation between me and Jessica Smith (@subclassz), head librarian at a private boarding school in Alabama and a passionate small press advocate. So she could better flesh out her points about the importance of incorporating quieter voices in public library collections, I invited her to write the post below.‚ Heather McCormack

Although fewer branch libraries have closed in the past two decades than feared, local public libraries are still under threat of closure, and reduced hours and services loom as the recession chugs on. Moreover, libraries continue to face competition from bookstores, even as chains like Borders disappear, with the immediacy of ebook purchase and delivery now denting circulation numbers.

A chain of a different kind that has also suffered losses recently is Blockbuster Video. Remember when you could go to the local strip mall and pick up a copy of the latest big-budget movie? Now you can stream it on Netflix, or if it’s not streaming yet, you can wait a couple of days and get it delivered to your door. No more driving/walking/biking to drop it off either. Good-bye, late fees, as well.

Not only is Netflix more convenient than a bricks-and-mortar video rental store, but it has also a nearly unlimited selection that can be tailored to fit a person’s tastes and geography. When I was living in Buffalo, NY, the local Blockbuster didn’t carry hometown favorite Vincent Gallo’s cult classic, low-budget Buffalo 66. And yet Netflix did.

Many public libraries, especially small local branches that are constantly at risk of being shuttered, operate like Blockbuster Video and chance becoming as irrelevant. They stock big-budget books‚ New York Times best sellers and Big 6 publisher schlock. After spending hundreds, even thousands, of budget dollars to acquire dozens of copies of the latest releases, libraries get stuck selling the inevitable dust-collecting copies at their book sales for a fraction of the original cost.

Getting librarians to consider investing in less commercial titles‚ such as small-press-issued graphic novels and poetry; self-published cookbooks, memoirs, or local history; and university press research and literature‚ has been like pulling teeth classically. My fellow professionals seem to avoid these works for three reasons.

First, finding the right books among the thousands published annually requires a lot of time and resources, and neither is in high supply during this downturn. Second, librarians claim that patrons want only frontlist titles, i.e., the latest hits from Random House or HarperCollins that immediately circulate well and make the library look like it’s serving its patrons and justifying its budget. Finally, small-press and especially self-published titles are rumored to be of lesser quality than books from major publishers, as they purportedly have not been properly edited.

Those are all fair points. It’s undoubtedly easier to put titles on order with one of a few major publishers or leave your collection development to a distributor than to pick through independent press catalogs, but providing less obviously popular books may help a local library remain important to its community. Although I’m not arguing solely for virtual libraries that use the Netflix model to fulfill a wide spectrum of reader requests (see the closest fulfillment of that idea, Bookswim, which is best-seller-heavy, as it turns out), I do think public librarians should aspire to anticipate and cultivate more left-of-center interests.

Fewer blockbuster books reduces the dangerous redundancy factor, for starters. Let’s not forget that patrons can get the best sellers cheaply and easily elsewhere, making the library’s physical locale just one more errand to run, one more hurdle between the patron and the book. If I order a James Patterson on Amazon, I get it on the release date. If I download it wirelessly, I can read it as I’m going to bed, already in my PJs while the library is closed.

I mentioned the difficulty of discovering good small-press books, but this can be resolved by ordering through Small Press Distribution (SPD), which vets small presses and is often host to great literature, and consulting university press catalogs. Take Rae Armantrout’s Pulitzer Prize‚ winning Versed, published by Wesleyan University Press (a consistently reliable source for good poetry) and found via the University Press of New England. Even if your most avid patrons prefer serial novels to poetry, a library should offer major works like Versed to expose those patrons to new literature that may invite multiple check-outs over a longer period of time and mean more vital collections overall.

At $22.95, Versed might be too expensive for a patron who’s just looking for a taste of poetry, but it isn’t a big investment for libraries, which can easily collect other award-winning small press materials as they become newsworthy or add flavor to the hit parade shelves by consulting the best-seller lists on SPD or the University Press Books for Libraries list published annually by the Association of American University Presses.

Regarding self-published titles, I must note that not all are rife with errors, and it’s sometimes worth allowing for a few mistakes because the book is so informative or useful overall. When I was a little girl, one of the most beloved books at our local library was a self-published history of my hometown. This hardcover reference book was foxed within months, but because it was noncirculating, its numbers would never have recommended it as an important acquisition. Reading the book as an adult, I noticed that it was riddled with minor spelling and grammatical errors. The librarian who bought it probably paid the author directly, but good thing that person had the sense to invest in it, as it’s long been out of print and remains the only monograph about our little community town and thus gives patrons at least one reason to visit the local library.

This post inevitably won’t resolve the question of should libraries serve their patrons what they want, or should they provide patrons with materials they never even knew they wanted. But I hope I’ve made a case for looking beyond the dominant publishing programs and investigating other ways we may build collections.

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Heather McCormack About Heather McCormack

Heather McCormack (, HuisceBeatha on Twitter) is Editor, Book Review for Library Journal.


  1. Jessica Olin says:

    I also think it’s important to take a chance on smaller presses. There are fab children’s books being put out by non-profits like Children’s Book Press. Besides, I always keep the 80/20 rule in mind when considering acquisitions. (80% of our circulation comes from 20% of our collection and vice versa.)

  2. Don Antenen says:

    I completely agree with Jessica. Ordering large numbers of a few best selling titles is unsustainable and will leave collections in a sorry state as time goes by.

    As a response to the difficulties of pouring over the hundreds of small press titles published every year, I helped found a website called Hey Small Press! ( ). We curate and review a list of ten new/upcoming small press titles every month and encourage librarians to order them, as well as reaching out to readers and promoting libraries as places to find great literature.

    As noted in the article, Small Press Distribution is another great resource.

  3. I just found out about this blog (because of this post) and it seems like a good additional resource for vetting small press fiction/poetry publications (I read down its list of publications and recognized a few that I know are good) :

  4. Martyn says:

    Interesting piece, Heather. Thank you for the thought and the links to various places where small presses can get a look in with libraries.
    I’ll take one small exception, though, with the comment about small presses not being good editors. In fact, I’ll argue that many small presses actually spend far more time on editorial issues than the big presses. For example, here at SDSHS Press, we make it an emphasis of our work to focus on editorial, ensuring that the content is deserving of being read.
    The basic point of the article, though, is one that I think all small presses will agree with: we’re here, don’t forget about us! Here, here.
    Thanks again.

  5. I think small presses do spend just as much if not more time on editing– as do some authors who self-publish. Small press literature is often better-edited than big-press literature and usually of much higher quality (we can hardly point to Stephenie Meyer’s oeuvre as an example of great writing) for a variety of reasons.

    Fact check: Versed is not available from SPD, but from UPNE (University Press of New England, Another great university press worth checking out is the University of California Press ( which besides having tons of important literary and critical publications also has a yearly sale with significant price reductions.

  6. Heather McCormack says:

    @Martyn: Jessica Smith actually wrote the post as a guest. And I don’t think she was in any way saying small presses edit less on the whole. I think she was more tackling the issue of self-publishers and their bad reps on typos and poor editing.

    Good follow-up, @Jessica.

  7. Martyn says:

    Oops, my mistake on the author! Thanks for your comments. I didn’t mean to sound too defensive; just trying to stick up for the little guys, which, really, Jessica was doing in the article as well.
    We’re lucky enough to work closely with many university presses (we kind of sit between the university model and the trade model), and you are both correct in that there are many well-edited and well-produced titles in all genres coming out of the less-heralded presses of the world.
    Thanks for shining a light on this topic for the library world.

  8. Heather McCormack says:

    @Don, I’d never heard of you guys before! Thanks for the info. How long have you been around? And I see some of your contributors are librarians. Interesting!

  9. Heather McCormack says:

    @Jessica Olin, I have heard of this 80/20 rule. It kind of blows my mind. Is there any way to buy so 80 percent of your circ comes from 50 percent of your collection? Are those numbers ridiculously hard to achieve?

  10. Jessica Olin says:

    @Heather, not really a way to tweak it. It’s just the way the statistics always seem to fall out. The rule comes from the field of economics, and there it’s called the Pareto Principle, but it has applications all over.

  11. A Librarian says:

    I don’t have a problem ordering from small press sources and think there should be a variety of materials to reflect many different reading tastes but I think your assumption that popular fiction can be acquired in other ways is not completely accurate. I do think that in more affluent communities this may be true but in poor urban libraries like the one I work in books are not necessarily something acquired somewhere else. In most case, this is the only option or they, and their children, tend to go without. If we don’t carry the kinds of books they want to read to relax, they will cease to visit the library and never discover less commercial literature.


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