The Generosity of Time: Editing at Small Presses

Editing processes at small presses often differ from those at the Big Five and their imprints. A manuscript acquired by one of the Big Five is one in an assembly line of hundreds. A manuscript acquired at a small press is like a first-born child—they’re spoiled with attention by their admiring parents.
Here at Ooligan, we only publish three books a year. Every manuscript we acquire is treated with extra special love and care, and receives developmental edits, line edits, and several rounds of copyedits. Editing at Ooligan is also a learning experience for the students who run the press, and every round not only improves our books, they also make us better editors. It’s a system that works—proven by the starred reviews and awards Ooligan books have won over the years.
Ooligan’s system is also similar to many other small presses that aren’t graduate programs. In the article “The Half-Open Door” from What Editors Do, Graywolf executive editor Jeff Shotts describes the benefits of the time and patience of the editing process at his house, which generally publishes just thirty books a year. It’s a large contrast to the Big Five publishers, which print around three thousand titles a year. Those titles may only see one or two rounds of edits before heading to the printer—not for a lack of love from the editor, but from a lack of time and resources, which are spread thin over dozens of books. “Literary editing requires a patience that most commercial publishers cannot afford,” writes Shotts. This is especially true in cases of extreme publishing—a practice many large publishers use to churn out books as quickly as possible in order to fill year-end gaps in product. “What smaller, independent, and other nonprofit publishers can’t provide in terms of high advances or expensive marketing resources, they can make up with the generosity of time.” It’s time, Shotts explains, that allows editors to work closely with authors to create a high quality book, even if it doesn’t end up being the most lucrative. He adds that a book’s success should be measured by its impact on readers, not by sales, though indie publishers aren’t immune to success.
Because many small presses only publish a few titles a year, they get to be pickier about what they publish. They aren’t driven by current trends, but instead by the quality of the content and the feelings it stirs in their editors. Editors are able to devote their time and resources to the books they feel passionate about and the authors they believe in. Authors are encouraged and praised. A relationship between an author and editor can be formed, as opposed to the “musical-chairs world of big-time publishing,” writes Graywolf founder Scott Walker in his article “Editing for a Small Press” from Editors on Editing. A world “in which an author’s book is liable to have three or four editors…between the times the book is accepted and published.” At Ooligan Press, project managers work closely with authors and take part in not just editing, but all other aspects of the publishing process, including marketing and design. Ooligan’s staff changes when new students enter and when they graduate, but the enthusiasm never wanes.
Editing requires loving what you do, no matter if you work for a Big Five publisher or a small press run by two people or one run by students. But the benefits of small press editing cannot be denied. It’s something for authors to consider when pitching proposals: Do you want your book to be one of three, or one of a thousand?

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