In book publishing, we hear about the sizes of presses often. The “Big Five” are the biggest publishers in the United States. The term “small press” is used synonymously with “small business”; especially in a book town like Portland, readers like to support the little guys. When I visited Scotland with Ooligan Press last year, I was introduced to the idea of a “micro press.” And then “medium press” is thrown in there somewhere.

How are size designations for trade publishing presses made? Is bigger better? Does size really matter?

I had to confront these questions for my senior research project, which has to do with profit and loss statements (P&Ls). I won’t get too much into P&Ls here; that’s a whole other opportunity for a blog topic. All you have to know is that my project is about comparing different presses’ P&Ls, and one of the factors that I’m interested in for my comparison is how the sizes of the presses affect the structure of the P&Ls. So I had to determine the sizes of each press that I reached out to. Notably, I limited my scope to trade book publishers in the US, and the following categorizations were made specifically with that group in mind.

There’s no hard-and-fast rule for dictating a press’s size, so I broadened my scope when I was searching for answers. Since book publishing is a business, I decided to search for what constituted a small business in the US. I found that the Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy qualifies any book publisher with less than one thousand employees as “small,” while the United States Census Bureau includes the categorization of “very small” to describe any given enterprise and reverts back to the general 500+ employees for a large enterprise.

Ideally, “size” would include the size of a publisher’s influence rather than just the size of its workforce. Another factor that would better indicate size would be the press’s net profit However, influence is much more difficult to quantify than the number of employees, and most presses’ profits are not available for free to the public. Therefore, I have combined the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) and US Census’s guidelines to develop these qualifiers:

  1. 1,000+ employees = large publisher
  2. 200–999 employees = medium publisher
  3. 100–199 employees = small publisher
  4. < 100 employees = micro publisher

When the SBA’s and the US Census’s guidance no longer sufficed, I made the decisions on where to draw the parameters based on businesses in the US as a whole. In publishing, the majority of organizations that could be considered trade presses would fall under the category of micro based on the way I have categorized them here (86 percent of the trade presses I reached out to fall under “micro”), and the number of large publishers in the US is only six (the Big Five plus Scholastic). This categorization also doesn’t take into account the presses whose employees can be counted on two hands. Even so, very few of the micro publishers on my list even came close to approaching the next bracket, and that was my goal: to make parameters that would effectively encompass the general size of other presses in its group.

Other size categorizations could be valid depending on what specifications are used to create the labels. Some folks may consider the size of the backlist, the renown of authors in the frontlist, or the identity of the press’s founder to be indicative of size, but there really isn’t much discourse on the topic—probably because it only matters for research or legal purposes. Small businesses can get funded and be marketed differently than larger businesses because they don’t have as much cash flow. This is why I was interested in size for my research; a press with less resources may not have as robust of a P&L.

In other words, it’s not about the size of the press; it’s about the quality of the books. And support small presses! They have really great personalities.

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