In general, many people view publishing as a monolith, a pillar made up of the Big Five publishers that we all work with and rely on to produce the books that people are used to hearing about. This is true in some ways: the larger publishers tend to have larger marketing budgets, so we are bound to hear about some of the most funded upcoming titles, and celebrities with existing fanbases can receive higher advances from the larger publishers because they have the economic capacity to pay these high prices. However, as the Big Five (Penguin RandomHouse, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Macmillan in no particular order) continue to acquire and merge, smaller publishers can expand into the niches and the spaces that are left behind by the Big Five.
One of the side effects of being a part of a large company—at any level, imprint or otherwise—is working with people who make decisions that you might not agree with socially, ethically, or morally. In addition, there are so many people involved in the production of books that there is no way for readers to know who is behind them without a deep dive into the inner workings of a whole industry. This makes it even more noticeable when people take actions or stage protests against co-workers or clients of the same publisher, editor, or literary agency.
Some movements within the publishing industry as a whole address problems in traditional trade publishing such as #BlackoutBestsellersList and #PublishingPaidMe, which both address different problems with how Black authors are treated. Employees at Little, Brown and Company, an imprint of Hachette, staged a walkout to protest the publication of Woody Allen’s autobiography. In addition, a variety of memoirs and biographies have been have been canceled at some point during their production, including Blake Baily’s biography of Philip Roth, as well as his own memoir, due to claims of sexual misconduct.
In 2020, four authors represented by the Blair Partnership, a literary agency founded to work with J. K. Rowling, resigned after the agency refused to issue a statement in support of the transgender rights following a series of transphobic tweets by Rowling. In addition, Hachette UK employees attempted to convey that they didn’t feel comfortable working on Rowling’s 2020 kids book because of her transphobic views and were met with a statement from Hachette which said, “We will never make our employees work on a book whose content they find upsetting for personal reasons, but we draw a distinction between that and refusing to work on a book because they disagree with an author’s views outside their writing, which runs contrary to our belief in free speech.”
It’s not exactly the support one would hope for in an employer, but it is the response most would expect to come from a larger company that prioritizes the economic payoffs over a social issue that doesn’t affect most, if not all, of those in power. This is where small publishers may have the advantage. If consumers want to support people and businesses that they believe in, it is not feasible to fully support larger scale businesses. However, even though small publishers are also bound by some financial considerations as their larger counterparts, they have the unique ability to dedicate themselves to specific issues or people that traditional large publishers often leave behind and they can do so in a more mission-oriented way.
Although efforts have been made to create a publishing culture in which everyone can be represented, sometimes that leads to voices that cause damage to others being headlined. If you are someone who attempts to know exactly where everything you consume comes from, smaller publishers may provide an opportunity for this knowledge. Smaller publishers provide authors and publishing professionals with spaces in which they can truly believe in their message and the people they work with, which may be the future of book buying.