There are myriad reasons to be an independent publisher. Of course, indies don’t have the market power of the Big Five. We can’t justify enormous print runs to reap the savings of mass printing. And we certainly can’t pay our talented staff the salaries and benefits the big guys can afford.
The Big Five, the largest and most influential companies in the publishing industry, often prioritize acquiring and publishing books that have the potential to become bestsellers. They then allocate substantial resources to marketing and promoting those books, frequently making decisions by committee and accepting manuscripts based on potential sales rather than message. In short, large presses are often risk-averse.
As a micro publisher, I face many challenges. But I also have something very special: the ability to make decisions quickly. I don’t have a board of directors overseeing my every choice. I don’t have a legal department that needs to approve my every move. And I don’t have a finance department that needs to sign off on every project. This means I can make decisions based on whatever criteria I choose.
And for those reasons, small presses play a vital role in the publishing world. Unlike the big presses, where algorithms and data from sales and marketing teams can mean an editor’s decision isn’t final, indies can respond directly and quickly to situations that demand our attention. One such situation is the current uptick in book banning.
The American Library Association reported that book bans in schools and public and academic libraries reached a record high in the first eight months of 2023. The scariest part of these bans is that more than three-quarters of them fall into the young adult, middle grade, picture book, and chapter book genres.
As the publisher of Platypus Media and our imprint Science Naturally, I am committed to releasing books that make the lives of children better. Some of our books are sweet, some are clever, some promote diverse perspectives, and some are controversial. But I see each of them as a valuable opportunity to promote lively discussions and critical thinking.
I enjoy brainstorming with my team about the unique things we, as a small press, have the ability to do—things that large, multilevel publishers simply can’t accomplish. In one of these conversations, we hit upon the concept of a judgment-free, gender-neutral resource to teach kids about aspects of human anatomy. There were, after all, no books on the market that explained genitals to prepubescent readers. It’s exactly the kind of concept that would never get approval in bureaucratic editorial meetings. And it’s how we became the publishers of The P Word: A Manual for Mammals.
We connected with David L. Hu, a professor at Georgia Tech, who was interested in writing a book that answered the questions his young son was asking him about his body. Hu is an animal expert and saw the potential for educating children within the context of the traits humans share with other mammals. Hu not only speaks to kids directly and with humor; he also uses nongendered language, contributing to a more inclusive and informed society.
With its direct language and images to match, the book will likely be banned. It could be labeled as “harmful to minors” or “obscene for minors,” two undefined criteria that are often the basis for book banning. But our thinking in creating The P Word, and my philosophy as a publisher, is, if someone is pushing back, it means we are doing something right!
Putting books into the world that push boundaries, break new ground, and reflect the needs of today’s students is not just an opportunity for indie presses—it is an obligation. I believe that creative freedom comes with a responsibility to introduce underrepresented viewpoints. In other words, to take risks.
In this risk-averse publishing climate, a lot of exciting, original, and untested books are, in fact, being published by independent presses. That is cause for celebration. Let’s not forget what the American Library Association and the American Book Publishers Council said in a recent statement: the freedom to read is essential to our democracy.
Dia L. Michels founded independent publisher Platypus Media and its imprint Science Naturally.