Is the Future of Niche Literary Publishing Dependent on Angel Investors?

In Discussion by Edward Nawotka

write a check

By Edward Nawotka

A small but dedicated group of readers, print-runs of 1,500 to 2,000 titles, titles that are tough to categorize and even tougher to sell to the mass market — these are just some of the issues faced by the UK’s Dedalus Books described in today’s lead article. Yet, the publisher has managed to survive for more than 25 years in business. When things looked their bleakest some two years ago after they were the only of 14 Arts Council subsidized publishers to lose their funding, how did they manage to get by? Through the intervention of “fairy godmothers” in the form of  a sustaining monthly grant from Informa Plc. and another grant from a Swiss Foundation.

It’s no secret that small, niche publishers rely on outside funding sources to make ends meet. Call these sources of funding what you will — grants, awards, support, what have you. At end of the day it’s all a form of “literary charity” that helps publishers who would not otherwise be able to sustain themselves on sales alone in the open market. The majority university presses operate on this model.

Unfortunately — as the economy continues to struggle — these sources of funding are drying up. University presses are under more and more pressure to “go commercial.” In niche literary publishing, you’re seeing more and more support from non-traditional, angel investors.

To take just one example, has recently given grants to numerous literary institutions and publishers, including Council Literary Magazines & Presses, Milkweed Editions, Poets & Writers, WriteGirl, 826 Seattle, The Loft Literary Center, Voice of Witness, Seattle Arts and Lectures, The Moth, The Kenyon Review, Richard Hugo House, Artist Trust, Hedgebrook, Copper Canyon Press, Girls Write Now, Lambda Literary Foundation, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, Open Letter Books, Ledig House, Archipelago Books, the Best Translated Book Award, Pen American Center, and the Center for the Art of Translation.

These new underwriters are sometimes seen as suspect — “What’s their angle?” is a frequent question — and it’s not unreasonable to assume the money comes with more strings than would a typical grant, whether public or privately funded.

But, with shallower pools of public and private money floating around, is the future of niche, literary publishers even more dependent on these new sources of funding? Is this publishing evolution or simply the price of doing business in an increasingly cutthroat commercial environment? And are there compromises involved?

Let us know what you think in the comments.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.