Thursday, September 6, 2007

Think Small? Why a Small Publisher Can Be a Great Place to Work

I read somewhere that there are more than 170,000 small publishers in America. By small, I'm guessing they mean the companies make less than $10 million a year. Many of these, obviously, are people who have self-published one book and then called themselves a publishing company. But a lot of them are like JIST, where I work: Less than 50 employees and independently owned (although whether we still qualify as independent after being bought by EMC this year is up for debate; people at the Publishers Marketing Association have assured us that we are, however).

Several of my colleagues at JIST formerly worked at one (or both) of the big publishers in town: Macmillan/Pearson and IDG/Hungry Minds/Wiley. I polled them about their experience at a small publisher and got widely varying answers.

"What do you miss most about working at a big publisher?" I asked. "Absolutely nothing," answered one person. Meanwhile, the person in the very next cube couldn't find one positive thing to say about the small-publisher experience. So I guess it depends largely on who you are and what you want from an employer at a particular point in time. Some people thrive on the relative freedom from politics and order, while others feel they are left flailing about in space.

Among the best things reported about working for a small publisher:

  • "Being able to do more tasks that at a large publisher might be divided up among many people/departments."
  • "Ability to have more creativity."
  • "Seems to be less chaos in general."
  • "Ability to get to know the people you work with better since it is a smaller group of co-workers."
  • "Closer knit group. Better relationships lend to better working relationships."
  • "Ability to blaze a trail and be given growth opportunities you might not have gotten at a larger publisher."
  • "The chance to see the 'big picture' and learn how all the pieces fit together better."

Of course, there are also benefits to working for a larger publisher:

  • "The name recognition of working to a publisher that most people have heard of."
  • "Having more financial resources to accomplish goals."
  • "Better medical benefits."
  • "Access to better equipment and software."
  • "Always having plenty of work to do."
  • "More job security, or at least the perception of it."
  • "Having a clear career path and the opportunity to learn from others."
  • "Oh, let's face it: Higher salaries and better bonuses (until this year, we each got a turkey, a ham, and a hundred-dollar bill as our bonus at JIST!)."

For me personally, working at a small publisher has been good because it has helped me achieve a better work/life balance than when I was taking work home every night from Macmillan. But it's also frustrating trying to compete with bigger publishers for the best authors and books, and knowing that although we dominate the careers category, we don't have much chance of doing anything outside of it. Does the world really need another resume book?


Stepehn Tiano said...

Well, I have to admit that it's that way dealing with smaller publishers as a freelancer, too. Down to being acutely aware that they don't have quite the financial resources to pay freelancers with the same way as larger publishers.

Yes, I know it's not just about the money. But then it is, too. I mean, as long as there are obligations to pay.

More of an issue I would think, however, is why can’t a large publisher also be a great place to work?

Lori Cates Hand said...

Hi Steve,

I honestly think big companies can be a great place to work. You just have to set boundaries and apply yourself to avoid working too much overtime. And even in large companies, you're part of a smaller group (such as an imprint, or even a "team" within an imprint), so you do bond with your coworkers and can pretend you're at a small company.

Jim Minatel said...

I worked for a small magazine publisher for 2 years. That company was a lot more vulnerable to wild financial ups and downs, making employment there a week to week proposition during long downs. The ups were good, and if you are a risk taker personally, it can be worth it. Working for a large publisher can add a degree of stability if the publisher is well run, leaving employees to think about books and customers and not worry about general economic conditions so much.

Lori Cates Hand said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lori Cates Hand said...

Good point. My sister once worked for a small magazine publisher where her paychecks actually bounced. It's hard to do your best work when you're worried about things like that.

Juliana Aldous Atkinson said...

Hi Lori,

You've inspired me to do a 3 part post on my experience at small, large and corporate publishers.


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