One of the worst ads I ever saw made a new book’s biggest feature that it was from the publishers of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. Some enormous press who puts out hundreds of disparate titles per year is not my guarantee of a good time. But here’s the thing: if it had been an independently owned / small press, that ad would work for me. Let’s look at why…
As a casual reader in a bookstore, it can be very easy to miss that publishing is dominated by just 5 large publishers. After all, you can see dozens of different badges on books – hundreds, even – but most of these are imprints owned by a tiny number of conglomerates. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to rag on the Big 5. There are many fabulous imprints putting out plenty of great work. But the imbalance creates a very uneven playing field that makes it hard for smaller players. The marketing budgets of a Hachette or Macmillan mean you’re inevitably going to hear more about Orbit, Gollancz and Tor books than works published by independents (let alone small presses). The joy of searching out titles published beyond the mainstream is that you quickly get into publishers who have the freedom to take risks on unknown names and unusual storytelling. It may not all be your cup of tea, but it’s well worth a few sips.
So today’s Top Ten – in support of the excellent #SmallPressBigStories initiative being hosted by Runalong Womble this month – shines a light on some of the small and independent publishers putting out interesting SFF.
For what it’s worth, I tend to use ‘small press’ for niche and micro publishers who may raise funding via Kickstarter or similar; and ‘independent’ for the mid-size publishers who have more visibility and name recognition, but aren’t owned by the Big 5 (although some do have other financial backing to help them out).
I’ll start with a personal favourite: Rebellion Publishing and their imprints Solaris and Abaddon. Rebellion are an independent games development company, but the publishing arm is glorious in the breadth and depth of its genre output, championing new authors from around the world as well as big name staples. Their books routinely end up on my best of the year lists and their ARCs shuffle to the top of my TBR.
Recent releases include: The Immortality Thief, The Dark Between The Trees, The Hanged God trilogy and Saint Death’s Daughter along with UK releases of the latest work by Mary Robinette Kowal, Katherine Addison and Rebecca Roanhorse. Their new novella line-up – the Solaris Satellites – are a must-buy for me after the devastatingly good These Lifeless Things last year.
Neon Hemlock are firmly in the territory of crowdsourcing funding to make some of their output viable and are all about queer speculative fiction (…and candles for those of you in the US). I am routinely beguiled by their annual novella line-up, but they also have a range of intriguing zines, anthologies, and other creative projects from poetry to narrative games.
Recent releases include: We’re Here (an anthology of the best queer SFF short fiction of the year), multi-award-winning And What Can We Offer You Tonight and Subjective Chaos Kind of Award finalist & This Is How To Stay Alive.
Titan Books are owned by a small group who also own Forbidden Planet (the bookstore), and have had a long and fruitful history publishing comics, graphic novels, tie-in novels and non-fiction, and recently a strong line in original fiction. Their line-up is so diversified that it’s hard not to find something you’ll love and the output is always highly polished and entertaining.
Recent SF releases include: The Moonday Letters, Ten Low, and No Gods No Monsters along with being the regular publisher of loveliest bloke in space opera (Gareth L Powell) and the UK publisher of Charlie Jane Anders. Other genres are available – Titan regularly put out great contemporary, urban and crossover fantasy, as well as steampunk, horror and crime novels.
A Scottish small press specialising in SFF in fiction and academia, Luna Press punches well above its weight. Whether you’re seeking original fiction (where boundaries are often blurred, and magic leaches from the pages), short stories, children’s fiction, or academic discussions of Tolkien and other genre topics, Luna is there with an option.
Recent releases include: The Way The Light Bends (by BFS and Subjective Chaos Kind of Award winner Lorraine Wilson), Cast Long Shadows (an inverted retelling), the second batch of Luna novellas and Worlds Apart, the BSFA award-winning collection of essays for the Academia Lunare (Luna’s non-fiction arm)
Angry Robot are one of those reliable SFF presses who I don’t pay nearly enough attention to, owned by Watkins Media, which – much like the Titan Group – is small, independent and fiercely attached to celebrating very specific interests. Their catalogue ranges from epic fantasy and grimdark to space opera and weird SF through every blurred boundary in between and their books have often hilarious content tags to help you decide whether it will fit your tastes.
Recent releases include: septuagenarian-narrated post-pandemic dystopia Moths, Arthurian retelling The Cleaving, surreal snark space opera Stringers and Ada Hoffman’s The Outside trilogy.
An English small press specialising in SFF with a small stable of authors from around the world, I know Wizard’s Tower primarily as the publishers of fantasy author Juliet McKenna whose Green Man mythic fantasies are regular favourites. However, the line-up includes Martian steampunk girls’ school adventures, climate crisis dystopia Generation Nemesis, Lyda Morehouse’s unusual blend of mythic cyberpunk and non-fiction zine Salon Futura.
Tachyon self-describe as publishers of unique, thought-provoking science fiction, fantasy and horror… and it’s hard to argue with that. A Tachyon book almost always grabs me with its brilliant central concept and is gorgeously written, whether it sweeps me to the furthest reaches of the galaxy, drops me in a secondary world or tilts me into another dimension. Come for the worldbuilding, stay for fascinating takes on identity and possibilities.
Recent releases include: The Unbalancing (RB Lemberg’s first novel of the Birdverse) and immigrant fantasy The Bruising of Qilwa, in addition to being regular publishers for Lavie Tidhar.
Fox Spirit Books are another lovely English small press, focusing primarily on fantasy titles. I know them primarily for their Books of Monsters – a multi-volume anthology collecting tales of horror and dark fantasy from around the world – but their catalogue includes novels, novellas, poetry and books for younger readers. I’m keen to continue exploring their Monsters, and to look at the Fox Pockets flash fiction line up.
When I pick up a book from Unsung, I brace for gorgeous prose that inevitably evokes strong feelings and reflection. From Oliver Langmead’s dreamy Metronome to the discomforting futures of Aliya Whiteley and Vicki Jarrett, Unsung is another publisher whose literary genre tales capture me with a big idea and then immerse me in another world, another when.
Recent releases include: multi-stranded climate reverie The Coral Bones, fantastic art apocalypse To Catch A Moon, and the darkly British tales of This Dreaming Isle.
Erewhon Books (owned by independent powerhouse Kensington Books) typically publish stand-alone SFF titles that are as thoughtful as they are imaginative, taking familiar themes and bringing them to brilliant new life. Expect to be challenged and delighted; I always find myself thinking about their works for a long time afterwards.
Recent releases include: Day Boy aka the tough choices facing a vampire’s human servants and urgent thriller The Sleepless. Erewhon are regularly recognised as Subjective Chaos Kind of Award nominees (winning Best Fantasy with The Midnight Bargain).
I’ve been actively focusing on reading small and independent presses this year, so in addition to my established favourites I’m exploring books from Candlemark & Gleam, Black Shuck Books, Sandstone Press, and Louise Walters; and I can’t close without a shout-out to Apex, the publishing arm of Apex Magazine, who put out dark, weird, and wonderful SFF titles.
Do you have any favourite smaller or independent presses I should check out next year?