A small press is a publisher with annual sales below a certain level. Commonly, in the United States, this is set at $50 million, after returns and discounts. Small presses are also defined as those that publish an average of fewer than 10 titles per year, though there are a few who manage to do more.
The terms "small press", "indie publisher", and "independent press" are often used interchangeably, with "independent press" defined as publishers that are not part of large conglomerates or multinational corporations. Defined this way, these presses make up approximately half of the market share of the book publishing industry. Many small presses rely on specialization in genre fiction, poetry, or limited-edition books or magazines, but there are also thousands that focus on niche non-fiction markets.
Small presses should not be confused with self-publishing presses (sometimes called "vanity presses"). Self-publishing or subsidy presses usually require payment by authors, or a minimum purchase of copies. By comparison, small presses make their profits by selling books to consumers, rather than selling services to authors or selling a small number of copies to the author's friends.
Small presses should not be confused with printers. Small presses are publishers, which means that they engage in a book selection process, along with editing, marketing and distribution. Small presses also enter into a contract with the author, often paying royalties for being allowed to sell the book. Publishers own the copies they have printed, but usually do not own the copyright to the book itself. In contrast, printers merely print a book, and sometimes offer limited distribution if they are a POD printing press. Printers have a very low selectivity. They will accept nearly anyone who can pay the cost of printing. They rarely offer editing or marketing. Printers do not own the copies that are printed, and they do not pay royalties.
Book packagers combine aspects of small presses and printers, but they are technically neither small presses nor printers.
Since the profit margins for small presses can be narrow, many are driven by other motives, including the desire to help disseminate literature with only a small likely market. Many presses are also associated with crowdfunding efforts that help connect authors with readers. Small presses tend to fill the niches that larger publishers neglect. They can focus on regional titles, narrow specializations and niche genres. They can also make up for commercial clout by creating a reputation for academic knowledge, vigorously pursuing prestigious literature prizes and spending more effort nurturing the careers of new authors. At its most minimal, small press production consists of chapbooks. This role can now be taken on by desktop publishing and Web sites. This still leaves a continuum of small press publishing: from specialist periodicals, short runs or print-to-order of low-demand books, to fine art books and limited editions of collectors' items printed to high standards.
Small presses became distinguishable from jobbing printers at some time towards the end of the nineteenth century. The roots lie with the Arts and Crafts Movement, particularly the Kelmscott Press. The use of small letterpress machines by amateur printers increased proportionately to the mechanization of commercial printing. Later, the advance of practical lithography made small press publication much easier.
A recent burgeoning of small presses has been caused by the introduction of digital printing, especially print on demand technology. Combined with Internet based marketing, digital typesetting, design tools with the rise of eBooks, the new printing technologies have lowered the economic barriers to entry, allowing many new niches to be served, and many new publishers to enter the industry.
There is now also a distinction made between small presses and micro-presses. A micro-press can be defined as a publisher that produces chapbooks and other small books on a very small scale (e.g. 50 copies of one book per year). It can also be defined in terms of revenue. Micro-presses often are run as a hobby or part-time job because of their low profits. They may not produce enough profit to support their owners.
In Canada, these are considered Small Press publishers but the standard Small Press book run is accepted at 300 copies of a Chapbook and 500 or more copies of a Spine Bound book. In doing this, Small Press publishers are eligible for Grants from the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council.