Here's an article (rather hagiographic for my tastes) about a Harper line that seeks out (and awards small advances to) young authors with books that might not get a good reading elsewhere. One tactic that jumps out at me is that they might do a small print-run (usually that's going to cause the book to fail), but they are willing to go back and do further print-runs if the book seems to be catching on. That's the sort of action we seldom see with big publishers and "small books," but the willingness to go back to print is essential to create the sort of slow-burning seller.
One of the worst aspects of publishing since the 90s has been the willingness-- eagerness-- of publishers to declare a book a failure after it's been on the shelves a month. We know that "word-of-mouth" creates sales, but it takes a while for those mouths to get talking, and it does no good if the book is no longer available after a month or two. This is another advantage that the demon Amazon has over physical bookstores, and e-books have over print-- being able to depart from the "limited inventory" model where the shelves have to be cleared for the next month's offerings. That's also an advantage that small imprints have over large-- there aren't 16 more titles coming out next month!
It's always seemed to me the most cruel aspect of publication, that the books we spent a year on disappear in a few weeks, that there's often no chance of a slow success. I'm wondering if the future will hold
Don't like the "small advance" model, of course, because that often means that a publisher can abandon a book early without much cost. But it's such a dysfunctional notion, and anyway, so few authors get big advances anyway... hardly seems worth fighting for. I mean, how many of us ever got decent advances, even in the "golden era"?