March is Small Press Month, “a nationwide celebration highlighting the valuable work produced by independent publishers. Held annually in March, Small Press Month raises awareness about the need for broader venues of literary expression.”
The event—now in its thirteenth year—is co-sponsored by The New York Center for Independent Publishing (NYCIP), The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP), and the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA).
When I looked out at the expanse of publishers’ booths set up for the book fair at the recent Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference, it seemed hard to believe that Big Publishing, let alone the world, had fallen on hard times. But of course the majority of those present represented smaller presses and magazines, not the conglomerates, and that experience, combined with all the catalogs and flyers I get at the office and by e-mail from the likes of Small Press Distribution, made me wonder if the small press scene is actually growing, not failing. I thought I’d ask a few people who would know. Here’s what they had to say:
Jeffrey Lependorf, Executive Director, Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP), Small Press Distribution (SPD), Literary Ventures Fund (LVF):
There are a few reasons why "small presses" (independent literary publishers specifically) might be doing well now, or at the very least, not as badly as their larger, conglomerate colleagues. First off, small presses, most of whom operate as non-profit organizations with rather small staffs, have for a long time been serving their missions to make important literature available to readers with very limited means. In other words, there's been very little fat there, so while the big houses are now scurrying to trim, the small publishers are already trim.
It's also true that there have been a number of miscalculations in publishing literary titles with the big houses in recent years—risks taken having to do with large advances and how they are tied to marketing budgets and other such factors—that due to the limited resources and a focus on literary merit (rather than primarily on the marketplace) of smaller presses have been avoided. Certainly a small press can just as easily publish a book that won't sell what everyone hopes, but if it does, simply put, the loss is much smaller.
The slow and steady approach, combined with a focus on mission-driven publishing (serving literature and those who read literature in this case), leaves us with a community of publishers who are certainly struggling, but are in fact less challenged by the current economy than their larger, bottom-line driven counterparts. It may also be true that in tough times, people turn to poetry and stories….
Fiona McCrae, Graywolf Press:
Graywolf has been fortunate to have a number of books perform well for us recently, despite the economic times. We had nice sales for Per Petterson’s newest novel (20,000 since September), and with Salvatore Scibona (10,000), after he was nominated for an NBA last November. We’ve also had some prize-winning poets who have performed above expectations. We’re currently in quite a strong position but have tried to budget cautiously for the coming year, since there seem to be so many variables. We had extraordinary orders (100,000) for Elizabeth Alexander’s chapbook, and we’re watching how that is moving out of the stores.
Chad W. Post, Open Letter, and the website Three Percent:
I have to admit, it's kind of crazy launching a new press in the midst of this global economic collapse. Open Letter at the University of Rochester brought out its first book…in September 2008. We announced the press back in the summer of 2007, around the same time that we launched Three Percent, so it wasn't like we were completely unknown to booksellers or the rest of the book world. […] Booksellers and readers alike have responded to our unique paper-over-board design and low price points, but more than that, I think they really like the fact that we're trying to publish real literary works. I mean, maybe that’s why small presses are doing OK despite the economic collapse—many of these presses have a distinct vision and really try and publish what they think are great books. When people are trying to save money, would they rather blow it on a ghostwritten biography of Britney Spears or a lasting work of fiction? I'm hoping the latter….
Three Percent is one of the things that’s really helped us out during this time. The site is designed to promote international literature as a whole, not just Open Letter titles. Via our blog we’re able to disseminate information about the publishing business and about the great books that are coming out, we’re able to explore various industry issues, and we’re able to communicate directly with readers. […] We've found that people are hungry for this sort of information and for real literature.
Barbara Epler, New Directions Publishing:
New Directions started in 1936 and has seen its shares of ups and downs…. With our sales down about 10% and with very high returns, we are trying to cope by attempting many things at once:
We’re more carefully than ever studying print quantities both for front list and back list; we are launching a new line of inexpensive and beautiful little pocket books by great authors…; we’re making every effort on behalf of the new books…; we’re bringing out little gift books…; and we’re making more efforts as far as re-packaging the back list…. We’ve started stepping up our web presence…; younger employees have undertaken creating an ND poetry blog…. We also rely on the generosity of interns for extra help (none of us has an assistant) and on the quality of our authors’ works [and] the kindness of the “literary community”…. [O]ne thing helps a lot in-house, memory, which allows us to keep in mind the long run: as Laurie Callahan our…new Vice President, puts it, “Our books reach readers who know and have always known that good books cost very little compared to other possible indulgences, and there’s no value quite like a great reading experience.”
Sally Ball, Associate Director, Four Way Books:
Well, I wish we knew where we were—we are very busy writing grants and appeal letters as well as keeping things afloat. I don't think any small press (or nonprofit generally) can really know how things are yet. We’ll know better as grants for 2010 come in or not, and 2009 appeals are responded to or not.
I’m happy to tell you about new books and joys! Those continue: we have four new titles to be released in April (and our books are looking b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l, designed by our senior editor Ryan Murphy)…and we are working on the production of four books for fall, and 2010’s list is all in order, including the second title in our new line of fiction.
Our last several years have seen serious growth, in sales, review attention, submissions, contributions, everything—and so we don’t know quite what to expect as book buyers and donors (from individuals to foundations to public agencies) reevaluate and recommit. We have some changes to our website in progress, we’re paying really close attention to what’s happening in the country and in the literary community, and we’re moving forward with our eyes open and this tremendous love for what we do to drive us along.
David Bowen, New American Press (whom I interviewed a while back):
We’ve launched a new website. (It’ll be a little like the Star Wars Deathstar at first—not quite finished, but fully operational.) We're also releasing an online magazine in May called Mayday, which will feature a variety of interesting stuff, from translations of Moroccan drama to interviews with Matt Gonzalez. (We’re also featuring a visual artist in each issue—the first one will be spotlighting David-Baptiste Chirot.) We recently released Shawn Fawson's chapbook, Abandoned Sightings and Historiographies, and will release two more by summer: Ed Frankel's People of the Air and Andy Frazee's That the World Should Never Again Be Destroyed by Flood, along with a reissue of David Lloyd's The Gospel According to Frank (with new poems and a critical intro by Sinatra scholar Dr. Gilbert Gigliotti).
Larry Smith, Bottom Dog Press:
Bottom Dog Press and its imprint Bird Dog Publishing of Ohio have been doing well this last year, and I'll tell you why. 1) We are doing almost all of our books print-on-demand and so not risking and losing money on our dreams of sales. 2) We published a book on a strong topic with lots of writers included: Come Together: Imagine Peace. Consequently the writers have helped carry the book into bookstores and to audiences because they believe in its message...that peace is still possible. When your writers are behind you, you can go a long way. Sure, sales are tough in some ways...people counting their dollars and change...but we are surviving and in the black.
Jennifer Barnes, Raw Dog Screaming Press:
Small press publishing has always been a bit like guerrilla warfare, so the economy doesn’t seem to be having as much effect on us as on larger publishers. If anything, it has increased the need for a press that aims to give a home to quality books that other presses won’t take a chance on. We’ve definitely noticed increasing interest from high-profile authors who aren’t satisfied with the current publishing climate. Plus, our books are even more relevant during these turbulent times. For instance, Eric Miles Williamson’s working man’s manifesto Welcome to Oakland surely speaks to the turmoil that has engulfed the American Dream.