Type
Essay
Category
Writing

Giving writers a voice

During 2009 I was the fortunate recipient of a Copyright Agency Limited grant to meet with small independent publishers in the US to discuss the state of the industry. As a small press publisher from Melbourne, I was looking for something to indicate that people were tired of the mall-like sameness of the publishing industry, the stranglehold of large retails chains and the domination of media conglomerates. What I saw didn’t dispel my fears regarding the economic viability of independent presses: consumers are ultimately going to want what they have heard about repeatedly, something that comes more easily with a large marketing budget. Yet I was reassured by the initiatives of small publishers to nurture a vibrant culture of writing and reading.

The small literary publishers I met were invariably reacting to the uniformity that dominates the publishing world. As Brian Obernaut from family-run press Two Dollar Radio asserts, small publishers want to ‘claw back some of the artistic integrity that the publishing industry has forfeited.’ With small presses, mission is critical and indicative of an infectious idealism. Bruce Rutledge from Chin Music Press, a publisher that promotes itself as ‘Seattle’s antidote to Kindle’, explained that ‘I was burnt out on all these media jobs and wanted to do something where I had more editorial control. I watched enviously some of the things going on in small press culture in the US and finally decided to take the plunge and form my own press.’ Chin Music Press has decided to tell the stories of a modern Asia, but has also been compelled to tell American stories. ‘When the levees broke in New Orleans, we felt compelled to turn our attention there, knowing that eloquence would emerge. We still have a lot of faith in Americans as readers and writers.’ Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans? is their bestselling book to date, having sold 8000 copies over two print runs.

Johnny Temple’s predominantly fiction-orientated Akashic Books pursues a ‘reverse gentrification of the literary world’. It is a mission that allows for his strong interest in Caribbean literature, ‘noir’ writing and the championing of adventurous fiction writers that mainstream publishers are less inclined to touch. Joe Meno’s first two novels, published by St. Martin’s Press and ReganBooks respectively, had sold fewer than 3000 copies each and his third novel was passed on. His next one, Hairstyles of the Dammed, was published by Akashic in 2004. Supported by Barnes and Noble’s Discover Great New Writers program, a book tour and great word of mouth, it eventually sold 80 000 paperback copies in the US. Joe Meno went on to publish a number of books with Akashic.

A number of publishers spoke of the serious situation larger publishers found themselves in during the recent period of global financial uncertainty and the opportunities this created for smaller presses to sign both established authors and talented new writers. Brian Obernaut saw ‘a real void in fiction publishing’ with mid-list authors such as Rudolph Wurlitzer being available. Daniel Slager of Milkweed Editions in Minneapolis argued that ‘the big publishers are at a point of crisis – Farrar, Straus and Giroux were not at BookExpo America this year – and it is becoming harder to sell serious literary titles. Their business models often require 20-25 000 sales to be viable. The result is that the larger publishers are doing more accessible titles and much outstanding literature is available to be published by independent literary presses. Both authors and readers are turning to the smaller presses.’ Philadelphia-based publisher Paul Dry argued that ‘bigger publishers have larger overheads’ while ‘small publishers can work smarter in the production of quality books that are not simply following market trends.’ Ironically, the financial downturn has allowed small publishers to develop stronger lists.

Was it possible for small publishers to be both mission and market driven? Richard Nash, previously the publisher at Soft Skull Press and an enthusiastic proponent of independent publishing, claimed, ‘Yes, the challenge is [to] buy people’s time to read. So being passionate about your books and writers is what is important. Also publishing subsequent books by an author makes things easier, as so much can be about managing an author’s expectations and developing a name and reputation for a particular writer.’ Richard argued that the publisher is the best salesperson for their own authors and books. ‘Once a book is published or produced, working successfully as an independent is about developing relationships with booksellers, wholesalers, media and readers.’

Richard is increasingly reader focused. His initiatives underline the need to facilitate dialogue about books and writing, to bring the book closer to the centre of how people are connecting. He mentioned that Australia’s literary festivals are the envy of the world, and while everyone I met with spoke highly of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, and on a more regional basis Portland’s Wordstock, the US does not have the city-wide, government-supported festivals that Australians attend in droves. ‘Clearly the reading group is the best thing that happened to publishing in the past thirty years – while reading is solitary, talking about books is social. Given that books are … more demanding of our minds than any other media, they are commensurately better reflections of our minds and identities than other media. We publishers should be servicing readers’ desire to communicate about themselves with peers, offering books as the basis for connecting.’

With the recent decline in newspaper circulations and the resulting reduction in the amount of space devoted to book reviews, small publishers have been at the forefront of utilising online resources to promote their book and authors. Websites, blogs and tweeting are all standard tools, while advertising on Amazon and independent blogs has surpassed print advertising both in terms of cost and effectiveness. Laura Hruska at Soho Press cited the example of a cover article for one of their titles in the New York Times that had a minimal impact on sales. The lessening importance of the newspaper as an information medium is one that many publishers commented on. At BookExpo America, the Two Dollar Radio team were kept busy handing out copies of their catalogue, along with added extras such as author interviews on CD.

In Minneapolis, Allan Kornblum at Coffee House Press explained that ‘a particular aspect of marketing that we are stressing these days is the number of galleys. We’re no longer just sending them to book reviewers – they’re also going to booksellers and bloggers. That’s probably one of the most effective uses of our marketing dollars.’ Similarly, Hawthorne Books in Portland targeted bloggers and pitched to Oprah for their recently published title Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead. Johnny Temple at Akashic argued for the need to utilise and develop author profiles, and the importance of plugging into events at good independent bookshops. Success could depend on ‘a winning combination of good reviews, radio, online publicity and an author tour.’ All stores now stock Akashic’s titles, but Johnny commented that ‘it has taken six years to develop a reputation and get to that point.’

Brian Lam from Arsenal Pulp Press reiterated the shift in marketing practices towards publishing blogs, blogger tours and twitter. Events and launches were seen as less valuable as media are unlikely to attend, and Brian spoke about the romanticism that is associated with book tours. He felt that publishers need to be frank with authors in this regard, and that while Arsenal would cover the cost of events, they expected the author to cover the costs of touring. This was a commonly held view among the publishers I met.

I attended author appearances (usually by first-time writers) and talks at bookshops in both New York and Los Angeles. These were not well attended, with ten or so people (including publisher representatives) in the audience. While it is dangerous to generalise, events featuring new authors work best in their own communities or where authors appear alongside more established names at festivals. The onus is on festival and book show organisers to include new authors alongside well-known names. Independent presses can rarely afford the costs of national touring required to break new authors.

The realities of book sales, coupled with high production costs, have resulted in a diversity of business models for small US publishers. Chin Music Press runs on the energies and passions of its founders, using part-timers and freelancers where needed. Bruce Rutledge also runs a studio that does translations for companies in Japan. The viability of small presses is, of necessity, often underpinned by other employment (Two Dollar Radio) or other income streams such as print broking (Hawthorne Books). Staffing is often short, as Richard Nash noted of his time with Soft Skull Press: ‘In the lean times we had three staff, in the good times five.’ Soft Skull Press, now part of Counterpoint, publish forty books per year and, even with the management and administration of a larger organisation based in Berkeley, its staffing is indicative of the realities of the sector. Ironically, the not-for-profit publishers I visited in Minneapolis and Berkeley employed more staff, but mainly to fundraise, service boards and meet other expectations.

Small publishers often rely on interns, but Richard Nash cautioned that it is wise to look for people who could be ‘voices’ for your press rather than ‘eyes’, ‘people who are confident to get out and advocate for your books and authors and to do outreach.’

Other publishers have gravitated to a non-profit model. Three of these – Coffee House Press, Graywolf Press and Milkweed Editions – are located in Minneapolis. Minnesota is known as a state that prudently supports new and smaller arts initiatives. Katie Dublinski of Graywolf Press explained that they were attracted by the funding the Minnesota State Arts Board provides to publishers. Currently, 50 per cent of Graywolf Press’ income comes from contributed revenue. As well as grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board, the National Endowment for the Arts provides $30-60 000 per annum and companies such as Target and Wells Fargo are sponsors. Graywolf employs a development director and also does individual fundraising, and has an author circle of 2500 people. Donors have their name listed in the back of ‘a reading group type of book’.

Although non-profits publishers’ book sales have not been affected by the economic downturn, their level of donations and endowments has, which has curtailed output. Daniel Slager from Milkweed Editions explained ‘that with non-profits there can be a false perception that they don’t have to make money, where ultimately they are just as focused on reaching readers and selling books as other independents. The real advantage of the press being non-profit is that the we can take some risks with publishing literary works, while if any disadvantage exists with the non-profit model it is that there can be less entrepreneurial energy than a for-profit press where staff have to work incredibly hard to just break even.’ Allan Kornblum at the non-profit Coffee House Press echoed this sentiment, adding that the big disadvantage with a non-profit is that ‘You don’t own it.’

Like Allan Kornblum at Coffee House, Malcolm Margolin of Berkeley-based non- profit publisher Heyday Books was concerned with the idea of succession. There’s a generation of US independent publishers who want to change tack or retire. It is a problem that is indicative of the nature of presses that begin with, and are often tied to, a strong personal vision, and an argument for a non-profit model that almost certainly ensures that presses continue beyond the contribution an individual can make.

Interestingly, Margolin expressed a belief that there is little loyalty to particular presses and only to particular books. I tested this view with McSweeney’s on my visit to their office in the Mission, San Francisco. Along with Process Media/Feral House, an eclectic press based in Port Townsend, McSweeney’s was one of the few publishers that felt that their website moved an agreeable volume of stock, even operating a separate warehouse for online sales. Jordan Bass, editor of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, felt that ‘there was considerable loyalty to the press, something that they liked to repay with offers such as their $100 for ten-book subscription – barely viable economically.’ The press commenced with the McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, which is distributed as a book and lavishly produced, and two to three years later started releasing individual titles. Jordan argued that producing such high-quality titles has resulted in McSweeney’s books becoming collectable and less disposable. McSweeney’s does have a loyal following garnered through an imaginative, if risky, strategy of championing forms such as the short story and a commitment to producing high-quality, somewhat-quirky products. The press isn’t frightened to take a chance on first timers, with print runs of 3-5 000 for new fiction authors. Longer print runs are seen as ‘dangerous’. However, Dave Eggers’ books are still McSweeney’s’ bestsellers (circa 100 000 copies), and following hardcover editions, paperback rights are usually sold to a larger press.

On-selling books to larger presses, even if only for the paperback edition, is a practice utilised by other small presses. Coffee House Press had made its most income from the sale of the world rights for Sam Savage’s idiosyncratic novel Firmin’: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife. Rhonda Hughes at Hawthorne Books was also excited that Riverhead/Penguin had recently offered them a great deal for the world rights for The Well in the Mine, a novel by Gin Phillips that had already sold 30 000 for Hawthorne. With the sale of this book, Hawthorne is able ‘to be more adventurous with its publishing program.’ Such pragmatism is evidence of a recognition of the tough climate in which US publishers operate and the broader access of multi-nationals to a global market.

Dennis Johnson at Melville House Publishing in Brooklyn mentioned ‘the pressure to discount, particularly from Amazon and other retailers, while production costs were rising – factors which were making it difficult for independents to prosper and survive.’ Charlie Winton of Counterpoint also saw the current climate as ‘challenging’, adding that ‘all publishers, while maintaining the integrity of what they are doing, need to print conservatively and look for strategic opportunities and alliances.’ The normal print run for Counterpoint is 4-6000 books, while some print runs are only 2500. ‘Sometimes the impression is that just because a book has been well reviewed it has sold well. This is often not the case.’ Winton felt that the paperback could be a more adventurous format for publishers as well as being more economic, since 10 per cent author royalties are paid on hardback, while only 7.5 per cent are paid on paperback. This was a view echoed by other publishers, some who paid royalties on a percentage of income or a profit basis rather than a percentage of recommended retail price.

With most independents publishers, digital versions of their books were put in place as a matter of course. Both Laura Hruska at Soho Press and Morgan Entrekin at Grove/Atlantic spoke of the increase in provider demand for all their books for use on Kindle or palm readers, and Richard Nash stressed the need to keep appropriate electronic versions of manuscripts for sale to providers of digital books.

Despite the difficulties US independent publishers face, their work is supported by access to effective distribution businesses (Consortium, Publishers Group West) and for very small outfits the non-profit Small Press Distribution. The Council for Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) also offers invaluable support for many small publishers. Some of the publishers I visited felt that CLMP were primarily for literary magazines and not for more-established independent publishers. It is, however, an organisation that recognises that small publishers driven to publish literature need support in an industry dominated by large conglomerates. Specific services and programs include the annual Literary Publishers Conference, the Literary Press and Magazine Directory, small press and literary magazine fairs across the country and access to a number of databases. Membership officer Jay Baron Nicorvo explained that the most popular services with members were the online forums and email member lists (IndiePresses, Litmags, e-pubs, Litevents), indicating the need small publishers have for information sharing.

CLMP only raises 4 per cent of its income through member subscriptions, as in reality members do not have a lot of money. Extensive funding comes through the National Endowment for the Arts and other funders including HarperCollins. In the Australian context, the challenge lies in getting funding bodies to see the immense value of small and independent literary publishing. As CLMP argues, ‘small publishers do the work of ensuring that our cultural landscape remains vibrant and vital.’

On my return to Australia I attended a panel discussion on independent publishing in the US at the Melbourne Writers Festival featuring Dennis Johnson from Melville House, Rob Spillman from Tin House, and Heidi Julavits from McSweeney’s. The discussion gravitated to book covers and the power of the buyer at Barnes and Noble to influence design. It was sad to think that a book could not be stocked by Barnes and Noble if the buyer did not like its cover. What next? Veto over the blurb, the content? It made me relish the independent spirit of the many US publishers I had met earlier in the year. A vibrant US independent publishing scene is the result of the efforts of visionary individuals who are both idealistic and pragmatic, who believe in the necessity of a literary culture.

Australia can learn much from the American example. Not-for-profit publishers give testimony to the value of a culture that isn’t afraid to celebrate philanthropy, while commercial independent publishers are focused on the business of discovering and nurturing new writers as opposed to trend tracking. Per capita, Australia has the advantage of a stronger independent book scene than the US, a healthier news media, an amazing network of literary festivals and agencies that support writers. Yet there’s a lip service to our burgeoning independent publishing scene that isn’t always backed up by the sorts of subsidies and supports that could ensure longevity. It’s not much use if the independent stores only provide access to the same product as the larger retail chains, if the new voices and those that champion them aren’t viable or welcomed in. As Allan Kornblum of Coffee House Press reminded me, funding bodies need to support the smaller start-up organisations that enliven and lead to growth with our literary culture.

The publishing scene in Australia is at a crossroads. There’s a buzz, an energy, a potential that could dissipate if the settings aren’t fine-tuned. Poe Ballantine, a Nebraska-based author published by Hawthorne Books, writes about sleeping on a futon in his publisher’s apartment ‘surrounded by books, many of them mine, boxes and boxes of unsold books’. Smaller independent publishers might have lower overheads than the larger firms, but they don’t have the economies of scale. They need to be nurtured in a world where bigger is usually perceived as better, cheaper as more egalitarian and sales as the only indicator of success. Australia is in danger of being afflicted by a tyranny of sameness as much as anywhere else. Most Australian authors, let alone the reading public, are ignorant of how the publishing industry works, of its domination by the larger players. Policy makers, bookshop buyers, literary editors, awards judges, radio producers, festival directors and libraries need to keep a watch out for the mavericks, the independent players. As Rhonda Hughes from Hawthorne Books has noted, ‘Good writers were being cast aside or ignored as a result of consolidation in the publishing industry … we decided to give them a voice.’

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Barry Scott is the Publisher at Transit Lounge and a board member of SPUNC (Small Press Underground Networking Community). He visited the US during May and June 2009 with the support of the Copyright Agency Limited’s Creative Industries’ Career Fund.

More by