CLMP on Digital Publishing and How Data Collection May Save Arts Funding

May 1, 2012

The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, since its founding in 1967, has guided literary magazines and presses to greater success in the business of publishing through a “balance of art and business,” as is declared on CLMP’s website. Its function is to serve and inform small presses, literary magazines, literary nonprofits, publishers, and writers. CLMP’s resources include Submission Manager, which most writers who regularly submit work to journals and contests are very familiar with; a membership directory; expansive lists and guides for small press business practices and fundraising; and an exhaustive directory of all literary magazines and small presses. Its Board of Directors is peopled by professors, writers, journalists, booksellers, agents, publishers, editors, critics, and even a psychotherapist.

Jeffrey Lependorf, CLMP’s Executive Director, spared a few minutes for an interview with AWP to discuss CLMP’s recent endorsement of Vook, an online digital publishing tool, and its current projects for providing greater assistance to its members and to arts advocates in general.

“We are to publishers what AWP and Poets & Writers are to writers and programs,” said Lependorf. “Publishing is a partnership process made up of many different processes. Writers don’t just hand their work off to publishers, they have to engage with agents, booksellers, distributors, and editors.”

CLMP as Go-Between for Writers, Presses, and Digital Publishing

Current trends reveal that writers and publishers must figure out how best to render their presence in the booming digital publishing market, adding to the network of relations writers and publishers must nurture in order to foster success. In early April, a report from the Pew Research Center, which measured the results of over-the-phone surveys of nearly 3,000 respondents, described the overall American readership as down since the 1970s. However, the 19% of Americans who own e-readers present some compelling new data. E-reader users, according to the Pew study, read an average of eight books a year more than people without the devices, and, curiously, 58% of e-book consumers said they had read a print book the previous day. Perhaps, this points to digital publishing as a venue for restoring American readership.

“If someone chooses to not be producing things digitally or engaging in social networking, it’s still essential that one understands how those things work,” said Lependorf. “Most writers and publishers are going to be known to many readers through some digital portal—be it someone shopping on Amazon or being active on Facebook or Twitter. It’s almost unconscionable for a writer to not have a website or, at the very least, exist on Facebook.”

Thus, CLMP, as an advocate for small presses on tight budgets, has endorsed Vook, an online publishing business that offers simple and relatively cheap tools for users to create books in one hour and quickly make them available for Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

“It’s a way to create simple e-books, but also to enhance them with video, audio, and images,” said Lependorf. “I call places like Vook and say, ‘I represent 600 presses and publishers’ and then we discuss what they can do for (writers and publishers). CLMP won’t work with vendors if we can’t first test out their services.” Lependorf went on to describe how he and his CLMP staff spent hours trying to break Vook’s system through beta tests. Ultimately, it received their approval.

It’s CLMP’s desire that not just self-publishers and small presses, but also literary magazines, will make use of Vook to broaden their readership and stay abreast of digital publishing developments without having to break their budgets.

“With all these competitive ways of getting to digital literature…small publishers can really take the lead. The development of the digital market is the most exciting thing to hit publishing since the mimeograph machine or the Xerox machine!”

Game-Changing Arts Advocacy

“Many of the longtime funders of literature on Capitol Hill have either passed away or just don’t give to the arts anymore.”

Currently, Jeffrey Lependorf and the CLMP board and staff, in conjunction with its members, are embarking on a data-collection project with the purpose of, for the first time ever, thoroughly defining the strength, productivity, and measurable contributions of the national literary community’s importance.

“I’m focused on finding ways to count everything that our field is involved with,” said Lependorf.

Presently, CLMP can’t quantify for potential funders what people really get out of engagement with the literary arts. People have always been able to measure arts events such as plays and concerts through ticket sales. However, that data doesn’t exist for writing or public readings.

“If we’re not counted, we risk ceasing to exist,” said Lependorf. “It’s so much easier to count butts in seats. The value of literature is known by those of us involved, but if we don’t create the tools to measure and explain that… others will never know.”

The data CLMP is hunting for includes the following, for which there is currently no substantial research: concrete sales data for all small presses; channels for where literature actually goes (such as libraries, bookstores, professors); how and where income for literary publishers really comes from (i.e. how much is contributed, how much is from sales, and how much is from fundraising). Lependorf claims new rubrics must be developed for collecting data on literary engagement: “In many ways, the impact of a book might be greater than a dance or theater performance, but we just don’t have numbers to evaluate that.”

He stresses that we need to be able to measure our audiences’ engagement better: “For a play, for a concert, we can measure where the audience is. We know those people are probably having dinner in that area, socializing afterwards in that area. And we know that literature does that, but we have to figure out how to measure it.”

“As the economy turns around, as new money appears in philanthropy—I want CLMP to help make sure literature gets it. I think there’s no greater bang for your buck than giving to a literary organization.”

CLMP, based in New York City, is made up of just four full-time employees. Though the staff has never been smaller, they currently boast that most publishers that could be CLMP members are members.

“We’re one of the smallest national service organizations in the country, compared to theater or music, and we can do something for our (600+) members that other places can’t: our members can walk into our office. We spend quite a lot of time with them—we can help them, we can offer that much time and attention on a one-on-one basis. At this point, no one calls and asks for help and is told ‘we don’t have time for you.’”

Pew Research Center: The Rise of E-Reading

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