Independent Publishing (and You?)

Ananya Bhattacharyya | November 2002

A few literary people, in the recent past, have chosen to create new jobs for themselves by establishing a new press or magazine. With more and more people writing poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, the independent publishing industry plays an important role in bringing this writing to the general population. If you thought being an independent or small publisher was all about running at a loss, you may be in for a surprise. For many, it is a business like any other business, and often there is a profit-even if small. Setting up one’s own press cannot be a job for the fainthearted, but the rewards-more often than not non-monetary-can be enormous, provided that one has the courage and persistence to embark on this adventure in the first place.

Opening a small/independent/nonprofit press may not be the vocation of your choice, but would you like to explore the possibility? Below is an attempt at answering questions, with the assistance of editors of three independent presses, which may help you figure out-to an extent-the world of small presses and independent publishers. This article concentrates on poetry presses since, given the financially unprofitable nature of poetry, one might reasonably conclude that that would be the most challenging business of all.

What motivates people to start their own publishing business?

Sam Hamill, poet and one of the founders of Copper Canyon Press, wanted to learn the art of making the book as a matter of wanting to write a few. He says it was a part of his long evolution as a poet, editor, translator, and printer. In his personal introduction to the anthology The Gift of Tongues, he describes how he purchased an old galley press-which he installed in his kitchen-with the five hundred dollars he had been awarded by the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, "for producing the best college or university literary journal in the country." This was at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he edited the journal Spectrum.

In The Gift of Tongues, Hamill writes, "For the first fifteen or more years of the Press, I would not only be an unpaid editor, but as co-publisher with Tree Swenson, would have to find the means for paying for paper, printing, binding, and mailing bills, as well as other general overhead. Neither of us would derive a livable wage from the Press for nearly two decades, and I still do not."

Roger Lathbury, a Professor of English at George Mason University and founder of Orchises Press, had a rubber stamp business in high school. In due course, he realized that a press would allow him to combine his literary interests with his publishing interests. After the cold type developed in the late ’70s, starting a small press became economically feasible. So, in 1983, he invested $6,000 and founded Orchises Press, which is now a small literary press specializing in poetry and selected reprints. The press also makes occasional forays into nonfiction.

Rod Smith, founder and editor at Edge Books, a publisher of alternative, avant-garde poetry, began, like many other literary publishers, by publishing a journal. Thus Edge grew out of Aerial magazine, which Smith began in 1984. The first Edge Book was published in 1989. He says, "I had the example of many other small presses. (Publishing) came about naturally through my involvement with the writing community."

Initially, how much work does one have to put in?

Lathbury did it all himself, with no help from anyone else. "The hardest thing," he says, "was finding manuscripts I thought worthy of publication. Fortunately, Peter Klappert and Judith Harris gave me some wonderful manuscripts early on. By the time of my first commercially successful venture, two books later, a reprint of a poem by W.H. Auden, I was off and crawling." Smith, too, spent a lot of time and money on publishing, and continues to do so.

According to Hamill, "During the year and a half we spent in Denver, we all held day jobs, our editing and typesetting and printing taking place nights and weekends. With Tree Swenson’s formal training in studio arts and her love of books, it was natural that she would begin serious study in the art and history of the printed book. I followed suit. With no formal training at the press or the type drawer, with each book published, we learned lessons in production and typography. Her homework and devotion would eventually make her one of the best book designers in the country, and would go a long way toward establishing our credibility."

What is the day in the life of an independent publisher like?

Lathbury spends some time every day reading manuscripts, filling orders, designing books, banking, talking with would-be or established authors. "These are enriching experiences," he says. Smith, who also manages a bookstore, and is a writer as well, says, "(This endeavor) is my life and work I suppose. I am a writer. My work as a publisher is an extension of that activity."

What makes a press a successful "business"?

Donations..Often, for presses such as Copper Canyon, which is an independent nonprofit publisher, donations play an important role. Hamill says that the business isn’t about money. "Not when poetry is the ‘product.’ Our nonprofit business is devoted to advancing poetry through publication and marketing. We couldn’t do what we do without donations that add another dimension to the gift we make." Copper Canyon began receiving funding from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1975. In The Gift of Tongues, Hamill writes: "With the founding of the National Endowment for the Arts, American poetry was energized as never before. The NEA assisted dozens of small presses and hundreds of small journals…"

  • Distribution. This is an important aspect of the book trade. Publishers can either distribute their books themselves or use distributors. Distributors act as middlemen between publishers and bookstores and help distribute books throughout the country. Often, bookstores prefer to deal with distributors to dealing with publishers directly, since direct business with publishers means more work for the stores, and a store like Barnes & Noble, for instance, will only work with distributors. Distributors do make money from each book they sell, but they also invest in the venture.
  • Smith says that he employs Small Press Distribution as his distributor because it makes things easier for him. "I don’t have to fill out all those orders. And they get the books to stores and individuals that might not hear of them otherwise."
  • Lathbury employs a local distributor, and he takes copies of his books to them himself, in order to eliminate shipping and other costs, and because distributors often want books in pristine condition. He warns that distribution can be a complicated matter, since distributors go out of business fairly often, and because distributors sometimes take a long time to pay publishers.
  • Finding a niche. Lathbury says, "Since part of the way I make money at Orchises is to publish books that I think will have an academic appeal, my sense of what the academic market needs-what niche I can fill-is crucial. Small press publishing is all niche publishing. A tiny concern cannot and should not try to compete with Random House or Norton. My professional job at George Mason helps there, as does the occasional advice of my colleagues: ‘Gee, wouldn’t this one do well?’ etc."
  • McFarland Press in North Carolina, for instance, is a good example of a small press that makes money. It specializes in books it knows libraries will want, and it is market savvy.
  • Money made through a small press might not be a king’s ransom. But it can, nevertheless, be a supplementary income. In Lathbury’s best year, he made $30,000, and in his poorest, he made $4,000. "Orchises makes money, but not enough to sustain my family, me, and our sybaritic life," he says.
  • Promotion. Publishers can sometimes make a book a success by sending review copies to magazines, trade journals, and librarians. Additionally, they can mail seasonal catalogs, design advertising, and attend conferences. Encouraging the author of the book to promote his or her book often reaps positive results. Also, designing a website, in today’s market, is never a bad idea. This can feature the books being published along with information about the authors, which will expand the visibility of the book on the Internet.

What is the general publishing scene in the U.S. like?

Here are some statistics: The entire publishing industry generates about $25 billion in revenues, according to "Ignoring the Booksellers’ Conventions: Indepen-dent Publishers Make Success by Finding a Niche," by Linton Weeks, Washington Post, June 23, 2002. Random House has the largest share, with $2 billion in annual revenues worldwide. Penguin Putnam and HarperCollins have revenues of $1 billion each. Inde-pendent publishers might, according to a study by the Book Industry Study Group,, be a $14 billion market.

Smith points out that the United States government and nonprofit support of literary publishing has decreased substantially from what it was in the ’70s and early ’80s. "It is a question of priorities," Smith says, adding, "In my opinion we could do with a few less bombs and give some support to the creative."

Hamill writes in The Gift of Tongues, "The entire budget for the NEA has never exceeded our national budget for military marching bands. The city of Berlin routinely budgets more money for support for the arts than our national budget. Canadians invest six or seven times what we do, per capita, in public support for the arts. And of the entire NEA budget, support for poetry, for poets, and for small presses was but one minuscule portion. And yet the return has been enormous."

What are the forces driving the independent publishing market?

An increase in literacy and the corresponding increase in the number of people who read books have helped the cause of independent publishing. Book sales have increased in the past few years, facilitated by the popularity of the Internet as a means to buy books. This year, for instance, book sales on the Web continued to grow faster than the industry as a whole, although at more down-to-earth levels than in previous years. Also, in the recent past, bookstores have multiplied, both large chains such as Barnes & Noble or Borders and smaller independent stores. Large chains prove to be valuable for independent publishers because of the sheer volume and variety of books they have in stock. Online services such as, the largest online bookseller, also make it possible for independent publishers to find readers. For example, first-time authors, small independent presses, and large established publishing houses can all sell their books using the Advantage system offered by Amazon. com. This system helps publishers sell more books by improving their availability and exposure on the Amazon website.

What are the pleasures of setting up a small/independent press?

According to Lathbury, "I publish what I damn well please and make the rules myself. To be sure, I have to have some sense of commercial conventions, but in a small way I impress my taste upon the world. And the world is better for it."

Smith supports this sentiment. "It’s satisfying to make books available, to work with authors to help them realize their work, to add one’s voice to the discussion of what should be valued culturally," he says.

Thus, as Lathbury points out, by quoting a poem by Robert Frost: "If need be occupy a throne / Where nobody can call you crone."

Online Resources:

No Comments