Thursday, September 17, 2009

Discovery Friday: SFWP on the Future of Small Presses (Part I)

Today we're joined by Andrew Gifford, publisher of SFWP.

What possessed you to publish books?

My first response is to say “Dunno,” because it’s a hard question. I’ve spent my inheritance, my savings, and all my credit to publish books. And I will gladly do it again as soon as I get my hands on a few grand.

Neurologist Alice Flaherty gave popularity to the term “Midnight Disease” in her book. On the surface, it’s a memoir about her bout with depression and hypergraphia, but she takes it a step further and analyzes the compulsion that drives all writers to write. And it is a compulsion. It is about exorcising demons, or appeasing that voice in your head. There’s lots of real work and dedication required to bring that voice to paper, but it all starts with that weird, lonely compulsion.

I think of publishing as a branch of that midnight disease.

Since the Washington Post article about me, I’ve put lots of thought to this question. I told the journalist, Laura Wexler, it was because I loved Moody Food and wanted to give it the worldwide distribution it deserved, and then the wheel just sort of kept rolling. But the real answer is that I’m compelled to do this. I wrote my first book when I was eight years old, and my mother lovingly bound it and drew some cover art. I pitched my first book – and received my first rejection – when I was 12 years old. I started my first publishing company when I was 15, collecting poets and authors in homemade chapbooks and actually making a nice profit. What possessed me? Dunno…

What is the future of the small press? Is there room for small presses in the publishing world?

Right now, I’d say the future looks both grim and promising. Following the traditional path in the industry is impossible for a small press. The traditional path being the publication of a "marketable" book (whatever that may be), working with a distributor, doing the whole no-nonsense PR thing, putting the author on tour, etc. All the stuff the larger publishers do.

Unless the small press is well funded and, well, just damned lucky, taking the traditional path means bankruptcy. The industry nickles and dimes the publisher into oblivion. First you get clipped by the distributor, and that's just fine because they're performing a vital service. But when you're dealing in sales measured in the hundreds, you're not really making enough to justify the cause. Then you get clipped by the bookstores -- indie stores that charge for readings really rattle my cage. Suddenly you get a bill requesting "co-op money" for "advertising" that didn't go beyond the store's electronic newsletter. Sometimes these bills will be $500 or a thousand bucks. The larger publishers pay them, to keep playing nice. Or they can afford to ignore them. The smaller presses get blacklisted. All this goes on usually without the author's knowledge. Of course, that's also something that's burning the indie bookstores. I know, based on my experience, that I now seek author engagements at the chain stores or indie stores (like Politics and Prose) who truly embrace authors and good writing and don’t extort money from publishers. (And, of course, Politics and Prose is doing well, while other equally famous indie stores now sink beneath the waters. Lesson learned.)

Though there's plenty of resentment for the chain stores, as well. The chain stores have an automated returns policy designed to bolster their tenuous budgets. Books might be returned en masse without ever getting put on the shelves. So they buy the books at a 50% discount, you lose 20-some percent to the distributor, then the books are returned immediately for a full refund and another small handling fee paid by the publisher to the distributor.

Meanwhile, there are a plethora of organizations geared towards "investing" in small presses and their books. It worries me to see more and more small presses moving towards these options. Chances are it's just a money grab on the part of the so-called investors. Usually I see this take the form of a group of industry professionals -- editors and PR folks -- who promise that, with their help, the book will be able to fund a moonshot. Typically, they don't put forward real cash or enable the publisher in any way. They do some PR work and demand a huge up-front payment from the proceeds and, after that, a percentage that guarantees nobody but them will see money from the book. Publicity people are the last great mystery in the business, and these organizations use that to their advantage. But, really, publicity for the small press is easy. It's about buying a list, it's about crafting the right sort of language, and, increasingly, it's about using "guerilla" tactics: Facebook, Twitter, webpages, blogs, etc. There is no mystery.

That gets me to how the future is not really grim if you know what you're doing. SFWP’s first book came out in 2006. If I could go back to 2005 and start all over again, I would. Gladly. I have no regrets. But I'd do a lot of things differently. It's taken four books to really learn this trade and see how it can work. And it can work.

So that's the long-winded answer to the first part of the question. The second part -- is there room for small presses in the publishing world -- is easy. The answer is yes, of course. There always is. A small press won't ever make big money. Those days are (temporarily) over. But there is still a demand for what small presses can offer. My favorite story is North Point Press (now Counterpoint) and Son of the Morning Star. This struggling small press puts out an unusual book that straddled history and fiction by a writer with a strong literary reputation but no sales track record or name recognition. And lightning strikes. That sort of blind luck used to be okay to expect (and I think it still should be). Look also to the story of Graywolf Press.

Now, though, the small presses have become more mainstream. They don’t do daring things. We don’t notice them as much as we used to. Many small presses have become cookie cutter versions of the big presses, or of each other. Readership, meanwhile, declines. How can a dusty old book combat iPods and movies on the laptop and internet downloads and that lovely plasma TV after 12-hour nose-to-the-grindstone days?

The only way is if it’s different. Daring. Interesting. Forget trying to find the next Dan Brown… Gamble a little bit. Why not? Small presses need to do what they’ve always done: Find the next Bukowski. (That’s another favorite example for me – Black Sparrow.)

Would you, as a reader, say there’s no room for another Black Sparrow, and another Bukowski, in the current publishing world?

Join us next week for the conclusion of this intereview. Meanwhile, check out Andrew Gifford at SFWP, at the SFWP blog, or at SFWP's online literary journal.

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