There were 1,127 press releases posted in the last 24 hours and 396,504 in the last 365 days.

Small presses dealt big blow

A mighty rumble reverberated throughout the publishing industry late last month with the abrupt closure of a well-known book distributor.

Small Press Distribution, which has distributed books for hundreds of independent literary publishers since 1969, announced March 27 that it was closing its doors for good.

The distributor stated on its website that they represented approximately 300 small publishers, which allowed “thousands of writers to bring diverse, experimental and disruptive literature to audiences across the globe,” but could no longer stay in business.

The news came as a shock to almost every player in the publishing world, including bookstores, publishing houses, authors, poets and indie writers.

Small Press Distribution emailed its clients last week, informing them that all its stock — approximately 300,000 books — has been transferred to two other major distributors and that they were on their own when it came to getting their inventory back. Many publishers were also owed monies and revenue by Small Press Distribution and are searching for viable options to replace the services offered by their former distributor.

Sound like a mess? ASU News turned to Arizona State University’s Sally Ball for clarity and insight into the world of publishing.

Ball, an English professor and director of creative writing for ASU’s Department of English, is also an author of three books as well the associate director of Four Way Books, an independent press based in New York City. 

Note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Sally Ball

Question: What were your initial thoughts when you heard that Small Press Distribution (SPD) was shuttering its doors after more than 50 years of being in business?

Answer: Some sorrow! SPD was a quirky and feisty organization in a field that — most people do not realize — doesn’t operate like most sales-based U.S. businesses. In what other market can a retailer order goods knowing that whatever doesn’t sell can be returned for full credit? In fact, bookstores return about 30% of what they order from book distributors like SPD, who then typically deduct the cost of those returns from any income the publisher might be earning from other sales. The publishers, in turn, can deduct returns from an author’s royalties, so the cycle of not-having-sold-what-you-initially-thought-you-had claws back at each point in the chain.

And SPD served small presses, mostly or exclusively nonprofit organizations — university-based presses like Cleveland State Poetry Center; 60-year-old independents like Hanging Loose; a publisher of literary italianità, Bordighera Press; super-indie-startups like Fonograf, a nonprofit press and literary record label. ... So many are niche operations, not-for-profit literary adventurers, made up of the rangiest and most creative, and often socially alert and dedicated individuals, who poured their time and love and — frequently — their own personal financial stakes into these publishing endeavors. At least 300 presses were currently represented by SPD, and many will probably fold. 

So, my first feeling was grief for the literary arts, for the loss of this vehicle that connects writers and readers who would not otherwise find each other. 

Q: What are the immediate and long-term repercussions of their closing on the publishing industry?  

A: Poets and literary fiction writers — whose books were at the heart of SPD’s services — have faced hurdles since the 1990s, when big conglomerates bought up the august New York publishing houses: Bertelsmann buying Random House; Viacom buying Simon & Schuster. This meant that profits had to be directed mostly to shareholders, rather than, say, a press using the profits from a bestseller to help underwrite a literary list for industry cachet and for the love of literature.

The loss of SPD is going to hurt most I think the presses that in the past would have used SPD as a first step: building a following, scrapping and scrambling, but establishing themselves as valuable, interesting sources of literature. I suspect many of the more established presses SPD served will land with other distributors or at least fulfillment centers.

A distributor, in theory, has a sales force and helps get a press’s titles more attention; SPD, it must be said, was more like a fulfillment center — if a bookstore or consumer came looking, they could get you the book, but they didn’t do much to get anyone to notice a book who didn’t already know it existed. Also, there’s a new small-press driven fulfillment company called Asterism that does not accept returns — something booksellers won’t like — but also, as compensation in a way, neither do they sell to big online discount stores like Amazon. This new model may get some traction.

But lots of authors who might forge a path entirely in small press publishing or who would begin there and eke their way up to larger and larger audiences — well, where will they go? Self-publishing for some; nowhere for most? 

Q: Distributors are usually the only entity in the publishing game who makes money, as they don’t create a product and take the first dollar of every book sold. How did SPD, in what’s essentially that middleman role, fail?  

A: Small press publishing has all these interdependent players: the writers, the presses, the distributors, the stores. Everyone at every level is squeezed by the thin, thin margins of the field; that is just how the arts mostly are today. And because of that, everyone in those interdependent organizations is there for the love of writing and literature — we all want and need each other to succeed. So many small presses are run by writers. SPD was founded by booksellers. Also, SPD was a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. It existed to help writers and readers find each other. 

It’s not that sexy to give money to a middleman, but the whole ecosystem of the arts is like this — and many foundations prefer to give money directly to the writer, but if that writer can’t find a publisher, if that publisher can’t distribute those books, then the first philanthropic gesture stalls.

One hope I have is for arts funders to think more about all the parts in the chain. As in any field, there are literary organizations — presses, distributors, bookstores — that are beautifully and efficiently run and those that are badly run. But all the viable small literary organizations have a mix of "earned" income — book sales — and donated income, from foundations, agencies and especially individuals. 

Q: The selling of books has been on the downswing for several decades, but with the advent of Kindle, Audible, podcasts, iPhone, etc., how much of a role has technology played in all this?

A: There is so much competition for our attention, our entertainment hours. Of course, technology plays a role; video games, podcasts, appointment TV — often these are excellent, complex, “high-quality” competitors for a book of poems or a novel. 

As the 20th century came to a close, a lot of people predicted the death of the book, and yet books turn out not to give up the ghost. They travel well; we are attached to them as objects. Readers and writers pool around different genres or modes of engagement but they do keep on wanting to find each other. 

Q: Is there a silver lining to all this or a way to continue supporting the small/indie press? 

A: One helpful and hopeful thing might be that people will buy directly from small presses, which would change the role of discounts. A press sells to a distributor at, usually, a 45% discount off the cover price, and the distributor sells to bookstores at a further discount. When people buy directly from an independent press, they pay the cover price or close to it, and the money all stays where the press can invest it in more books, take on more writers, serve the art with a little bit of breathing room.

I work with Four Way Books, publishing about 20 books each year of poetry and fiction, including the winner of the Kimbilio National Book Prize for Fiction, celebrating writers form the African diaspora. There is also Circumference Books, publishing contemporary international works in translation; there is Cardboard House Press here in Phoenix, publishing in English works from Latin and South America; Flood EditionsNightboat, founded by several ASU alums; lots of places to find exciting literary works and actually make a difference.