Thursday, February 05, 2009

Sink or Swim for Independence

I'm suddenly looking at that title - Independents and Independence - and feeling downright grad student-like in my use of pun. This is awkward.

Anyhow, I was saddened to read this news today about the non profit New York Center for Independent Publishing laying off their executive director, Karin Taylor, who has been at the helm for more than 20 years. I don't really get why they did it, unless her salary had ballooned over years of hard-earned raises, and they wanted to start someone over. It's unfortunate and it reads as bad management, but I'm glad to see the NYCIP will go on. Apparently, the goings-on will go on for 2009, including the Small Press Book Fair in March, the New York Round Table Writers Conference in August and Splat! A Graphic Novel Symposium.

And lay-offs continue elsewhere: it seems Rodale "has eliminated four jobs" - how's that for mechanized speech? Their catalogs are always interesting: one page gives you An Inconvenient Truth, another gives you the the trillion-selling South Beach Diet, and then there's Paul Watson's Where War Lives, a fascinating book I considered when US rights were available. (Oddly, it was published in September '08 according to Amazon, and yet it is not listed in Rodale's online store. Here's hoping they didn't just put it out of print...). Interestingly, Rodale bills itself as "the largest independent book publisher in the U.S." I had no idea!

So back to my point, that I'm sorry to hear about these lay-offs. But to get a larger perspective on the wacky world of independent publishing, I've really enjoyed Scott Esposito's interviews on Conversational Reading with indepedent publishers, where he asks smart questions about how the recession is impacting them and their thoughts on how it's impacting publishing in general. I wrote about Part I, the interview with Declan Spring of New Directions, here.

Esposito's second interview is with Fred Ramsey of Unbridled Books, a publisher I'm afraid I didn't know before reading this interview. Ramsey is convinced that the new landscape offers great opportunities for independent presses. Good news! I've always been perplexed on how one can generate any significant income from such a diversified base, but Ramsey seems to be doing it:
[A]s I—and the company as a whole—have become more involved in social media, we have been invigorated to find connections to a reading community that we always knew existed but that had previously been put out of our reach by the stranglehold
that the MSM has too-long had on book discussions and publicity. Quite simply, our books are genuinely good; and, I think, it is actually becoming easier to connect with readers who want exactly that.

I can understand the connection and these folks are smart to have this "family" list on their website (follow "social media" link), so I will have to assume it's working in terms of actual revenue. He continues, "we’re shifting to an online approach to the community of readers we need while simultaneously pushing our dedication to the independent bookselling community even further." I'm legitimately pleased to see this kind of thinking, supporting a network of readers and independent booksellers that can help you reach that community. Ramsey sees chains and huge commercial presses hurting because of their huge overhead costs, and envisions smaller presses and shops picking up the slack. Here's hoping!

I also appreciated Ramsey's take on the book buying public, the elusive consumers. He sees a promising trend:
I don’t want to be an ameliorist here, but I do think that as we analyze and plan we need to think in terms of what I call the Text Entire. More simply, I think that what may be ahead of us is a sales environment in which it matters more what you publish than how you publish. By this I mean: What’s full (textually) is full; what’s not is disposable. Celebrity connections might not be enough any more.
Thoughtful acquiring and editing? Fewer celeb books?! Oh god, may he be right...

I also thought noteworthy his mention of the model employed by his own independent press:
We publish about ten new books each year (plus five or six backlist pb reprints). Each of those books we wholly believe in; none is released quietly into the world with unsupported hope. Each one receives our full dedication to reach that break-even; and each book has a realistic chance of doing so.
Sound familiar? Ah yes, it sounds a bit like the model on offer from a massive commercial press' imprint: Jonathan Karp's Twelve, part of the Hachette Book Group. Karp, a Random House veteran, demonstrated real publishing savvy in crafting a mission statement that touted this new imprint's care and concern for each book published, but I think one can see through this fluff and realize that what binds these books is commercial potential, not theme or audience or relevance to any one or thing in particular. There is something particularly off-putting about a huge commercial press falsely modeling their mission off something that truly works for an independent press run by hardworking, underpaid, devoted staff.

One of my favorite voices in publishing is Richard Nash, editorial director of one of the best independent presses, Soft Skull. He's interviewed for Part III of Esposito's series, and he fluctuates between punchy and almost drowsy in his responses. He offers a somewhat brainy, useful context for what is happening in publishing, taking into consideration media consumption in general. A strong point he makes is about retailers shifting burden to publishers:
Basically, retailers and wholesalers have been rapidly shifting risk from themselves back onto the publisher. Retailers order fewer and fewer copies of each book, believing that if the book is a failure, they'll be stuck with less slow-moving inventory, and if it is a success the publisher can just reprint and ship them more. Retailers and wholesalers share less of the burden of printing books on spec., the publisher ever more. This has been especially hard on independent publishers, without the capital/cash flow to be doing extra lower profit margin printings of the book, and getting stuck with higher initial units costs because they're printing 2500 copies rather than 3500 copies of an average title.
This is always something to keep in mind. It may be just technical enough to be out of reach to many readers, so I try to reiterate it when possible.

His point that a fringey press like Soft Skull has always had to keep costs down, always had to struggle to convince buyers to pick up titles for their stores, makes the case for these smaller independents being better able to handle the current economic situation. His forecast for larger publishers regarding lay-offs, however... well, I'll let you read that bad news.

Keep your head up out there, publishing professionals! And let's muster the strength of independent booksellers and publishers to weather the storm, from the bottom up.

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