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An Independent Press Model

      The novel has been around ever since Homer (if you’ll dismiss the dactylic hexameter long enough to concede that he invented the structure with the Odyssey).
      It’s debatable who wrote the first prose novel in modern English, but my money there is on Thomas Malory. He finished Le Morte d’Arthur just in time to have someone run off copies with that new-fangled printing press Gutenberg had thought up.
      The someone in question was actually William Caxton, which probably makes him the first publisher of fiction in our language.
      Unfortunately for Sir Thomas, Caxton didn’t get around to putting the book out until 1485. Although it seems that Malory did somehow manage to finally get himself released from prison (where he’d written his manuscript), he apparently died in 1471. So he never saw it in print.
      And the general plight of novelists in the English language wasn’t to improve significantly for the next five hundred years. 

Recently, things have been looking up — or they’ve become far worse. Depends on whether you’re rooting for struggling writers and independent presses or for the big publishing houses. But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves. In fact, even if you did the math and ended up thinking about the 1970s, you’d have arrived at the end of a relative golden age for mainstream publishing, a time when authors and editors, publishers and readers, had coexisted in relative harmony for a generation or so.
      To put what’s going on now into perspective, we have to back up a few decades. 

Piracy isn’t new, and Americans have excelled at it — as they have every other form of laissez faire capitalism. Due to lax enforcement of international copyright laws, U.S. publishers were once fond of reprinting the works of foreign authors, like Charles Dickens, so they didn’t have to pay them for their trouble. But this didn’t bode well for American authors, either. Why take a chance on some unknown local you might have to compensate? Consequently, a lot of American writers undertook publishing their own work themselves (the list is quite impressive), and paying the printing costs. A few of the clever ones decided to purchase the plates, then lease them back to publishers…or charge royalties for every copy printed. Things changed when Congress entered into the International Copyright Act of 1891.
      But the publishing industry inevitably lurched forward.
      By the beginning of the twentieth century, most of the big American publishers had been up and running for some time: Harper since 1817; Putnam (originally Wiley & Putnam), 1838; Scribner’s, 1846. While many another, once-successful, concern had already failed financially or been gobbled up in mergers — a trend that has continued to the present day.
      Simon & Schuster didn’t arrive with their crossword puzzle book until 1924…just in time for the gold rush. Because, by the twenties, with the economy in an upswing and illiteracy drastically on the decline, people needed entertainment. Though they did have moving pictures by then, commercial entertainment usually meant printed material: books and periodicals. The public had become somewhat better-educated, had some time on its hands, and wanted something to read.
      And publishers wanted to oblige…but realized they might require a few authors to do that.
      In 1926, Scribner’s gave Hemingway a $1500 advance and 15% royalties on his first novel, The Sun Also Rises (well, technically, The Torrents of Spring is first, he threw that into the deal, and they printed 1,250 copies — but don’t bother to read it; the critics barely did). For a while there, it was “Let the good times roll.” In 1929, The Saturday Evening Post paid F. Scott Fitzgerald $4,000 for a single short story. In order to get any real sense of the amounts we’re talking about here, you’d have to multiply those 1920s dollars by about a factor of ten.
      (Notice, however, that by this time royalties are something writers are being paid, not something they’re charging. Authors had traded some of their control in exchange for acceptance, and publishers had turned the concept of royalties into a carrot they could dangle.)
      By 1957, all Jack Kerouac could get as an advance from Viking Press, after years of trying to see On the Road published, was $1.000 (negotiated up from $900)…paid out in $100 installments — since his publisher was convinced he’d just piss it away.
      Nevertheless, this is approximately where the myth begins…somewhere between Hemingway and Kerouac. Here’s how it goes:
      You labor away on a manuscript, just like those guys did in the twenties, thirties…fifties, sixties — sometimes even into the seventies — submit it over the transom, let it kick around interminably in some publisher’s slush pile, where eventually…lo, and behold, an enterprising editor picks it up and reads…first a sentence, then a paragraph, finally the whole thing…and recognizes your genius. Instead of the regular rejection letter, you get remuneration and — except for some insightful, hands-on editorial suggestions — the acceptance mentioned earlier.
      Well, good luck with all that. Even in the “golden age,” some of the best manuscripts were rejected by nearly every publisher in the business before they saw print. I could produce a long list of books thought of as indisputable classics now, which were seen by the professional literati of their day as rubbish, unpublishable, or — even worse — not a very profitable investment. The problem with any radical new classic, after all, is that it seems merely unfashionable when first proposed.
      Incidentally, the term “over the transom” refers to the submission of an unsolicited manuscript — transom being the US term for that small, hinged window once commonly found above office doors. Before air conditioning, these were often left open for cross-ventilation, even at night. So, the image evoked is one of a writer simply chucking a manuscript through the opening and into a publisher’s office…where it would end up with all the other unsolicited manuscripts, in the aforementioned slush pile. Writers had intrinsic faith, in those days, that when editors found some free time they’d sift through this backlog, looking for the odd gem, hoping to discover a new talent. And that faith wasn’t entirely misplaced, since big league editors did things like that…way back when.
      But all that’s changed. Long after this proverbial open window disappeared, you could still send an unsolicited manuscript to a publisher through the post, and most of ’em got read…eventually (or at least perused — which is fair enough). Unfortunately, however, this practice has almost become a thing of the past. Generally, the large mainstream publishing houses won’t accept an unagented submission these days.
      Ah, the agent quandary… The received wisdom now runs something like this: You probably can’t sell fiction without getting an agent — and you probably can’t get an agent without having already sold fiction.
      When editors for the big houses decided they were simply too busy to consider unsolicited submissions, they abnegated their prerogative and made agents the arbiters of what was worth their consideration. The bastion of mainstream publishing has, in effect, made literary agents the industry’s gate keepers.
      What’s the difference, publishing executives ask. We’re all just looking for books that’ll sell — better to have agents waste their time than ours. The problem with this logic is that an industry already driven by a craving for quick, short-term gain has had this motivation amplified. Agents are frequently more jealous of their time and, therefore, even more conservative in their tastes than publishers. There’s no longer much incentive to find a new talent, then patiently nurture it until it pays off. (By the way, that hands-on editing notion is institutionally passé, as well. You’d best submit a manuscript already polished enough to be rejected as is.)
      I’m certainly not saying it’s impossible for an unknown author, without any connections or notoriety, to go about getting a novel published in the traditional way, by landing a contract with one of the big houses. I’m just saying that it was never very easy to begin with, and the phenomenon’s becoming increasingly unlikely.
      This is largely due to the business model the large publishing houses have adopted.
      And again, it goes back a ways.
      Just as the twenties was a period of expansion, the thirties was one of contraction. That applied to publishing, along with everything else. While some periodicals managed, others went out of business. And pulp magazines rushed in to fill the gap. These were produced inexpensively on cheap paper (hence, the name) and priced modestly, for a public whose imaginations were as hungry as their bellies, but who now had less to spend on either. Although a lot of the content consisted of potboilers, many an excellent writer got a start in those magazines, and there’s still a lingering nostalgia for the era. New book publishers appeared, too — Penguin (UK) and Pocket Books (US) — introducing mass market, pocket-sized paperbacks.
      The surviving large publishers had to adapt somehow, and they decided to alter their tactics. That’s when they came up with the notion of returns, allowing retailers to virtually eliminate any risk incurred from ordering books. “If you don’t sell ’em, you can just send ’em back.” And this is the model they’re still using today.
      It’s been said elsewhere that this return policy is only suitable to an industry of fresh food manufacture and supply, but in truth, there’s not a vendor of wholesale produce or a meat packer who’d put up with it.
      NPR (National Public Radio) recently did a story on this topic, focusing on one 300,000 sq. ft. warehouse, holding 45,000 active titles — 20 million individual books — and operated by a distribution company called National Book Network. Jed Lyons, the president and CEO, is quoted as saying that roughly 25% of what they ship out comes back in the form of a return — one out of four copies. Then, he adds: “Sometimes I think the only people making money in the book business these days are the truckers who are picking up the books as they go out and picking up the books as they come back.” What’s more, bookstores can not only order and return a book at no cost to themselves…they can repeat the process again later, for the same title, if they choose.
      And those returns, of course, usually end up getting pulped.
      Since their operating costs are invariably high —  — what with wholesale discounts of up to fifty per cent or more, and that absurd return policy — large publishers are perpetually looking for a bestseller to pull them out of the red, some title with the broadest possible appeal. So they throw gigantic cash advances at the attempts of defunct politicians to historically whitewash their own shenanigans, or the tell-all reminiscences of indiscriminate celebrities, penned in between rehab and their next album/film/reality TV series. Unfortunately, this usually doesn’t leave them much of anything to pay unknown writers, and it doesn’t encourage taking chances on anything intellectually risky.
      Even midlist authors are rapidly disappearing. (Midlist refers to books that aren’t necessarily bestsellers, but which still sell well enough to justify their continued publication…and — more to the point — the continued acquisition of the same author’s next several books. But why waste money on someone with a small, devoted audience, who’s merely consistent and somewhat profitable? Couldn’t that money be better spent sweetening the pot when trying to acquire the new blockbuster?
      With a business model like this, the big publishers have had a hard time surviving, let alone encouraging new talent.
      Here’s what the
Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition (1910-1911) says about this issue: “The qualities which make a man a sound critic of intrinsic worth are quite different from those that make him a good judge of what the public will buy.”
      Wait, there’s more.
      “But when, as is now the case, expansion has gone so far as to swamp the older traditions, and to make publishing a purely commercial affair, the literary reader gives place to the man of business with aptitude for estimating how many copies of a given book can be sold.”
      Well, the publishing industry may not have been operated by sound critics of intrinsic worth for at least a century, but it’s obviously no longer doing a very impressive job of “estimating how many copies of a given book can be sold,” either. Perhaps it never did. So, thank God for POD (Print on Demand). Before we go there, however, maybe we should briefly examine some of that expansion…because it hasn’t ceased in the last hundred years.
      In an effort to stave off the collapse of individual houses and imprints, the publishing business has gone through round after round of corporate acquisitions and mergers.
      Let’s take a quick look at how these snowballing mergers work. Here’s an example:
      J. & J. Harper was founded in 1817. It became Harper & Brothers in 1833, situated in Manhattan. In 1962, Harper & Brothers merged with Row, Peterson & Company, to become Harper & Row.
      Harper & Row bought Marshall Pickering in 1988 (which itself had only been formed in 1981, from the merger of two other companies, one of which had been largely created from previously swallowing several others).
      Meanwhile…William Collins started out in Glasgow in 1819. The company eventually became William Collins, Sons & Co, Ltd. in 1868.
      In 1987, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation acquired Harper & Row. In 1990, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation acquired William Collins & Sons. Then Rupert combined the two companies into HarperCollins.
      Murdoch went on to collect various other companies, in various countries, including the Hearst Book Group, which gave him William Morrow & Company, and Avon Books.
      But it doesn’t end there.
      Henry Holt & Company bought both Rinehart & Company and the John C. Winston Company, in order to form Holt, Rinehart & Winston…which was, in turn, purchased by CBS…which then sold it to Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. It was next bought by Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck, of Germany. Holtzbrinck also owns St. Martin’s Press, Macmillan, etc.
      CBS decided to keep Simon & Schuster, however…which had already absorbed Scribner’s and Macmillan…before being absorbed, in turn, by Gulf+Western (which became Paramount Communications)…which was absorbed by Viacom. It was Viacom who sold it to CBS.
      But Viacom sold Simon & Schuster’s education division to Pearson plc, out of London, which now owns the imprints for Putnam, Penguin, Prentice Hall…even after selling Macmillan to — you guessed it — Holzbrinck.
      Time Warner bought Little, Brown & Co., but recently sold that to Hachette Livre, a French concern.
      Meanwhile, Random House, which claims to be “the world’s largest English-language trade book publisher,” was acquired in 1998 by Bertelsman, another German company. I’m sure you’ll recognize a few of the other imprints Bertelsman now owns: Doubleday, Knopf, Bantam, Ballantine, Delacorte, Dell, Del Rey, Pantheon, Vintage, Spectra, and dozens of others.
      Anyhow, that’s approximately the line-up at the moment — but who can keep track? There’s no telling what’ll happen later in the week.
      It’s like watching fish in the Mesozoic ocean being devoured by much bigger fish, which are then devoured by even larger monsters — while none of them notices that seeds have already spread across the Earth, creating vast forests, and that some of the fish have grown legs, and learned how to walk.
      If you thought this business model really benefited the bookstores, you’d be wrong. The giant publishers just kept making the same sort of bets, hoping that some would pay off big — like inveterate gamblers, welcomed by the casinos they frequent (read chain bookstores here), due to their high-rollers’ persistence — always trying to find the wherewithal to double down again…in order to break another losing streak. Yet there’s something fundamentally wrong with this analogy, since casinos turn a profit. Chain bookstores, on the other hand — despite generous wholesale discounts and a virtually unlimited return policy — are going under, too. As of this writing, Borders has already declared bankruptcy and Barnes & Noble is struggling desperately to fend it off.
      That’s because neither the bookstore chains, nor the large publishers, have successfully adapted to the evolving habits of their readers. Perhaps they’ve forgotten how. It’s not that the customers are reading less, simply that they’re purchasing reading material in new ways. Some have begun using e-books. Most still prefer traditional books with paper pages, but they’re buying them online. 

      Let’s tackle e-books first.
      As recently as 2008, when that NPR piece was done, Mr. Lyons (remember him…president and CEO of the book distribution company under scrutiny?) said, “Ten years ago, I would have guessed that at least half of the book sales in this country would be electronic. It’s less than one-tenth of 1 percent today. So I think the book is going to hold its own.”
      I happen to agree with him, but the landscape is changing.

      According to a representative of R. R. Bowker, e-book sales went from 1.5% of the US market in 2009 to 5% in the first quarter of 2010. And Bowker should know. You can’t get an ISBN in the US without going through them — and they publish Books in Print. (Note: ISBN stands for International Book Number; consequently, you should never say ISBN number. It’s redundant, and makes you sound like an amateur.)
      This is a growing segment of the market, and will probably change how many trees we cut down in future. But for now, it’s still a struggling segment, beset with problems.
      First, there’s an emotional resistance to curling up in bed with hardware, rather than…you know, a printed book. Most of the reading public still think of a book with paper pages in the same way they do comfort food.
      Also, we’ve had problems with the rendering of fonts, graphics, indices, etc. Plus, there was an initial dilemma over which hardware and software to employ…since manufacturers were producing products which were mutually incompatible. A lot of these issues have been addressed, but recently Amazon got into a pricing war — by trying to hold the line at $9.99 for an e-book — against Macmillan…then HarperCollins…and finally Hachette Livre.
      As if that weren’t enough, there’s the EULA (end-user license agreement). When you download a book to your Kindle or ipad, you’re not purchasing an object (a printed book, in other words), you’re merely paying for the privilege of reading digital information on a single device — not to share it, copy it, or give it away. In fact, although Amazon’s terms of service for the Kindle do say you can keep a permanent copy of your purchase, the company recently reached into Kindles everywhere and erased 1984, by George Orwell. In all fairness to Amazon, they did this because it came to their attention that the digital publisher who’d supplied the book to them didn’t actually hold the rights to it, and they refunded customers their money. Still…a lot of those surprised and irate customers suddenly began commenting on Orwell’s memory hole — the place where inconvenient information disappeared, in Big Brother’s dystopia. Amazon has deleted other books from its Kindle, but 1984 turned out to be a particularly unfortunate example of their ability to do so.
      These end-user license agreements haven’t been kind to libraries, either. Remember libraries? They used to buy a copy of some book or other, then lend it to us. (This may not have been such a juicy arrangement for publishers — but what a deal for the public.) Well, it seems they’d like to do the same with e-books, but aren’t really allowed. HaperCollins has announced that they’ll let libraries loan out an e-book no more than twenty-six times — before it’ll disintegrate. And they think that’s rather generous, since both Simon & Schuster and Macmillan have refused to sell e-books to libraries at all.
      Don’t get me wrong, I want to see authors compensated for their efforts.
      Yet I don’t much care for the notion of putting lending libraries out of business. I’ve had on an ongoing romance with the local library all my life, predating my first sexual contact (and thank you, Ben Franklin — wherever you are — for introducing the concept to these shores). Those are my tax dollars at work — and I’d rather see a government subsidizing distribution of ideas than bombs, any day. Advice is something I seldom dispense, and then only grudgingly, but here’s a piece of it I’ll give without hesitation: Cherish your librarians. Don’t piss ’em off, either — they’re a force to be reckoned with. Especially en masse

Although this parable is rapidly becoming more electronic, that doesn’t mean it can’t morph back into printed pages. 

An independent publisher today isn’t standing exactly where Sun Records was in 1952…but somewhere in the general vicinity. In the early fifties there were five major record labels which pretty much controlled what music you’d hear: Columbia, RCA Victor, Decca, Capitol, and Mercury. Either you’d manage to land yourself a contract with one of these, forget ever really being successful, or get out of the business. Not sounding enough like Sinatra was your fault, not theirs. (If you’re a writer, is this beginning to sound familiar?) Of course, they weren’t about to throw good money at upstarts like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis or Johnny Cash. They didn’t produce “race records,” either. This was before Motown…and before the big labels admitted that white kids liked the blues and rock ’n roll.
      Contemporary publishing isn’t quite as far behind the curve as the music industry was in 1950, but it’s nowhere near the state independent music has attained today. Authors haven’t reached the point that musicians have, where any band with a few good cuts can also cut their own CD, on their own label.
      If you want a glimpse of where independent publishing could go, however, let’s stretch the analogy a bit further, and take a look at Ani DiFranco. She didn’t want to put up with corporate bullshit and created her own music label at eighteen years old, founding Righteous Records in 1989 — renamed Righteous Babe Records in 1994. The last time I checked, it was making about five million dollars a year. Not only did she do this without selling out (and don’t think she didn’t get offers), she also nurtured the talents of other artists along the way.
      I don’t really expect Alfresco Press to do that well (we don’t tour as much, for one thing…). But then, she probably didn’t expect to be quite this successful when she started. Anyhow, I’d like to go on record as saying, “God bless you, Ani DiFranco. You’re a fine example for us all to emulate.” (Besides, she probably doesn’t hear this sort of thing nearly often enough.)
      Music and literature have several things in common. There’s all that writing, for openers. Aside from this, both have copyright infringement, struggling artists trying to find some success without compromising utterly…and big corporations always attempting to influence that equation. Then, there’s the fact that both (albeit filled with artistic types — usually plagued by things like sensibilities or integrity) are actually businesses, just figuring out how to make a buck. So, both involve marketable products. There may be electronic ones now, like MP3s or e-books, but we still have the old-fashioned kind, too — things people physically purchase and take home and put on their shelves…in order to take them down again, to read or listen to: albums that have to be pressed into CDs (even as we seem to be rediscovering vinyl)…books that need to be printed. 

The advent of the Internet, and concomitant electronic technology, has produced the most democratic redistribution of information in over two hundred years. But that doesn’t mean this development is incompatible with print. In fact, it’s been quite beneficial. Large publishers were reluctant to see this at first, since they’re resistant to change, in any event. But there was a more autocratic reason for their hesitation. Although the large publishing companies have come to use much of this technology themselves — for both printing and marketing — the new technological developments have actually favored small, independent presses. When anyone with modest resources and something worthwhile to say can publish it, those who hold most of the power suddenly find the world a more dangerous place.
      Think back, and tell me if you can actually imagine rebellion percolating in the American colonies without those incendiary pamphlets by Thomas Paine. It was the proliferation of small, independent publishers that made it all possible. And Print on Demand is perhaps the most revolutionary development in
 publishing since Gutenberg.
      Here’s the beauty of it: manuscripts can be edited, sent, and stored digitally…before a mysterious transubstantiation takes place — and they’re turned into actual books. This miracle can occur by the thousands, like loaves and fishes, or individually, just for you.
      The process is called POD.
      Not only that, this particular mystery can be delivered directly to your door, via a simple internet transaction. 

Since the quality of POD books is excellent, independent publishers can compete with larger rivals. (As I said, the big companies have begun to use this technology themselves, often sharing the same printer with small presses). A prohibitive initial investment isn’t necessary to launch such a venture. And, because books can now be printed on demand, the small press is liberated from perpetually making further costly speculations — estimating how many copies of any given title should be printed in advance, then paying to distribute and/or warehouse those which will…or won’t be, sold. Essentially, it frees the small publisher from the necessity of becoming a large one.
      Just because you no longer have to be from a wealthy family to set up a publishing company, however, doesn’t mean that starting an independent press is for everybody. While the financial demands might have lessened, those on a small publisher’s time and skills have proportionately increased. It’s not for the faint of heart. But it is possible.
      This essay isn’t meant as a how-to manual, though. If you’re crazy enough to seriously consider this line of work, there are some very good books on the subject, which would serve as functional primers. You may not need to a three-piece suit to get into publishing these days, but there are a lot other grown-up things to contend with.
      Aside from contracts, copyrights, ISBNs, and registering various items, you have to deal with printing in order to get a book published, and marketing to get it sold. That much should be fairly obvious, I’d think, but there’s more. Books require editing, of course…and cover design. If you don’t possess sufficient skills to do these jobs yourself, you’ll have to farm them out. The same applies to website construction. And if you don’t think you’ll need that, you haven’t thought much about marketing yet.
      It’s nothing a dedicated, intelligent, and stubborn person can’t handle, but…
      If you don’t have some passion for all this, and a genuine belief in the material you intend to publish, you really ought not to bother.
      Operating an independent press may actually require the abilities and temperament of a high-functioning lunatic. Fortunately, though, for those of us who occupy that category and fit the description, we’ve found a niche.



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