I just came across this series of interviews with independent publishers on how the recession is affecting their business. It’s interesting to see that, in general, the small, independent presses have tended to fare far better during the recession than the larger publishing conglomerates, due to, among other things, a smaller lists of quality books, low overhead, and loyal readers. And, the independents are keeping a close eye on digital technologies and new options for approaching and serving readers online.
David R. Godine, the publisher at Godine, points out a few major differences between the small presses and the large New York Houses: “First, we are privately held and cash flow is far more important than profitability. We are not answerable to stock holders for ever improving scores on the bottom line or the balance sheet. We own our own warehouse and ship our own books, so we can print for three or four years, and not just for a season. We are not expected to offer huge advances or munificent royalties, so people aren’t disappointed when we live up to our, or their, expectations. Finally, we provide a fairly identifiable “quality” product and we have a fairly loyal and predictable customer base — both consumers and bookstores. When times are tough, people inevitably move to quality. They may buy less, but they buy better.”
Allan Kornblum, the publisher at Coffee House Press, echoes this in response to a question about Houghton Mifflin’s troubles: “Houghton Mifflin’s mission is to make money for shareholders first, and to serve literature second. As a nonprofit, our mission is to serve the public good.” He also adds that authors have more realistic expectations from a smaller house: “Our authors don’t expect to be picked up at the airport in a limo when they tour. They sleep on couches in the homes of friends, not at the Hilton, when they give readings.”
In the interview with Margo Baldwin, president and publisher of Chelsea Green Publishing, Baldwin had very interesting things to say about the future of publishing. And, because this company focuses on sustainable living issues, Baldwin adds that it has done quite during the recession. “If you want to eat, you learn how to grow your own food. If you want a house, you can learn how to build it yourself. If you want to reduce your energy use, you can figure out how to harvest your own power. Survival is a wake up call, and we have the books to educate people on that front.”
Richard Nash, editorial director of Soft Skull Press and executive editor of Counterpoint, talks about how it’s getting more difficult to get books into bookstores — but again, it’s one of the many challenges small publishers are used to. “More and more you have to prove to the retailer your book will sell. But frankly, Soft Skull has almost ALWAYS had to do that. Our books, either because they seem to be very nichy, or very literary, or very alternative, or very hybrid, have always faced significant challenges when sales reps present them to bookstores. So in a sense these challenges that we’ve faced for our entire existence likely have us better prepared for the current challenges.”
Fred Ramey, co-publisher (with Greg Michalson) at Unbridled Books, mentions changes he’s noticing in book-buying behavior, which would affect bigger publishers more than independent ones. “If instead of buying the book they’re told to buy, readers are heading toward books that are hand-sold to them or that their online friends recommend, toward books they find links to on Amazon/Powell’s/etc., then what has previously appeared to conglomerated publishers as the surest thing will become much less so.”
Declan Spring, senior editor at New Directions, acknowledges, “None of us got raises this year. We’re trying to cut costs, and interestingly, we’re finding that the printers are more eager for business. We find we can bunch up more titles and bring down the printing and binding costs this way for titles that sell more steadily. We’ve always run sort of on a shoe-string, so while we’re certainly being careful about keeping expenses down, this is something we’ve always done anyway.”