Publishing Models, Translations, and the Financial Collapse (Part 6)

This is the sixth part of a presentation I gave to the German Book Office directors a couple weeks ago. Earlier sections of the speech can be found here. There are still a number of parts left to post, but these should all be up before the end of the month.

There are a few key differences between the commercial houses and the independents that are worth pointing out aside from the discrepancy in the number of employees and the amount of money each publisher tends to have.

Independents rarely do their own distribution. The lion’s share are distributed by a handful of companies: Independent Publishers Group, Consortium, Publishers Group West, and Perseus. And to complicate things (more on this in a minute), Consortium and PGW are both owned by Perseus. This means that sales reps selling the press’s books into stores work for the distributor not the press itself. And a press looking to sell its books across the country has very few choices on how to go about doing this.

On the plus side, nonprofits are able to receive grants and donations, including money from the state and federal government, a huge benefit that will be touched on below. Donated income makes up a significant part of a nonprofit’s budget, and supports all publishing activities, from paying authors and translators to printing and promoting books.
Just because of the scale, indie presses don’t have quite the same pressure to hit sales goals as commercial houses do. Expectations are more modest, as are advances and marketing budgets. Rarely do you read of an independent spending millions of dollars on a particular book. At the same time, there isn’t as much money available for marketing and publicity, and as a result, overall sales levels tend to be lower at an indie press . . . except when it comes to literature in translation.

It’s worth dwelling on sales expectations for a moment, since it creates such a radical difference between commercial houses and nonprofits. At your typical nonprofit, employees are involved in all aspects of the business. An editor can also be the publicity person, the marketing director might also be in charge of grants. Salaries are slightly lower than at the big houses, but in terms of total cost per book, nonprofits tend to get a lot of bang for their buck. In other words, the average operating expenses—rent, utilities, salaries, benefits, etc.—for a book published by a nonprofit are considerably lower than those of a big house. Obvious, I know, but this means that a press might only need to sell 5,000 copies of a title to breakeven, instead of the 15-20,000 needed at a commercial publisher. Suddenly, the pressures of finding a best-seller evaporate . . .

This isn’t even looking at a situation like the one for Open Letter. As a trade-oriented house that’s part of a university, we don’t pay rent, yet have access to certain things other nonprofits don’t, such as a funding base (alumni) and an endless supply of interns. The stakes are automatically a bit lower, which allows a press to focus more on its mission while expanidn the possibilities of what it can publish.

With a smaller staff, a more manageable list, and reasonable sales expectations, independents are in a better position to invest a lot of time and effort into promoting the literary fiction and books in translation it is publishing. The stereotypical image of an independent (or even better, a nonprofit) publisher as someone who is extremely passionate about the books they’re publishing, someone who spends all his/her time obsessing and worrying about the press, about reaching readers, about finding ways to keep the press afloat, really isn’t that far off. And this contributes to the overall marketing of a press’s books.

Indie presses tend to have a stronger editorial identity than commercial houses, and cultivate a sense of customer loyalty that doesn’t exist for Random House or Simon & Schuster, or others. Soft Skull, Archipelago, New Directions, these are presses that are clearly branded, that readers trust in, and that fans are willing to take chances with. An obscure Finnish author published by Archipelago means something entirely different than one published by S&S. Although indies and nonprofits have fewer resources, there are some advantages to being small, nimble, and focused.

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