21 January 09 | Chad W. Post

Scott Esposito of Conversational Reading is starting a series on how the economic downturn/recession/late-capitalist implosion is impacting smaller, independent presses. As he writes, all the coverage has been focused on Random Reorganizing, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Hijinks, etc., but not much on what’s going on at places like a New Directions.

His first interview is with Declan Spring, senior editor at New Directions (and, full disclosure, member of Open Letter’s executive committee), and is very interesting, honest, and revealing.

SE: The recession was officially declared a couple of months ago, and many economists have backdated its beginning to early 2008. Over this time what has business been like—better, worse, or about the same?

DS: We’ve seen drops in sales throughout 2008, but especially in the spring and early summer. This was due to a number of factors: lower sales, a gap between lead titles, and returns (many of which came in from Borders). Things picked up at the end of the summer and early fall because some big books came out and the college orders were coming in. (New Directions is required reading for so many literature courses.) We did see much higher than usual returns in October from booksellers. (And I hear publishing sales were down 20% overall in October.) The national accounts (meaning the chains) were returning many books. You could say that our autumn drop was due to bookstores getting nervous more than an actual drop in net sales, at least that was the case with our books.

The biggest factor for us hasn’t been so much big drops in actual sales, but the enormous amounts of returns from booksellers, primarily the chains.

I don’t know if this applies to ND’s distribution relationship with W.W. Norton, but a lot of indie/university/nonprofit publishers have to pay their distributor a percentage on returns. Typically this is around 4%. And unlike the amount you pay on net sales for distribution (typically around 24-26%), there’s no way a press can put the charge on returns in a good light. With the percentage paid on net, if you’re paying more it’s because you’re selling more—sort of a win-win. But if stores are upping their returns . . . well, basically, presses just have to suck it, losing out on possible sales (if the book isn’t on the shelf, it won’t sell) and paying for it at the same time.

(This is part of the logic behind Jasmine-Jade’s million dollar lawsuit against Borders.)

Declan also points to the fantastic ND backlist as being one of the things that helps during times like these (a healthy backlist can make up for a lot of fluctuations in frontlist sales):

Most important, while we always expect people to get excited about the new books we publish—many of the most innovative and exciting foreign authors, and some of the foremost avant-garde American poets—we have always had the luxury of being able to count on the steady sale of our luminous backlist. James Laughlin started New Directions in 1936 and since then, ND has built up one of the great literary lists in American publishing. Those books are essential texts in any worthy bookstore and are adopted on a wide scale in college courses across the country.

And he also touches on the shelf life/browsing issue:

I first became really aware of New Directions books when I started haunting the St. Marks Bookstore (when it was actually on St. Marks Place) and their selection influenced what I read. I’m sure there are lots of people like me, and what’s encouraging for New Directions is that there are lots of young folks who still support the independents, recognize their value, and just eat up our books and revere the history of our press. I don’t think that’s happening quite as much in the Barnes & Nobles. As I said above, the greatest damage due to the economic downfall this year has been due to the fact that the chains aren’t buying as many books up front, they’re reducing their shelf life (our author Eliot Weinberger says books now have the shelf life of yogurt), and in response to the climate, they’re returning more books. That’s incredibly damaging for a small company like New Directions. It effects not only our sales, but how many we decide to print off the bat.

Great start to Scott’s series, and I’m excited to read what others have to say . . .

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