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Publishing Is a Business, Except When It Isn’t

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by Davida G. Breier, The Johns Hopkins University Press —

Davida Breier

My initial foray into publishing came 20 years ago, when I discovered zines. The core ideals of zine publishing related to independent thinking and publishing, connection with readers, fostering community, and creating positive change. Success was never about financial gain; that wasn’t even a secondary consideration. Zines were about writing and publishing, even if only to a niche audience, because of an innate desire to connect and inform.

That ethos is something that has never left me. When I began working for Biblio Distribution, a distributor specializing in small presses, in 2003, I learned that many independent book publishers share those core ideals.

I’ve kicked around the industry enough now to see a difference between for-profit publishing (where the goal is obvious) and for-passion publishing (where the goals are about what is important to the publisher). Ideally, both can coexist, and publishers who can balance both tend to put out fantastic books with passion and heart. I work in academic publishing by day and see that for-scholarship—a for-passions cousin—is crucial to the mission of scholarly publishers.

What For-Passion Publishers Pursue

The definition of success varies wildly among for-passion publishers, but it is never as simple as high dollar sales or a positive bank statement. Drawing from my own experience, success with one of the zines I co-publish with Microcosm Publishing means helping readers discover independently published materials and supporting the community.

Financially we hope to break even, but I pour my own money into the project to help keep it alive, and all contributors (including some well-known names in the book industry) donate their time. I am also part of the nonprofit publisher No Voice Unheard. With our latest book I wrote essays, traveled and shot photos, and worked on the marketing. Never once was the goal royalties or a paycheck. Rather, it was to create a book that animal sanctuaries and humane educators could utilize and enlighten readers about farmed animals.

Because I wanted to explore the idea of “success” for for-passion publishers, I contacted a few colleagues to open up a discussion. Here’s what they had to say:

Diane Leigh, one of the founders of No Voice Unheard, spoke about her inspirations.

“We’ve always believed in the power of books to create cultural shifts or change—think of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring or John Robbins’ Diet for a New America. Photo books are especially powerful, as they take a conceptual social issue and make it more real, more personal. This was our goal with One at a Time: A Week in an American Animal Shelter. We are former shelter workers and wanted to give a ‘behind the scenes’ peek at what happens and why, so that people would be informed about how the decisions they make and the actions they take regarding their companion animals play out—both good and bad.

“We initially sought a traditional commercial publisher, and received some favorable responses to the book from publishers and agents, but they said some of the material in the book was too ‘difficult’ to be marketable. We did not want to tell only ‘happy ending’ stories from the shelter, because that’s not the full truth. So we formed a nonprofit organization to publish the book ourselves. We gave lots of copies away to media and other nonprofit organizations that became our ‘army’ in promoting the book, and we continue to sell to shelters at a steep discount to aid their own educational outreach efforts. All profits went back into the book (and then future books) to support our mission.

“One at a Time is now in its fifth printing, with about 20,000 sold, and it continues to sell. It is even used in college and humane education courses. We know we’ve created change, as we still get emails and letters from readers telling us how the book affected them.”

MaryAnn Kohl founded Bright Ring Publishing, which supports art education for children, in 1985, and is a member of the IBPA board.

“This feels powerful to say right out loud: ‘I am a for-passion publisher.’

“I don’t care how much money I make, as long as I can keep the presses rolling and keep the home fires burning, and if that didn’t happen, I’d figure out a way to keep publishing anyway. My books about art activities for children are written to change the lives of children, to empower them to trust themselves as thinkers and doers, not just as followers.

“Though I didn’t plan it, I have changed the face of children’s art in this country from doing cutesy crafts to actually exploring and discovering through the process of creating true art from within. The term process art has taken hold in early childhood education, and I’m humbled at the power of what has happened because of the passion that sent the fireworks of it across the globe, the millions of children who have been touched by process art.

“And so my books are a passion; publishing them is a passion; meeting my readers is a passion, and seeing the impact of my books is a passion. Profit is appreciated, but it is not my goal or passion as a publisher, just like the finished product of the art a child creates is appreciated, yet it is not the goal, not the passion the child experiences. It seems I live what I believe, what my passion is. Every day that I publish, write, teach, and train is another day in bringing art exploration and creativity to children. That’s why I am a publisher. Luckily, the profits have followed, but I’d still publish even if they didn’t.”

Joe Biel is the publisher behind Microcosm Publishing, a growing press that has a not-for-profit attitude.

“For our first 11 years, we worked like an institutional publisher for a social movement—our books were selected based on merit or because we felt that the material and subject matter were important to our scene.
“But then we had a few accidental outliers. We published a few books that sold into the tens of thousands, or more. They were still books we believed in and, ironically, in each and every case, they were books that we were worried wouldn’t sell. Not that that had ever stopped us at that time, but every one of our books that escaped our little social circle was one that we published because we believed in it, and the world outside found it and ‘got’ it so much that they broke the 50,000 barrier. Ironically, when we try to make informed decisions to develop titles for commercial success, they always fall flat. There’s certainly a lesson there.

“It’s the books that we wondered if they could sell 2,500 in their lifetime, although we believed in them (if not their commercial ability, then in their merit), that were the ones that took off immediately.”

I first met Mickey Hess via his book Big Wheel at the Cracker Factory, published by Garrett County Press.

“I like your term for-passion publishing. I like the idea that I’m doing what I do out of passion rather than vanity. I’ve been putting out my own books since 1995. And to be honest, I did it originally because I had no real idea how to approach publishers, having given up after a handful of half-assed attempts. Would it have been harder to learn the ins and outs of query letters and literary agency agreements and the demands of the market than it was to burn my fingers with book-binding glue and walk up and down Louisville, Kentucky’s Bardstown Road trying to consign my books at head shops and record stores? Probably not, and that’s where passion really comes into play.

“In 1995, I unloaded maybe 100 copies of a novel I self-published. But 100 copies didn’t feel like a failure. I felt like I was waging a war against every force that was stacked against a 19-year-old writer. My book wasn’t all that marketable, but my year of hawking consignment copies and selling them person to person after coffee-shop open mics felt better than a year of sending out query letters and sample chapters and waiting for rejection letters. It felt better than a year spent disappointing a small but idealistic startup indie press with my book’s slow sales (I’m not sure we sold much more than 100 copies).

“I’ve been putting out books for 18 years now. I’ve self-published, published with small literary presses and mega-conglomerate academic presses, and self-published again. I self-published my most recent book of stories and essays—The Novelist and the Rapper—after the small press that had signed it went under, and it’s the book I remain proudest of. Now I have a book under contract with It Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, one of the five biggest publishers on planet Earth. I can’t lie; it feels good to say it. It’s validating. And I’m passionate about this next book, as passionate as I’ve been with all the others before it.”

Kelly Dessaint, publisher at Phony Lid Books, has been publishing since 1998, and recently released his most personal work yet, A Masque of Infamy, an autobiographical novel.

“To me, knowing that my writing has impacted somebody is more of a commodity than anything money can buy. Untold thousands of books are released each year, and if they don’t perform well within a certain time frame, they are usually dismissed, sometimes even by the author. I’ve known writers who complain about only selling 5,000 ‘units,’ which is, to them, a form of rejection. Or that they can’t get a movie deal.

“That kind of attitude just boggles my mind. I don’t feel that what I’ve created is time-sensitive. I plan to continue promoting this book (and the ones that follow) for a very long time. Because I can. Because I’m not dependent on profits or the pressure to satisfy a bean-counter somewhere in an office building in New York. Because my endeavors are based on passion, I’m only limited by my own will, not somebody else’s.

“And I think that this attitude comes through in the work, which I hope inspires a passion in the reader, knowing that there are no marketing tricks or profit-based motives behind it. That it’s genuine. I believe that passion is infectious, and while the mainstream publishers will continue to churn out books for general consumption, there will always be publishers catering to those readers who are looking for something more authentic. We may be in the minority, but I think that the audience is growing and will continue to grow.”

Using a Different Yardstick

This all tells me that the heart of why we publish matters. That independent publishing, and publishing in general, aren’t and shouldn’t be measured the same way other industries are. Changing lives, enriching thought, and self-expression never appear on balance sheets, but perhaps they should.

Davida G. Breier runs HFS, the distribution division at Johns Hopkins University Press. She serves on the IBPA board and the board of No Voice Unheard, a not-for-profit, independent publisher. To reach her, email dgb@press.jhu.edu.

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