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The Tao of Small:
70,000-Odd Small Publishers Might Be Wagging the Publishing Dog

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They’re out there–all 73,000 of them–scrabbling for big publishers’ shelf-space, mucking up their mindshare. That’s the number of book publishers in the U.S., according to Bowker’s Books in Print database, and it has nearly doubled in the past decade. Blame the go-go ’90s, the dawn of dummy-proof desktop publishing, Internet ubiquity, come-one-come-all chain bookselling, and the growing, mystical aura of ISBNs themselves. Every year, 11,000 new publishers apply for these must-have digits, be they start-ups girding for the long haul or one-book wonders. And this motley contingent, believe it or not, may be keeping the business of books afloat.

“We’ve found ourselves in what I think is the only growth area in the book business,” says Curt Matthews, CEO of Independent Publishers Group. “Our business has been growing at 30% per year for the last 15 years, and we’ll do it again this year. Outfits like IPG, Publishers Group West, and National Book Network–we’ve all been having stupendous growth and really taking market share from the big publishers.”


The News from Better Bookselling Channels

Call it the tao of small. “Our publishers are the masters of the niche marketplace, and that is where publishing has been developing,” says Jan Nathan, Executive Director of the Publishers Marketing Association. Grooming niche markets with direct and special sales tactics, these presses are wandering way outside the glutted trade bookselling channels.

Yet for those very reasons, tracking their sales has been like pinning the tail on the donkey. The best guess to date is the 1999 study* “The Rest of Us,” compiled by the Book Industry Study Group and PMA, which estimated that the 53,000 smaller publishers at the time had annual sales of $14.3 billion. Add some portion of that “very conservative” figure to the $26 billion AAP estimate–which is primarily driven by large publishers–and the study said, book business sales as a whole “are billions of dollars higher than previously perceived.”

But whatever the dollar amount, some argue, commercial publishing has left acres of market turf wide open for the taking. “As larger publishing conglomerates are probably narrowing the choice of books that they publish,” says Small Press Center Executive Director Karin Taylor, “there’s a huge opportunity for small presses to step into that gap.”


Wagging the Dog

“Somebody referred to it as the tail that shook the dog,” says Richard DiMaggio, Editor of the small Consumer Press. “The large publishing houses shut everybody out for so long, all these great authors out there stood up and said I’m not going to take this anymore.”

While irate authors may or may not be ripping up their Random House contracts, it seems safe to say that those myriad small publishers are indeed driving book-business growth from the bottom up. Publishing consultant Thomas Woll–who at the time of this writing was tabulating the results of the update to “The Rest of Us”–points to Barnes & Noble’s report that its share of purchases from the 10 largest publishers has been declining, from 74% in 1994 to 46% in 1997.

“That change reflects the significant expansion in the superstores, and that expansion is coming at the expense of the big guys,” he says. But who needs the superstores? Woll adds that a three-year-old African-American health publisher he works with is ringing up a million-dollar business this year, making 90% of its sales to pharmaceutical and minority health markets.

Even trade-focused smaller publishers’ sales are soaring, if for diverse reasons. “The last couple of years have been a real period of growth and expansion for us,” says Jill Petty, Publisher and Editor at the nonprofit South End Press, which has been buoyed by strong demand for its Arundhati Roy and Noam Chomsky titles, plus the all-too-timely IraqUnderSiege. About 40% of sales go to the academic market, and Petty’s been selling to progressive religious organizations, in addition to guerrilla marketing at political demonstrations.

When it comes to thinking small, dreams of grandeur don’t hurt, either. “I’m probably a bit Napoleonic,” says Michael Wiegers, Managing Editor for Copper Canyon Press. “I realize that we are a small press, but I also like to think that when it comes to our niche–poetry–we’re a major player.” Over the past decade, Copper Canyon has ramped up from $200,000 in sales to a cool million. Improved Print on Demand technology has made possible on-demand reprints, and Wiegers is exploring using POD exclusively. “We may start using it for all of the runs, particularly in the realm of poetry, where it’s a niche market and the numbers are pretty small.”


Routes to Readers

Copper Canyon also recently offered books gratis to reading groups in exchange for detailed customer information. “I love a publishing house like FSG,” he explains, “but I would lay odds of Vegas that we know our individual readers better than they know their individual readers.”

Knowing thy readers is one thing; getting to them through a book distributor is something else again. With Ingram no longer listing small presses that do not have a distributor, and B&N working only with selected distributors (many of which require a publisher to meet a minimum title threshold), the pickings are getting slimmer all the time. Even Amazon has been stiffening its terms for Advantage Members, with a proposed $49 annual fee, plus $8 for every paper check sent to publishers who cannot accept payments electronically. (See Jan Nathan’s related May 2003 Newsletter article; it’s titled “The Cost and Changing Face of Doing Business.”) The upshot? “It’s incredibly hard to get a distributor for that first book,” says Taylor of the Small Press Center. “It’s a terrible catch-22.”

Some may want to hit up Biblio Distribution, a division of the National Book Network that handles 400 very small presses and is adding new clients at a clip of 35 per month. NBN President Jed Lyons says Biblio was launched after Ingram clamored for a more workable way to source books from small publishers–”Either the books were not being bought at all, or if they were being bought, they were being purchased in the wrong quantities,” he explains–and thus was born Biblio, which Ingram now recommends as its preferred supplier for small presses. Biblio Director Jen Linck handles the top four accounts, while commission reps handle the rest of the country. NBN’s client list is actually shrinking, as some clients hop to the less expensive Biblio, which maintains a sales organization separate from NBN. The Biblio unit hasn’t yet turned a profit, but, says Lyons, “If we can get this right and do it in such a way that we don’t lose our shirts, then I think we have an interesting business proposition.”

Meanwhile, Baker & Taylor may be offering a similar haven: John Phillips, VP, Vendor Distribution for B&T’s new Distribution Solutions Group, says they’re currently taking on publishers with revenues of $500,000 and up, and he expects to add smaller publishers (what the industry is now calling “micro publishers”) as the infrastructure gets more robust in the next 12 to 18 months.

For those who can’t get into the chains, there’s always, well, everywhere else. Susan Doerr, Marketing Director at distributor Consortium, recently polled some of the company’s 75 independent publishing clients. “The retail market is particularly tough right now,” she says. “A lot of them are talking about alternative places to sell their books. Course adoption and the academic market were mentioned in particular.”

Doerr says she’s seeing a resurgence of direct mail campaigns to drive academic sales, and to help beef up this sector, Consortium recently hired an academic and library marketing manager. “Our course adoptions are way up,” adds Laura Moriarty, Acquisition and Marketing Director for nonprofit wholesaler Small Press Distribution, which works with more than 500 small publishers. Libraries account for about 25% of SPD’s business, and grants have funded marketing campaigns that are now targeting African-American bookstores and museum shops, another growing market.


Assessing the Impact

Some may rightly caution that the small publisher impact can be overstated. “Small presses are like restaurants,” observes Jeffrey Lependorf, Executive Director of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses. Of his total database of 800 independent literary presses, he figures, “at least 200 or 300 of these are brand new and will probably not make it beyond a season.” Still, assuming that a fraction of those hardscrabble houses prevail, what might the impact be?

“It changes the perception of the book industry in the eyes of government,” says Judith Appelbaum, the PMA Newsletter’s Editor at Large who is also Managing Director of Sensible Solutions and one of the BISG members who worked on “TheRest of Us.” “It says to culture-watchers that people are reading more and buying more than we’re giving them credit for.” Even the larger publishers, she says, stand to benefit from a fuller accounting of their smaller colleagues. “It always pays to know who your competition is. If you think your competition is six people who are just like you–and if it’s really 73,000 people who are not–then you should probably be doing something differently.”

This article is reprinted with permission from “Publishing Trends,” the monthly newsletter covering the book publishing industry. For more information or to subscribe, see www.publishingtrends.com.

*Note that an updated version of “The Rest of Us” report on independent publishing is due out this month. Watch this Newsletter or visit our Web site for further information.

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