Beyond the Big Six: December’s BBL on Independent Publishing

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Indie BBL

On Monday, December 10, YPG members gathered in the warm wombish AAP offices to a panel discussion on independent presses. Panelists included Erika Goldman, Publisher and Editorial Director at Bellevue Literary Press; Bronwen Hruska, Publisher of Soho Press; Paul Koslowski, Associate Publisher at Other Press, and Michael Reynolds, Editor-in-Chief at Europaeditions. The panel was moderated by Derry Wilkins, Publicity Manger for Children’s and YA at Sourcebooks.

Highlighting the diversity of small presses, our panelists represented a wide range of publishing ventures. However, moderator Derry Wilkins challenged the panelists to first define independent presses. Trying to characterize the traits of independent presses is akin to philosophizing on the nature of fruit by only considering oranges, kiwis, bananas, and prickly pears. This seemingly simple question—and its complex answer—dominated the course of the hour-long discussion.

What defines an independent press? Erika Goldman started the conversation by underscoring the scope of operations of independent publishers. Indies range from everything between micropresses to large commercial mainstream presses. By definition an indie press is one independently owned rather than corporately owned. This grants, among other things, a greater agility and sense of control over the press’s destiny. Bronwen Hruska remarked that their independent status has allowed Soho Press, with its staff of 10, to try fun ventures that have proven successful. Michael Reynolds pointed out that while there is an astonishing diversity of indie presses, all share one commonality: how they are staffed. Their limited operations necessitate small cadres of creative people of great versatility. “It is both challenging and taxing,” he said. Similarly, Bellevue Literary Press, a project of the NYU School of Medicine, only has three full-time employees.

However, indie presses rarely operate entirely on their own. As Paul Koslowski stated, many are still allied to large companies. There are a number of things that many small presses outsource. For example, many do not maintain their own warehousing, nor do they have accounts payable and receivable departments. Conversely, their budgets allow for some imaginative endeavors: “If we want to hire a bicyclist to deliver books in a neighborhood, we can do it,” Paul continued. “There’s room to play.”

Ever wary of oversimplifying and overgeneralizing, Erkia reminded the panel that there exist a multitude of models. Some indies do their own distribution. Some do their own sales calls. Nevertheless, there are times when having ally comes in handy. It is not unheard of for small presses to be unable to handle unexpected success. Erika is particularly qualified to speak on the nature of surprising triumph. Paul Harding’s novel Tinkers, published by Bellevue Literary Press, won the 2010 Pulitzer for Fiction. Demand for the book surged overnight, and with the support of their distributor Consortium, Bellevue Literary Press was able to act quickly and reprint the book in bulk, a project they could not have done without the aid of Consortium.

In every publisher’s ongoing effort to drum up success, there is the constant challenge of marketing and publicity. With limited resources, most indie presses can’t crash books onto the market at any given moment. Again, a lack of resources demands creativity. When they do throw money at a book, Bronwen remarked, “It’s a terrifying moment, like going to Vegas and saying, ‘Put it all on red and go!’” And it can be worth it, Soho Crime’s Boy in the Suitcase by Lene Kaaberbol struck gold and landed on the New York Times bestseller list.

Unfortunately, there’s only so much money. Indie presses have of course taken up the social media marketing steam engine. But the panel all remarked that they continue to find face-to-face meetings with booksellers and librarians extremely effective, especially independent bookstores. “They’re the loudmouths,” said Erika. One panelist shared that half of their book sales come from independent bookstores.

To get the edge in a market, many small presses have found niches in which to thrive. This in combination with careful and diligent branding has been particularly advantageous for Soho and Europa. Soho is widely known for its international crime fiction, especially its series. With a few bestsellers under their belt and a commitment to high caliber works of the crime genre, Soho has created a brand with continuing longevity. In a similar manner, Europa has become the preeminent publisher of English translations of contemporary European literature. “Care and time in curating our respective brands separates us from big publishers,” Michael said. “That’s the principal way of establishing brand recognition.” Additionally, though their list is eclectic, Europa Editions have a cohesive jacket design with sustained motifs to make their books instantly recognizable on a shelf.

Asked about the future of the industry and the longevity of indie publishers, the panel posited that they are uniquely suited to survive the chaos of the market. “Wonderful books won’t make the 25,000 first printing requirement with big advances by the Big Five-and-a-Half,” Erika said. “We have the nimbleness and the vision to snag those books.”
With narrow margins and few vacations, what continues to drive the folks at independent publishers? Vision and passion and gritty determination. “There are many reasons for printing a book,” said Paul. “The reason at Other Press: We love it.”

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