Publishing is a business plagued with many afflictions —except a lack of media attention. Reports that the Wylie Agency—among others— is launching an online imprint, that Amazon’s e-book sales outpaced hardcover * sales, and that its digital sales will surpass paperback ones in the next nine to 12 months underscore a new reality: the age of the publisher-turned-digital-curator. Simultaneously, as agents become publishers and membership in groups like the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses rises, a small-time publishing renaissance is under way. With word-of-mouth being the best way to sell a book, small presses, already experts at cultivating loyal followings, are positioned to thrive in the march toward digital distribution—but don’t count on them making a profit.
Most small presses are labors of love, with money a secondary consideration. Independent publishers, who toe the delicate line between art and commerce, aren’t in the business of selling books to become the next Simon & Schuster. Often, these members of the little-guy economy are writers, poets, and designers eager to sustain and grow the communities they inhabit to satisfy the public’s creative needs. But no matter how far these jewels may be from Random House’s Broadway office, they share a stark reality with the big houses: They need to sell books to stay afloat.
Small presses are almost like offline communities, which allows them to move more seamlessly into the digital realm than bigger houses that don’t engage audiences on an intimate level. Independent publishers literally live and die by their networks. Featherproof Books, which publishes two books per year and borrowed its 50-50 profit-sharing author model from a small record label, posts requests to buy books on Twitter and Facebook if it is having trouble making ends meet on a given month—and the audience responds. “They know where we are and we know where they are,” says co-publisher Zach Dodson of his audience.
These little entities, like many small businesses, have exchanges with readers that transcend the commercial. Like much of what transpires in the digital space, it’s personal. Consider Gavin Grant and Kelly Link of Small Beer Press. Six months before they launched Weightless Books, their new e-book portal, they relocated to Boston so their 6-month-old daughter, Ursula, could be treated for a serious lung condition. Their private lives suddenly fused with their roles as literary curators: They shared Ursula’s progress on their blog, brought their laptops to the hospital and held author meetings there. They even sold books to help raise money for their daughter’s hospital stay. “It really was an office in a way,” says Link, an author who teaches a short story writing class at Smith College.
In the little-guy economy, the personal wins. In this way, indie publishing is no different from the start-up world. “There’s a premium on the individual. Getting an e-mail from somebody who says, ‘Hey, check this out,’ means a lot more to the recipient than spam from the Random House publicity department,” said Richard Nash, formerly of Soft Skull Press and founder of Cursor, a portfolio of digital publishing communities that launches next year.
Of course, online readers can be fickle and attracting them is by no means automatic. Structures in place for selling books—wandering into bookstores, perusing covers, seeing what people are buying, talking to clerks—don’t exist online, which means that publishers, even small ones, can’t do business the same way. “A 12-, 24- or 34-year-old stumbles into things differently than a 12-, 24- or 34-year-old 20 years ago,” said Electric Literature co-founder Scott Lindenbaum, who, with co-founder Andy Hunter, * worked every day of the week for six months to ensure that the business would exist one year after they sold 3,600 iPhone apps of their literary magazine in July 2009. Embodying the little-guy economy maxim that marketing and product are becoming the same thing, they spend 70 percent of their time creating digital content and promotional material to tacitly remind trollers of YouTube, blogs, and other virtual spaces of their existence.
Because of their readership’s fealty, these publishers don’t feel the reverberations of the larger economy—as much. But there is an overarching problem that most small presses experience: They often generate only enough revenue to reinvest in the business. Small presses with skeletal operations and tiny budgets may not have the same financial pressures as the big houses. If a book sells only 25 percent of its print run, a small press won’t take the same hit as a large company that has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in a title. “If they don’t sell a certain number, they’re in trouble. For us, it’s only a few hundred copies,” said Jonathan Messinger of Featherproof Books.
Nevertheless, small-time publishing often does not reach beyond the break-even point. There’s a big discrepancy between the value these presses offer and the revenue they generate. “While the capacity to generate some kind of noise within the larger attention marketplace has improved for independent publishers, they still struggle with how to convert that into money,” said Nash.
Some are eager to grow. Last year, Electric Literature raised five figures—or “barely enough to buy a luxury sedan,” jokes Lindenbaum–from a round of investors. Earlier this summer, the business reached the break-even point and recently closed a second round of funding for several new ventures. One involves licensing its iPad app to other indie presses for either $300 or $150, depending on the content’s complexity. Unlike some companies that license apps, Electric Literature doesn’t seek royalties. As a result, participants can make up the cost quickly. The Kenyon Review, for example, will recoup the $150 text-only fee after selling just 15 copies.
Electric Literature’s approach extends beyond the stay-afloat model, which is the biggest nut independent publishing needs to crack—if small-press founders are so inclined, and many say they aren’t. But publishing in general will benefit when more of these gems are able to leverage the digital space without compromising their titles and communities.
Correction, Aug. 5, 2010:An earlier version of this article stated that Amazon e-books had outsold print books over a particular period; they outsold hardcover books only. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Correction, Aug. 6, 2010: An earlier version of this article stated that Andy Hunger is the Electric Literature co-founder; his name is Andy Hunter. (Return to the corrected sentence.) Become a fan of Slateon Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.