Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Business of Micro Press

Art Noose sells her writing at PIX: Pittsburgh Indy Comics Expo (October 2010).

As a publisher, I am currently seeking viable options for funding future titles on my very-very-small press. Here are the primary options for funding small press projects, as I see it:

1. Out of pocket funding. Fine if you have it (especially if you have it over and above your monthly expenses). Obviously, sometimes very small runs on micro press operations don't have to set you back much--say, $300, or maybe $100 or less. That could be a good run of a zine, or a short run of a chapbook or xeroxed novella, or a POD book, etc. However, I believe that a not-insignificant portion of my credit card debt is made up of such "lo-fi" ventures.

2. Collective out of pocket funding. I have known small presses that were literary collectives, and I assume (though I'm not positive), that some of their (early?) books were funded by everyone chipping in. Still, this theory breaks down, because everyone in the collective eventually wants to do a book of their own, so that really points back to similar expenses of a one-person small press.

3. The pre-order. Recently a friend had a poetry book coming out on a respectable small press, and he wrote to all his friends saying that the book wasn't going to happen until X amount of people ordered it. The order fee was higher than the normal price of the book, but it included a deluxe package of a signed poetry book and an extensive sound recording by the author and a collaborator. The pre-order might be a pretty solid option, but someone involved (either the author or the publisher) has to have a lot of loyal friends, or have made a name for themselves. This method is not necessarily recommended for totally unknowns.

4. The grant. Need I say much more here? Grant money is very handy if you can get it, and I believe that after you've gotten one grant, that greases the wheels for future grants. But if you're not in the grant habit or the grant circuit, it can be a long road: learning how to write a great-looking proposal, researching appropriate grant opportunities, figuring out how to become eligible for a grant (ie 501c status, etc.), waiting and hoping to get a grant. I also know several small presses and authors who don't believe in grants, who think of them as shady tax loopholes where people with money can get more money. The grant option is not for everyone.

5. Subscriptions. I am thinking of one micro-press that publishes quarterly runs of his mini-poetry journal. This journal has a decent subscription base, and in any case the prices seem to be geared to cover the cost of printing (which he does on a good black & white printer out of his home) and postage, but not much more. This seems like an utterly sane equation to me. The poetry journal in question is a labor of love, yet it basically covers its own costs. Over the years, the journal has gained a loyal audience, but it is almost exclusively distributed through the mail; the publisher does not have to deal with other types of distribution; and if he chooses, he can gear his print runs to the number of subscribers.

I think that one question I am posing in this blog post is, In an age of such widespread debt, how long is it before a Labor of Love is no longer loveable?

6. Sales revenue. Whether a book, zine, or other small press project proves to sell as much as it cost to create is still a crapshoot in my experience. The cost of getting a book noticed by and sold to people who will read it is counted not only in material or printing fees, but also in time. We may not pay for advertisements--we of the small press, we of the savvy social media age. But bothering to put out a small press book means bothering to spend massive amounts of time promoting the book on Facebook, posting on blogs, talking it up to reviewers, finding the right distros, making fliers, dropping books off at bookstores, and of course arranging or doing readings. One of the best ways to promote your book is by doing lots of readings, preferably around the country.

In other words, the small press might ask for your whole life: Make sure it's something you enjoy doing. (Small press might be a verb disguised as a noun.)

7. The fundraiser. Hosting a reading with a door fee (at a venue willing to keep their own fee low) comes to mind, but I don't actually know that many presses who have used this method besides:

7a. Kickstarter. Kickstarter, the internet fundraiser site, has some great potential for very small and micro presses. I have seen authors and presses use Kickstarter as a pre-order vehicle, as a publicity vehicle, and as a flat-out donation vehicle. Check out one successful literary project here and one still-fundraising graphic novel project here. You can browse their Writing and Publishing category here.

8. Patrons. Do they exist anymore? Are they common? Are some small presses funded by parents and families of the publisher? And, more importantly, when patronage is involved, is it ever disclosed? For some reason, I feel that the transparency of how the small press is funded is crucial to creating a fertile soil for the free press. Can the greatest number of people get their words, views, and work into the public sphere if the Haves are hoarding and protecting knowledge of the financial side of publishing from the Have Nots? The small press world is still overwhelmingly white and very college educated. Surely this is not because we have that much more to say than other Americans, or because our stories are so much more valuable. The means of production must be transparent, and hopefully made widely accessible as well.

I also feel that we need the freedom to contradict, critique, annoy, and piss off the generations that came before us (if need be), and patronage in publishing could stand, explicitly or subconsciously, as a hinderance to frankness of literary content.


I'm not trying to make the small press all about the bottom line. The small press is not about money. Life in America IS about money, and we get involved in the arts to retain some of our humanity. But, life in America is about money. The cost of living is constantly going up, up, up, while wages are not keeping pace. And if we're always spending more than we earn back on the small press projects we produce, we're going to burn out. I want us to be sustainable.

How do YOU fund your micro press endeavors? What's your perspective on the subject of money and the small press?

If any small press, lit mag, or micro press publishers are reading this and are willing to share their thoughts or experiences on financing literary endeavors, please speak up.


Laura the Poet said...

Weave was lucky enough to get grant funding from The Sprout Fund and that really kicked us off. However, all that money has been spent and we are alive with mostly sales from each issue. We do have a handful of lovely wonderful awesome good-hearted people who donate money and subscribe, but mostly the money comes from sales and me. I'm working on building up a subscriber base. I also want to apply for more grant money, but we need to get nonprofit status, which requires - you guessed it - money! It sometimes gets a little precarious, but we have managed it this way for three years so I'm hopeful that we'll get to a stable place in the next couple of years.

Raindog said...

I have been running a micro press operation for almost 18 years now and have had some success with subscriptions, patrons, donations and, recently, presales of a title. Up until the last couple of years I had outside work, but now I'm trying to rely on my press for income. So far, it's mostly miss with the occasional hit. I'd sure like to hear from someone who'd like to point me in a right direction... I'm not a non-profit but I have applied for some grants (waiting stages). These days I have published over 20 titles using POD and have had several titles sell more than 100 copies (still pretty sad, if you ask me), but most of the titles are not selling (mostly poetry). I've been at this a long time, but am open to suggestions.

Karen Lillis said...

@Raindog, I don't have a lot of answers for you, but I can tell you what I've heard over and over: "There is no money in small press" and Poetry audiences are historically modest. Doing business in poetry is often a labor of love--trying to figure out how to support the business in order to keep publishing or selling the poetry that sells at a slower pace. In other words, some bookstores feature poetry but know they have to make their bread and butter off of best selling novels or high-end art books in order to keep supporting their poetry section. Or, some poetry-only presses sustain themselves through publishing well-known poetry names along with unknowns. Other publishers have spent years cultivating an audience (by publishing a certain quality and maybe a certain type of writer/writing) in order to get their customers to trust them as a press: "Whatever we put out, you'll like, even if you haven't heard of them." Some publishers start a journal or put out anthologies or samplers in order to help grow that audience. Often people who haven't heard of a press or its authors will take a chance on a journal or anthology and get drwn in that way. Good luck to you!

Karen Lillis said...

This is a blog post by writer/publisher Roxanne Gay called "Lessons I've Learned Starting a Micropress":

Raindog said...

Wow, Karen, apparently bloggers are as slow as molasses too! Since I wrote my first query in June, I have pretty much hit rock bottom with book sales. The grant apps never worked out, and I have been scraping by doing odd jobs and selling books (went on a 15 day road trip and sold books at 7 readings - averaging around 6-8 books per night). I've started selling my possessions to keep my apartment. In 2012, I plan to publish less books, offer more deals (3 for the price of 2 or 20% off, for example), and am bring my old magazine out of the closet and publishing it as an annual. Just like you mentioned. Also looking into E-Books (tho hard to do for poetry because of the line breaks etc...difficult formatting). And yes, I know that publishing poetry is about the hardest thing to tackle, but that's the way I'm wired.