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Small Press Distribution: An Interview with Brent Cunningham

Small Press Distribution: An Interview with Brent Cunningham

spd front of building

Indie publishers rely on Small Press Distribution to get their books out to readers. SPD, which is headquartered in Berkeley, CA, is staffed by some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, all knowledgeable about bookselling from the perspective of publishers and retailers. They’re in a unique position to understand the challenges from all the different perspectives. (Their how-to video series for publishers offers practical and smart advice on the various steps in getting a book out, and is worth a look if you run a press or are thinking about starting one.)

And there’s nothing like that 4-times-a-year feeling of seeing SPD’s sales summary for your books—not to mention the check!—and doing a fist pump … or head scratch.

Still, in 2015, a lot of small presses feel like the role SPD plays might be redundant (as in  Jeremy Spencer’s post here), given the fact that, well, it’s the small press world, meaning things happen on a small scale and interacting with potential customers just isn’t that hard. It’s a position I’d agree with, if SPD wasn’t actually doing a good job at somehow bringing in sales that I can’t, as evidenced by the meaningful payments they send me. They’re doing something right, and something I couldn’t otherwise do.

They sold 150,000 books last year, from about 400 presses. That’s an impressive stat I gleaned after asking some questions of Brent Cunningham, the Operations Director at SPD. I wanted to get a sense of what things are like there, and I think he ends up giving a sense of what book selling is like everywhere.

How many people work at SPD?

We have a staff of 10 here in Berkeley. We share our Executive Director, Jeffrey Lependorf, with CLMP in New York, so counting him that’s 11.

How many presses do you handle distribution for?

Currently we take on two new publishers every month or so, but publishers also regularly close up shop or move on for various reasons and exit the relationship. Hence the number has stayed pretty close to about 400 for the last five plus years.

warehouse shotHow many books ship out of there every day?

Last year we sold about 150,000 books, so that breaks down to just under 600 books every working day. Of course there are seasonal spikes, and relative down times, but these days we usually fill up our outgoing rollers with boxes every single day.

Who do you think of as your customers? Is it the people who buy the books, or the publishers?

We usually think of the publishers more like our clients, and the book buyers as our customers (if that’s a meaningful distinction). The publishers really make everything we do possible, so we spend a lot of energy trying to figure out how to serve them, represent them, or otherwise make them happy.

What’s the breakdown of people who buy from SPD, booksellers vs. individual consumers?

Here’s the approximate breakdown (and this has been pretty consistent the last five years or so): 10% of our sales go direct to individuals, 20% go to independent bookstores, 20% go to chain stores/Amazon, 15% go to college stores, 8% go direct to libraries, and about 25% go to wholesalers/jobbers. We see a handful of foreign sales and sales to some non-standard vendors as well, and those make up the final 2%.

A few years ago you stopped putting out the print catalog. What has been the effect of that? Have sales dropped off?

The beautiful, beautiful print catalog introduced me to SPD back in the 1980s. I keep all of them as a sort of personal archive. In other words, it very much continues to live in my heart and in the hearts of many SPD fans. But the fact is our sales were dramatically unaffected by discontinuing it. We’ve seen from 3% to 23% net sales growth each and every year since we discontinued the print catalog in 2012.

What have been your biggest successes?

If you’re talking about bestselling books, right now we’re coming off quite the exciting roller coaster ride with Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper (Dorothy, 2014). In May the New Yorker did a feature on her, timed to coincide with the release of her new novel from Ecco, but since most the reviews felt the Dorothy book was better we saw yet another wave of enormous sales for our title. Even so, the lifetime sales of the Zink book aren’t that far ahead of some of our perennial bestsellers (which often become bestsellers because they are taught semester after semester in a lot of classes). The short list of books that have gone especially gangbusters over the last decade is quite various, and would include titles like Sherman Alexie’s poetry books on Hanging Loose, John Murillo’s Up Jump the Boogie on Cypher, The Arcadia Project anthology on Ahsahta, Heather Christle and Patricia Lockwood’s books on Octopus, filmmaker Natanial Dorsky’s Devotional Cinema on Tuumba, Fred Moten’s Feel Trio on Letter Machine Editions, many of the Rose Metal Press “Field Guides,” and a twenty-five year old title you might have heard of called Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldua (which is of course as much of a classroom staple as small press books tend to get).

spd front officesWhat has been the hardest thing to deal with in the last few years?

I know this will sound like one of those answers people give when they’re asked in a job interview to list their weaknesses, but honestly it’s been the problem of dealing with our recent success. We have to think really hard about how to manage our increasing sales in a way that serves publishers, improves the buying process for the book buyers, and also positions SPD for the future. As soon as a non-profit 501c3 has even a little bit of financial stability there are a lot of competing ideas for what the literary field really needs from an organization trying to serve it. This is an ongoing conversation among our board, our staff, and all our constituents, so as I said before feedback is welcome and constantly ongoing.

How much of your operating budget comes from book sales? What other funding do you get?

We’re a bit of a non-standard non-profit that way, insofar as our earned income (which in our case is almost entirely from book sales) is around 85% of our budget. The support of the NEA has been absolutely crucial for many decades, as has the support from the Haas Foundation. Recently both the California Arts Council and the Berkeley Arts Commission have been reliable supporters as well, and of course the individual donations are also precious. We sell a lot of books, but at the same time the 15% we fundraise is what makes the whole thing possible since otherwise we’d have to base all our decisions on the logic of the market, and I can tell you that that would swiftly mean a lot of great works—writers I care about a lot, writers I’m sure you care about, and for that matter some rather widely recognizable names across a lot of reader communities—would have no route into the US book trade to speak of.

How does Amazon affect your business?

We sell into Amazon so, on the one hand, they have without question helped bump our sales up to a new level. At the same time the authors, the publishers, and SPD itself is better off financially when we get more direct sales, so we do try to grow our core community and educate them that buying books closer to the source is better for the field generally. Amazon is a knife that cuts at least two ways, in that sense.

What are the big mistakes you see publishers making over and over?

To me there are three crucial things to get right as a publisher. First, you have to get the economics right, which means really knowing the per book cost and most of all pricing the book correctly. Some might find it disillusioning to think about money off the bat, and I certainly wish it wasn’t the case, but structuring the dollars in a clear-eyed way is what ultimately produces a sustainable publishing project, which is what we hope we’re facilitating here. Second, you have to really triple check your bibliographic data and release it in a timely way. These days everything is digital, i.e. everything reproduces itself easily, so it’s extremely hard to catch up to mistakes in either the core book information or even in the timing of when you released that information. Last, I think a lot of small publishers assume they have to do marketing and publicity in the same way mid-sized and large publishers do it, with ads and big splashes across the largest media they can find. In many cases, however, they should be taking advantage of their relative freedom to broadcast message about their books that are maybe weirder, or more heartfelt, or more heretical, or more substantial, or more provocative, than anything those larger presses could come up with. In other words, small publishers sometimes forget to work outward from their immediate community, from their strengths and the strengths of their authors, instead trying to fit themselves and their authors into the book industry’s pre-existing parameters for publicity. Yet we all know by now that the weird, heartfelt, heretical, substantial, or provocative message travels a lot farther across social media, where the economics are also better for small presses trying to get the word out.

What are the things publishers can do to make your job easier? What are your pet peeves when dealing with publishers?

Beyond doing the above, I would just encourage them to ask a lot of questions about the book industry, learning everything they can about how it tends to work. When publishers become a tad hard to deal with (almost never, truly) it is almost inevitably because they have a certain notion of SPD’s size and clout, or anyway some notion of us as a corporate, faceless behemoth, that’s quite far from the reality.

What are we talking about in terms of numbers? How many sales makes a book a top seller?

We release monthly bestseller lists, and it can really depend on the month. A book has to sell more in December to get on the list than it does in June, for instance. I’d put it this way: if a book sells 100 in a given month, it’s probably going to be on the top 10 no matter what month we’re in.

What does it take to get a book into Barnes & Noble?

Into the brick and mortar stores you mean? We make sure our books are on, and they are a very good customer in that sense, but the structure at BN for what they call “in-store placement” requires a serious and fairly commercial marketing plan to even consider trying to get a book in there. Think of it this way: most our presses are publishing their books digitally, maybe 50 or 100 at a time, or if they print offset their run is usually 500, maybe 750 or 1,000 tops. If BN agreed to place books in the stores they would want so many copies on that order it would trigger the need for a reprint. Meanwhile, the press would risk seeing a large percentage of those books come back as returns, which could be financially ruinous. The short answer is that Barnes & Noble would probably admit that their physical stores are not the best channel for small press titles, and given the internet exists it’s not actually necessary.

What do other distributors, like Consortium, do that SPD can’t?

Consortium is simply far larger, which provides them with certain advantages in terms of access to the decision-makers in the more commercial retail environment. They also have reps physically visiting the stores and sitting down with the booksellers, which can be an advantage for certain books (not, however, the average small press book which a rep might not get around to mentioning in the meeting). But of course SPD has certain advantages as well, including the fact that we sell directly to readers and therefore have a specific and relatively well-defined community surrounding us. We also, of course, have a mission to help provide access to great literature, which means we’re willing to have conversations with presses who don’t have all that much obvious commercial potential but who are nevertheless producing great, important, or even just pretty interesting works.

I heard somewhere that since Bookscan doesn’t track poetry sales, your sales numbers are definitive for tracking national bestsellers. Am I making that up?

You are indeed making that up! I think Bookscan does include poetry if the sale gets made, but you’re right that it’s useless data, mostly because the numbers are so small all kinds of factors can tweak it. For instance a lot of the transactions for poetry books take place outside the traditional retail environment anyway, which is all that Bookscan can measure. In terms of publications and sales, SPD’s overall place in the book industry is hard to determine even for us. However, if you want really, really broad guesswork I’d suppose that, discounting the hordes of poetry books and chapbooks and zines and the like without ISBNs, and also discounting self-published books printed for extremely limited audiences, the four hundred presses at SPD represent maybe a quarter of the poetry book titles published in the US in a given year. Maybe. It’s really impossible to get the real figures so I can say whatever I want, but that could be close.  The other three quarters are published by university presses, by larger “independent” presses who use for-profit distributors like Consortium or PGW, and by the majors (who famously publish only a tiny smattering of poetry). It’s even harder to figure out who is selling the most volume of those titles, and what that volume is.  Personally, I’m quite convinced a lot of small presses sell close to as many copies of each title as anybody else. As long as we’re on that subject I’ll also say that, for me, one of the beautiful things about this particular genre is that the numbers for a poet selling a ton of books (for poetry) and the numbers for a poet selling barely anything are probably not that far apart. The relatively marginality of poetry in the book industry really levels things, and while that can be depressing in some ways it does potentially make for a more egalitarian art form, an art form open to a broader diversity of voices, and the like. People (and institutions especially) often presume one poet to have a lot more cultural capital than another, but as far as I’ve been able to determine the actual sales figures don’t underwrite most of those presumptions in a meaningful way.  Fiction is a different story, but I’d be suspicious of anyone claiming any kind of status based on sales of poetry books.

What would you innovate, if you had the resources? Will you be doing drone delivery any time soon?

No to drones. Just no. As for innovation, yes, we want to, have, and will continue to. But for us innovation starts by doing some real listening. We just completed both a publisher survey and a reader survey, and the results are that we have some clear directions we need to innovate towards. The publishers say they want more and better marketing, so we need to take our own advice and find creative, substantial, heretical, and certainly also innovative ways to get messages out about our books. The readers, meanwhile, mostly say they want an entity selling books that isn’t just about profit, but has some substantial reasons, some passion, some idealism, behind what they do. That’s something we love hearing, and we feel that, over time, passion will trump any corporatized value for “innovation” anyway.

patsy cline

Adam Robinson
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About The Author

Adam Robinson

Adam Robinson lives in Atlanta and runs Publishing Genius Press. He is the author of two poetry collections, Adam Robison and Other Poems and Say Poem.

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