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Venture Capital for the Literary Set

A few years ago, Jim Bildner was among sixty-five "hopeful, starry-eyed" writers who attended a panel discussion on publishing at Lesley College, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he was a student in the MFA program. The editors on the panel, he recalls, "did nothing but depress us all about the cruel reality of the publishing business."

Bildner tried to think of a way to change that. He briefly considered starting a new press, but decided that was "the last thing the world needs." Convinced that "there had to be a better way to help support, promote, and sustain literature," in May 2005 he created the Literary Ventures Fund (LVF), a foundation whose mission is to provide financial support for individual books, regardless of who is publishing them. In the two and a half years since the LVF was founded, each of the twelve titles it's adopted, including Sam Savage's Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife (Coffee House Press, 2006) and Lynne Tillman's American Genius: A Comedy (Soft Skull Press, 2007), has made a profit.

The LVF is rooted in what Bildner calls "venture philanthropy." Like a venture capital firm, it is a "partner-in-risk" with its clients—in this case, publishers and authors—and acts as both investor and consultant. As investor, the LVF puts capital into a commodity (books of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction) that it hopes will produce good returns. The money may be used by a publisher to print additional copies of a specific title, or by an author to help defray the costs of spending more time writing. As consultant, the LVF offers assistance with public relations and marketing to help authors, publishers, and booksellers get more books in front of as many readers as possible.

"We invest a sum of money—seventy-five hundred to fifty thousand dollars—in a work," Bildner explains. "Our return for that is on a per book basis over a threshold. If a publisher thought a work would sell two thousand copies, on the first sales to that threshold, we get nothing. Everything after that we see a return." The LVF's rate of return, he says, approximates a standard royalty rate (between 10 and 15 percent of the net price of each copy of the book sold). "It's important to remember that if a book is not successful, our return is zero," Bildner adds.

The LVF staff consists of executive director Jeffrey Lependorf, who is also the director of the nonprofit Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, which merged with the LVF in 2005; editorial director Ande Zellman, who has held senior positions at the Boston Globe and Newsweek; and strategic marketing director Kate Travers, once a senior editor at HarperCollins. Its board of directors includes Harold Augenbraum (executive director of the National Book Foundation), Nicole Dewey (director of publicity at Doubleday), Jonathan Karp (publisher of Hachette Book Group imprint Twelve), James Miller (editor of Daedalus), and Sara Nelson (editor in chief of Publishers Weekly).

The LVF welcomes proposals from authors, agents, and publishers; books are considered based on literary merit and marketing potential, as well as for what Lependorf calls long-term sustainability. "Even with the best book, once it's published, the publisher moves on to the next book," he says. "We will never be done; we will keep that book on the shelf."

One of the projects the LVF has created to ensure this sustainability is JumpStart, which offers independent booksellers a 60 percent discount if they buy twenty-five nonreturnable copies of a book. "It really does jump-start a book's popularity and sales," Lependorf says. "Booksellers get behind the book because they need to sell those copies."

Monique and the Mango Rains, Kris Holloway's memoir about her experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, which was published by Waveland Press in Long Grove, Illinois, is one of the LVF's more impressive success stories. After attending a presentation Hellman gave in 2006, Holloway, who lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, submitted a proposal. The LVF adopted the book, which was published in December of that year, and helped market it by contacting a number of independent booksellers in New England, setting up a regional tour for the author, and developing a media kit and reading group guide that can be downloaded from the foundation's Web site. As of this writing, the book has sold more than fifteen thousand copies.

Interested individuals are encouraged to first send a query to the LVF, whereupon they will be advised as to whether they should submit a formal application. "I'm not worried about getting a thousand people contacting us," Bildner says. "Hit the Web site, send an e-mail. We really want to be as inclusive as possible."

For more information, visit the foundation's Web site at www.literaryventuresfund.org.

Anne Trubek is an associate professor at Oberlin College.

“Like a venture capital firm, the LVF is a 'partner-in-risk' with its clients—in this case, publishers and authors—and acts as both investor and consultant.”

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Venture Capital for the Literary Set (January/February 2008)
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