Balancing the Books

Kevin Nance
From the January/February 2009 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

As the crisis on Wall Street trickles down to Main Street, businesses of all kinds are responding to the gloomy economic climate with a variety of belt-tightening measures. Independent literary publishers are among the smaller, more vulnerable operations that are reacting to real and projected downturns in orders, sales, and, in the case of nonprofit houses, philanthropic giving.

In addition to the slowdown in sales, nonprofit publishers are facing potential decreases in the donations that often make up the majority of their revenue.

Some publishers are in flat-out retrenchment mode. Atlas & Co., the nonfiction publisher founded by James Atlas six years ago, recently postponed its spring 2009 list (which included a biography of George Eliot by Brenda Maddox) due to money problems, while a cash crunch at the San Francisco-based MacAdam/Cage led to staff layoffs; casualties included editors Khristina Wenzinger and Dave Adams, and marketing director Melanie Mitchell. Several other publishers have reported less drastic measures, but almost all express rising anxiety about the economic outlook and its potential effect on their ability to acquire, print, and market new books.

"Like everybody else, we're struggling because of the bad economy," says Johnny Temple, publisher of Akashic Books in Brooklyn, New York, whose fall list included The Sacrificial Circumcision of the Bronx, the second novel in Arthur Nersesian's Five Books of Moses series. "We're very worried about the future. Book sales are down, not just for us but across the board. And we're bracing ourselves for the economy to get worse. Anybody who tells you they're not worried is lying."

Temple goes on to say that he doesn't know exactly how badly sales are lagging compared with last year, but his "educated guess" is that this year will see a 20 percent drop. So far, he notes, no titles have been canceled and no staff members have been laid off, but two editors who recently left the company voluntarily will probably not be replaced, and the remaining staff's hours are being cut. Temple also anticipates that less money will be available for promotion of new titles.

At Graywolf Press, in Minneapolis, marketing director Rolph Blythe takes a more measured but still sober tone. "We did experience, as did a lot of publishers, some last-minute changes in the fall orders," he admits, "but I'd say we're in a good position in that we've had a couple of recent successes that make us feel confident going into 2009." Blythe, no doubt, is referring to the October announcements that Refresh, Refresh author Benjamin Percy had won a fifty-thousand-dollar Whiting Award and Salvatore Scibona was a finalist for a National Book Award for his debut novel The End. "But in terms of our budgeting," he goes on, "we're definitely playing it safe. We're watching every dollar in terms of marketing and advances."

In addition to the slowdown in sales, nonprofit publishers are facing potential decreases in the donations that often make up the majority of their revenue. "It's a double whammy," says Nora A. Jones, executive director and publisher of BOA Editions, in Rochester, New York, who depends on gifts from individuals and foundations, government grants, and fund-raising activities for about 60 percent of the press's budget. "That 60 percent is in grave jeopardy as we move forward, because individual donors are much less generous in an economy where they're uncertain of their own finances. Government grants are being cut back because the government is up to its eyeballs in debt. And it's that much more challenging to get people to a fund-raising event, because they're cutting corners. Where you once could ask $125 a plate for a dinner, now people will hesitate and not come at all. So you do it for $90 a plate and end up not making very much, after expenses. It's a huge challenge," Jones concludes.

Most unnerving of all, perhaps, is that the full effect of last autumn's economic downturn may not be felt until early this year, when unsold books from the fall lists are returned. Although books are traditionally a popular gift item during the holiday season, many presses anticipated that families would be spending less as household budgets tightened. ("Never in all of the years I've been in business have I seen a worse outlook for the economy," Barnes & Noble chairman Leonard Riggio wrote in an e-mail to employees in late October. "And never in all my years as a bookseller have I seen a retail climate as poor as the one we are in. Nothing even close.")

Despite the doom and gloom, small independent publishers do enjoy certain advantages in an economic downturn compared with their larger commercial and corporate counterparts. For one thing, independent publishers tend to be thriftier than the big New York houses, which are known for their relatively high overhead and their penchant for awarding huge advances for manuscripts that fail to become best-sellers. "Smaller publishers are in a better position, period, in good or bad times," says Joseph Bednarik, marketing and sales director of Copper Canyon Press, a poetry publisher based in Port Townsend, Washington, whose spring list includes titles by James Galvin, Jim Harrison, Gregory Orr, and Alberto Ríos. "We live on such small margins already—we know how to use the second side of a piece of paper. We're not Wall Street; we're not leveraged in those ways, and we don't play those games."

On the other hand, Bednarik concedes, operating on relatively small margins leaves little room for error; a shoestring budget can quickly turn into a noose: "We can get hammered pretty hard by returns, for example. I've seen a number of small presses go under, and it's usually because of some cash-flow issue. Our world is kind of littered with those bodies."

Still, publishers like Copper Canyon may benefit from another intangible: quality. "We need that, especially now, in hard times," Bednarik says. "People who look to poetry for strength and solace will continue to do so in these times."

Kevin Nance is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.