John Martin pulled the plug on Black Sparrow Press. The fact that one more small press bit the dust wouldn't be big news, but for those who believe in the power of symbols and metaphors, Black Sparrow Press going flat-line means the end of an era in the world of publishing. Another literary device that one can attach to its passing is irony, for Black Sparrow, considered one of the leading purveyors of fine writing is now in the hands of Random House which itself long past the days when Bennett Cerf made that Random House synonymous with great literature, is now owned by the kingpin of the sensationalistic media, Rupert Murdoch. For most small presses to be bought out by a big fish like Random House would be a dream come true, but for those who know American literature, the acquisition was nothing short of sacrilege, akin to say McDonalds presenting meals by Wolfgang Puck or Disney Inc. adding the Guggenheim to its theme park empire..
However, the truth of the matter is that Black Sparrow is in better hands than if it were to be turned over to 99.9% of small presses in operation, the vast majority of whom probably never even heard of Black Sparrow. Black Sparrow from its humble start of publishing poet Charles Bukowski on mimeographed sheets, prided itself on finding, supporting and developing literary talent, a mission that is far removed from the mission statements of just about every publishing house in today's profit-centered information age. When Martin was asked during a National Public Radio interview about the sale of Black Sparrow to Murdoch's News Corporation Ltd., one of six media groups that own publishing houses worldwide, he told one reporter, "That's just business." (Hansen & Ydstie NPR)
State of the Market
The birth of the PC and the globalization of the Internet has permanently altered the publishing industry in no less dramatic a fashion than Gothenburg's development of the first printing press half a millennium ago. It would be virtually impossible to know exactly how many publishers exist today in the world. The 135,000 books published this past year (and that only includes those registered with Browker, keeper of the world's ISBN system) (Italie, AP online) indicates that America still loves to read, that our fascination with the printed word has not succumbed to the age of visual entertainment, but it also tells of a saturated market where anybody with a PC and $89 worth of software can become a published author. Consider that 2.39 billion books -- including new and old releases -- were sold in 2002,down from 2.41 in 2000, (Italie) and one realizes just how small a piece of the pie each press is served.
The independent bookstores (known in the industry as "indies') are in trouble, if not on the edge of extinction, being replaced in part by larger chain stores such as Barnes and Noble, and Borders who pull in customers with coffee shop atmospheres and non-book products. The chains can negotiate volume deals with publishers, while also offering customers discount on propriety books -- titles that are published under their own labels. Internet booksellers, most notably the avaricious Amazon.com have made it so that book customers can find just about any title at below suggested retail.
The challenges to the economy over the last two years have greatly impacted the indies.. This September was the "eighth month in a row in which bookstore sales failed to keep up with overall retail (although) sales were 3.2% better than September of 2001." (ABA 2002)
California independent bookstore owner, Nicky Salan says, "Most of America's books, up until about 12 or 15 years ago, were sold in independent bookstores, We used to have a little better than 50% of the market. Now we have 17%. Over 2,000 bookstores have gone out of business in the last 10 years." (Farrington, online at NOE). The article from which that quote was taken also made mention of the fact that the public's appetite for used books will keep the independents alive. Written in 1999, the article did not foresee one of Amazon's latest marketing pitches. Tracking customers book purchases, they inform them of the demand for their purchased books and now offer the opportunity to resell them through the Amazon site.
This practice is another way Amazon is using the book industry as a loss leader," said Alex Levin, former head of now defunct small press Hedgehoghill, said in an interview with this writer. "Their discounting practices make it difficult to compete, even when the publishers offers their own discounts. Our best selling title is now being sold by Amazon below our cost to them, virtually killing our web business, just so they can sell more electronics and higher end items." (Levin 2002)
Levin noted that a certain amount of subtle collusion goes on, as Amazon listed the book without input, grabbing the title from the lists of either Browker or distributor Baker and Taylor. With such a volume of small presses, most stores will shy away from dealing with presses and will often times only deal with one or two small distributors, most commonly industry leaders Ingram and Baker and Taylor. Even those distributors who are independent or regional-based will often times contract with those two so as to get exposure for their titles. (Levin)
Due to accusations of unfair practices from publishers and small bookstores alike, the chains are for the most part unwilling to talk about propriety sales.
A making the total size of this market difficult to estimate. Barnes and Noble "is now publishing 3,000 titles, spanning an array of proprietary strategies: licensing titles directly from domestic and international publishers as well as from literary agents; commissioning books directly from authors; reprinting classic titles in the public domain; and creating compilations using in-house editors." (Publishing Trends March 2002)
Online libraries are also cutting into the market. Such sites as elibrary and questia make it advantageous to download rather than purchase books..
Small presses dot the landscape, but very few ever become viable. The average small press has a very short life expectancy-- about four years for the minority who actually see a book to print and much shorter for the majority of fledgling author/publishers who more than likely never overcome all the hurdles to get their manuscripts from good idea to actual hard copy.
With more books now being published than ever, it's the marketing not the quality that determines whether a book will make it or not. Most previously, unpublished writers are discovering that they are better off publishing their own first book rather than face the difficulties with getting the backing of a publishing company and then doing the promotion. As a rule, large publishers will seldom spend money on first time authors. According to Levin, many authors are saying, "If I have to do all the legwork, then I might as well self-publish and receive all the profits."
For every King and Rowling, there are thousands of authors with garages full of books that they cannot market. With the Big Six (see below) tying up the entire media industry, getting the word out requires an incredible amount of perseverance.
Seldom does a small press turn a profit, and more than likely the most profitable segment in the world of the small press is a secondary industry that in support of small presses serves up consultation, editing, design assistance, and marketing strategies to those who think that with a little bit of luck they will end up richer than Gail Rowling. One can find literally thousands of web sites offering such services
With paper and ink prices on the rise many small presses are resulting to overseas printers, most often in Asia. Specialty markets seem to be the key to a small press' ability to survive. Finding a niche and getting to that audience are keys to success.
Just a few years ago it seemed quite obvious to just about every forecaster that the future of publishing would be in ebooks, but it just isn't happening.
By 2001, of course, expectations had been brutally downsized, and last week might have seemed like the nail in the coffin, as Reuters announced that Gemstar would try to dump its ebook business, including RocketeBook and Softbook, under the feeble proviso that a sale would occur "if a buyer emerged." (Publishing Trends 2002)
It is unlikely that ebooks will fully replace printed books anytime soon as traditional readers still prefer something they can hold in their hands. Efforts two years ago by Stephen King to publish a book strictly online proved to be a failure, as although generating numbers that would be the envy of any small press, they were miniscule compared to his traditional sales. The future might see an upswing in ebooks, as Microsoft and others have recently launched new products that make the use of downloadable books easier.