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You Say You Want a (Small Press) Revolution …

NEW HOPE, PA–Revolution. Renaissance. Revitalization. These are the three R’s of entrepreneurship. Any small business with a far-reaching strategy craves a revolution. Any industry or community service worth fighting for—and indeed rescuing—demands a renaissance. And any age-old profession or cultural signifier embraces the promise of revitalization.

Whether you’re a widget manufacturer in Fargo or a for-profit literary press in Brooklyn (for the sake of this argument, assume that “for-profit literary press” is not an oxymoron)—whether you believe in the Power of the individual trumpeted by Bertrand Russell or prescribe to the Hippocratic Oath of a coalition of Main Street merchants … whatever your dream, you’re chasing the same carrot as your neighboring capitalist: stability in a fractured global economy.

Given the complexity of this free market conundrum, how does the next G.P. Putnam rise above the stagnant malaise that pervades much of America’s workforce? How does the next WH Smith dig in and make an honest living to feed his or her family? How do microscopic publishers and independent bookstores do more than just survive? How do we regroup? Recover? Reboot?

Forget the three R’s. (They’re too gimmicky anyway.) The book industry needs a new mantra and Seth Godin, bless or damn his post-industrial age heart, has the means and mindset to deliver the goods. All without interference from the middleman (the bookstore).

Really, Seth? Really? Let’s cut out the heart and soul of the book business, all so that your finely crafted marketing messages can spread like wildfire without the nuisance of profit sharing. All so Amazon can back your so-called revolution: The Domino Project. Who needs those pesky book pimps, right? I mean, who are they to get in the way of your and Amazon’s bottom line, er, I mean, “fundamentally different model of virality?”

Now I understand the book business model is broken. It has been for eons and we as a professional community have made little progress to fix it. The ludicrous practice of product returns makes absolutely no sense for various economical and environmental reasons. Trees take the hardest hit, followed by publishers and authors. UPS probably doesn’t mind. But most of us are frustrated (no, make that exasperated). We want change. We need change. We must change.

Seth, your premise is sound: the current business model of the book industry is undoubtedly broken. But I vehemently oppose your solution. Essentially you’re proposing a streamlined distribution model that will afford authors the opportunity to sell their content directly to the consumer (after Amazon takes its king’s ransom, of course). On the surface, that doesn’t sound too bad. And for authors whose writing is being ignored by even small presses, that’s a viable alternative. We all know that everyone can write, right, Seth? Who needs curators, packagers, and purveyors of content when you have desktop publishing software? Why only threaten the livelihood of indie booksellers? Why stop there? You may as well eliminate publisher and distributor jobs, too. You may as well ax sales reps and public relations folks. Hell, who needs an editorial staff? There’s an app for that, right? After all, technology and an Amazonian-sized budget can handle all facets of just about any business.

Look, Seth, you’re a brilliant guy. I’ve seen you energize a roomful of independent book publishers by just making us feel empowered. Making us feel like we can do better. Blowing up staid business models, I’m all about it. Bring it on. Resourceful innovation, I’m with you. The decision to self-publish, for many, is the right one. The advent of businesses such as Smashwords is intuitively the direction we’re headed as a self-service society. But the Domino Project and Amazon partnership work for you, Seth Godin, mostly because you’re an established author and electrifying speaker. You’re the exception.

The book industry may suffer from having too many gourmet chefs in the kitchen, it’s true, but let’s not burn the restaurant menu and fire the whole staff because the old recipes suck and customers are complaining of indigestion. Let’s not vacate the premises and shutter the doors because the materials are hazardous and the old building codes don’t apply anymore.

The book industry is under fire because instead of people finding an extinguisher to put out the flames—instead of evolving with the times and changing stupid conventions, we’ve watched the flames grow higher and higher and now while they burn out of control, all some of us can think to do is abandon the wreckage and seek escape for higher yielding ground. Dear Amazon, please save us. Or at least save us a nibble.

Firefighters, listen up. Booksellers, trade publishers, small press distributors, hell, anybody who feels a kindred spirit to our yesteryear industry, pay attention, too: Seth Godin isn’t all wrong. He’s not far from the truth; he’s just not far enough in the trenches to help save the burning bush.

“The laptop is now the means of production and the internet has brought down the wall between products and the market.” That’s a Seth Godin-inspired quote. (See “Tribal Leadership and the Next Industrial Revolution” by Deepti Chada.) It’s worth bottling and selling, but it only provides a taste, a glimpse of publishing’s bright future.

Readers deserve more than Kindles and online, interactive immersion; readers deserve tangible human experience at independent bookstores like Farley’s in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Farley’s has been selling books for more than 40 years, and in order for Farley’s to stick around and be socially relevant for another 40 years, it will take a renaissance—a small press movement, an indie uprising—to make it so.

Farley’s is among a small but growing group of booksellers that is helping the The Small Press Revolution become a reality. With prominent shelf space and displays dedicated to small presses, Farley’s is showcasing small press titles in a way that drives consumer behavior and shifts the paradigm of the customer experience. This recently launched in-store program helps connect the dots and reinforces publisher identities and brands for readers in a far superior way to simply lumping these unique books into categories organized by genre or alphabetically by author.

The key to such a program’s success is predicated on a consignment arrangement, a much more straightforward and practical way for independent businesses to cooperate with less risk and more conservation of effort and resources. This Case for the Future of Indie Lit and Small Press Distribution continues to build momentum in the blogosphere and has been discussed at conferences hosted by the Independent Book Publishers Association and the American Booksellers Association. It’s long overdue to become the norm rather than the exception – and it’s a prime example of not having to reinvent the wheel to enhance standard operating procedures.

ABOUT THE INSPIRATION
These welcoming small press sections at Farley’s Bookshop in New Hope, Pennsylvania influenced my buying decision as an admirer of literary fiction and exposed me to authors and presses that I had no idea existed. I purchased One Last Good Time, a collection of stories by New Jersey native Michael Kardos (Press 53, Winston-Salem, NC) and Welcome to Oakland, a novel by Eric Miles Williamson (Raw Dog Screaming Press, Hyattsville, Md.)

The lesson for me illustrated that no matter how well informed you may think you are on a subject, there are plenty of things that remain a mystery until someone more informed than yourself brings them to your attention.

About Dan Cafaro

Dan Cafaro is the founder and publisher of Atticus Books, a small press based in Madison, N.J. When Dan is not following his wife around the country, he is known to sit for long periods of time pondering how to live off the grid. Atticus Review is his first literary journal.

1 Awesome Comments So Far

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  1. Marcus Speh
    April 1, 2011 at 12:51 pm #

    Excellent post. have reposted this at the new WAG (Writers Across Genres) community platform at http://wag.mixxt.org which is open to all writers.