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If No One Can Find My Book, Does It Exist?

Poetry book distribution business shaken by a recent series of buyouts.
The recent buyout of several smaller, independent distributors by Perseus Books Group sent shock waves though the world of poetry publishing. After years of small presses dealing with small distributors, the presses found themselves facing a growing corporation. Travis Nichols investigates.

Noah Eli Gordon, a young poet living in Denver, believes he’s found the best way to get his books out to potential readers.

“I give them all away for free,” Gordon explains. “Instead of money, I ask the publishers for books, and then I mail them out to other poets I admire.”

Gordon frames his giveaway as part of a long poetry tradition rather than a symptom of a troubled marketplace.

“It’s like in Vita Nuova,” Gordon says, “when Dante writes about how a young poet would write a poem and then send it to the other, older poets in the community. If the poem was good enough, the young poet would then gain entry into their world.”

Although Gordon has won numerous poetry prizes—most significantly the National Poetry Series with his book Novel Pictorial Noise, forthcoming from Harper Perennial—he still sees giving the things away for free as a sound distribution model. Since no poet can earn a living, even a modest one, on book sales alone, and so many poetry titles sit unread on bookstore shelves, why not?

“I’m probably a publisher’s nightmare,” Gordon says, “but I want the books to get read.”

Getting poetry books read has always been a challenge in a society where poetry is marginalized, practically invisible. Yet now more than ever there’s a sense of crisis in the poetry world. This crisis centers around a radical change in the channels of distribution. For years, a handful of distributors have been disseminating most of America’s poetry to its bookstores. Now these distributors have been bought out by a larger corporation, and the implications for small publishers could be dire.

The buyer, Perseus Books Group, seemed like a benign force at first. In 2005 they purchased Client Distribution Services, home of presses such as University of Michigan and Black Dog Publishing. It was a small move, but it was followed by another, more troubling acquisition: that of Consortium Book Sales & Distribution Company, an independent distributor for over 20 years and representative of such long-established presses as Copper Canyon and Coffee House Press, among more than a hundred others.

Perseus’s acquisitions—startlingly aggressive, corporate moves in the mom-and-pop world of poetry presses—have changed the small press landscape, undoing an infrastructure that might have had its weak spots, but was familiar and established. It means the transformation of companies that small presses have worked with for years. Now the small press publisher is asking: who am I sending my books to, and can they be trusted?

According to the Poetry Foundation’s recent survey, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), 86 percent of those polled said they would read a poem in its entirety when they ran across one. Thousands of new poetry titles come out each year—published by willfully amateur presses like Skanky Possum, as well as pros like Copper Canyon—yet it’s a truism in poetry publishing that most books simply aren’t getting out there.

To understand why, it helps to take a closer look at the ins and outs of the poetry-publishing machine.

Once a book is printed, a publisher gives the bulk of its print run to the distributor. A distribution company is the middleman between the publishers and the people. The distributors store books, process payment, and ship books to retail outlets. They also produce catalogs from which bookstores, libraries, and wholesalers make their selections. The distributor takes a percentage of the money earned by these sales, and sends the rest back to the publisher.

Since many small presses operate out of tiny rooms, apartments, or cubicles, the warehousing a distributor provides is a welcome—and often absolutely necessary—function. For a small press, a deal with a distributor means they have more time to edit and design their books rather than processing payments and making trips to the post office.

The well-established distribution companies recently bought up by Perseus are Consortium, Publishers Group West, and Client Distribution Services. Essentially, these were for-profit companies whose directors, for various reasons, wanted out of the distribution game, and Perseus was more than happy to buy in.

A for-profit, commercial distributor generally believes in the capitalist model of sell, sell, sell. A commercial distributor’s sales force sends out representatives loaded with catalogs, advance reading copies, and press materials to bookstores, wholesalers, and libraries. These representatives meet with book buyers face-to-face, pitching their clients’ new titles in quarterly meetings.

For independent bookstores, these meetings often determine what will be on the shelves for the upcoming season.

“Everyone knows distributors like Consortium are essential to making books visible,” says Mark Wooton, co-owner of Amherst Books. “We could find all the new titles and order them one by one from the catalog, but we have other things to do—we have a bookstore to run—so we rely completely on them to give us advance notice of new small press titles, to have the books in stock, and to fulfill the orders we send to them.”

The alternative to active sell-sell-selling is the more passive, nonprofit model: hope-hope-hoping the books can sell themselves. The country’s only nonprofit distribution company is Oakland, California–based Small Press Distribution. Because they are not working for profit, Small Press Distribution can apply for grants and seek funding from wealthy individuals looking for a tax break.

SPD, with only eight employees on its roster, is often the first step for a small publisher on its way into the wider world of bookstores, libraries, and wholesalers. If a publisher sells well with SPD, they often “graduate” to the commercial distributors. SPD stores nearly a quarter of a million books from over a hundred publishers in their warehouse, and they make these books available to all major national sales channels.

Although SPD is inclusive on many levels, it also acts as a curator, focusing booksellers’ attention on what SPD deputy director Laura Moriarty calls “very good poetry,” wherever it might manifest itself.

“The fact is that without a centralized distributor,” Moriarty explains, “many of these customers would decide not to stock independently published poetry at all.” For many poets, having SPD’s push behind their work has meant the difference between starting a career and wallowing in frustration.

“My first book, Perturbation my sister,” poet Kristen Prevallet wrote in an email, “was printed in an edition of 500 in 1994, and it sold out . . . just last year!”

Though it has taken 10 years, Prevallet saw her sales steadily climb. Because Perturbation stayed in SPD’s catalog and in its warehouse for a decade, readers were able to buy it at their leisure.

“SPD keeps books for a lot longer than other distributors,” Prevallet explained, “and this has helped me out enormously, because I believe that my work and readership evolves over time.”

This help is not without its troubles for SPD. Their history has been fraught with financial struggle. Small presses who work with SPD often complain of checks that come much too late and of disorganized shipping practices.

“We sell a wide variety of titles, but we sell a relatively small number of each one,” Moriarty explains, “and that is a very risk-filled business model.

“Every once in a while a book sells a lot of copies—up to 1,000 or more—but mostly, books sell between 50 and 250 copies per year. Such sales levels would simply not be sustainable by a commercial distributor and are a difficult proposition even for us. But because SPD functions as a nonprofit, we are set up to take risks on exciting work, especially poetry.”

SPD’s nonprofit status allows them to take on shoestring presses that publish unknown poets. But it also means they must spend valuable time doing fundraising. Their eight full-time employees are often overstretched. Orders placed through SPD can take much longer to process than those placed through a commercial distributor.

Anna Moschovakis, an editor at the Brooklyn-based Ugly Duckling Presse, has tried to supplement her press’s SPD distribution through consignment, subscription, and simple press-to-press trading.

“We consign using a standing order system to a small number of independent bookstores nationwide,” Moschovakis says. “Also, we have had a subscription system for several years: we sell a limited number of subscriptions each fall, and subscribers get everything the press produces in a year—chapbooks, full-length books, broadsides and postcards, our journal, and sometimes a CD or other production.

“Hand-to-hand distribution—selling, gifting, and trading—is one of the most efficient and enjoyable ways to distribute. And we make at least a third of our sales to individuals through our website, fulfilling orders from our workshop in Brooklyn.”

Yet, Moschovakis says, “you never know how many other potential readers are out there.”

Most presses pay their commercial distributors twice or three times as much as they pay their authors in royalties, with the hope that this will help them find out just how many readers are out there. But putting together the sales kits, meeting with the sales force, and keeping up with the distributor’s paperwork can often be as time-consuming as actually selling the books. So now that Perseus has acquired Consortium, PGW, and Client Distribution Services, weighing the advantages and disadvantages of commercial distribution has become even more complicated.

When Perseus bought Consortium, the move came as a shock to Consortium’s clients, and it had many of them wondering whether or not their hard-earned positions within the distributor’s roster might be undermined by the new management.

“How can we maintain our visibility,” Copper Canyon editor Michael Wiegers asked at the time of the sale, “when we are becoming an ever-smaller piece of a larger puzzle?”

To complicate matters even more, in January of this year, Perseus won the rights to bid on the clients of Publishers Group West after PGW’s parent company, Advanced Marketing Services, went bankrupt.

At the time of the bankruptcy, PGW still owed clients such as Soft Skull, Shoemaker & Hoard, and McSweeney’s for the often year-making December sales, so most of these clients faced a tough choice—either accept whatever Perseus offered them for their stock, or go out of business. Not surprisingly, most of the former PGW clients have accepted Perseus’s offer.

Up until 2005, Perseus was a small publisher itself, with imprints such as Counterpoint and Basic Books on its roster. They distributed their own books but were seen primarily as another player in the small press market. The Consortium acquisition, though, clearly signaled a new business strategy for Perseus, one that David Steinberger, the company’s president, described in fairly mercenary terms.

“Publishers are fighting over distribution clients the way they used to fight over authors,” Steinberger explained to the New York Times. “If you put two publishing imprints together, you might have twice the number of editors, but you can still only get them to produce two times the number of books.”

Twice the number of distribution clients, on the other hand, would mean twice the number of books but the same number of employees.

“It is a low-risk, low-investment way,” Steinberger continued, “to help the bottom line."

The low-risk, low-investment acquisitions of Client Distribution Services, Consortium, and PGW have made Perseus the country’s largest small press distributor. Their website declares them to be an “independent provider of third-party distribution services in North America” with more than 300 small press clients—from the children’s book imprint KO Kids to the erotic Cleis Press—and thousands of new titles each year.

“We’re waiting to see how it plays out,” Wiegers says. “I see few tangible changes, beyond lowered morale among the remaining staff and rep force. What seems clear is that Perseus and CDS have far more on their plates than any one—and maybe even two—sales forces can handle.”

Understaffing and inefficient sales help are, of course, two of the major reasons most presses move from SPD to commercial distributors.

“When I joined Consortium, it felt like a family,” Coffee House Press founder Alan Kornblum told Publisher’s Weekly, “But that’s over. The family feeling is gone. It’s just business now.”

“It’s not the death of poetry,” Amherst Books’ Mark Wooton says of the Perseus consolidation, “but it is the death of a distribution network.”

According to Soft Skull’s Richard Nash, survival means seeking out new approaches to reach readers.

“The most important thing nowadays for poetry,” Nash says, “is not to create shelf space, but to create customers.”

Many new small, independent presses have recognized this and have been experimenting with new ways of manufacturing an audience, such as P.T. Barnum–style poetry events and viral marketing.

“The very early distribution methods of the Ugly Duckling zine days,” Anna Moschovakis says, “included guerrilla techniques like inserting publications into school newspapers and removing those free advertising postcards from bars, pasting poems or collage art on them, and replacing them into their racks.”

These “guerrilla techniques” earned UDP a reputation as a smart, interesting press with titles that many readers seek out despite any distribution troubles.

“We don’t have a problem selling through our print runs,” Moschovakis says, “which have been increasing.”

Shanna Compton, founder of the DIY Publishing Ring, an online social network of self-publishers and “micropresses,” has also found some success with less traditional distribution models.

“The collapse of PGW hasn’t had much of an effect on the presses on the DIY Ring,” Compton says. “There certainly are alternatives to megadistributors for small presses, and the Internet is certainly key.

“I figured out a way to use both Lulu.com (a digital-printing service with integrated distribution) and Amazon.com (which is actually willing to work with micropresses, as long as the books have ISBNs) to create shared stores representing several different presses.”

The model is intriguing, even for someone like Nash, whose Soft Skull Press—with its large stock of general fiction and nonfiction titles as well as poetry—is much closer to a “macro” model than any of Compton’s “micro” presses.

“The transformation of the business model of poetry publishing, frankly, predates the Perseus takeover of Consortium,” Nash wrote in a recent email, “Brick-and-mortar retailers have dropped out of the poetry racket, and the entire world of discovering/browsing for poetry has moved online.”

Because of the lack of centralized online infrastructure, most presses aren’t ready to completely abandon their current distribution methods for the online market. Rather, like the San Diego–based press Tougher Disguises, they try to adapt.

Tougher Disguises experimented with print-on-demand to help offset distribution costs, but quickly found itself in financial trouble after the switch.

“I’m happy to talk about distribution,” publisher James Meetze says when asked about his press. “It killed Tougher Disguises. When I went print-on-demand, the demand far outweighed the supply, which should be a good thing, but I couldn’t keep up and had to kill the press, as I was sinking too much of my own money into it.”

Meetze’s failed experiment raises important questions that relate back to the findings of the NORC survey: if the American public will read poetry when they can find it, and if all over the United States warehouses are stacked with books, how, exactly, can we get these books to move? How can we get the poems within them to be seen? Perseus? Anyone?

Illustrations by Marianne Goldin.

  • Travis Nichols is the author of two books of poetry: Iowa (2010, Letter Machine Editions) and See Me Improving (2010); and he is the author of two novels: Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder (2012) and The More You Ignore Me (2013). He has contributed to The Believer, Paste, The...


If No One Can Find My Book, Does It Exist?

Poetry book distribution business shaken by a recent series of buyouts.
  • Travis Nichols is the author of two books of poetry: Iowa (2010, Letter Machine Editions) and See Me Improving (2010); and he is the author of two novels: Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder (2012) and The More You Ignore Me (2013). He has contributed to The Believer, Paste, The...

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