Bookended by Black History Month and National Poetry Month, March has never meant much for the book business. Now, three nonprofit organizations are hoping to raise the profile of small press books among booksellers and readers during the month, which they have designated National Small Press Month. Using National Poetry Month, which was founded in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets, as a model, Publishers Marketing Association (PMA), the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) and the Small Press Center (SPC) are encouraging independent publishers and booksellers to draw attention to small press books in several ways, hoping to generate the enthusiasm and awareness for small presses that National Poetry Month has fostered for poetry.
In fact, National Small Press month has been around for more than a decade, but this is only the second year its sponsors have worked to draw nationwide attention. The sponsoring organizations' first outreach is its Web site (www.smallpressmonth.org) and distribution to booksellers and libraries of posters featuring Alice Walker, whose most recent book, We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: Light in a Time of Darkness, was published by the New Press, a large nonprofit. On the poster, she is quoted as saying, "As water to flowers... independent publishing to democracy."
"It's really a grassroots effort," said Florrie Bonford Kichler, president of PMA, a 4,000-member trade association that supports and advocates for independent publishers. In that spirit, beyond distributing the poster, the three organizations have been communicating with members of the communities they serve—mostly the staffs of small presses—to urge them to publicize the month to their accounts. According to Mark Kohut, volunteer coordinator for National Small Press Month, "We hope that bookstores all over the nation will put up a poster, feature small press books in their stores, and come up with their own ways of bringing them to the attention of their customers. They can do tables, they can have reading groups, anything to raise awareness of the value of independent, small press publishing."
Jeffery Lependorf, executive director of CLMP, which aids small publishers of literary fiction, nonfiction and poetry in being more business savvy, described many of the challenges indie presses face, especially recently, in the wake of the AMS bankruptcy that imperiled many small press publishers: "Until a book reaches a reader's hands, as far as we're concerned, it really hasn't been published. Most of these publishers don't have the marketing muscle of their corporate counterparts, and yet they reach the public through the very same system: bookstores." Lependorf also noted that independent press books, which generally have small print runs, don't benefit from many traditional forms of book coverage in the media, such as bestseller lists: "Most small press books can't get on those lists because there simply aren't enough copies [printed] to have the kind of sales at one time to put them on there." By putting a spotlight on these books for one month, Lependorf and his co-organizers are hoping to combat these problems and increase all-around awareness of small press books.
Representatives from all three organizations agree that small presses play a unique, and large, role in the publishing world. According to Kichler, citing the Book Industry Study Group's report "Under the Radar," "There are about 63,000 publishers with revenues of less than $50 million that generate sales of $14.2 billion. That's quite an economic impact. The biggest strength we have is that, since we're smaller, we're able to mine the niches of the publishing world, and some of those niches can be extremely profitable."
"The most exciting writing is being made available by indie publishers," said Lependorf. Karin Taylor, executive director of the Small Press Center, urged readers and booksellers to "think about the authors that would never see the light of day if it wasn't for independent publishers giving them the opportunity." In fact, Small Press Center is changing its name in order to jettison the word "small": "We are about to become the Center for Independent Publishing, which will reflect the wider scope of what we do," said Taylor.
While most of the effort is being focused on independent booksellers, Kohut noted that "the chains are behind us as well." Whether or not National Small Press Month can emulate the success of National Poetry Month remains to be seen. CLMP, SPC (soon to become CIP) and PMA are ready to fight for small presses' stake in the book market, as Kichler makes clear: "We may be small presses, but we have big muscle."