The launch of the Espresso Book Machine at BookExpo America in June 2007 promised to usher in a new age of bookseller publishers. But the reality is that only a handful of trade bookstores purchased machines, and some that leased them, including Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vt., which was the first to have an EBM in the U.S., decided not to renew their contracts. But that doesn’t mean that bookstore publishing has disappeared. Far from it. Even without a machine, stores have found creative ways to turn publishing into a profit center by partnering with local authors and institutions to do print-on-demand publishing—and in some cases mimicking a traditional press by paying royalties and offering widespread distribution.
“If you’re twiddling your thumbs in February, and wondering how you could be making money,” advised Tom Holbrook, manager of Piscataqua Press and its parent, RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, N.H., and Kittery, Maine, “you could be making books. Publishing has been great for us. It gives us something to do when there are no customers. It has low capital costs. You can take it at your own pace. And it has huge potential.”
To date, Piscataqua has published more than 50 books, from Kiarna Boyd’s Blessed and Cursed Alike, a neo-noir occult mystery, to Jim Scott’s More Than a Speed Bump, a memoir about traumatic brain injury. The bookstore charges a set fee for producing the book and takes a 30% royalty on net profit. “We are careful to make sure that we make money producing the book, so that our profit is not dependent on the actual sales numbers of the books. We do our best to get the book out there and selling,” said Holbrook, who does most of his printing through Ingram’s Lightning Source.
Books & Books, headquartered in Coral Gables, Fla., also earns money on every book, or at least doesn’t lose any, according to Ausbert de Arce, who oversees the store’s publishing program, Books & Books Press. To cover the manufacturing costs, Books & Books Press asks authors to contribute to the cost of production. In return, authors are deeply involved in the publishing process. The press takes advantage of bookstore owner Mitchell Kaplan’s retail acumen, de Arce’s expertise in marketing and production (he founded Taschen America), and photographer and designer Petra Mason’s creativity. It also uses freelance designers and editors on its book projects, most of which come in through contacts between the store staff and authors. De Arce said that publishing 10 books a year has worked well and that every book is guaranteed shelf space at Books & Books, adding that the press can add more distribution if authors want. For a few titles, Books & Books acts as a packager for major trade houses.
More than a year before the EBM went live in bookstores, Susan Novotny, owner of the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza in Albany, N.Y., and Eric Wilska, owner of the Book Loft in Great Barrington, Mass., tried a different approach to print-on-demand and launched a separate business, the Troy Book Makers. Located near Novotny’s second store, Market Block Books in Troy, N.Y., the business continues to grow with sales up 20% in 2013 following a 16% increase in 2012. The growth is enough that at the end of June Troy Book makers moved to larger quarters to accommodate more equipment and book designers.
Novotny is revamping a second publishing operation, Staff Picks Press. A hybrid press, it relies on booksellers to evaluate manuscripts that their customers will want, like its first book, Peter Golden’s debut novel, Comeback Love, which was picked up by Simon & Schuster. After putting the press on hold, Novotny is interviewing industry veterans to help her re-launch it.
An early adopter of the Espresso, Village Books in Bellingham, Wash., returned to publishing with a local printer and IngramSpark after removing its machine. “To be honest,” said publishing director Brendan Clark, “sometimes I miss the EBM. Its unique ability to bind a single copy in minutes was extremely handy, and it constantly drew in new clients just by being there. But our off-site production partners now give us access to a diverse array of options, including hardcover binding and color pages, that the EBM simply doesn’t have the capacity for.” In addition to its publishing operations for self-published authors, the store maintains a separate traditionally oriented publishing program with royalties, Chuckanut Editions, which publishes books selected by Village Books owner Chuck Robinson, general manager Paul Hanson, and Clark.
Northshire recently announced that it is partnering with Southern Vermont College in Bennington, Vt., which will sponsor some students each year to publish through the store’s Shires Press imprint. The bookstore will also teach a segment on publishing. Co-owner Chris Morrow called it “a perfect use for independent publishing” and added, “we look forward to the first crop of students publishing in the fall.” Not that Shires is dependent on the students to keep its publishing program going. To date it has printed 34,000 books for 560 authors, including top-sellers like Kate O’Connor’s Do the Impossible, which has sold 907 copies, and Yvonne Daley’s A Mighty Storm, which has sold 2,767.
Some stores have dabbled with a more limited publishing program. Over the past decade Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe in Asheville, N.C., has published a poetry collection by owner Emoke B’Racz, along with two poetry anthologies she edited and a serial novel by 12 local authors, Naked Came the Leaf Peeper, under the Burning Bush Press of Asheville imprint. The latter book was written and produced to celebrate the store’s 30th anniversary and has sold roughly 1,500 copies. Currently, the bookstore is working on a chapbook, Join or Die, by children’s author Alan Gratz. Customers who preorder his novel, The League of Seven Novel (Starscape, Aug.), from the store will get a prequel.
In addition to publishing as a profit maker, it can also be a strong community relations tool, as Casey Protti, owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz, Calif., points out. Most of her publishing customers hear about the store’s in-house publishing services through word-of-mouth. “Many local authors are very happy having a real person to talk to, someone who also carries with them an incredible knowledge base about books and books in the marketplace,” said Protti. “I think that the more that customers recognize bookstores as places where they can not only buy books and gifts, but also get services that are meaningful to them, the better we will be—and the happier our customers will be.”