Brent Cunningham didn't plan on becoming operations director of Small Press Distribution (SPD), the 40-year-old, San Francisco—based nonprofit distributor of more than 500 of America's best small, tiny and micro publishers. Like many people involved with small press publishing, Cunningham, who will turn 40 in a few months, found his way into the industry in a wayward fashion. Undergrad dreams of being a poet in Northern California led him to pursue work as a restaurant cook, a short stint at the fabled Poetics Program at SUNY Buffalo (where Cunningham studied under and befriended the likes of poets Robert Creeley, Susan Howe and Charles Bernstein) and a job at a Web startup during the dot-com boom. Finally he returned to San Francisco, where he got a call from the recently hired deputy director (and acclaimed Bay Area poet) Laura Moriarty about an opening at SPD for someone to do sales and marketing. He got the job—sales runs in the family; Cunningham's father was a salesman for Westinghouse—then he rose through the ranks, and nine years later Cunningham and Moriarty basically co-run the SPD show. Like so many others in the small press literary world, where many presses are run by writers, Cunningham not only manages, he's also a client: his first book of poems, Bird & Forest, is published by Ugly Duckling Press, which is distributed by SPD.
Now a key part of an office staff of seven plus a parade of interns, Cunningham oversees almost all the distributor's daily operations—sales, finance, warehousing. “I basically manage everything but development,” says Cunningham. Being a nonprofit, SPD has a board and of course has to fund-raise, which is the job of executive director Jeffrey Lependorf (who also runs CLMP) and Moriarty. Grants—from organizations like the NEA, the Haas Foundation and the Poetry Foundation—account for about 20% of SPD's funding.
Cunningham may be the only person in American publishing who can say, “Poetry is 60% of what we carry.” The other 40% of SPD's books are split fairly evenly between fiction and nonfiction. There are no bestsellers among the titles SPD distributes—largely to libraries, university bookstores and indie booksellers—but for poetry, experimental or offbeat fiction, literature in translation or any one of dozens of subpockets of America's deep literary culture, SPD is a key supplier. “SPD's structure is very much about selling a lot of books relatively shallowly,” says Cunningham, who notes that SPD sells about 100,000 books per year, with annual growth ranging between 5% and 15%. Not bad for a company whose recent fiction bestsellers include books from presses very much out of mainstream publishing, houses like Factory School, Tarpaulin Sky and Post Apollo.
Cunningham's work at SPD dovetails nicely with his passion for experimental poetry and his own career as a poet. As an advocate for presses where 200 to 300 copies sold is considered good, the idea of a vital literary culture beneath the radar of the trade houses is deeply important to Cunningham: “What I'm doing at SPD is about a grassroots model. I sometimes say it's a little bit like professional baseball.” Cunningham makes the point that being a major league superstar isn't the only way to play baseball—most people play baseball in parks and backyards across America, which is the real life of the sport. He thinks of books the same way. Literature's real life is not solely lived among the Philip Roths and other big sellers of literary works. For Cunningham, literature also happens among authors who may only have a few hundred readers, and among readers who are passionate about esoteric texts and presses. “There's an idea out there that the big press is the only place where things matter,” says Cunningham, “but we have softball leagues, Little League, community baseball. There's a direct participation in that sport.” A mixed metaphor to be sure, but one in which everybody wins.