In 1983, Jan Nathan was asked to represent 15 small Southern California publishers at the ABA convention in Dallas. Nathan, a Brooklyn native but by then a longtime Californian, had dabbled in various publishing ventures, including transportation and travel magazines and had just started her own company, whose mission was to help manage trade associations. That group of 15 presses—among them Peggy Glenn's Ames-Allen, Bob Alberti's Impact Publishers and Dan Poynter's Para Publishing—then organized themselves as the Publishers Association of Southern California (PASCAL), which later morphed into the Publishers Marketing Association (PMA). Nathan served as PMA's executive director until her death last month at the age of 68.
Back in 1983, the small press scene was not what it is today. There were a few venerable small presses of some renown, most of them publishing literary or fine arts works. Len Fulton published his annual Dustbooks Directory of Little Magazine and Small Presses, and that was the principle resource for what was going on in the small press world. To be a small press was to publish not for profit, literally, but for the love of writing, printing and living with your inventory. But Jan Nathan, blessed with an entrepreneurial instinct (“Why don't they have these in rental cars?” she remarked, thumbing through an in-flight magazine before becoming the publisher of AvisGuide), found herself in a Southern California milieu teeming with aspiring business-minded publishers who wanted to be in the big game, not simply purveyors of precious, short-run chapbooks. Dan Poynter, one of the early PASCAL members, said, “We didn't fit the mold of the small press publisher at the time. I wanted to sell books, not just print them. I was doing nonfiction, and I didn't have any trouble selling.” Poynter, a parachute enthusiast, published a technical book on the sport. “I made a lot of money selling books that people wanted to people who wanted them. I wasn't sitting around bitching that people weren't buying my poetry.” In that spirit, Nathan was hired to present books to the people who could sell them—the booksellers.
It was an uphill climb. If you thumb through an issue of the well-intentioned Small Press magazine from the early '80s (published at the time by PW's then parent, Cahners), you will find articles on “Caring for Your Vandercook Press” and “How to Start a Publishing Company” (rule #6: Keep Your Job); you will see a few ads from the five or six short-run printers willing to run small press jobs, and still fewer from outfits engaged in doing the one thing that all small presses declared was the major, missing link: distribution. Bookslinger, the Great Tradition and BookPeople were about it for distribution—and it was really only wholesaling, with no sales reps.
It's a whole different ball game now, thanks in large part to the evolution that Jan Nathan helped bring about. She saw that getting into the “big game,” be it on trade show floors or into bookstores or warehouse clubs, was not something that independents could do alone. By working together, publishers could not only pool their knowledge but gather clout when buying floor space or ad space or hotel rooms and mounting co-op marketing efforts, which proved a good source of revenue for PMA and a valuable benefit of membership. Last June, at the BEA in Manhattan, PMA had a huge presence, dwarfing the big commercial New York houses: 70 10×10 booths taken up by individual PMA members and worked by a PMA staff representing the interests of more than 4,200 members. For the first time in 24 years, Jan Nathan was not on the floor.
One of Jan Nathan's six sons, Terry, is now director of PMA. “I grew up with it,” he said. “Strangely enough, at 43, I'm the same age mom was when she began at PMA.” Terry reports that the organization is in good shape, with a budget of “about $2 million annually.” Revenue comes from membership fees, which are on a sliding scale from $590 to $109 annually. Additional income is derived from the fees collected for various PMA programs, including co-op and the very successful PMA University, conducted in the three days leading up to BEA. For their membership, publishers get the newsletter and access to a menu of marketing services.
“We call them marketing programs, and they involve trade shows, going to BEA, the ALA shows, Frankfurt, all the regional bookseller shows, London, Guadalajara,” said Terry Nathan “We also do direct mail to bookstores, libraries and book reviewers, and we advertise in in the trade.”
Although marketing was the main drive for the first 15 years or so of PMA, the organization has begun to see itself as a voice for independent publishers. “We are committed to industry advocacy,” says Florrie Binford Kichler, PMA's board president.
This is not a new role for the organization, Kichler points out. “In areas like distribution, we try to take effective steps to help our membership.” The most successful element of that effort is PMA's trade distribution program, done in conjunction with IPG, the Illinois-based distributor. “Twice a year,” says IPG president Mark Suchomel, “a committee made up of representatives from Ingram, Borders, B&T, a sales rep or two, gets together to look over 150 to 200 titles submitted by PMA publishers who have no distribution. The committee recommends titles for us to distribute.”
Suchomel said he's discovered some very successful titles that way, books like Nonviolent Communication from Puddle Dancer Press, which has sold 100,000 copies.
The advocacy in distribution issues took on a new urgency this past year—and some controversy—as PMA considered stepping in to help members who were also PGW clients caught up in the AMS bankruptcy. “We offered to establish a fund to help those affected by the freezing of assets,” said Nathan. “We also appealed to the printing community to help during the crisis, since of course they were owed lots of money. And they were great.” PMA's board of directors is in the process of debating the most effective measures to take in the event of financial calamities in the future. Kichler, whose first title as publisher of Patria Press, Amelia Earhart: Young Air Pioneer, was a trade committee selection seven years ago, says that a funding program will probably be announced before the end of the year.
Four years ago, Jan Nathan gave a lengthy interview to Steve O'Keefe in the PMA newsletter. Although she could not foresee retirement at all since she “loved being around publishers,” she was aware of its inevitability. “There should be no fear about the future of PMA,” she said. “I'm only prominent because I am a spokesperson.... [T]here's a great group of people in my company who do most of the work, and PMA has a terrific Board of Directors. As I [have] said, I'm good at transitions.”