Tough times may call for creative solutions, but for Islandport Press's founder, Dean Lunt, the decision to forgo a national distributor—or even selling to Ingram or Baker & Taylor—was not all that hard. Before starting the press, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary in February, he talked with other small houses and learned that while distributors and wholesalers can extend a press's reach, they can create cash-flow problems if they stumble. Over the past decade and a half, a number of bankruptcies have adversely affected small presses, including Inland Book Company (1996), LPC Group (2002), Seven Hills Distribution (2002), and Publishers Group West (2006). And regional wholesalers have closed their doors: Pacific Pipeline (1997) and Bookpeople (2004) on the West Coast and Koen Books (2005) on the East.
Even more important for Lunt, who served a 12-year apprenticeship as a newspaper reporter before turning to book publishing, was removing the middle man. “I wanted to develop a relationship with booksellers and resellers and know where the books are,” he said. Since the publication of Islandport's first book, his own Hauling by Hand, about the Maine island fishing village of Frenchboro, he or his staff have visited every bookstore and gift shop in Maine that stocks Islandport books and have tried to keep up with the increasing number of new accounts in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts.
Staff photo (l. to r.): senior editor, Amy Vigeant Canfield; sales and marketing, Carole Fallon; online editor, Melissa Kim; editor, design and production, Michelle Lunt; and publisher and editor-in-chief, Dean Lunt.
Ironically, Islandport serves as a distributor for regional micro presses. Cookbooks like Northern Solstice Publishing's Black Fly Stew series—Wild Maine Recipes and Simple Gourmet Lamb—by Kate Gooding round out Islandport's list of four to eight new titles a year. Many Islandport books are reissues of works set in or about Maine, such as Pulitzer Prize—winning historian Samuel Eliot Morison's The Story of Mount Desert Island or Annette Jackson's account of being a game warden in the 1930s, My Life in the Maine Woods. The press also publishes CDs and DVDs, as well as new books like Leon Thompson's humorous guide to the Green Mountain State, Not Too Awful Bad, published in October. In addition, Islandport distributes some Maine books for large presses, like Robert McCloskey's classic Blueberries for Sal (Viking). McCloskey's books not only give Islandport's list greater depth in children's, but enable its customers, frequently mom-and-pop stores, to buy as few as three units for discount.
For area booksellers like Jon Platt, owner of Nonesuch Books & Cards in Saco and South Portland, Maine, Islandport is an important press. “Dean Lunt has good taste in what he publishes, and he produces good quality books that people here want to read,” said Platt. Local Barnes & Noble booksellers agree. This fall, Islandport received the 2009 Focus on New England Award for Outstanding Regional Literature, which was voted on by Barnes & Noble bookstores in the six-state region.
Despite the advantages of self-distribution, Lunt acknowledges that it has slowed growth. “Some independent bookstores won't order unless you have a national distributor,” he said. “And it has kept us out of some chains.” On the other hand, the Yarmouth, Maine, press has developed strong relationships with regional retailers, including L.L. Bean. Last year, Bean held a tribute performance in its flagship store in Freeport for Down East comedians Marshall Dodge and Robert Bryan to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their Bert and I routines. The press's CD of The Best of Bert and I went on to become its bestselling item of 2008. Its all-time bestseller also draws on New England humor: John McDonald's A Moose and a Lobster Walk into a Bar..., which has sold 25,000 copies to date.
However, combined sales for 91-year-old children's author and illustrator Dahlov Ipcar, whose art is part of the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum, could soon surpass McDonald's. All but two of the Georgetown, Maine, author's more than 30 books had gone out of print when Islandport began reissuing them in April 2008. Since then the press has published the very first book she illustrated, The Little Fisherman (1945), written by Margaret Wise Brown, as well as The Cat at Night (1989), which was given out to every kindergartner in Maine last year as part of the state's Read with Me program, and My Wonderful Christmas Tree (1986). To promote her newest reissue, Hardscrabble Harvest (1976), Ipcar signed books at the grand opening of L.L. Bean's Home Store in Freeport, and the Frost Gully Gallery in Freeport mounted an exhibit of her new art.
“Given our size, we don't look at a book unless we can do a minimum of 2,500 copies,” says Lunt. Carefully culling requests for out-of-print New England titles and looking for gaps in its niche has helped the press find those books. That coupled with a can-do spirit that extends to everyone on staff helping with shipping and receiving and a willingness to stay small could contribute more to Islandport's long-term survival than expanding its customer base using a national distributor. At this point, Lunt's not willing to experiment with that hypothesis.