While the business environment for smaller distributors has become increasingly difficult over the years, Berkeley, Calif.–based Small Press Distribution has carved out a niche for itself by filling areas overlooked by the bigger players.
Founded in 1969, SPD is dedicated to the distribution of independently published literature and currently represents 400 active presses. Among its bigger clients are Ahsahta Press, Black Lawrence Press, Dorothy, Hanging Loose Press, Les Figues Press, Letter Machine Editions, Rose Metal Press, and Ugly Duckling Presse. Operations director Brent Cunningham attributes SPD’s survival in part to its nonprofit 501(c)(3) status. He notes that while SPD survives primarily on earned income, the extra grant money from the National Endowment for the Arts and California Arts Council and other donors has made a difference in keeping SPD’s doors open.
Cunningham says that unlike other smaller distributors that have gone out of business by trying to emulate midlevel and major distributors’ approach, SPD banks on its commitment to championing the small press community. “It’s not that we are in the minor leagues wishing we were in the majors; it’s that we care about these small presses,” Cunningham says. That position has helped SPD, because when small presses have a chance to move up the distribution chain, many have “shown commitment to us that goes beyond economics,” he says.
Loyalty from its clients, however, would not be enough to stay in business if SPD didn’t adapt to the changing market. Cunningham cites two major changes to the distribution landscape: the first is major distributors extending their reach through multiple warehouses nationwide. The second is the disappearance of secondary distributors as larger distributors have merged. That latter change led SPD to move away from the secondary distributor model toward an exclusive model. “Having multiple supply routes into the trade for one’s small press books isn’t actually the best thing for the literary field in general, nor, usually, for the press itself, as much as it might think otherwise,” explains Cunningham. For example, SPD used to carry a lot of Consortium presses, with Consortium handling primary distribution and SPD handling secondary, but that has dramatically declined. “We’ve been saying good-bye to presses that have other distribution and looking for presses that have no other distribution except for us.”
In another change made to remain competitive, SPD has, for the first time, created royalty tiers in which publishers that perform better than others get more money from their sales. “There’s a long tradition based on ’60s hippie egalitarianism, where the idea is everyone gets the same deal,” Cunningham says. “That’s not how any for-profit distributor structures it, for obvious reasons. You give more money to the people who are paying the bills by selling more books. If you’re going to expect people to use you as your primary exclusive distributor, then you have to reward them for sticking around.” The tiers took effect July 1.
A second new initiative is a marketing program called SPD Handpicked, where four titles per month receive additional marketing services. For a long time, Cunningham says SPD didn’t even have a marketing budget. He hopes that featuring four books each month, with online advertising and presentation to booksellers, will help those titles to shine.
Cunningham says both initiatives are “working really great.” He adds, “We’re about to finish our first quarter with the new initiatives in place, and we’ll be up at least 8% over last year’s third quarter.” Nearly all the Handpicked titles have hit SPD’s bestseller list. One of its October Handpicked books, Joanna Walsh’s Vertigo, received a great review from PW, and interviews with Walsh are planned for the Paris Review and the Rumpus. Cunningham says these positive trends solidified the decision to hire SPD’s first-ever publicity manager, Trisha Low, who joined SPD earlier this month, bringing SPD to a dozen staff members for the first time.
Cunningham says SPD remains under constant pressure, because other distributors offer competitive deals, but he encourages presses to look at those offers closely: “We try to get more people to think about longevity and what is a sustainable model for an indie small press. What’s going to stick around versus what’s going to be more financially expedient in the short term.”