As small businesses around the country await funds from the landmark Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES ) Act, indie publishers and booksellers are having mixed experiences trying to secure this financial lifeline. “We keep telling our members to apply. Don’t wait too long and have the money disappear,” said Angela Bole, the CEO of the Independent Book Publishers Association which is based in California. “Some seem to have sailed through the application process, but many are finding it difficult to interpret as the application requirements seemed to shift in real-time over the first few days of availability.”
Red Hen Press was one of those indie publishers who struggled with the process. “I don’t know anyone in the arts world who has got this CARES funding,” said cofounder Kate Gale, stressing how important these funds are for the future of the 25 year old press. “The biggest expenses for any publisher are payroll and printing, and we need our staff to keep their jobs if we can keep publishing,” she said.
Red Hen publisher Mark E. Cull had an appointment at the Bank of America on the very first day applications were accepted for CARES funds, but was turned away, even though Red Hen had held an account with the bank for a quarter century. The rejection was based on the fact that the business didn’t have a current loan with the bank, a policy that has since been changed. After the policy adjustment, Red Hen immediately reapplied, but the press had lost its spot in the metaphorical line for funds. “Our application is so far down the queue we are pretty certain the money is already gone,” said Cull. Funds have since run out, though Congress is expected to pass new legislation for additional funding this week.
Separate from the paycheck program, the Small Business Administration (SBA) expanded its Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program, which is supposed to provide up to $2 million in emergency loans for small businesses affected by the Covid-19 crisis. That program quickly became overwhelmed by applicants and is no longer accepting applications. Red Hen received $9,000 as a grant advance from the SBA’s program—$1,000 per employee. Still, the press needs more emergency funds to continue operations. “That was supposed help pay our staff through June,” Gale said, referring to the publisher’s pending applications for aid. “That was going to give us some breathing space to gather our board and talk to our donors.”
“The funds have been slow to arrive, or slower than promised,” said Bole, the CEO of IBPA. “I don’t think it’s conspiracy. They passed a $2.5 trillion stimulus act in 90 hours into a society that’s not used to this. It’s going to take longer than they thought,” she said.
Meanwhile, Maggie Langrick, publisher of LifeTree Media, has been in the process of transitioning her nonfiction press from Vancouver to California. The company is still technically a Canadian corporation and have not fully migrated operations to the United States, so the indie press doesn't qualify for the CARES Act support.
Instead, the publisher has applied for support from the Canadian government. “The application process was super easy,” said Langrick. “It only took about five minutes.” She expects to get “a wage subsidy,” comparable to the U.S.’s Payroll Protection Program. “Canada's program will cover 75% of an employee's wages, up to an annual salary of about C$58,000,” she said. “This benefit runs for 12 weeks, but I expect they'll extend it if the shutdown is still in place past June.” She has also applied for an interest-free C$40,000 loan to survive this difficult period. “It's going to help a lot,” she said.
Indie booksellers have largely sought support from the CARES Act Payroll Protection Program. Nina Barrett, owner of Bookends and Beginnings in Evanston, Ill. participated in an American Booksellers Association training with more than 100 fellow booksellers on how to apply for payroll support. “Only one person had gotten it,” Barrett said.
A 30-year customer of Chase, Barrett said the process of applying left her in despair. Dates for the initial application form were changed and the documents she was told to prepare when entering the bank’s online portal were not the ones she needed once she went on the site, which eventually crashed when she submitted on behalf of herself and three employees.
“I felt like a racehorse that has been prepping for the Kentucky Derby and been standing there at the starting gate and then the gun goes off and then there’s a thing in your path that trips you as take your first step out of the gate, and you’re just staring up at the sky wondering what happened,” Barrett said.
Like other independent booksellers who spoke with PW the process left Barrett with little faith that the program will be administered well, and suspicions about how the funds will be distributed if Congress passes supplemental funding. “I don’t ‘think the queue is randomized,” Barrett said. “I think they’re taking their biggest customers and making sure that they get served, because no one I know who owns a small bookstore or a small business in Evanston has gotten a loan.”
Claire Kirch contributed reporting to this article.