The recent liquidation of Sarasota, Fla.—based BookWorld Companies, coupled with National Book Network's announcement just two months ago that it will phase out small-press specialty sister company, Biblio, highlights the fragile economics that underpin the distribution of self-publishers and presses that do just a handful of books. BookWorld is just the latest small press distributor to go out of business. In 2000, Access Publishers Network in Grawn, Mich., went into Chapter 7, followed four years later by Words Publishing in Berkeley, which together orphaned 350 publishers. Even PMA has had to put its year-old vendor of record program, the PMA/Ingram Wholesale Acceptance Program, on hold because it was not getting submissions of high enough quality to merit Ingram buyers and sales reps and representatives of Barnes & Noble, Borders and PMA meeting twice a year.

“We'll continue to work with PMA,” affirmed Craig Pollack, senior manager of client acquisitions and supplier services at Ingram Book Group. But, he acknowledged, it can be costly to service the tiniest houses. That's part of the reason Ingram ended its Ingram Express program five years ago, a decision that forced one- and two-book presses to find distributors.

“I tell small presses that if they get their book into Ingram the hardest part has just begun. Without sales and marketing, they're going to fall short,” said Pollack. “Having a book available from a distributor gives it more support,” added v-p of merchandising George Tattersfield, who recommends one of the 25 distributors listed on the Web site.

Despite the distribution challenges, books from micro presses can sell. As Curt Matthews, CEO of Independent Publishers Group, is quick to point out, “Our bestseller last year came out of Third World Press. Their sales were only a few thousand dollars until Tavis Smiley's The Covenant with Black America.”

While IPG represents relatively few of the smallest presses, others for whom such presses make up the bulk of their client list find the business profitable. “We make money at it,” said Clint Greenleaf, founder of Greenleaf Book Group, in Austin, Tex. “The main thing is the selectivity and the clients we bring on. We only accept 3% of new clients.” As part of its service, Greenleaf hired three full-time in-house editors and designers to work with the 200 publishers it represents. “When we track our book sales,” said executive v-p Meg La Borde, “packaging and price have a bigger effect on sales than publicity.”

At Partners Publishers Group in Holt, Mich., the decade-old distribution division of Partners Book Distributing, cofounder Sam Spiegel noted, “We're certainly willing to look at single-title publishers and see if we can sell them.” But, he said, there's a glut of self-published books on anxiety, depression, Alzheimer's and memoirs, which are competing with books on these subjects from mainstream publishers. Spiegel accepts only 10% of the publishers that approach him for representation and has 125 clients.

AtlasBooks Distribution, the seven-year-old trade distribution arm of printer and fulfillment house BookMasters Inc. in Ashland, Ohio, has a less selective approach. “We like the small press market. We want them to come on board,” said COO Dave Wurster, co-owner of BookMasters. “We say, yes, we can make your book available in all major databases.” Currently, AtlasBooks has 800 clients, and Wurster anticipates adding as many as 70 of BookWorld's 104 publishers. In addition, BookMasters handles fulfillment for another 700 independent presses.

Despite Atlas's daring rescue of BookWorld's inventory—it sent staff down to Tennessee to ship books out of BookWorld's warehouse—publishers are likely to lose their accounts receivables and documentation regarding past history and inventory. For San Marcos, Calif.—based Quilt in a Day, which signed with Atlas to ensure representation in trade stores for Christmas, losses could be close to $300,000, according to company executive Orion Burns. Inner Directions in Carlsbad, Calif., which has a 25-title backlist, is also going with Atlas. “It's the best option,” said company owner Matthew Greenblatt, who is pleased to have his inventory back, if not his money.

But former gambler Anthony Curtis, founder of Huntington Press Publishers in Las Vegas, has a slightly different take. “From my point of view right now,” said Curtis, one of BookWorld's largest clients, “you have to look at this as a game. This is a six-figure bet.” But his company is also holding a good hand, which includes magazines, a newsletter and a Web site. “It's a nasty hiccup,” he said of BookWorld's liquidation. “But you know going in that the history is there.”