Asterism Books, a wholesale distribution portal and online bookshop for small presses, recently relaunched with a streamlined website and improved tools for ordering. Asterism is the brainchild of Seattle software engineer and author Joshua Rothes, publisher of Sublunary Editions. Rothes saw a need for a “decentralized distributor,” a place where “booksellers could place an order from multiple indie presses” without navigating to multiple homepages or forms.

In 2021, Rothes partnered with Chatwin Books publisher Phil Bevis to build up Asterism as an indie hub, with a focus on the duo's own specialties of literary fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and work in translation. Visitors can browse 15 presses on the site so far, among them 11:11 Press, KERNPUNKT, and Sagging Meniscus—whose directors serve on Asterism’s advisory board—as well as such experimental presses as Malarkey Books, Whiskey Tit, and Olympic Peninsula micropress Winter Texts.

Discoverability poses a challenge when presses operate on a shoestring budget and publish limited titles each year, Rothes and Bevis said, and they want to help get unique books in front of readers in bookstores and libraries. “We don’t sell our books to any online discounters,” said Rothes. “We’re looking to partner with indie stores across the country who are going to help steer folks toward those books through word of mouth.”

Bevis has direct experience guiding store customers to indie titles. In addition to publishing with Chatwin, he owns brick-and-mortar indie bookstore Arundel Books and produces digital and letterpress editions in his own print shop. He recently invested in new binders, cutters, and creasers to handle print jobs “on a surge basis,” and sees independent publishing as an area primed for growth. At Arundel, he curates a display of small-press books “in a high-value space in the store, and it pays rent,” he said. “We had a lot of booksellers at Winter Institute taking pictures and asking, ‘Who are these presses, how do I get in contact with them?’ These are titles that aren’t being pushed by ad dollars on Amazon. They’re made for a retail customer.”

He and Rothes also have the space to warehouse books in their Pioneer Square location in Seattle. Presses can stash their books at the distributor or do their own fulfillment for a lower platform fee. The platform takes a 12-24% cut of every book sold, which includes payment processing fees and the form of fulfillment.

“It’s a hybrid approach right now,” Bevis said. “Some of the presses have become too big to do fulfillment themselves, and we have the space, we have people packing orders. As things grow between now and the fall, my gut says we’ll wind up fulfilling 50%.”

Asterism is designed around small presses’ innovations and limitations. It doesn’t allow returns (“perhaps for author events we’d make some exceptions,” said Rothes), and Rothes and Bevis promise to pay out for orders within two days. Asterism’s seven-day-a-week shipping isn’t free, but all participating presses offset the shipping cost for customers at rates based on the weight of each shipment. Rothes and Bevis value transparency, and created a real-time dashboard so that publishers can monitor sales, proceeds, and how fees are calculated.

Rothes thinks Asterism’s platform could become a model for other collectives, too. “The tech bridge has been eye-opening, because it’s a gulf for a lot of people,” he said. “So if a group of romance presses in Midwest wanted to do this, they could work with the software we built. If you want to start something that’s not a multi-thousand-dollar buy-in to Edelweiss, this is certainly something we hope to open-source.”

In a press announcement, he explained that Asterism “grew out of a need for a real alternative in the marketplace of small press distribution, which is mostly dominated by Ingram and companies that rely on close ties with Ingram. Many of the choices for small presses simply didn’t (and don’t) work for publishers of our size, and we wanted to start a conversation about how things might be done differently.”

Bevis agrees that the time is ripe for small businesses to rethink their reliance on Ingram and Amazon. “We have a system that’s not really designed with indie bookstores or indie presses in mind,” he said. “They matter to us, but we don’t matter to them. We’ve been subsidizing a distribution chain that’s not designed to serve us.” Asterism supports presses, stores, and authors from an alternative perspective.