The Association of Writers and Writing Programs's 2014 annual conference is running February 26-March 1 in Seattle with dozens of panels and sessions. In a panel held February 27 entitled Shouting in a Crowded Room: Challenges in Expanding Small-Press Readership, panelists addressed the topic of broadening audiences for independent literature while working under budgeting constraints and within an oversaturated market.

The panelists were Richard Nash, publisher of Red Lemonade; Molly Gaudry founder of The Lit Pub; and Jacob Perkins, who founded the Brooklyn lending library, Mellow Pages. Writer Frances Dinger moderated.

No strangers to grassroots strategies of promoting books, the speakers discussed how, while the climate for independent and small press publishing has changed through digital resources and social media in recent years, establishing personal connections with readers and other members of the literary community remains the underlying priority. “Writing and reading aren’t two different people,” said Nash, whose Red Lemonade invites writers to submit work to be read by a community of readers. “Every writer is a reader and every reader a potential writer.” Friendships can potentially develop into institutionalized partnerships, built on the spirit of mutual respect and shared interest: “You pay into the system by participating and supporting. You want the community to support you; the only way to sustain it is to become a part of it…It’s the most natural form of marketing because you do it because you love it,” Nash said. He also spoke to the importance of shifting perspectives on how we view books themselves. Instead of promoting a book as a physical object, efforts should focus on the book’s content and the conversation that its ideas may potentially generate among its readers.

The goal for small presses, Perkins said, is to “get more people to read more books without spending a lot.” One key is to work to “bridge the gap between writers and readers” by educating readers about small presses and their books; it leads to people buying more books. Mellow Pages “amasses a collection of small-press books,” offering a space for readers to learn about the vast network of independent presses before choosing to buy books. Allowing readers to feel like part of a community also gives them a stake in it.

As it is for writers, “breaking in” to the scene or market remains the greatest challenge. “It’s the hardest thing, but it’s also the easiest thing,” Gaudry said. Finding an audience for a small press comes down to establishing contacts and building connections. “Once you find a way in, it’s about paying attention and engaging,” she said.

Broadening readership through online communities is a no-brainer, but it only goes so far. Perkins believes that there remains a “disconnect” when attempting to reach readers online. But this is a “breakable barrier.” With AWP itself a reigning example of community gathering in action: “These things can move into physical spaces,” Perkins said.

With tight resources, there isn’t room for wasteful marketing decisions, which naturally breeds inventive concepts for getting stories into the hands of readers.

Nash suggested that smaller presses can benefit from establishing a “kinder vision of the reader…how can we lower boundaries that we may have inadvertently put up?” Making it as easy as possible for readers to connect with books and to support small presses can go a long way in terms of broadening readership. Nash cited the membership model, such as that used by Netflix and the digital book lending library Oyster as one that can be an effective means for readers to sample material before potentially purchasing books. Such a model is more “predictable and comfortable from a transactional standpoint.”

Models like Oyster may be the wave of the future, but as the tools of dissemination change, the relationship established between readers, writers, and those who champion small press authors, still forms the backbone of the small-press world: “There’s a natural give-and-take,” Nash said.