Just like the independent presses in New York City and Minneapolis that PW reported on last week, independent presses in other parts of the country said that sales are starting to rebound after two months of decline, due to direct sales, digital initiatives, and a resurgence in demand for topical frontlist and backlist titles.
Open Letter Books in Rochester, N.Y., might be, of all the indie presses contacted by PW, the most adversely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, with the campus of its host institution, the University of Rochester, shut down since early March. “I have to make arrangements to go into our office to do any work,” said publisher Chad Post, who added that his two full-time colleagues were furloughed and will continue to be most of the summer. “I went in the other day and fulfilled 350 orders.”
The 13-year-old press, renowned for its literary translations, was having its best sales year, Post noted, before the pandemic. He anticipated that the staff may be able to return to its offices this fall, or potentially sooner—largely because Open Letter is housed in two separate spaces, each with its own entrance. “That way two of us can work there without ever really needing to encounter the other,” he explained.
Post said that Open Letter’s most serious problem right now is its inability to pay bills. “With the way the university works, only our editorial director, Kaija [Straumanis], is authorized to make bank payments, and she is furloughed, so the bills will have to wait.”
In Cleveland, Anne Trubek, publisher of Belt Publishing, explained that working from home during the pandemic has had no effect on the press’s half dozen employees, who have worked remotely since the company launched in 2013. The impact on Belt’s business after bookstores shut down has been mixed, she added. The coronavirus slammed the Midwest just as the press was releasing its Midwest-themed spring list. While sales via its distributor, PGW, and wholesalers have plummeted 40% this year compared to 2019, direct sales have jumped by 85%, resulting in a 20% rise in net revenues for the year to date.
Trubek said sales have been helped by the topical nature of two books: Midwest Futures by Phil Christman explores the regional impact of climate change, and Last Children of Mill Creek by Vivian Gibson is a memoir of growing up as a Black girl in segregated St. Louis. With the Black Lives Matter movement gaining steam, Trubek expects Belt to end the year on “a strong note”: fall releases include Black in the Middle: An Anthology of the Black Midwest, edited by Terrion Williamson and Conspiracy to Riot by Lee Weiner, a member of the Chicago Seven.
After Illinois governor Jay Pritzker issued a statewide stay-at-home order in March that extended through May 30, Chicagoland’s small presses quickly adapted to the new normal. Chicago Review Press employees worked remotely for more than two months, though some recently have returned to the company’s offices inside IPG headquarters. “We’re following strict safety and sanitation requirements,” said IPG publicity manager Alisse Goldsmith-Wissman. “We’re gauging case statistics and government recommendations on a week-by-week basis to know when we should bring the office back to full capacity.”
According to CRP publisher Cynthia Sherry, gross sales were down about 10% January through May compared to the same period last year. But, she added, there has been a “strong rebound,” and gross sales are now up 15%. Sherry attributed the bounce partially to two new releases: Daughter of the Boycott by Karen Gray Houston and Say I’m Dead by E. Dolores Johnson. “Both speak specifically to the history of oppression among people of color and are hitting at a very timely moment,” she noted.
A few miles north along Lake Michigan, in Evanston, Ill., Agate publisher Doug Seibold reported that the 17-year-old press is persevering, though sales “fell off the proverbial cliff” in late March before a “modest rebound” in May. Sales are strong for backlist titles featuring African American historical and cultural themes, including Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, a picture book by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Gordon C. James, and The Last Thing You Surrender, a historical novel by Leonard Pitts Jr. Culinary backlist is also selling well, including Craft Coffee: A Manual by Jessica Easto and Hardcore Carnivore by Jess Pryles.
Seibold said that his staff of 20 made a “pretty seamless transition” in early March to working remotely, explaining that Agate was headquartered in his home until 2010. They will continue to work remotely through July 31, and perhaps longer. “It’s been hardest on our younger staff that may live in small apartments in Chicago,” he added.
Seibold walks to Agate’s offices every day, “keeping an eye on the place, accepting packages and mail, receiving and then depositing checks,” he said. Agate most recently paid royalties in late April, and for the first time, it was “an almost 100% virtual process,” he noted. “A big leap forward.”
Melanie Roth, marketing manager at Fulcrum Publishing in Golden, Colo., reported that the nonfiction press saw a 30% decline in sales in March and April compared to the same months last year, but it began to see an uptick in May. “We’re cautiously optimistic,” she added.
Fulcrum is promoting e-books over print “to ensure we stay relevant and vital during this challenging time,” Roth said. That approach has paid off: Fulcrum has seen an increase in sales of its Black history books and books by Black authors. Graphic novelist Joel Christian Gill’s two Strange Fruit titles and the Tales of the Talented Tenth biography series have landed on many BLM reading lists, and sales of February’s Be the Artist by Thomas Evans surged after Evans received national attention for murals dedicated to George Floyd, Elijah McClain, and Breonna Taylor.
The Fulcrum office continues to be closed indefinitely, but Roth noted that the company had already been “slowly converting to a digital office, so we were prepared. The uncertainty of the future has definitely presented weekly—sometimes daily—hiccups, but our team has been flexible and creative.”
In Los Angeles, Unnamed Press staff also continue to work remotely, though “we have a couple of set office days each week where one person goes in to handle administrative details,” publisher Chris Heiser said. “Otherwise it’s a lot of Zoom meetings.” Sales are up “significantly” this year, he noted, due to a “dramatic” increase in direct sales as well as a “modest” increase in e-book sales. But the press continues to focus on its regular trade channels, particularly indie bookstores, which Heiser described as doing “incredible work” in their communities.
Earlier this month, there were protests and looting in Dallas’s Deep Ellum neighborhood, but Deep Vellum Books, a bookstore that houses Deep Vellum Publishing’s offices, was spared. The store remains closed, and the press’s three full-time employees are working from home. “We were lucky,” noted publisher Will Evans. “We are still here for the community.”
Evans said sales of Deep Vellum’s list of international literature are “really down” through Consortium, its distributor, but direct sales are up. Fowzia Karimi’s Above Us the Milky Way, an April release that was the press’s first hardcover novel and its first English-language original, is currently its top seller.
In Spartanburg, S.C., Hub City Press director Meg Reid explained that sales through its distributor, PGW, are down 15%, but direct sales are up “four times what we usually see.” She added, “As a small press, we’re not used to dealing with buckets of packages.” The press, part of the nonprofit Hub City Writers Project (HCWP), delayed the release of its two spring titles by a month—a move that proved to be fortuitous in the case of The Prettiest Star by Carter Sickels, a novel set during the AIDS epidemic, which landed just in time for Gay Pride Month promotions in June and pumped up sales.
Another serendipitous occurrence: HCWP had been planning to slowly renovate its offices, but those renovations were sped up this spring while staff worked remotely. “We’ve been back in the building since mid-May,” Reid said, “and it’s like we had this totally clean new office to return to.”