SPD Closes, Another One Opens

by | Mar 29, 2024 | Behind the Scenes

Like everyone, it seems, I have some thoughts about SPD closing that no one asked for. Here goes!

Publishing Genius left SPD a few years ago because it felt like they weren’t good at their job—for lots of reasons that Jane Friedman lists in this provocative Thread (don’t miss the Chicago Review discussion between Hilary Plum and Matvei Yankelevich she links to). If I didn’t have a new book come out one quarter, there was very little payoff from them. More importantly, they messed up their accounting a lot. Publishing Genius had something like five other presses on our account (Magic Helicopter, Big Lucks, GMR, Galileo, 421 Atlanta) which SPD encouraged, and which made sharing their $200-something annual fee painless. It created a lot of work for me, but I didn’t mind! However, that process meant that I missed the fact that they were shorting us for over a year. When I figured it out, they quickly made it right. Then the Damaged Book Worker situation happened with the employee who got shorted, and I had enough. SPD was efficient at helping us close our account.

(A post for another day is my plan for proceeding without SPD—which was Print On Demand—and how and why I quickly decided not to go that route, and how strange it is that SPD did end up trying it out as a solution.)

Arguably the thing SPD was good at before, say, 2010 and the proliferation of POD (coincidentally around the time they stopped printing their catalog because it was hard/expensive/didn’t pay off—which seems meaningful as a bellwether (do the hard thing!)) wasn’t the sales they managed. I keep seeing all these posts catastrophizing their demise—from publishers who paid them $200/year to make $300 in sales. [*That’s disingenuous—even our tiny account sometimes had quarters where we made a few thousand dollars.] But I think SPD’s value was maintaining a sense of community among the small press world, for the presses and for the readers who paid attention. It meant something to belong. In a world that doesn’t reward new and difficult ideas, they were dedicated to creating another path. I always had this Andre Schiffrin mentality, like, “Hmm, in France the government subsidizes publishing but at least we have SPD.”

Also, since BookScan doesn’t track poetry sales, SPD’s sales reports were the official ranking for poetry sales. A bestselling poetry book there was THE bestseller in America—pretty cool, if meaningless.

I remember when Light Boxes blew up, I got a phone call from Sessalee Hensley, the national book buyer from B&N—she wanted to buy all the PG copies we had left. She asked if we had a distributor, and I said something like, “Aw just lil ol’ SPD.” She said that was great! She told me they’re a real distributor, not like Ingram who was just a warehouse. It was amazing to hear this for the first time from one of the most important people in the publishing world.

For small press books to stay viable and vibrant, we need people committed to projects other than publishing books. We need operations like SPD—so I’m grateful for Asterism, who brings a new mentality and openness to distribution. Laura Paul’s work on their Slack channel alone makes me proud to have an arrangement with them. And I joined CLMP finally and it has exceeded my expectations—I’m embarrassed that for so long I thought I was too cool for them. Also, shout out to Protagonist for developing a beautiful reading and discovery app for literary journals and small presses. Props to Duotrope for doing what they’ve done for so long. Thank god for Wigleaf and Big Other for creating cool annual awards for small press writing. Cheers to Gene Morgan and Blake Butler for running HTMLGiant so well; the community they created opened so many doors for so much to happen (including my amazing marriage!). Here’s to myself, too, for running Good Book Developers, which handles design and production for lots of presses in an affordable way. I find myself thinking about the things Richard Nash has tried to do to expand the reach of these ideas, like Small Demons and Cursor. And I think about how important it is to have more of these projects! Even if—especially if—they fail! Think about what happens when an organization becomes financially successful in the small press world in a meaningful way—they stop appealing to the small presses. After years of working with Submittable on events at AWP, Michael Fitzgerald (my friend, I miss you!) told me they couldn’t sponsor anything anymore because they were no longer trying to court the small press world. The value of Submittable is that everyone uses them, but that monopoly mentality is also the downfall for all of us.

Can small presses be successful without a juggernaut distributor?

The world needs small presses because of our ability to fail over and over, making books that only appeal to friends and family, because sometimes they do more, and something amazing comes from them. And the small press world needs support from organizations that are devoted to them.