Ten Questions is an occasional feature in which folks involved in some aspect of publishing kindly oblige my interrogative impulses. Today I’m talking with Jeffrey Lependorf, who serves as executive director of
two three different nonprofits, Small Press Distribution, based in Berkeley, the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, based in New York City, and the Literary Ventures Fund, a new foundation, also based in NYC, supporting literary works through philanthropic investment. The questions focus on Small Press Distribution, so just to mix things up a bit, let’s have a look at a brief bio of Jeffrey from the press release announcing his hire at CLMP:
Lependorf has a long history working in the field of literary arts. From 1996-1998, he served as the Development Director of the Poetry Society of America. There he played an instrumental role in the national expansion of the Poetry in Motion program, which brings poems to subways and buses. More recently, Lependorf worked as Development Director for Creative Capital, an innovative foundation providing direct grants to experimental artists working in a variety of disciplines. He has also served as a consultant to a number of CLMP member publishers, including The Hudson Review, African Voices, and Open City, helping them secure foundation grants and develop individual donor campaigns.
For a longer and more current bio, including information on his work as a composer, check out jeffreylependorf.googlepages.com.
Okay, on to the questions and answers.
1. I was a member of the board of SPD about 15 years ago. My impression is that the organization has grown considerably since that time. If that is true, to what do you attribute the growth? Do you foresee continued growth, and if so would this become problematic at some point?
SPD has indeed experienced tremendous growth in recent years. In terms of how many books we represent and how many we sell that is; our staff has stayed the same size. Not only do we add approximately 1,000 new titles a year, but we also continue to reach larger and larger audiences of readers. Some of this growth reflects the growth of the community of independent literary press publishers that we serve. Some of this may be attributed to new technologies that allow anyone with a laptop and some good design and editorial savvy to put out a beautiful book. Similarly, many publishers are learning that though they may lack the marketing dollars of their larger commercial counterparts, viral marketing through the internet and often closer relationships with their writers allows them the possibility of reaching readers sometimes even more effectively. I think the explosion of MFA programs has certainly had something to do with more manuscripts finding their way to publishers as well. On the SPD side, much of our effectiveness comes from our ability to provide better data to our largest customers: booksellers. As we have been providing better and better data, our sales to some of the largest booksellers has increased dramatically, including our sales to libraries. At the same time, we always work to deepen our relationships with independent booksellers—particularly those that specialize in the types of books our catalogue best represents—and by doing so we’re able to sell more books with fewer returns.
I’m delighted to report that SPD has recently received major funding from The Irvine Foundation for a significant upgrade of our data systems. This will allow, for example, a potential bookbuyer to seek out books by California authors, or to see reviews of books. This should lead to an even greater growth in sales as well. That said, we do have physical limitations for the number books that can fit in our warehouse. At present, natural attrition (either from publishers who cease to publish or who move to larger commercial distribution) has allowed us the ability to represent the presses who should be with SPD. I suspect that in a longer view of the future, as more presses take advantage of constantly improving print-on-demand technology, that the nature of what the SPD Catalogue covers may change. I think that we’ll always have beautifully books printed in small runs, but perhaps in the future SPD will also offer books to be printed on demand as well, or deliver them in formats not yet imaginable. Regardless, we will continue to change with the times and we look forward to what the future has to offer.