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.
2. Does SPD sponsor programs or activities for independent publishers and the literary community beyond book distribution, or does it focus exclusively on distribution?
Our mission is to connect readers with writers and to ensure a cultural environment where the literary arts are fostered and cherished. We do this primarily through book distribution, but have a number of other programs as well. One example is “New Lit Generation,” a series of activities aimed at bringing SPD books to high school and younger college age readers. The components of New Lit Generation aim to demonstrate to this population that they can be creators of culture, not just consumers of it. We’ve created teachers guides filled with exercises, for example, to help educators teach poetry and creative writing, and to suggest books that show students what members of their own communities have written and published. We make classroom visits and we’ve even had a series of “Poetry Trading Posts,” where visitors can write a poem and trade it in for an SPD book. Many of these poems appear on our website and will soon even appear on our MySpace page. SPD is also one of the sponsors of National Small Press Month, offering booksellers an opportunity to feature small press books in their stores for the month of March.
3. Distinctions between distributors, wholesalers, and fulfillment houses can be confusing. What special services does a distributor offer? Do you work with a network of sales representatives?
Technically, SPD is a “wholesaler,” which is to say that we don’t have a network of sales reps sent out to visit bookstores. That said, we might be thought of as something in between a true distributor and a typical wholesaler. Though we don’t have a network of reps, for example, we do have a sales force (the wonderful SPD staff) who work hard to develop relationships with booksellers. And we have a presence at conferences such as BEA, MLA, and AWP. We offer, for the most part, a fairly focused catalogue (i.e. one doesn’t go to SPD for cookbooks or self-help books), and we make sure it goes to the book buyers who carry the kinds of books we offer. Again, we supply the best data possible to allow for sales to libraries and other special markets. In addition, the SPD contract is non-exclusive, so being with SPD can only be a plus for the publisher. I know that SPD publishers often find it confusing that we don’t have a traditional sales force of reps. The fact is, while reps can do an excellent job promoting books they have been paid to focus on, this can equally lead to a larger number of returns. By focusing on the markets that we know have a demand for our books (which we always work to expand), I believe we sell the most books with the fewest returns, and without the overhead of a sales force we would not be able to support as a non-profit book distributor.
4. You have a clean, efficient website. It’s fast and well organized. Does it account for a significant percentage of your sales? What other goals does it help you achieve?
Most of our sales are not direct-to-consumer, so in fact only a small percentage of our sales are through our website (less than 5%). However, we’re putting a good bit of work into making the online shopping experience for SPD individual buyers better to increase that percentage. Most of our sales are to booksellers, who then make the books available to individuals. Most of our sales currently come to us via direct phone calls, emails and faxes, or else via a special online system called PubNet (which is just for booksellers and wholesalers).
5. SPD is a nonprofit organization. How much of your income is from sales and how much is contributed? Of the contributed income, what is the relative importance to SPD of government, institutional, individual, and corporate giving?
Most of SPD’s income comes from book sales, but we couldn’t possibly be self-sustaining without government, foundation and individual support. This past year we received $40,000 from the NEA, $40,000 from foundations, and $55,000 from individuals, some of it through a “celebrity” spelling bee we conducted called “The Bee-In.” Being a non-profit, though, means much more than “requiring” contributed support. It means that we are distributing books because of their value first and their marketability second. If we were a commercial distributor we wouldn’t have many of the books in the SPD catalogue as they sell very few copies a year. Anyone who loves SPD knows, though, that many of these books are some of the best things we offer. They merely serve a very focused audience. Without SPD, the literary landscape would be made up only of “bestsellers,” a terrible thought for anyone who really cares about the written word.
6. Is SPD able to get out significant numbers for some books? What are some of your bestsellers? Is there any pattern to the kinds of books that tend to do the best?
Sometimes we have a genuine “bestsellers,” but in the context of SPD that might mean 2,000 copies of a poetry book. Our bestsellers would not even show up on a chart in the context of The New York Times Bestseller list. That said, a number of SPD books sell hundreds of copies year in and year out. Harryette Mullen’s Muse & Drudge is an example of one of those. It’s sometimes a “long tail” phenomenon. A number of SPD books find their way into academic syllabi and this can keep them moving into readers’ hands for years. In contrast, a traditional “bestseller” may be a function more of velocity—a large number of books sell quickly, but then that’s it. The SPD books that do the best are books where the publisher and author have done the most work to get the word out. Of course they have to be excellent books as well! Books with a clear interest to academic audiences or those by an author who has become well-established in certain communities are the most likely to succeed over a long period of time.
7. How large a percentage of your bookstore sales do the chains account for? How do their buying patterns differ from those of independents? Are there any differences in shelf life, sell through, and returns?
6% of our sales are through the chains. Some of our readers buy their books through independent booksellers and some through the chains, so we do our best to have SPD books available through both. Naturally, we feel a special affinity for the “indies,” but our goal is to provide maximum access.
8. How do your library sales compare to the industry at large? Have libraries relaxed their traditional requirements regarding paper, binding, and other aspects of production?
We’ve seen a nice increase in our sales to libraries, though this is mostly through secondary parties (“jobbers” and the like). A few dozen libraries have what are known as “approval plans” with us, where they automatically receive new titles from us. Like with other sales, our ability to get books into libraries has less to do with their physical book requirements than it does with our ability to provide useful data to them. For example, one aspect of the Irvine Foundation Project mentioned above is that we’ll be able to provide an author’s academic affiliation if s/he has one, something of obvious interest to university libraries.
9. About a year ago SPD formed a partnership with The Council for Literary Magazines and Presses, with you as executive director of both organizations (though they remain separate nonprofits with different boards). What are your main responsibilities in this role? What does CLMP provide that assists SPD and its clients in their missions? After the first year of this arrangement, what have emerged as the main successes and challenges?
I have long thought of SPD and CLMP as two arms of one body. These are the two national nonprofit organizations that serve independent literary publishers. It has always made sense to link the two. Needless to say, there’s a great bit of overlap between the two communities specifically served by these two organizations and sharing an executive director allows us to experiment with various ways of best serving our shared communities. My primary responsibilities in terms of SPD have been in seeking out new funding streams, facilitating new strategic partnerships, and doing the things that one generally associates with an executive director in terms of fiscal oversight. For now, other than sharing me, the two organizations do indeed remain separate, but there may be more overlap in the future. Some new things that have developed recently are new funding from The Irvine Foundation, a new annual benefit, and strategic partnerships with AWP and the ABA/Booksense.
10. I’m interested, on both a theoretical and practical level, in the way you combine work as a composer with work in literary nonprofits. As a composer, do you think literary and musical expression are two forms of a common creative impulse, or are they essentially distinct? On a more workaday level, you must have exceptional time management skills — can you share any tips?
As a composer, most of my work deals with literary texts (for example, one of my opera projects is titled “American Lit: the Melville/Hawthorne Correspondence”), and I’ve always been a “bookstore junky.” For me, much of music composition is about construction of forms and the generation of layers of meaning out of disparate parts; I think good writing does the same, so for me they are quite similar. I work with a number of poets and writers and working on behalf of literature gives me great pleasure. Years ago I did more work for music organizations and I found that that drained me of the energy I needed to do my own music work, whereas working for my other passion seems to energize me to do music. As for finding the time, I have no great secret to pass onto you—it’s extremely challenging. I wish I were the sort of artist who woke up at the crack of dawn and composed something every morning before heading into the office. Instead, it’s a weekend here, an evening there, and somehow I manage to create a lot. If I have a secret, it’s this: do what you love and it will all get done, somehow.
Image from Columbia County Council on the Arts (detail, slightly modified)