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Late last year, a group of small presses issued a collective plea to independent media outlets and book reviewers to help protect them against Jeff Bezos’s global retail behemoth, Amazon. In an open letter published in October of 2019, the publishers called on media outlets to “rethink [their] links” to books pages on Amazon, which diminishes their already scant profits from book sales.
The initiative is spearheaded by Ugly Duckling Presse (UDP), a nonprofit publisher for poetry, translation, experimental nonfiction, and artist books based in Gowanus, Brooklyn. The letter was signed by representatives of more than 30 small presses including Belladonna, 1913 Press, Krupskaya Books, Litmus Press, Nightboat Books, 3 Hole Press, 53rd State Press, and others.
“Magazines, journals, and other independent media resources that review and write about small press books share a common cause with small presses,” the open letter reads. “We are all doing the hard, joyful work of connecting writers and readers with urgent, risk-taking intellectual material that has no other home. Directing readers to buy their books from Amazon is harmful to the authors, and the publishers, whose work you are trying to support.”
The letter continues with blistering criticism of the retail giant’s moral shortcomings: “Amazon has a gruesome list of flaws — from worker’s rights, environmental impact, enabling xenophobic government agencies, and predatory pricing on all types of products, to the more literary concerns of their overt antagonism towards book shops and indifference towards counterfeit materials — but they still overwhelm us with extreme convenience and occasional posturing as a champion of consumer freedom.”
This issue is gaining Increasing relevance during these days of the COVID-19 pandemic, as people are catching up on their reading lists while stuck at home. (See our staff’s reading list recommendations here.)
Moreover, the small publishers accuse Amazon of slowing their businesses by listing titles distributed by Small Press Distribution (a non-profit literary distributor based in Berkeley, California) as out of stock even when they are in print; negotiating aggressively for wholesale discounts; underselling bookstores and “cutting into the tiny profit margins that keep small presses afloat.”
To put an end to that, the small presses are urging media outlets to link titles to the publishers’ websites or to the book’s page on the distributor’s site or at online booksellers that support independent publishing like Bookshop and Powell’s Books. (After previously using Amazon’s Associates Program, Hyperallergic is now working with Bookshop, which pledges about 75% of its profit margin to the publisher or bookstore.)
What constitutes a small press? According to Matvei Yankelevich, UDP’s founding editor, a small press can be narrowly defined as “an organization where the editor does the work of publishing.”
“That’s different from the business of publishing,” he told Hyperallergic in an interview. “The small press is historically rooted in volunteer or nonprofit models. It’s non-commercial by its nature.”
In a four-part essay published by the Poetry Foundation’s literary blog Harriet, Yankelevich expounds on the difficulties facing small presses while warning against an increasingly “professionalized or gentrifying literary field.”
In his fourth and final essay, Yankelevich illustrates the faint profit margin that small presses make by breaking down the cost of an $18 book that UDP published in 2019 (A Tradition of Rupture by Alejandra Pizarnik, translated by Cole Heinowitz).
Yankelevich’s calculation shows that a small press makes just $1.67 ($1.14 if it’s a translation) on an $18 book when it’s sold at a bookstore. This assessment is based on a traditional 40% discount that booksellers get from publishers and a long list of other expenses (distributor fees; author royalties; unit production price; storage; postage, and more). Amazon, however, takes advantage of its size and influence to charge a bookseller discount between 45-55%, which cuts the meager $1.67 earned per copy even lower. (Amazon has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.)
For a small press, this often means operating at loss. In the case of Pizarnik’s book, printing 900 copies of the book cost UDP $2,218. “An optimistic sale of 750 copies over a year or two calculated at $1.67/copy (through distribution) would yield a publisher’s take of $1252.50—a little more than half of the cost of production,” Yankelevich explains in his essay. “And a bit less than that if you use the $1.14 take on a translation.”
And beyond the damage caused to their bottom line, the small presses are protesting the culture of expediency and quick gratification that Amazon Prime has brought to the world of publishing. “Directing readers to the publisher’s website encourages a culture of thinking deliberately about what we read, where it comes from, and what it is connected to,” the open letter pleads.
“This is a moment of deep global uncertainty, where we are all struggling for connection; one way we can meaningfully support each other is by strengthening the links between the independent media and small presses.”