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DIY Poetry Publishing Cooperative

August 31, 2006

Small-Press Poetry Triage: Shopping to Support

I've talked about this some off and on, mostly on the other blog, but since it bears on the ongoing discussion of the economics of poetry publishing, I thought I'd say a bit more about How to Shop to Support here on the DIY blog.

In a new open letter, Tupelo Press publisher Jeffrey Levine explains why it's really super helpful for you to buy your small press poetry directly from the press's website when you can. This is a great strategy for supporting presses whose books you love. And with many DIY outfits, it's the only option anyway, since distributors won't accept presses as clients if they don't meet minimum criteria (in terms of gross sales, titles per year, etc.). Direct sales are always the most beneficial for the press, for all the reasons Levine explains. Plus, in the process, you'll find the latest news about other new releases, forthcoming books, calls for submissions, events, etc. Bookmark your favorite press websites and make the rounds on a regular basis. (Here's a list, in addition to all the DIYers and micros in the sidebar to your right.)

[UPDATE: Also note the buy one, get one half-price offer going on right now at Tupelo. (I got Ander Monson's Vacationland & The Making of Collateral Beauty by Mark Yakich. Also recommended: Aimee Nezhukumatathil's Miracle Fruit or Jennifer Michael Hecht's The Next Ancient World, for starters.)]

Since it's still important to also support your local independent bookseller--particularly those that invest in poetry by carrying a knockout selection of small press work, like Pegasus in Berkeley, or St. Mark's in New York, or Shaman Drum in Ann Arbor, or the Bookery in Ithaca, just to name a few--perhaps you could try alternating between yr store and the press websites? The approach I take when tracking down the books I need can be looked at as a a kind of triage. It goes something like this:

1. If I'm looking for a new release*, I'll check the two good indie stores in my area, which are convenient to where I work or hang out, and which are likely to have it: Coliseum Books or St. Mark's. (Posman's near NYU used to be the third, but sadly, they've closed and the one in Grand Central Terminal doesn't do much poetry.) McNally Robinson in Soho and Adam's Books in Brooklyn are two newer stores that I'll be checking more, now that I have the option. There are several other good indies in NYC, of course, but not all are very convenient to where I happen to live or work--sometimes they're still worth a trip or phone call. Since my fave stores have folks on the staff that know their poetry, I'll almost always find out about something else that looks interesting, just browsing the shelves and tables. (You could also buy your mags and newspapers there, you know, instead of at that newsstand.) The truth is though, 7 or 8 times out of 10, even my favorite stores don't have what I'm looking for. They can't possibly stock everything, so . . .

2. If the stores don't have it, I could ask one of them to special order it. Any good bookstore will do this for you. I used to do this in the days before the internet (remember those days?!). But these days, I'll just go to the press's website next. And if I'm looking for a older title (that's still in print)* I'll actually start with the press first, knowing the stores won't likely have it (because I'm pretty aware of what they have in stock from regular visits). Almost every press these days offers their books for sale through their site, and if they don't they'll direct you to their preferred distributor(s). Often that's SPD, which will be my next stop.

3. I'm a Friend of SPD, which means I make an annual donation and get discounts as a benefit. Cool. And even though SPD doesn't carry every small press, they carry so many it's very difficult to come away from there without something. (I've never been to the warehouse, but next time I'm out there I'm going.)

4. Maybe Powell's City of Books has the book I'm looking for. I think it's important to try to buy small-press books new whenever possible, if you can afford it--the press and authors don't make a dime off used books--so if they've got it new, I can order it there. I like supporting Powell's not only because they're an independent alternative to the chains, but because they're willing (unlike the chains) to work on a consignment basis with teeny micros and even individual authors. (They'll sell your chapbook.) Plus, they're unionized and don't make political donations to the Republican party.

5. But yes, I do order from Amazon. Honestly, sometimes it's the only way I can track down a book. As Levine mentions, Amazon procures books at a deep discount, so the publisher makes less. So yeah, you'll probably save a buck or two off the cover price, but at what cost, huh? (Then there're those ugh political donations, but at least their employees get better benefits than at the chain stores.) Also, Amazon is willing to work directly with very small presses who can't meet distributor minimums (like the press that published my book), even if they only take a few books at a time. (Not that they couldn't be more reasonable about how they work with teeny presses and "Marketplace" sellers, but you know.) Amazon is important to publishers for reaching customers that may not know where to look for them otherwise, too. & here's a tip to make your purchases from Amazon swing a little more to the good: click through from a publisher's website. Bookmark a page on your favorite press's site to use as your Amazon gateway. If they're an Affiliate member (and they probably are), they get a little commission on all sales they direct Amazon's way. (I click in from Soft Skull's site--every book page has an Amazon link--or my own site.) It doesn't even matter what you buy once you're there. The site that directed you to Amazon will earn commissions on electronics, clothing, cookware, workout videos, printer cartridges, or anything else you can get from Amazon. Hey, every little bit helps. (And actually, Powell's has the same Partnership system. Before I shop at Powell's I click in from Soft Skull's site or my site.)

Sounds like a lot of trouble, this triage approach? It's not really; it's kind of fun. And I think it's worth it, to make sure the money I spend on poetry is going to the presses (and their authors) and the bookstores that love them, instead trickling away in fees and percentages of that woefully measly profit margin.

*Obviously this kind of shopping strategy doesn't apply in the case of out-of-print books. I like Powell's for that, or Bookfinder.com or Alibris if I'm looking for something specific. (My preferred local indies don't carry used books--except Adam's, which will be a regular stop now.) If Bookfinder or Alibris lists a local store, I'll just go pick it up. There are some great used bookstores in New York, and I shop most of them, but I rely on them mostly for chance finds. One of the first things I do when I go on vacation somewhere is find the used and antiquarian bookstores, just to see what they might have. Fun.


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