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This is how I roll (my micropress) – part 1.

September 19, 2010 \pm\30 12:00 pm

Back in August, D.W. Lichtenberg asked that I write about how I run my micropress, No Tell Books. Briefly, NTB is an independent press that specializes in poetry. I am the press. The only volunteer I have is an intern, my 5 year-old son. He helps tape up packages and sometimes comes along to book fairs.

I must admit, discussing business strategies and financials is completely mind numbing. It’s my least favorite part of running a press. The business aspect has nothing to do with why I do it. But it’s the most necessary factor that I must consider so I can continue running the press and it’s what people ask about most. Because I don’t consider myself a “business woman” (even though I do run a business, of sorts), I don’t consider other presses or poets to be competition. My sauce isn’t secret. Here’s my recipe. Feel free to use or tweak it for your own purposes. Or toss it if you find little or no value. I’m not trying to convert you.

In 2005, when I was in the early stages of planning No Tell Books, I attended a panel given by Grove/Atlantic publisher Morgan Entrekin and some of his authors. Grove/Atlantic publishes contemporary poets like Kay Ryan, Mary Oliver, Harold Pinter, Claudia Rankine, Mary Jo Bang, Bruce Weigl and keeps in print books by e.e. cummings and Frank O’Hara.

Entrekin said quite a few things that struck me. Most notably, he said all their contemporary poetry books lose money and are subsidized by their sales of non-poetry books. He said average sales are around 800 copies per poetry title. Those are books by well known, well-reviewed, award winning poets. These are books often stocked in bookstores.

I asked him what advice he had for someone starting a poetry-only press. He laughed. He said he didn’t recommend it. Then he said that if I was serious, do everything and anything to keep the cost down so I wouldn’t lose too much money. Then he reiterated that I probably shouldn’t do it.

Well, I did it. Early in 2006 I published a trial run book, The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel, to see if I really wanted to run a press. While the sales were not stellar, far below the average sales of a Grove/Atlantic poetry title, I decided to proceed anyway. I enjoyed working on the project and felt a great deal of satisfaction and pride with the finished book. I made a number of mistakes, but overall, I published a book I’m quite proud to have done. It was the kind of job I always wanted to do, a job nobody seemed to be hiring for it.

Sales Numbers
At this writing, The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel’s non-stellar sales make it NTB’s bestseller at 210 copies. The bulk of these sales were in 2006, so far this year the press has only sold 2 copies. Our poorest selling title (I will not shame by naming), has sold 71 to-date, 5 of those copies this year. Titles I expect to surpass the Bedside Guide’s bestseller status are Karl Parker’s PERSONATIONSKIN (published late last year, so far having an impressive sales record for a relatively “unknown” poet), Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Harlot and Laurel Snyder’s The Myth of the Simple Machines (the last two being consistently steady sellers).

When I mention these numbers, keep in mind they don’t include copies that the author himself sells. The press doesn’t keep track or receive any money from those sales (aside from the author purchasing the books at a discounted rate that covers the cost and shipping). If those numbers were included, likely the lovable and wildly popular Shafer Hall’s Never Cry Woof would be #1 because he’s sold many copies on his own. He’s probably earned the most too, which is why he’s taken to wearing a monocle and top hat. In the world of independent poetry, it’s not unusual for the author to outsell the press.

No Tell Books has published 14 titles since 2006 (with 2 more in the pipeline). NTB has sold a total of 1118 copies via retail outlets and Lulu and there’s another 3363 copies in the pipeline, sold by either the press or authors at readings, bookfairs, online via the press’ subscription offers or given away as review and promotional copies.

Breaking Even
That’s the goal. It doesn’t sound difficult, but for a poetry book, it’s quite the accomplishment. No Tell Books has one title that accomplished this:  Harlot. It took roughly 3 years. In regard to NTB’s other best sellers, I expect The Myth of the Simple Machines to break even by early next year. PERSONATIONSKIN has ways to go, but in 2-3 years, it likely will. Short of a miracle, The Bedside Guide to No Tell Books will never break even. I’ll explain later.

I took Entrekin’s advice to heart and run my press cheaply. Not as cheap as possible, I could certainly shave more off by sending out fewer review copies and by not paying anyone, but I believe that all to be important. I say that knowing that fewer than 10% (in some cases, far fewer) of the review copies I send out generate any type of response at all. In some cases, publications accept review copies and immediately put them up for sale for a few pennies below retail. Shame on them. I try to be careful and practical where I send review copies. I don’t send them to places that don’t review independent poetry, sorry New Yorker. What I pay cover designers and proofreaders is small. The people who offer their services do so because they love poetry and want to support it, but they do receive some compensation. As do the authors. There’s a small advance (usually used towards credit for author copies in addition to the 20 author copies they receive) and royalties.

When I started in 2006, my budget for each single author, full-length collection, was under $1000. Anthologies cost more than double that (contributor copies and postage really add up). These days, a single author collection is closer to $1300. The price of paper, printing and sweet Jesus, postage, has increased a great deal. But still, $1300 per title is still quite a bargain and would not have been possible without print-on-demand (POD).

There are a few drawbacks with POD. Bookstores are sometimes hesitant to order them because they’re not returnable. Then again, bookstores stock so few contemporary poetry titles, it’s really not that big of a drawback. Stores will always order the books for anyone who requests them, returnable or not. POD books are a little more expensive. There are limitations on things like covers. I have yet to come across a POD printer that does a matte finish. Color interiors are rather expensive. I don’t do color interiors, so . . .

The pluses are huge. First, I don’t have to scrounge up $3-10k to do a first run of 500-2000 copies (typical poetry title run). I couldn’t afford that. I also don’t have hundreds of titles molding in my basement, or worse, in a warehouse that’s draining $$$ from the press. I don’t pay for warehousing. I’m not paying huge inventory taxes. For each title I initially do a “short run” between 150-300 copies that includes author, review, promotional copies and some to sell in person at readings, book fairs and via subscriptions. If the author or press needs more copies, I do another (usually smaller) run. Second, distribution! NTB titles can be purchased all over the world, at online retailers, orderable in most bookstores, etc. They’re printed in the continent they’re ordered from, so there’s no international shipping. Third, if one of my titles did hit the jackpot and sold thousands or hell, millions, of copies, I would not be in over my head. I would not have to turn down orders because I ran out. The book would not go out-of-print. Lots of poetry books go out-of-print and that’s the end of that. NTB’s titles do not.

So how come some of NTB’s higher selling books are breaking even and others are not? The biggest factor is where the books are purchased from. When you buy a book from a retail outlet (Amazon, B&N, bookstore, etc.), depending on the title, NTB makes from $2-3.50. That’s because the retailer, distributor and Lulu all take a cut. If you purchase the book (for the same price) on Lulu (our printer), the press makes $6-7.50. That’s because only Lulu takes a cut. If you buy a book directly from the press, you’ll pay a significantly lower price (25-40% less), the press will clear about the same as retail. In this instance, nobody takes a cut (other than the press and author). The difference for the press is that it had to pay for the cost of that book upfront (in a short run) plus shipping compared to paying nothing upfront when ordered on Lulu or at retail outlets. NTB’s makes the least amount (around $2) selling to bookstores directly. The press has to pay for the books upfront, plus offer the bookstore a wholesale price that isn’t a lot more than its cost. Because the press is doing short runs, it’s paying more per book than if it was doing a longer run of 1000-2000 copies. When I started in 2005, I spoke to a publisher of an independent poetry press that publishes some very lovely looking books using a traditional publishing model. He was spending $8k per title and earning far less from retail sales (20-40 cents per book), but made far more in direct sales. Unfortunately for him (and all publishers), most people buy their books on Amazon.

Simply put, when my authors send their friends and family to Lulu to buy books, NTB brings in more money (for both of us) without having to come up with too much cash upfront. Roughly, if a title sold around 185 copies on Lulu, it would break even–or 430 copies via retail (Amazon, B&N, bookstores). The reality for NTB is that in most cases around half of the books are purchased via retail outlets.

Tomorrow:  Part 2 – Budget Breakdown, Author Royalties and Capital

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  1. Nic Sebastian permalink
    September 19, 2010 \pm\30 12:18 pm 12:18 pm

    Go, Reb!

  2. Patrick Hartigan permalink
    September 19, 2010 \pm\30 12:41 pm 12:41 pm

    This is terrific. I can’t wait to read more!

  3. September 19, 2010 \pm\30 1:22 pm 1:22 pm

    You rock.

  4. September 19, 2010 \pm\30 2:59 pm 2:59 pm

    Thanks for these details, Reb.

  5. September 20, 2010 \pm\30 1:44 pm 1:44 pm

    This is really interesting, great numbers, great knowledge.

    Interestingly, the small press publisher of my first book, Fourteen Hills Press, has a more traditional model and almost always breaks even a few weeks after the book is released. Their secret is putting a lot of work into the release party for the book (they also use the SF community). If they sell around 100 books directly at the release party, they break even. But of course there are huge limits to this model, and it also takes away a ton of direct author sales (friends make up most of the release party sales).

    P.O.D. does seem really great for poetry because it’s so hard to judge how many copies a book of poetry will sell. The number is mostly dependent on the marketing savviness of the author her/himself.

  6. September 20, 2010 \pm\30 9:41 pm 9:41 pm

    D.W., yes, traditional publishers usually make the most money with direct sales because their cost per book is lower than pod. I’ve thrown release parties, and they definitely are good for selling books, but I haven’t managed to sell 100 books in any one night. That would be awesome. I agree, author involvement is key to poetry sales. Authors are way more effective than the press.

    If there are small presses out there that are breaking even (or turning a profit) on a regular basis, I sure wish they’d speak up and share their model and experience. I’d be very interested. Especially poetry presses.


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