Friday, January 18, 2008

Guest Blogger: Jeffrey Lependorf

Guest Blogger Jeffrey Lependorf is Executive Director of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses and Small Press Distribution.

I think small presses may be bucking a trend. In this time of declining readers, diminishing book reviews, and closing bookstores, independent literary publishers seem to be reaching more readers than ever before. The NEA recently released To Read or Not to Read, a follow-up to the its 2004 study Reading at Risk, providing additional data suggesting that fewer and fewer people now read for pleasure, if at all. A December 16th article by Los Angeles Times
Staff Writer Scott Timberg, titled A Dismal Year for Books? recounts a litany of bad news for book publishing, from closing bookstores, to the disappearance of book reviews in major newspapers, to overall declining sales in the book marketplace.

Despite how shaky the pedestal books sit upon would appear to be, independent literary publishers—small presses publishing fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction—have been experiencing a period of unparalleled growth. Data we've gathered at Small Press Distribution, the nation’s only non-profit distributor of literary books published by independent publishers, together with data from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, the national non-profit organization that provides technical assistance to independent literary publishers, suggests that while pleasure-reading on a national level may be declining overall, the number of readers of the literature produced by smaller press publishers has been growing. Percentage-wise, smaller publishers appear to be more successful in reaching greater numbers of readers.

By serving the literary sensibilities of focused communities of readers, works of high literary merit reach their readers effectively, and these readers then go on to read even more. The NEA reports, in its 2007 To Read or Not to Read, that average household spending on books in the USA declined approximately 14% between 1995 and 2005. During the same period the quantity of books sold by SPD—now in its 39th year—increased 41%, with an additional 14% increase in total sales over the past two years. Similarly, CLMP’s membership of independent literary publishers increased from fewer than 250 in 1995 to nearly 500 in 2005, and currently—as it enters its 40th anniversary year—to well over 500, a more than 50% increase. There are more independent literary publishers than ever before and more of their books are reaching readers than ever before. It’s the small tail phenomenon in action—perhaps the best way to reach more readers is to meet the needs of small groups of readers one group at a time. While large publishers struggle to figure out the literary taste of American readers as a large group, smaller literary publishers can take far more risks in what they publish toward books reaching their true potential readerships, and our culture is all the better for it. A lot of exceptional literature is coming out of the big houses as well, but the current vitality and health of the independent literary publishing community suggests that smaller may just keep getting bigger.

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