Chris Ahrens lives in the kind of house any surfer would love. It’s on the hill above Cardiff, with a view of one of the best reef breaks in San Diego county. Wet suits are drying on the front deck surfboards are leaning against the walls. The doors and windows have been thrown open as if the occupants would really rather live outside anyway.
Yard chores like sweeping the walks have been put off until the south swell fades.
Ahrens, a happy, compassionate soul of 47, has long black hair and an irreverent sense of humor that he’s quick to use on anything or anybody — but most of all himself. “I got into publishing much the same way I got into writing, thinking it would be a good scam that would allow me to keep surfing,” he says, sitting down at the kitchen table he calls “the world corporate headquarters of Chubasco Publishing,” a micropublisher with just two books. Chubasco is one of perhaps 150 small publishing companies in San Diego County. These micropublishers, each with only a handful of books in their catalogues (many of them self-published works), are multiplying as quickly as micro-breweries, and for some of the same reasons: consolidation of the megacorporations has created a craving in the marketplace for diversity, and new technology has made it possible for the micros to survive.
“I first started writing while I was traveling and surfing in Australia,” Ahrens says. “I sent stories to a surf newspaper there called Tracks. That money allowed me to get to the next surf spot, and I figured the more I wrote, the better places I would get to see. It hasn’t quite worked out that way.”
From the time he was 18, Ahrens had been sending bad stories to Esquire and other magazines and couldn’t believe they wouldn’t publish them. “I heard once that Oprah Winfrey’s production company was looking for material, so I sent her some surf stories. I got a note back saying, ‘Oprah has no interest whatsoever in this environment.’ I don’t know why I was so surprised to hear that. I guess I should have watched her show first.”
Later on, when he became editor of a now-defunct surf magazine, Breakout, he saw the writer’s desperation for an audience from the other side. “Once I got this article from a mathematician who was an expert in chaotic numbers or something, and he had five theorems he wanted me to publish in my surf magazine. But I couldn’t fault him, because I knew I’d done the same kind of thing so many times. I think if writers weren’t a bit delusional, they wouldn’t be writers.”
For years he wrote a surf column called “Water Spots” for the Blade-Citizen in North County. Later yet, he became editor of Long-boarder, a surf magazine. Along the way he discovered that surfers cherish bizarre characters, and they love to tell and hear stories. If you put three surfers in the water, between sets they’ll be huddled together and one will be telling a story about the time his ex-girlfriend stole his dog, or whatever. With the aging of the surf population, there’s more talk of old exploits, and with each telling the waves get bigger and the heroism grander.
Ahrens’s experiences as a magazine editor introduced him to computer technology, but as a writer he had difficulty taking that technology seriously. “A friend of mine told me he’d read my column; he said, ‘You’re getting better. I can actually stomach your stuff now.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I bought this new software program called Hemingwrite. Whatever I put down, the computer rearranges it so I sound like Hemingway.’ He said, ‘Really? Where can I buy that?’ ”
Eventually, Ahrens realized he had enough stories he’d already published in surf magazines to put together a book. But how to get it into print? Self-publishing seemed to be the answer, but he knew nothing about it. “You know how impractical writers are and how impractical surfers are? You combine the two in one person and you have a real basket case. Fortunately, my wife is much more practical than I am, and she’s very supportive of what I do. She learned about typesetting and layout on a computer. An artist friend of mine, Michael Cassidy, did a painting for the cover. I knew something about color separations. Every night there would be four or five friends here at my house reading stories, helping edit, giving me info. The whole process was really a lot of fun.”
Along with the flourishing of small publishers, there has been a growth in printers who specialize in catering to them. Many of these printers are in the Midwest, where paper and labor costs are cheaper than they are on either coast. Chris Ahrens, though, found an Anaheim printer, KNI, that specializes in short-run books. “They guided us through the whole process, held our hand, and made us not feel too stupid. We muddled our way through, and in the end, we realized it wasn’t all that hard to publish a book.”
The result, in 1994, was Good Things Love Water; a humorous and sensitive collection of surf stories. With 3000 copies in print, and a sizable investment to recoup, Ahrens announced the book with a full-page ad in Longboarder, as well as with free promo in his surf column. “The whole surf community was so supportive. So many people came to my aid, saying, ‘Just tell me what you want me to do! Should I call everybody I know and tell them to buy the book?’ ”
Part of the fun of publishing was the adventure of seeing what would come of it. “Every day was like the lottery. People would be calling us and writing us, and every day we’d get money in the mail. So the scam seemed to be working!” There still wasn’t much money, but Ahrens was used to that. “I remember being so poor, I would see my friends with their new trucks, and I would think, Why does my life have to be this way? Being a writer, I get a mixture of pity and envy from my friends. They see I don’t have any money, but they also see this daily hope, like I might get a phone call at any moment that could change my life.”
After his book had shown a profit, Ahrens went to work on a second book, The Surfers Travel Guide, published in 1995. He had intended it to be a more practical book, and it is, yet each page was woven with equal parts of wit and wisdom, as well as personal stories depicting his love of surfing. Though it, too, has been well received by the surfing community, Ahrens says, “In a way I wish I’d put together another book of stories. That’s what surfers were asking me for. They look at my travel guide and say, ‘Well, this is nice, but when are you going to write more stories?’ ”
Surprising everybody, perhaps even himself, Ahrens spent the next year writing a book that had nothing to do with surfing. “It’s a novel about Los Angeles before the freeway, a story that’s dear to my heart, about my grandfather, whom I have come to think of as a metaphor for what Los Angeles used to be. He was a hard-drinking Mexican man who married an Apache woman. In his 20s he became intoxicated on tequila and passed out on the train tracks. The train creased his forehead and left him with a cheerful disposition, as well as a spiritual belief built around Jose Cuervo, the Union Pacific Railroad, and the Virgin Mary.”
Ahrens had no idea how to publish his novel, where to take it, how to get it sold. So he gave it to an agent The trouble began immediately. “The first call I got from my agent was to tell me they loved the book, but they wanted to change the title. It was a biblical reference I thought tied in nicely, but they said nobody would know what it means.” Already Ahrens could see the marketing forces taking over his creative effort; he could see himself losing control of his book and maybe getting gobbled up by the mega-publishers who manage to make every book sound like their last mega-seller. Only time will tell what will come of his year’s labor. He remains hopeful.
Meanwhile, Ahrens would love to stay in the micro-publishing business. “I really like going around to the small bookstores and talking to people there. They’re so much like small publishers and are so supportive of us. It’s amazing how many of them will look at a book from a writer they don’t know, say ‘I’ll take six of them,’ and write a check right there.”
Ahrens also enjoys the small daily tasks of a micro-publisher. “Sometimes I get calls from people asking for the shipping department, or the president of the company.” (He laughs at this.) “I don’t tell them Chubasco Publishing is just me sitting at my kitchen table. But I really like taking an order for one book, signing it, maybe writing a little note, putting it in a package, and walking it down to the post office. I think it balances the impractical side of me. Writers get so cerebral, there’s a danger of thinking that being a writer is more important than driving a bus. It’s really not.”
Ahrens hopes the day will come when Chubasco can publish the work of other writers, though he can’t afford to do that yet. “I think people with the power and the money should listen more to the ideas of people who don’t have anything to do except sit on the beach and throw rocks. Who else has time to think anymore?”
Perhaps the biggest reason Ahrens enjoys being a small publisher is that “I can’t imagine having a job where I couldn’t look out and see an endless horizon.” And looking out his kitchen window, he sees that the late morning breezes haven’t blown out the surf at Cardiff Reef. It’s the kind of day answering machines were invented for.
Apes and Oranges
Gene Kira’s first novel, King of the Moon, is due to be delivered from the printer any day now. There are a hundred details that he should be tending to: announcements to be mailed, reviewers to be contacted, ads to be sent to newsletters. But Kira, a well-spoken man, a Japanese American, with a deep, rich voice, has his candy red kayak on the floor of his sunlit office, and he’s sorting through waterproof bags of food and fishing gear for a trip to Baja.
Kira has spent most of a lifetime exploring Baja by car and small boat. Now, at age 50, he’s discovered that ocean kayaking opens up tiny Baja bays and inlets he never before thought accessible. “Places,” he says, “where you can stand on a beach and almost convince yourself you’re the first person to stand there.”
Though Kira describes himself as “misanthropic” and “emotionally unsuited for running a business,” it’s apparent from the looks of his neat and orderly office that he’s a cautious, methodical man who knows how to focus on details. He’s not some attention-deficit adventurer addicted to the adrenaline rush. The reason he chooses to drop everything and run off on another adventure is that “Baja has been a lifelong source of inspiration and renewal for me.” His novel exists not as something he had to fit in between his adventures, but as a result of them.
Like many micro-publishers, Gene Kira fell into publishing almost by accident. What he really wanted ten years ago when he sold his flower-growing business in Encinitas and moved his family to this large, plateau-top home in Valley Center, was to publish a slick magazine for travelers to Baja. He even wrote several articles for the would-be magazine before he realized the project wasn’t financially feasible. “It was a decision,” he says, “which probably saved me a couple hundred thousand dollars.”
About then, Kira made the acquaintance of Neil Kelly, an older fisherman who had made the outrageous claim of catching 20,000 fish in Baja using a lure. Kira eventually realized that Kelly’s claim wasn’t outrageous at all — rather, he was a master fisherman — and they began collaborating on a fishing-and-travel manual for Baja California, beginning with Kira’s articles from the abandoned magazine project.
Also about this time, 1985, Gene Kira discovered what he calls “the mind-blowing power of the Macintosh computer.” He became obsessed with exploring the technical capabilities of these new machines and became what he considers one of the top experts in Macintosh art. He realized immediately that the Macintosh gave him the ability to publish his Baja book himself. He used the Mac to create a delightfully colorful cover for his Baja book, to draw maps and detailed black-and-white drawings of fish, and to set type. He then started a small publishing company, called Apples & Oranges, and published The Baja Catch in 1988.
Though the book was technically superior to almost any desktop publishing at that time, as soon as it was released Kira realized he was naive when it came to the economics of publishing: how to price a book; how to market, distribute, and promote. What saved him from disaster was the happy coincidence that the Baja tourist market was exploding and there were fewer than ten books on Baja available. The Baja book market was ignored by large publishers who saw it as too small to fool with.
The Baja Catch sold out its first printing of 10,000 copies, and then its second.
Kira’s second adventure in self-publishing was Understanding Soccer, which grew out of his experience coaching his son’s soccer team and the realization that parents didn’t understand the game. That book has sold well too — 7000 copies so far — but Kira sees now that “the soccer book doesn’t help sell the Baja book, and vice versa. We lost the synergistic effect.” If a small publisher can reduce his subject matter to one niche, he can limit the cost of marketing, advertising, and promotion.
“By now my knowledge of publishing had gone from perfectly naive to pretty naive,” he says. Like many small publishers, he had learned from Dan Poynter, the self-publishing gum from Santa Barbara whose Self-PublishingManual has helped inspire the rapid growth of micro-publishers. “One thing Poynter says is that bookstores are terrible places to sell books. We really found that to be true.” The problem isn’t the small bookstores, which are usually willing to deal with small publishers but are struggling to survive; it’s the large bookstores and the chains, which often will buy from only one wholesaler and don’t want to be bothered with small publishers who have just one or two books to peddle.
Because of the massive conglomeration of major book publishers (“There are less than ten major publishing companies that aren’t subsidiaries of some other company,” Kira says), as well as the consolidation of book wholesalers, the book industry is in turmoil. Micro-publishers are just froth in the whirlpool, too small to matter, but too numerous now to ignore. Their survival depends upon finding a way to get their books into the hands of their readers without getting sucked under by the big players.
The solution to the problem for Gene Kira, and for many micro-publishers, was to focus on selling directly to his niche market He would visit Baja travel clubs, present his book to stores that sold fishing gear, get reviews of the book in club newsletters, and run ads in fishing and travel magazines so fishermen could buy the book mail order from Apples & Oranges.
Now in its third printing, with more than 30,000 copies sold, The Baja Catch has become an indispensable classic to Baja fishermen. To his chagrin, Kira, an intensely private person, discovered that he couldn’t travel to Baja without being recognized by his readers, who flocked to him for autographs and inside tips. Sometimes fishermen followed him in their cars all day, convinced he was headed for some secret fishing spot he hadn’t revealed in the book.
With an eager audience in place, Kira found the courage and audacity to do the rarest thing in self-publishing: publish a novel. The common wisdom is that small publishers don’t do
well in the fiction market. It’s a game for big publishers. “What you have to have is the ability to put your book in every Safeway in the country,” Kira says, a power he obviously doesn’t have. “But I originally wanted to write fiction — I have a degree in English literature — and having just turned 50, I decided it was time to write this book that’s been gnawing at me for 30 years, or else give it up forever.”
So he wrote King of the Moon, a novel set in a tiny fishing village in Baja. His wife Mary, who Kira says has better taste than he, helped edit the book. “There hasn’t been a single argument over graphics or editing she hasn’t won!”
At first Kira assumed he would have to find an agent who could sell the book to a major publishing company. But after shopping the book around, “I soon became disenchanted with agents and publishing companies. There are no great editors anymore, only marketing people. And they have no respect for product.” The last straw was a publisher who asked him to send in 50 pages of his novel so they could make their decision based on that. “We thought that was so asinine and disgusting, we decided to publish it ourselves.”
Another reason Kira decided to publish the book himself was that a self-published writer has financial control over his project. He can keep it in print, even if it is selling only modestly, and he knows the earnings from the book, if any, will go to him. Kira tells a story of a novelist friend who has sold, literally, a million copies of his books for a big publisher. “He was waving a check in his hand, saying, ‘Look! I want to show you something. This is the first royalty I have ever been paid by a publisher.’ ” The check was for $15. Many successful writers tell similar tales. To be fair, what writers do get from big publishers is an advance against future royalties, but after that check is cashed, publishers have a hundred perfectly legal tricks to guarantee not another dime goes into the writer’s pocket
Taking a fairly cautious approach, Kira printed only 5000 copies of King of the Moon in hardcover. Early reviews have been good: San Diego’s best-selling novelist Victor Villasenor said of it, “A wonderful book that truly touches the Mexican soul.”
Kira has developed a marketing plan that will push the book to people who bought The Baja Catch. He will send a flier to everyone on his mailing list of 1500, present the book to the 40 or so stores in Baja that sold The Baja Catch, show the book at trade shows, and get the book in the hands of a select number of reviewers.
What at first seemed implausible, selling 5000 copies of a first novel at age 50, is beginning to look feasible. “I think it has the potential to be a bestseller, though I realize the odds are a hundred to one,” he says. “But as I tell Mary, lightning can strike.”
With a Spanish-style house the size of a governor’s mansion, and all her children grown and gone, Arline Curtiss could have picked any room she wanted for the headquarters of her publishing company. Instead she chose them all. Business cards she keeps in a sugar canister on the kitchen counter, wooden file cabinets are spread around the living room, a closet serves as her darkroom, a storage room contains her small press, an upstairs room is for her fax, and scattered across the dining room table are an artist’s watercolors intended for two new books she has been working on. Most of her writing, though, she does at the kitchen table. “It isn’t as lonely in here,” she explains. “When my family is home, this is the center of activity, and I prefer to work here when I’m alone.”
In just two years as a publisher, Curtiss, a silver-haired grandmother of six who pads around the house barefoot and in blue jeans, has produced two children’s books and a book of poetry and has published two books by other authors. She has four new books in the making.
Curtiss arrived at publishing late. She dabbled in writing for years, mostly in the form of newspaper editorials, which were published in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the San Diego Union-Tribune. Because her husband, a stockbroker with Merrill Lynch, earned a comfortable living, she wasn’t forced to make money as a writer, but she kept dabbling. In that she wasn’t unique — some of the most successful writers of the century have been housewives who had the luxury of sitting down in a quiet kitchen and practicing their craft after their families had gone off to work and school. It wasn’t until her children had grown and Curtiss began reading to her grandchildren that she realized she could produce better books for children than what many of the mega-publishers were doing.
Curtiss’s first effort as a publisher, a colorful children’s book, In the Company of Bears, won the Publishers Marketing Association’s Benjamin Franklin Award in the category of best first book. The first page reads:
In the company of bears
There stands a MAGIC clock.
It doesn’t tock or TICK
And it doesn’t tick or TOCK
But it SHOWS you have ALL the time you need
With JUST what time you’ve GOT.
The book appealed to adults as much as to children, which didn’t surprise Curtiss, who says, “I don’t consider myself a children’s author. I call myself a folk writer.” She has a stack of letters from grownups wanting to buy the book. One young bride had parts of it read at her wedding and gave copies to her brides-maids. The book’s appeal to adults stems from the fact that Curtiss is a licensed marriage and family counselor with a finely honed understanding of human nature and the problems people of all ages are struggling with. She’s discovered there’s a craving for meaning and authenticity that can’t be satisfied by clever media packages designed to manipulate consumers’ emotions.
Because of her success with In the Company of Bears, Curtiss has been forced to confront the dilemma self-published writers both long for and dread: Am I a writer, or am I a business owner? “I was approached by a big discount chain interested in carrying the book. I told them, I’m not sure I want to see my books in a discount store. They said, ‘Well, you know we’d need at least 30,000 copies to start.’ ”
A mega-publisher would consider 30,000 copies a marginal quantity, maybe enough to pay for the foil-embossed cover of their next supermarket romance. For a small publisher like Curtiss, 30,000 copies would be a deal almost impossible to turn down—the gross profit of about $250,000 would mean she could publish her next four books. Yet for a small publisher, just raising the capital to print 30,000 copies is a problem. Curtiss says she has decided she’s a writer, not a business. Does that mean she’ll turn down the deal if the discount chain wants 30,000 books? “I don’t worry about it; I don’t waste even a minute thinking about it. Because I really don’t care.”
Like many other small publishers, Curtiss has had to wrestle with the problem of how to get her books distributed. She got burned last year when Atrium, a Santa Rosa-based book distributor, collapsed. Atrium had about 3000 copies of her books, which she was able to recover, but they also owed her about $20,000 for books already sold. And she hasn’t seen that money. She’s one of a group of ten small publishers, owed a total of about $250,000, that has forced Atrium into involuntary bankruptcy. Now her only distributor is Sunbelt Publications, in El Cajon, which specializes in nonfiction books.
But Curtiss isn’t sure she even needs a wholesaler or distributor, or needs to get her books in the big chain stores. “It seems to me I can sell my books by meeting the public at book signings, book fairs, and the like. I’m not at all dependent upon the chains.”
Curtiss displays an odd mixture of a dreamy, creative nature and a shrewd, perhaps instinctive business sense. Some years ago she persuaded her husband to give her half of their net worth. “I told him if he didn’t give it to me, I would just go to a lawyer, and the lawyers would end up getting it all. So he gave it to me.” Using part of that money, Curtiss bought from a developer 130 acres of sensitive canyon land near Valley Center. “I consider myself the guardian of this land,” she says, “and I want to preserve it.” Though Curtiss says she doesn’t need to earn money from her books to support herself, “I do need to support my canyon, because my husband, who is really a very nice guy, isn’t at all interested in paying the $10,000 a year in property taxes for my conservation project.”
One reason for Curtiss’s devotion to her piece of land is that she’s convinced modern man is headed down a dead-end road. “Human nature hasn’t changed,” she says. “We’re working on the same genes the caveman had. But it maybe that technology isn’t suitable for human beings. People are already beginning to opt for smaller, simpler solutions, and moving to smaller towns. Maybe the day will come when the inner cities will be dismantled for their spare parts.”
Like many writers and small publishers, Curtiss has mostly contempt for large publishers, and she sees a time when the world of mega-publishing will choke on its own greed. “Just as well,” she says. “They were terrible guardians of literature anyway.” Then the publishing industry may be taken over by writers publishing their own works, in the same way that artisans of the Renaissance made and sold their own wares.
Whatever the future brings, Curtiss has the determination, confidence, and enthusiasm many micro-publishers share. “I’ve always thought that if I approached any task with an earnest desire to do well, I would be shown a way.”
Blue Dove Press
The Maya Apartments in Mira Mesa are a city-owned, taxpayer-subsidized, low-rent housing complex just off I-15. As housing projects go, it’s a pleasant place, bathed in the aroma of eucalyptus trees, where people leave their front doors open so they can sit and watch their neighbors pass by.
The name Maya refers, of course, to the Mayan Indians of Mexico. But in Sanskrit and the Hindu religion, maya means the world of illusion we all live in, the illusion of being separate from God, the illusion of being separate from each other.
Jeff Blom owner and publisher of Blue Dove Press, which has published mostly books about spiritual leaders of India, swears it’s just by chance that the Maya Apartments are the headquarters for his company. “It is ironic,” he concedes with a smile, “and many people have commented on it. But it is accidental.”
Blom is one of those people whose life is an ornate tapestry of ironic accidents. Maybe we all have such lives, and we just don’t notice. Blom notices.
Though Jewish by birth, Blom attended a Quaker high school in Moorestown, New Jersey, not far from Philadelphia. Students were required to sit in meditative silence for one hour per week, an experience Blom found profoundly moving. While there he also read the journal of George Fox, who founded the Society of Friends (Quakers) in England around 1650. And so began a lifelong interest in saints and sages of all religions.
Blom is a fairly tall man, balding and bearded, shy but intense, and painfully sincere. “From 1977 until about 1985, I was homeless,” he says. “Not down-and-out, but in the voluntary sense. I was a pilgrim, involved with a crazy group in Santa Cruz called the Christ Family.” (He says this almost apologetically.) “It was sort of a commune, except that we all lived on the road. I traveled around the country, mostly on foot, never hitchhiking. Sometimes I would get a job, earn a little money, then go back on the road.”
Around 1980 he came across a book, published in India, about Swami Ramdas, a holy man who spent much of his life as a penniless pilgrim in India. Blom was astonished by this book but was disappointed to learn it was mostly unavailable to readers in America.
Also about this time, Blom became aware of a book, published in 1982, about the life of an American woman who called herself Peace Pilgrim and who also lived as a penniless wanderer. He had heard that the book was available for free, so one day when he was walking through Albuquerque, New Mexico, he went into a bookstore, saw the book on the shelf, and said, “I hear this book is free. Can I have a copy?”
The manager of the store replied, “Of course not, are you crazy?”
“No,” Blom muttered “I’m not crazy,” then spent the next 14 years proving himself wrong. I came to the conclusion, I don’t know how or why, that I would spend my life publishing books on saints and sages of all religions. I didn’t have any money, I didn’t know anything about publishing, and I wasn’t even a writer.”
In 1988 Blom decided it was time to get off the road. He went to work, without salary, for a group in Hemet that calls itself the Friends of Peace Pilgrim, that publishes the book about her life, and that has indeed given away nearly 400,000 copies. Among other tasks, Blom compiled the group’s newsletter, and in the process taught himself desktop publishing on a personal computer.
Blom inquired to an ashram in India, where Swami Ramdas had resided in his last years, asking if he could publish the books he had read many years earlier on the swami’s life. But the ashram was well aware of the publishing industry’s ability to sacrifice integrity for profits, and Blom was politely told that an American edition of the book was not desired. Eventually, though, after he persisted, he was invited to visit the ashram, where he was told that an American edition of the swami’s book would be permitted if Blom agreed to change nothing of the original text He was ecstatic.
During that same two-and-a-half-month trip to India, through a series of accidents he describes as “miraculous,” Blom acquired the American publishing rights to a total of six books on the lives of Indian saints and sages. He moved into the Maya Apartments, lived in one bedroom, converted another to a shipping room, and the front room to an office, and within three years his new company, Blue Dove Press, had published all the manuscripts he had acquired.
“Most of our books are on the lives of Indian saints,” Blom says, “but I would like to publish the lives of Islamic saints, Christian saints, Buddhist saints. They’re all coming from the same place. In America we honor good businessmen, athletes, and scientists, and that’s all good. But if a person is a master of the inner realm, that doesn’t register in this country. Our mission here is to show Americans that saints of the world have fascinating lives, they aren’t prudes, they can be light and playful, and they have a lot of love.”
Today Blue Dove has six employees and 12 books in its catalog. The works include In Quest of God, by Swami Ramdas; Peace Pilgrim's Wisdom, compiled by Cheryl Canfield; Dialogues on Reality, by La Jolla chemist and author Robert Powell; and the latest, Collision with the Infinite, by Suzanne Segal.
Other small publishers are amazed at how many books Blue Dove has gotten into print in such a short time. One reason is the large number of writers in the New Age, or spiritual, movement trying to get published. “We made a big mistake in having ourselves listed in Writer’s Market, ” Blom groans. “We were swamped with manuscripts submitted for publication.”
Although New Age books have a loyal and growing audience, there are a limited number of bookstores that will carry them. (In San Diego, the largest is Controversial Bookstore, on University Avenue.) And only one distributor has specialized in New Age books, Atrium, the Santa Rosa company that went bankrupt last year. “We were able to get back all our inventory from Atrium,” Blom laments, “but we lost $20,000 on the books they’d already sold.”
Juggling the business side of publishing has been a struggle for Blom. “If you want to sell to the big stores, you have to work through a wholesaler or distributor.” (A wholesaler simply warehouses the books and takes orders; a distributor usually has sales people who call on bookstores.) “It isn’t convenient for a store to write 300 checks to 300 small publishers at the end of the month. Many bookstores nowadays buy only from Ingram.” (The Ingram Book Company, with headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee, is the largest wholesaler of books in the United States. Generally, they won’t deal with small publishers.)
Meanwhile, Blom says, the chain stores are getting a greater and greater percentage of the book-buying market, and the chains are sales driven—if their computerized records show that a book isn’t selling many copies, it gets yanked off the shelf. And that’s hurting many small publishers.
The book business is run on consignment, meaning that any unsold book can be returned to the publisher for a refund. More often than not, the books come back damaged and therefore unsellable. Sometimes wholesalers even return a case of books they know they can sell, just to extend the terms of payment another 30 days. As soon as they return the case, they order a new case. It serves their purposes but is devastating to a small publisher.
“It is enormously difficult to make money in publishing,” Blom says. “If one of our books sells for $14, we’re lucky if we make $1.25 out of it, and that has to cover our overhead. So how the heck do you make any money at this?”
It’s enough to try the patience of the saints and sages.
But one big advantage Blom has over other publishers is that he doesn’t want or need to make a lot of money. “Everybody at this company makes more than I do,” he says. “And all I really want is room and board.”
Sucking up his courage and determination, he plods on, like a homeless pilgrim trudging down a rainy highway. “I know there’s a way to survive in publishing, and we’re going to figure out what it is.”
In One Ear
Though Elizabeth Reid’s house is less than an hour from downtown San Diego, there is no freeway roar in the distance, no line of orange-brown air on the horizon, no manic legion of stop-and-go drivers battling their way through the corner stoplight. She’s close enough to Lake Morena that she walks there on her coffee breaks. The landscaping around her neat and modest home consists of live oaks, manzanita, and buckwheat. Her commute to work is ten steps out the kitchen door, across the porch, and into the garage she has remodeled into an office. Reid, who is single and middle-aged, wears sandals, a T-shirt, and long skirt to work. With her gold-rimmed glasses, she looks as if she might be a high school teacher.
Reid speaks Mexican Spanish so flawlessly that Mexicans who have spoken with her on the phone are shocked when they meet her in person and find she’s a blond gringa. She is the owner of In One Ear, a small but thriving publishing company that specializes in bilingual publications. One of her bestsellers is Spanish Lingo for the Savvy Gringo, a book of border Spanish compiled from a series of columns she wrote for a newspaper while living in Rosarito Beach. After she had completed the manuscript, “I felt like I’d done an awful lot of work and that I deserved an advance of at least $10,000. I began sending queries to big publishers, but of course they said no, or nothing at all. So I finally decided to publish it myself.”
Reid took the manuscript to one of her high school teachers in Point Loma, Gayle Todd, who knew something about desktop publishing, and asked him if he would typeset it for her. His answer was, “No, but I’ll teach you how to typeset it yourself. Then when you finish your second book, you’ll know how.” The first edition came out under an awkward title, with amateurish typesetting, and an ugly cover — a sin in the world of publishing. “They say you can’t judge a book by the cover, but you can, and people do,” she says. Still, the book’s approach to Mexican Spanish—not Castilian Spanish, which is of little use in Mexico — found an eager audience among tourists, Americans moving to Baja, and business people working with the maquiladoras. “I get calls from desperate business people saying, ‘I need to learn Spanish yesterday!’ If I could invent a Spanish injection, I would be a very rich person.”
The book sold out in its first edition, and Reid reprinted it with the much-improved title (which had originally been the subtitle) and a better-looking cover. It’s now in its third printing and about to go to a fourth.
She quickly followed with a bilingual cookbook. “Everybody said cookbooks always make money. That was right before the bottom fell out of cookbooks.” But again she managed to make money. She then began publishing a whole series of books, written by herself and other writers. In addition, she writes and publishes a newsletter on language learning called Bueno ($10 for four issues, 29481 Manzanita Drive, Campo, CA 91906).
But Reid’s top seller by far is called Mexican Slang, written by a mysterious character known as Linton H. Robinson. It’s a colorful and amusing guide to street Spanish — all the words your Spanish teacher wouldn’t teach you but Tijuana cabdrivers call you. Robinson insisted it be printed in pocket size because, as Reid says, “He wanted people to be able to take it to the red-light district and get what they want.” The first page includes a
“Sleazy Moral Disclaimer,” which reads, in part, “We are not advocating that readers run around foreign countries spewing nasty words...but it is helpful to know what is meant by words that one hears—and to know what words to avoid repeating.”
Mexican Slang found an eager American audience. For example, Reid says, “The court translators of California held their convention in San Diego. They’re all taught exquisite Spanish, but the kind of people they’re translating for in court don’t speak exquisite Spanish. Their president saw the slang book and asked me if they could sell it at the convention. I had to make three trips to the Stardust Hotel that weekend to keep them supplied with books.”
As she speaks, her fax rings and out spews an order from Sunbelt Publications, which has become an important regional distributor, carrying 6000 titles from 800 publishers. “They want two cases of Mexican Slang ” she laughs.
In the back of her office, Reid has a small counter she calls her shipping department a postal scale, tape, padded bags. Out on the street she has a rural mailbox —the largest they make — which she fills several times a week with outgoing orders. She fills all the orders herself. “I tried hiring high school kids, but the amount of time I spent filling out the federal paperwork was almost as much time as the kids worked. And I still got heart-stopping letters from the IRS saying, ‘You left out block eight on Form XYZ 999.’ I will not hire employees again.”
Though the workload can be overwhelming, Reid still prefers working alone. “I can’t write with someone else in the room. I need a block of at least three hours when I know I won’t be interrupted.” But after the creative work is done, she finds relief in the mindless tasks of running a micro-publishing company— packing and weighing orders, organizing inventory, returning phone calls—not only because the mindless tasks balance out the cerebral, but because she knows that’s what it takes to run a successful company, “It’s very rare to find people who can write a book and sell a book. But for a small publishing company, selling it is more important than writing it. I used to hate hearing that. A lot of writers just don’t have that practical side. But the small publishers who don’t have it won’t survive.”
As her business grows, she’s being very selective about the books she’s willing to publish. “Now I get manuscripts from college professors. How fun! I get to scribble on them ‘C-minus. You can do better!’ and send them back.”
But in spite of her personal success, Reid sees a rocky future for small publishers. There are too many forms of information and entertainment competing for too small an audience. She points to the fact that the current recession is the first that’s hurt publishers, who historically have weathered recessions well. And there is the crucial problem of distribution. “The big publishers have it and we don’t.”
Still, she thinks small publishers will regroup and survive. Maybe the solution will be online bookstores that can list virtually every book in print without actually having the books in stock. Customers will find the book on the Internet, read a review and a sample chapter, and order the book with a call to an 800 number, thus eliminating distributors and retailers.
In the meantime, Reid is content making a living the way she is, knowing she created her own job and is in control of her own fate. “I love small presses because they’re really a voice for freedom in the U.S. They are freedom of the press.”
Could this be a kind of renaissance in the making? At a time when mega-media corporations are focusing on the ultimate product that will sell everything from books and films to T-shirts and children’s lunch boxes, micro-publishers are discovering they have the power to produce small, creative projects without the approval of anybody but their readers.
“I’ve heard,” Reid says, “that when birds sing to each other, what they’re really saying is, I’m here, where are you? That’s what small presses are saying too.”