Book Smart

Staying Indie in the Age of Amazon

By Colin Battis 

In 2007, Amazon released the first Kindle e-reader. It sold out in less than six hours. This was the start of what many believed would be the death of printed books. Amazon had already begun shaking up the business of bookselling by making it easier to have reading delivered than to go out and browse the shelves of the nearest bookstore. Then, with the Kindle — which was quickly joined by the Nook, the iPad, and a swarm of less successful e-readers — people wouldn’t even need to buy paper books.

he future seemed dark for the printed word. The popular bookstore chain Borders went out of business without warning. Publisher profits plummeted, as e-books started capturing more and more of the market. Newspapers were filled with authors and columnists making pessimistic predictions.

Luckily, the end of paper books and comfortable neighborhood bookshops failed to arrive. The past five years have seen a lot of growth for the book. Compared to the 1,651 independent bookstores that were clinging to life in 2009, there are now 2,524 indie bookstores in the US. Still, things aren’t the way that they used to be. While independent sellers are doing well, the enormous chain Barnes & Noble has struggled to keep their footing. The “Big Five,” publishing houses in New York that have dominated book publishing for decades, have seen losses over the years that are shaking their hold on the publishing industry.

With Amazon and the Internet on the scene, the old ways of doing things are threatened like never before. Today, the book market is wider and more diverse than most could have imagined. Thanks to e-books and new printing methods, many writers unable to find a seat at the Big Five’s table have been able to publish their own work anyway.

Consider Philadelphia as an example. The city is home to a thriving literary community, one with deep roots. Many writers who hope to find mainstream success move to New York City, where they can be close to the agents and editors at the heart of the publishing industry. Those who stay in Philly, which lacks a powerhouse of its own where writers can score major book deals, tend to embrace the indie scene.

I went out to talk to some of the publishers and booksellers who are part of literary Philadelphia, to ask them a question — how do they keep their head above water in a business that has become so tough? What I found was that for these people on the margins of the market, it isn’t enough to have a business strategy. They need a personal reason to stay in the game.

For David Castro, the founder of Arch Street Press, that reason is his lifelong mission of advancing social entrepreneurship and leadership. Castro founded a nonprofit called the Institute for Leadership Education, Advancement, and Development, or ILEAD. “I had an interest not just in leadership development as it stood, but in evolving leadership into the future,” he said.

Wanting to be part of that change, Castro wrote a book, and didn’t know where to publish it. That made him interested in the business model of publishing.

“First of all, it’s so New York-centric,” he explained. “It’s heavily driven by a phalanx of editors and PR people, and I was not convinced. I talked to people in the industry who told me that most of what they publish didn’t make money, and the things that did only made money because people were already throwing lots of money behind them… I started to look at the whole publishing thing and I said this is kind of ridiculous.”

Castro decided that he could use some of the money ILEAD had raised over its 10 years to build a publisher. “[I said] I’m not going to create a vanity publishing company, if we’re going to do this we’re going to create a real publishing company and we’re going to publish a spectrum of things.”

Paul Dry, who founded Paul Dry Books in 2000, had a more simple reason to get into the publishing game — his love of writing as a craft. “I just publish books that I find to be worth it, that appeal to what I would like to read…” Dry said. “Why do you like the music that you do? Why does a young man decide to ask out a young woman? It’s a matter of taste… What’s rewarding is being part of the craft.”

Unlike Castro, Dry doesn’t have ambitions of being an author himself. He finds satisfaction in the role of an editor. “A writer has something they want to express, and they care about their writing achieving that goal, they work to reach that,” he said. “When you can be part of that process, and the writer is on the same page, they’re glad you’re working with them, and there can be so many questions to consider.”

Paul Dry

After years of trying to deal with the mainstream publishing industry, Jon Drucker had an even simpler reason to start an independent press than a social mission or a love of books — frustration. “I had sent my poetry, short stories, and nonfiction into all sorts of publications, and over the course of… a long time, only one piece ever got published, and that was one that one of the editors had actually solicited from me,” Drucker said. “I really got tired of it, I was just putting out a chapbook here, another chapbook there. So much time had gone by at that point, I’d been writing pretty actively for about 15 years. And I just hadn’t put anything together, so I looked into creating an ebook…. After the ebook I realized I wasn’t satisfied with that, and that I wanted to have an actual physical book in my hands.”

After he self-published his first book, Drucker decided that he wanted to break out of the cycle of working to stand apart from a sea of submissions, and to help other writers do the same thing. “I’m hoping to guide more people through that so they can actually do it themselves, to turn them into collaborators,” he said.

While some members of the Philly literary community have found their callings in publishing, others choose to throw themselves into bookselling. Elliott batTzedek is the events and outreach coordinator for the Big Blue Marble Bookstore, and for her, working at a bookstore is rewarding because it leads to forming meaningful links with other people.

“What I love most is getting to live completely in the world of books, the joy of helping books I love find their people,” she said.

At the Big Blue Marble, “what matters most is the connection between staff and customers – customers come in looking for recommendations and depend on our staff members to help them… Our various staff members have different kinds/genres of books we love and know, and customers bond with us if help them find books they love that they would never have found on their own.”

Each of these people has passion that drives them to stay on top of a tough industry. It also turns out that these personal motivations inform how they approach business.

For David Castro, the fact that Arch Street Press exists to find a place for work with a valuable social message was what decided how he built the business.

“When we founded the press, our vision was definitely to expand it and bring in more titles,” Castro said “Our board has often asked us what we’re doing with this press, and I would say there are examples of books that have been transformational books in this space that I would love to emulate.”

He worked to form a board and recruit editors, before experimenting to find out how the newly named Arch Street Press would handle every step of the publication process, from editing his manuscript to designing cover art and advertising the book once it was released.

“I felt that we were going to use me as the guinea pig… before we would subject people from the outside world to our process, we would do it for our own work, so we knew what we were getting into,” he recalled. “Frankly I think if we were publishing my book now, we’d do a better job with it. I talk with a lot of people who have had their books published by major publishing houses and made essentially nothing out of it. The other thing I felt was we could also have better terms, and I think our terms are much better for writers than they’re getting from the major publishing houses.”

Castro heard stories from his friends whose books were poorly handled by publishers, and he resolved to only take on as many manuscripts as he knew Arch Street had the resources for.

Paul Dry’s love of literature meant that he intended for his press to only print books he personally believed had artistic value.

“I originally only intended to publish out of print books, because that would be easier than soliciting manuscripts. I only wanted to bring good books to readers… Of course, if you whisper about publishing original work in your own home at midnight, by the time you go down to get the mail the next morning you’ll be drowning in manuscripts.”

For Jon Drucker, West Philly Press isn’t about making money, it’s about empowering writers to break out of the traditional publishing system.

“The idea was to have Philly writers, mostly West Philly but really any Philadelphia ones, who wanted to publish their work with us, rather than be clients,” he said. “And a lot of this would be showing them how to put the book together, how to do some of the nuts and bolts work, and hope that they would want to be more involved in the business and spread this around.”

His goal is to use simple tools that others can also learn. He currently works by navigating through the printing services offered by large companies, but in the future he hopes to raise the space and money for a book press of his own.

And as Elliott at the Big Blue Marble has found connecting with readers to be the most meaningful part of being a bookseller, fostering those connections is also how the store stays competitive.

“There’s constant work to anticipate reading trends and figure out how to already have on hand, in a small space, what people will want when they come in.  For us, and most neighborhood-based small stores, that’s about knowing our customers deeply’ she said. “We know that the majority of our customers are college-educated women between 30 and 60. We know our customers want smart, well-written fiction- with a mix of fun, lighter work too.”

That also means building connections to Philly writers so that they will trust the store with their work. “We’re the home for a magazine for young writers in the neighborhood, hosting a writing/editing camp in the summer and the readings for the launch of each issue of their magazine. We also make it point to stock books by local and neighborhood writers so we can help readers find them.”

Ultimately, it’s impossible to predict what the book industry will look like in the future. In such an unreliable industry, the fact that a massive company like Amazon dominates so much of the market means that business will always be a gamble.

“Publishing is a lot like buying lottery tickets. You’re trying to guess what’s going to have a lot of impact in the market, and some of the things you think are going to be great are things that nobody loves,” Castro said.

 Without the knowledge that work will be stable in the long run, the ones who can still find success in the literary scene are the ones who aren’t doing it for the sake of success. The people who rise to the top are the people with reasons to care.

Colin Battis covers literary Philadelphia.