Small presses: Watch out New York

Nice guys don't always finish last; sometimes they're not racing. Such is the case with many of the small presses that began to flourish in the early '70s and now are gaining prominence on the publishing scene, but not through competitiveness, or even through good business practices.

Whether they're racing or not, though, these presses are growing in number, and book dealers are beginning to pay attention to them. A recent article in Publisher's Weekly, a trade magazine, predicted that small presses will be the scene of any significant and creative growth in the book business in the 1980s, while the large publishing houses stagger under the weight of their own conglomerate entities and keep chruning out blockbusters.

Paying attention to the small presses, though, is like trying to pay attention to a wind across a wheat field: It requires a different kind of concentration than book dealers are used to. For one thing, the way small presses publish books is often whimsical, sometimes annoyingly so. The negotiations between buyer and seller in this "electric business for grumpy and crazy book people," as a buyer at New York's Gotham Book Mart calls it, are necessarily delicate. For another thing, there are so many small presses that book dealers scarcely know which way to turn. Someone has to coordinate everything and everyone.

That's where Bookpeople steps in. Bookpeople is an employee-owned, California-based distributor of small-press boost, which is enjoying some success, or at least surviving -- a coup in the book distribution business. Bookpeople seems to have the right sort of delicacy for this "eclectic business, " not to mention an efficient inventory system and the business sense that many presses and book dealers lack -- to make it the perfect middleman, or, more appropriate, middle people.

"You have to put up with a lot things," says Randy Beek, a buyer for Bookpeople, of the whims of small presses. "You'll call up a guy, and he's out on retreat, or, 'He's meditating, can't talk to you." That affects the flow of books. People just space out, and they're not there." Other times, they don't have the money for another printing, so they don't do it, even th ough the book is in demand. Or they forget and miss their deadlines.

Nonetheless, Bookpeople, the world's largest distributor of these small runs of handcrafted, sometimes hand-set books, has accounts with 550 presses, distributing the books to 4,000 buyers all over the United States and in New Zealand, England, and Europe.

The styles of both ends of the transaction are evident in the firm's Berkeley warehouse, where dress is casual, that atmosphere friendly, and employee benefits include discounts on books and free lunches. (And not just "alternative" lunches -- two turkeys with stuffing were in the oven one day when I called.) Workers who, win their tousled blond ringlets, granny glasses, organic-looking sweaters and low, roomy shoes, look as if they should be lounging in northern California coffeehouses sit hunched over computer terminals that flash complicated inventory information, dealing books over the phone to B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, among others. For all its laid-back attitudes and practices, book dealers call this a model operation for its efficiency and its service. Personable and funky though it may be, Bookpeople is a $4 million a year business.

In the warehouse, tomes on tofu cookery, gatherings of the latest developments in the continuing San Francisco poetry renaissance, alternative technology manuals and admonitions on nuclear energy in droves, and the even popular "How to Keep your Volkswagen Alive" (over 1 million sold) sit in neatly ordered stacks, all inventoried by the computer, each book's departure in adroitly wrapped bundles to bookstores around the world duly tabulated and registered in the computer's memory.

This combination of styles is much appreciated by book dealers like Janie Tannenbaum, small-press director for Gotham Book Mart of New York. "The clerks are not just clerks; they're accessible. They can say about a book, 'Yes, I've read it. . . .'" She also appreciates the fact that even if she doesn't know the author or title of a book, the clerk can usually figure out what she means, whereas with a big trade distributor, if you spell something wrong, the clerks are so unfamiliar with the immense stock that you just don't get the book.

Alan Monasch, one of the four phone clerks at Bookpeople, agrees with Ms. Tannenbaum. "We're courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, and funny," he pipes up. Clerks are able to make suggestions to buyers from personal experience, he says, because they all read constantly and discuss the books.Each has special areas of knowledge -- his is technical material on computers, music, and religion -- and there are two published poets in the department, one of whom is a small- press owner.

I ask him if he's always liked to read, and he's surprised. "Who in this culture doesn't have a love and respect for reading?" he answers. "We keep ourselves sane and healthy by discussing books. It's hard slogging, typing on the machine." And in an employee-owned operation, there's a more personal motivation to offer the best service you can.

Janie Tannenbaum adds that Bookpeople is flexible, giving the small store longer time to sell the books before payment is due. The computer is a great help in figuring rates, she says, "but only the human being is making the decision." Larger companies sell the books to the stores on consignment, with money due in 30 days, not long enough, she says. Books just don't sell that fast. "Books are not food." And Bookpeople understands.

Randy Beek seems especially understanding. He laughs as he talks about the vicissitudes of the book business: the small publishers who "space out," the carnivorous ways of the big publishers when they buy up small-press books (they take over artistic control, and if sales don't keep up, the book goes out of print quickly), the bookstores that forget to re- order popular small-press items. He doesn't seem to laugh out of a sense of futility, but because of the satisfaction he gets from working at Bookpeople. Also, he is ideally suited to chuckling. With his round cheeks, long reddish hair, and beard and little wire glasses he looks like a young hip Santa Claus. Of the small presses (some of which have become so successful they'd rather be called "independent publishers"), he says, "Oh, no, they're not real businessmen. I think that's part of the intrigue."

Perhpaps he understands because Bookpeople is not much more secure financially than the stores. I ask if Bookpeople is doing well. "Yes -- it's survived," he says. "Book distribution is not a very profitable business. You're walking a thin margin." Books are bought from publishers at around a 50 percent discount, and sold to stores at around a 40 percent discount. Though they don't sell on consignment, they buy on consignment, meaning they pay small presses for only the books they sell. Bookpeople also offers selected "trade" (large press) paperbacks. This, says promotion director Susan Gordon, helps the small presses in the long run because bookstore owners "can come in here and do a lot of shopping," choosing a mixture of books to get variety.

Mr. Beek disagrees with this policy. "I want to do small- press books exclusively. I think that's what we should put our energy into. . . . I'd much rather take our dollars and recycle them to smaller groups than to give them to Random House. But we're not at the point where we could do that. The trade bookstores still want Random House and all that other stuff." The financial freedom they get from selling trade paperbacks, which they stop carrying if they don't sell, gives them the flexibility that allows them to stock small-press offerings, which sell anywhere from a healthy 100,000 cpies to "two or three a month, for a long time -- 30 a year," Mr. Beek says with another big chuckle.

Bookpeople started out as a trade books distributor in 1968. It wasn't doing terribly well until someone suggested an enterprising young man named Stewart Brand should have Bookpeople help him distribute his "Whole Earth Catalog." The astounding success of that book, beginning in late 1969, gave Bookpeople a start and turned the company's attention to small presses. Other early distributing coups were Richard Brautigan's "Trout Fishing in America," originally published by Four Seasons Foundation, then bought by Delta; "Ecotopia," by Ernest Callenbach; and "How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive," which was reviewed in Life magazine. Soon there was no turning back from the small-press distribution business.

The employees bought the company in 1971. "The original owners was starting other ventures," says Susan Gordon. "The employees bought it really to save the company."

Right now, says Randy Beek, "we're solvent. And we do manage to pay most people and get the books out."

Each employee owns 50 shares of the company, which he or she sells on leaving the firm. There are 35 employees, who elect five directors at large. The employees have equal votes on how the company is run, but the management decides what books will be distributed and other standard day-to-day questions.

Except for a few presses they know well, such as Black Sparrow Press of Santa Barbara, one of the few really successful literary presses, Bookpeople chooses what it will distribute by the title, not by the company. "We get between 10 and 20 books a week, and we take three of four," says Randy Beek.

Bookpeople also runs its own house, Wingbow Press which issues volumes by poets such as Diane DiPrima and alternative instructional manuals such as "Printing It, a guide to printing your own books," by Clifford Burke, who says in the introduction that he learned all about cheap printing during the San Francisco State College riots in the 1960s, when he produced many of the students' handbills. Most of the book, a handsome paperback, was typed on an IBM typewriter, and just looking at it fans the fires of any latent self-publishing urges one might have.

Local bookstore owners and visitors prowl the aisles of the warehouse with shopping carts, though most orders are from the organization's rather elegant catalogs -- s small-press catalog, "Bookpaper," which announces new titles quarterly, and a thick, yearly catalog. All have a strikingly chic but "underground" look. The small-press catalog -- a recent issue is blue, with dragonflies all over the cover -- carries the only promotions some small-press books ever get. The descriptions of books, with quotes from people like Cesar Chavez, and the counterculture graphics that illustrate them make this an interesting book in its own right.

Interspersed in the April 1979 edition of "Bookpaper" (covered in green with an original etching, an abstract design with something that looks like a cactus in the corner) are old sepia cowboy photos, which go well with announcements by such pioneering houses as Whatever Publishing. The catalogs also carry news of titles put out by big houses. But that is secondary. The primary aim of the catalogs, Susan gordon says, is to publicize books put out by small presses. If Bookpeople has exclusive distribution of a book, it will promote it, but sometimes mention in the catalog is the only advertising a book gets. Sometimes that's enough.

"The best way to compete in the marketplace is where all concerned give the most information," Janie Tannenbaum says. Apparently, to give a lot of information is rare in this particular marketplace. According to Dale Hardman of B. Dalton, a chain of bookstores in 44 states which buys most of its small-press books from Bookpeople, the catalogs are unique among distributors. Agreeing that, yes, they are beautiful, he also says they give more information than any other distributor's catalogs, large or small.

And that, booksellers across the country indicated, was what they needed most. The product offered by this growing tribe of small presses can be bewildering to the larger booksellers. There are many one-title presses, so the buyer has no reputation to go on, and the blurbs on each book, sometimes quoting reviews, sometimes describing the contents, are a helpful guide if the clerk who has read the book happens to be on another line when a phone inquiry comes in. all this gives the small press with one or two titles a year more of a chance to sell them.

Some small presses wouldn't have even started if they hadn't known Bookpeople was there. Capra Press in Santa Barbara and Christopher's Books in San Francisco both started around the same time as Bookpeople and are still with them, though they have other distributors as well by now. But neither press would have started at all, they said, without having this type of distribution to count on.

And bewildering as this plethora of small, elegant volumes can be, a good book is still a good book. Asked what masterpiece he's seen that couldn't have come out of the big New York houses, Randy Beek replied without a moment's hesitation, "A Manual for Cleaning Ladies.'" He checked the catalog. "It never made the list. It [came] in an envelope, saddle stitched, hand letterpress set. It came in and just sold out immediately."

What was the appeal?

"The story was great. She [Lucia Berlin] was just a really good writer. It was just a fine little book. . . . You could read it in half an hour. New York would never touch anything like it."

The book isn't just about cleaning ladies, though the cover bears the imprimatur of the National Endowment for the Domestic Arts, with a feather duster in the middle. The author, telling a sad story of a lost love, gives some instructions for clearning women ("Cleaning Women: As for cats . . . never make friends with cats, don't let them play with the mop, the rags. The ladies will get jealous."), as well as descriptions of the buses she takes to various households. The rest of the story comes in snatches -- sad memories reconsidered while lying under the piano listening to the soothing sound of the vacuum cleaner, happy ones cropping up on bus rides past familiar places. Cleaning is a way for her to deal with her grief, you realize. At times it is funny, but mostly it's haunting.

Only 500 copies were printed by Zephyrus Image, a press in Healdsburg, Calif. that doesn't have a phone. Frustrating, but at least Bookpeople saw to it that those 500 got out to people who are probably now wondering from time to time about that poignant narrative.

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