The interest rate of economic nonsense (floating the Ark down the Roman Amazon): Economia di Parole, anno 8
In the interest of transparency & for the interest of anyone crazy enough to start an independent literary press, or for anyone curious as to the hard realities of such an endeavor, it is that time of year when i (Cal A. Mari) divulge the financial fallout of Calamari Press for 2011. This might be the last year i do this since j now works for the UN so we have tax-free status, so there'll be no need to count beans at the year's end.
First, the good news. 2011 marks the first complete year of doing this from Rome. After a bit of a hiatus in 2010, Calamari put out two books in the second half of last year, A Mortal Affect by Vincent Standley & Divorcer by Gary Lutz.
And though the newest book, Sister Stop Breathing by Chiara Barzini, was just released in 2012, it was printed in 2011.
Here's the continued saga when you plot it in time...
After a slight line-crossing blip in 2010 (which as i explained last year was due mostly to an SPD snafu made good on & a liquidization of inventory before we shipped out) things have since leveled back to the «normal» & seemingly less than sisyphean trend that defies economic sense (i.e. spending $8,581 dollars to make $5,635). And as always, the «expenses» sum only takes into account direct expenditures (printing & shipping of books) & does not consider all the other incidentals of what it takes to make books (i.e. having a computer, internet access, etc.) nor does it consider that there's real people, authors, behind the books, that live & eat.
Whether others want to admit it or not, this is probably typical of most micropresses, at least those that are truly independent (operating in an open market & not supported by a university or some institution or grant). Roxane Gay wrote a good post the other day on her experience starting a micropress, lamenting on all the same gripes Cal A. Mari has experienced over the years. Who was it that said the definition of insanity is doing something over & over & expecting a different result? The secret is not to expect anything. Or at least don't expect anything financially, but rather think of the books themselves as a form of currency. We all die penniless, what really matters is what you leave behind to the world. I don't consider Calamari Press to be a business so much as a foundation—a foundation funded by my better half (so you have her & her employer (for most of 2011) to thank for bringing & keeping these books in print, as well as those of you that buy books—you all in a sense own stock in Calamari, ink.)
It seems there's been a lot of talk lately about the art world's twisted marriage with big money, something i touched on a few months ago while witnessing the bourgeois circus that has become of the Venice Bienniale. While part of me is disgusted by all this, another part of me is fascinated by it. If you take a step back & consider what money is, it's a pretty abstract concept. A hundred dollar bill obviously isn't worth the paper & ink it's printed with. The value of anything needs to compared with something else, in relation to a market. And the value of most everything in the market is abstract & speculative. Even commodities such as pork bellies or diamonds are driven by supply & demand. Diamonds are somewhat valuable as a useful material for industrial use, but as a gemstone their value is for the most fabricated & controlled. There's nothing to ground the market to. It's all speculative & abstract, so why not have art be the basis of the economy, the singular objects worth the most value?
The beauty of art is that it's useless. The value of the art is not dependent on it's practical usefulness or how «good» the art is, but what the market will bear, which no one individual can dictate (though some obviously carry heavy influence). Objects such as photographs, prints & books become less valuable as more copies of them are made. The problem with small presses with print-runs of, say, a few hundred books, is that they are competing with corporate publishing houses with print-runs of a few hundred thousand. And the rules of the art world are not necessarily true in the book industry—people have an expectation of how much a book costs that is based on what the large publishing houses are able to charge, and this expected value is mostly derived by production costs & has little to do with the content. A good book costs the same as a bad book. And a «good» book is determined by how many copies it sells (i.e. a bestseller), which in turn makes it «cheaper».
I'm tired of explaining to people why a book cost, say, $10 usd—that it cost $3 to print, the distributor takes $3 of the sale & the bookseller takes another $3 (roughly, for a book sold on Amazon). People accept the fact that a distributor takes a 30% cut, and the bookseller takes a 30-40% cut, and the printer takes a 30% cut (in advance), & they don't blink an eye at the $3-4 shipping costs, but if a press or an author wants to take a $1 cut of it, they are greedy. And those that complain about it are the same people who will fork over $10 over and over for drinks in a bar and not think twice about it. But when a pregnant author flies from Rome to NYC (on her dime) to read in a bar (for free) they think they should be given a book for free (as they pound watered-down cocktails that cost as much as the book).
I'm abandoning this notion of trying to make books «affordable»—of trying to beat big presses at their own game. I'm no longer going to sacrifice quality to make books cheap. «Cheap» is cheap. I'm not going to do large print runs to drive down production costs, only to eat that cost later when all the books sit in a warehouse gathering dust. This most recent book (Sister Stop Breathing) & the next (Ark Codex ±0) are both being printed in color (digital), in limited numbers, which is considerably more expensive, so i'll have to charge at least twice as much, which likely means cheapskates won't buy it, which is fine. They don't deserve it. At the end of the day, the «value» (to me) is not how many books are sold, but the quality of the book, and what's inside the book. If people want a book badly enough they will buy it, because they really want it, and not because they got a good deal on it. As Deleuze & Guattari said [in Anti-Oedipus]: «The only literature is that which places an explosive device in its package, fabricating a counterfeit currency, causing the superego and its form of expression to explode, as well as the market value of its form of content.»
Another major change over the last year is that i've eliminated the pedestrian word «post office» from my vocabulary (the main theme of the first dozen or so «lessons learned» Roxane Gay laments about in her post). Though the few times i've needed to go to the ufficio postale make the American postal system seem like paradiso (like spending €35 euros to send some guy some books (almost half the price of the order), only to have him tell me two months later that he never received them—which is how i spent my morning). Unfortunately the ineptitude of the Italian postal system also means i can't receive books—the few times someone has tried to send me books they get lost or confiscated & you have to bribe some clerk to get it. But for sending books, this mafioso incompetence is a blessing in disguise—it means i just don't deal with post offices anymore. Now i just have the printer (BookMobile) ship straight to the distributor (SPD). Sister Stop Breathing has been out for weeks & i still haven't even seen a physical copy of it (except on skype)!
Since being in Rome, direct fulfillment has been handled by print-on-demand (P.O.D.—with the printer shipping straight to the customer), with the exception of Divorcer, which Gary Lutz has kindly insisted on mailing himself (evidently he's a glutton for such things). This is the first full year i've done P.O.D. & i don't think i'll continue it. It's not as seamless as i'd like it to be & the quality of the book is not as good, and it takes a few weeks. It just seems to be more trouble than it's worth, when i can just as easily link to Amazon so people can get it there (granted at much less, if any, profit).
Though not that many people are buying them (for 2011 i can count them on my fingers & toes), i've converted most Calamari titles to «dbook» (i.e. 'digital book,' which makes more sense to me than 'electronic book'). As i mentioned in last year's economy of words post, PDF is the only format that makes sense to me. It's the publishing equivalent of the MP3, which is the only format i personally will buy music in these days. PDF is the only format you truly «own» (that is not tethered to some soon-to-be antiquated proprietary DRM technology) & that is true to the original format (it is in fact, the same version used to print the book). Anything else is counterfeit, with different fonts & design than the original. j has an iPad now & i've seen the PDFs on it & i like what i see (though Apple seems to adjust the image contrast & color to be darker & purpler than it should be). From what i understand kindles don't support PDF, but that's not my problem, that's Amazon's problem. And it's your problem if you have a kindle, in which case there are ways to convert PDFs. Why should i make all these different ebook versions in different proprietary formats to appease Amazon or whoever & then have them take the lion's share (70%), for what? For paranoid & greedy technology that won't work on anything else? The only reason Amazon even cares about selling ebooks is so they can sell kindles.
Living outside the U.S. for most of the last 4 years has reshaped a lot of my thoughts on how i feel about digital media. In regards to ebooks, i personally don't read them, but i recognize the value of having access to hard-to-find books when you live in out-of-the-way places, & their portability & not having to lug a library of dead trees around every time you move or read on the road. And I certainly don't want to deny anyone the experience of reading a book digitally if that's the way they want to read it. And there's potential to do some cool things with ebooks, to take the idea of a «book» to another level.
In regards to music & film (which the publishing industry always seems to lag behind & never learns from their lessons), i always use to pay for music & movies. But international copyright laws & the greed of American media companies has made it impossible to buy things legitimately overseas. We can't pay to stream stuff on Netflix or other sites. Even a lot of youtube videos aren't available to us outside the U.S. NBC didn't let people outside the U.S. watch the Super Bowl stream last night so i had to find some Russian site that would (in the end a lost opportunity for NBC since the commercials were different). Even DVDs we purchased in the states can't be played on computers here (& vice-versa, you have to choose one region & stick with it). We can't listen to Spotify & other streaming music sites. We can't buy MP3s on Amazon (which is how i used to buy my music). The only site that will let me buy MP3s is eMusic, and the selection sucks. I used to be on the other end of it (i worked for eMusic & other places like the legitimate Napster, which recently folded) & know they are operating with their hands tied—trying to work with horse & buggy copyright laws in the digital world. Unable to capitalize on the brilliance of P2P file-sharing. From what some customers in Australia or Europe have told me, they are also limited as to what eBooks they can buy on Amazon for this very reason (most of the dbooks i am selling are to folks outside the U.S. who are happy & willing to buy the PDF directly). And at least at the time we lived in Kenya & i had a kindle, the Amazon wireless service wasn't available outside the U.S. (where it seems you'd want it most). In short, American media companies don't give a shit about people outside the U.S.
So, personally, this has driven me to «steal» music & movies. This is not because i don't want to pay for it, but because i just want it & there's no other way for me to get it legitimately. If tracks are for sale directly from the artist i'll buy from them. And once you get used to stealing movies, it seems to make so much more sense—if i paid money to see a crap movie like Tree of Life, i would be pissed. But with torrentz you can watch a few minutes of it & simply delete it. It makes you realize that the «eat first, pay after» business model of restaurants should apply to everything. Why should we pay for things (driven by advertising & marketing) up front, only to find out it's not as advertised & we don't like it, after we've already paid? Yeah, i know, it's because people can't be trusted to go back & pay for something after they've tried it. But if you treat people like thieves, they will become thieves. As Johnny said—«Ever feel like you've been cheated?»
Sure, people can freely «share» PDFs with their friends, but isn't that a good thing? Isn't that the whole point? It's not about the author or the press, but the books, and the more they can replicate themselves & spread, the better. In that sense dbooks are a beautiful thing, they are able to replicate & spread for free. But at the same time, the more they replicate the more diluted their value becomes as a «book object». They become like a unit of currency i alluded to at the beginning, and since there is no limit on supply, their value (in a purely economic sense) goes to zero. Which is the beauty of it, the value is purely in the content & no longer has monetary value.
With all this mind, i'm pleased to release the next Calamari title: Ark Codex ±0. There'll be 3 tiers to the Ark—the original images, the book object & the dbook copy.
Since Ark Codex ±0 is authorless, it is also not copyrighted. Anyone can take it & redistribute it or reprint it. From the viewpoint of Ark Codex ±0, any replication & distribution only furthers to serve its purpose (as long as it remains exactly in its original form—the minute someone alters it by, say, claiming authorship, it becomes counterfeit & is not Ark Codex ±0).
[For those in NYC, i'll be coming towards the end of February to smash a bottle of champagne against the bow of the Ark: