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Nimble sustainability: the ins + outs of indie book (+ music) publishing ala Calamari (vs. Tyrant)

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924

16 Sept 2021 | Bologna> usually we write an «economy of words» post around tax-time (here's last years report), wherein we feel sorry for ourself + elegize the bleak realities of keeping Calamari Archive afloat (consistently @ a net loss), «for any 1 $tupid enough to want to start a small press» is how we usually frame it... but we figured this year we'd dole out a mid-(tax)-year progress report w/ specific intel that others might find useful, not just prospective indie press publishers, but aspiring small press writers + artists, to impart a nuts + bolts appreciation of what (truly) independent presses have to go thru to put + keep books in print (w/ also sum info about music publishing, as in recent years we've released a few albums) > we also write this for the edification of any 1 wanting to be published by Calamari Archive (we just opened submissions for book- (or album-) length projects), to set expecations, so u know what you're getting in2 (i.e., we won't make u rich or famous)...

> the notion of «nimble economization» has been on our mind lately as we'll be living out of a suitcase in Airbnbs for the next 6 months or so, but also as we streamlined inventory + processes in order to keep the archive afloat remotely > this is the 3rd or 4th stint where we've run the press from afar, but besides the year in Kenya (when Peter Markus shipped books from Detroit), these overseas spells have been more an exiled hibernation than a remote operation, a near-dead dormancy from which we never really emerged, even tho we returned to the states in 2019, just in time for the pandemic > however, this time around we brought sum 1 on board to help out stateside in our absence + as we've been giving them the low-down on small press operations, we realized this might be useful information to document online, for the general public to know about, at least literary types

> now, «small» press has been thrown around a lot, as has «indie», tho they can mean widely diffrent things... in the case of a press like Tyrant Books (which, since Giancarlo's death, has gone oddly silent (or at least co-owners Fat Possum records have not been forthcoming about the legacy of Tyrant... tho rest assured, word on the street in Italy is that Giuseppe + others are working on a solution that will appropriately preserve Gian's legacy)), we'd call that a «big small» press whereas Calamari is a «small small» press > this is the 1st thing a prospective small press publisher (or a writer aspiring to be published by 1) needs to decide — whether to go big small or small small > we use Tyrant as a contrasting example b/c Gian started Tyrant in NYC around the same time we did + then we both went back + forth to Rome, sum times overlapping, + we've debated w/ Gian plenty over things like offset vs. digital + SPD vs. Ingram, etc...

Offset vs. Digital

> the 1st choice 1 is presented with (once 1 has a book they want 2 publish) is offset vs. digital > let's forget about the technicalities of what these mean (they say the quality might be slightly better w/ offset, especially w/ color, but not sure how true that is anymore) — we can basically summarize this option into whether u (a) want to do 2- or 3-figure print runs (digital's your best bet) or (b) u plan on dipping into the 4-figure range (in which case offset makes more economic sense) > so basically u have to ask yrself, can u move 1,000+ books + do u have the space to keep this inventory? well, do u punk? we've always chosen digital (w/ print runs of 300 or less) so we don't know what offset is like, except from the quotes we've gotten (which are definitely cheaper, if 1 can commit to 500 or 1000 books) > far as we know, Tyrant always used offset (Sheridan... tho Gian mentioned using an offset outfit in China or India for sum books, that's even cheaper (tho then u have to factor in shipping costs)) > consider a 500-pg book X... it wd cost $3750 to print 1500 copies w/ offset, or $2.50/copy > if 1 was to print X digitally (w/ Bookmobile) it wd cost $6300 to print 1500 copies, or $4.20/copy, so significantly more (neither of these include shipping, which is another significant expense, but presumably equal in both regards)

> the rest of this discussion is only about digital printing... we don't know the price breaks of offset (but surely there's a rate calculator online for any 1 curious to go down this road) > digital printing has a sliding scale that allows u to print the amount that is right for u, obviously the more u print, the cheaper per book... but u don't want to get stuck w/ 1s u don't sell, or maybe u don't got space in yr tiny NYC apt 2 keep 'em (which was the case in our early years, in 200 sq ft apts), 4 example, if 1 was 2 reprint X (500 pgs, 5.5" x 8"), this is what it wd cost digitally (using BookMobile):

$6300 to print 1500 copies, or $4.20/book
$4240 to print 1000 copies, or $4.24/book
$2380 to print 500 copies, or $4.76/book
$1333 to print 250 copies, or $5.33/book
$714 to print 100 copies, or $7.14/book
$450 to print 50 copies, or $9.01/book
$335 to print 25 copies, or $13.38/book

> u can see that after 500–1000 u don't get much of a price break printing digitally (whereas offset we imagine the diffrence is significant), so it doesn't make economic sense to print more than 1000 copies @ once, digitally > Bookmobile used to be cheaper for runs less than 100, but in recent years they've increased the prices for these small print runs (+ applied a minimum threshold of 25), to the point where it's cost prohibitive to print less than 100 + the sweet spot is more around 300

> + then @ the other extreme is P.O.D. (print on demand), which we flirted w/ maybe a decade ago but decided the quality was not up to snuff > but sum 1 (another ex-pat small press publisher in Rome (OOMPH!)) recently sent us a P.O.D. book + it appears the quality has improved remarkably since > P.O.D. is probly only a viable option tho if the #s you're dealing w/ are in the single or double-digits, or u just don't want to keep inventory on hand > there is a certain allure to printing up only what u sell, but for now we're content w/ the middle ground of digital printing w/ small print runs (tho BookMobile's recent repricing might make us reconsider, at least for sum titles)

> also in the other extreme is the DiY chapbook > our 1st 8 titles were chaps + 2 more we did a bit later, b4 we got tired of folding + stapling + printer failures > all u need for this is a printer + a long-arm stapler, + a «belly-trimmer» if u want clean edges > we cd write a whole nother post on chapbook production, tho likely there are posts out there already (w/ properly #ed templates, which is the tricky part)... nothing of the sort existed when we were making them, we just had to figure it out by trail + error, which was probly for the best

Page Count + Dimensions

> other factors that effect price are page count + book size > for example, if X was 250 pgs it wd cost $870 to print 250 copies, or $3.48/book (whereas it's $5.33/book @ 500 pgs... not ½ the price (considering it has ½ as many pgs), but around 2/3 > a lot of our economical decisions (small fonts, narrow margins, no unnecessary white space) have 2 do more w/ saving trees than $, we just have a natural tendency 2 want 2 make efficient use of space, 2 densely pack as much info + art on2 a pg

> also note that there's certain standard print sizes (5.5 x 8.5, 6 x 9) that are cheaper due to the standard sizes of the larger sheets the book pgs get cut from > for example, we put X as 5.5 x 8, but it doesn't matter whether we choose 5.5 x 8 or 5.5 x 8.25, the price is the same (the excess presumably gets cut off + discarded) + get this... if u choose 5.5 x 8.5 the cost to print 2500 copies is $1242.5, or $4.97 per book! that's less then printing up the same amount of copies of the smaller 5.5 x 8.25 size, which wd be $1332.50, or $5.33 per book > so it's like they are charging u the cost of having to trim the book, but if u choose certain default sizes where they don't have to trim u save money (+ paper)

> now, any 1 familiar w/ Calamari knows we're a bit obsessive about #s + have used the golden ratio for almost every book dimension (whereby the ratio of successive Fibonacci #s approaches 1.618033, so for example, we're predisposed to books that are 5 x 8) + thusly we pay the price for this aesthetic pet peculiarity (it wd be cheaper to just print them @ 5.5 x 8.5) > 3rd bed (the small press Calamari bailed out in 2008, that originally reprinted Stories in the Worst Way) almost exclusively published books (+ the 3rd bed journal) w/ dimensions 6 x 8.5 b/c this had a page proportion of 1:√2 , corresponding to a diminished 5th in music, or a «self-replicating page» (per Robert Bringhurst's Elements of Style (a book that any prospective book publisher shd have)), a detailed explanation of which is included @ the very end of 3rd bed issue 4, freely available online)

> 4 this aesthetic constraint, the 3rd bed publishers also paid the price (tho the same might not be true of offset, which they used 2 print 3rd bed books, Sheridan in fact, if we remember correctly) > the price to print 250 copies @ 6 x 8.5 wd be $1332.50 ($5.33/book) whereas if 1 printed @ 6 x 9 it wd be $1242.5 ($4.97/book) ... so 6 x 9 is the sweet spot as far as dimensions are concerned, if u want more bang 4 yr buck > we've bin told this b4, but didn't realize the extent of it til now, going thru this exercise... anything less than 6 x 9 you're throwing $ (+ paper) away > 2 reiterate, here's what it wd cost to print 250 copies of 500-pg book X @ these dimensions:

6 x 9 — $1242.5 ($4.97/book)
6 x 8.5 — $1332.5 ($5.33/book)
5.5 x 8.5 — $1242.5 ($4.97/book)
5.5 x 8.25 — $1332.5 ($5.33/book)
5 x 7 — $1292.5 ($5.17/book)

+ if u start 2 go smaller than 5 x 7 (as w/ titles like Beastlife, The Luminol Reels, it doesn't really matter, you're just throwing away the excess paper (+ $) to have an aesthetically nice book that fits in your palm or pocket > + note that while the amount of paper directly FX price, ink doesn't matter, a page w/ images is the same as a pg w/ a few lines of text, u cd even print all black pgs w/ white txt + it wd presumably cost the same, tho this wd be a dick move not just cuz it's a waste of ink but sum of these inks can be quite toxic + bad 4 the environment > speaking of, 4 all these quotes we selected standard (50-lb white, uncoated) paper, recycled paper is a bit more... the above book that cost $4.97/book wd cost $6.32/book on 50 lb. recycled, so ~20% more, but worth it > making efficient use of paper also saves trees (sumthing these poets who like to put a few words on a page for dramatic effect perhaps don't consider)

> when u go over 6 x 9 (6.125 x 9.25 to be exact) u really get reamed (pun intended) > to print 250 copies of 500-pg book X @ 7 x 9 would be $2277.50 ($9.11/book), whereas @ 6 x 9 it wd only be $4.97/book > for this reason, we kept the dimensions of Ark Codex ±0 @ 6 x 9 > guess if we wanted to keep the golden ratio yet also shoot for optimal price point, we'd print books @ 5.5 x 9 > speaking of Ark Codex, this entire post is assuming grayscale/B+W... color is a whole diffrent ballgame (+ this is where u may want 2 consider offset if you're printing over a few 100 copies as the quality is better + it's cheaper) > Ark Codex is the only book we've done in color (hence the $40 price tag for a 156-pg book), to print 200 copies of a 156-pg 6 x 9 color book cost $2194 ($10.97/book) > to print the same book in B+W wd cost $666 ($3.33 per book), so color is 3-4 x more expensive

> Textiloma + 'SSES" 'SSES" "SSEY' are the only Calamari books where we broke the 6 x 9 barrier, mostly b/c they were based on our brother's thesis which was 8.5 x 11 (probly type-written by hand on standard paper + «published» @ Kinko's), tho we down-sized a bit to 8 x 10 > to give the idea of what it cost to print larger format books, here's what it wd cost to reprint Textiloma (200 pgs, 8 x 10)(+ note these are reprint quotes, a 1st print run wd also incur a set-up fee, tho Bookmobile waives this if u order 200 or 300):

400 copies = $1,964.00 ($4.91 each)
300 copies = $1,527.00 ($5.09 each)
200 copies = $1,202.00 ($6.01 each)
100 copies = $707 ($7.07 each)
75 copies = $582 ($7.76 each)
50 copies = $446.00 ($8.92 each)
25 copies = $330.75 ($13.23 each)

> where again, 1 can see 300 is the sweet spot (w/ BookMobile), if u can afford it + can move those books (we printed up 200 @ still have 22 left + another 12 @ SPD (Small Press Distribution)) > 4 sum reason publishers are notorious 4 lying about how many books they've printed or sold + speaking of SPD, the other dirty secret is that the # it takes 2 be a «bestseller» is probly a lot less than you'd think > we've had Calamari books be taught for a class + sell maybe 25 or 40 copies + then appear @ the top of SPD's best-seller list for that month... it goes to show the #s we're talking about > the small press world is small (magnitudes diffrent than indie music), a reference # of 3,000 always comes 2 mind when we think of the maximum # of ppl in the U.S. potentially intrested in the type of niche books we publish, so we're happy 2 move that many (the only book we've published that has broken the 3000 barrier is David Ohle's Motorman (3100 copies printed) > Stories in the Worst Way we've printed up 2500 copies (+ ~3000 more were printed by 3rd bed + more by Knopf b4 that) > from what Gian said, the 1st print run (in 2019) of The Complete Gary Lutz was in the 3000 range (+ now it's «sold out» w/ no word on whether it will be reprinted) + sum of the other Tyrant books were into 5 figures (Preparation for the Next Life sold 15,000 in the 1st year + they had at least 10k more printed after that) > in typical interest of transparency + full disclosure, Calamari titles that have broken 1000 are The Singing Fish, The Revisionist, Ever + Divorcer > titles in the 500 –1000 range include: Deep Ellum, Part of the World, Marsupial, Boons & The Camp, Sister Stop Breathing, Gotham Grammarian + Good, Brother > in total we've moved 26,000 books (not including 3rd bed + Sleepingfish, including those probably around 30k... around the amount of what Preparation for the Next Life alone sold) + then there's dbooks, which we haven't been counting, but tallied them up here when we were giving them out free during the pandemic, well over 10,000 + titles like Ark Codex ± 0 (which has always been free/PWYW) were downloaded 25,000 times in the 1st few months we put it up online

> as we've probably mentioned b4, books are the only currency we care about, the # of books we can get in front of other's eyes > but we've had the luxury of having a partner who makes enough that we can do Calamari pro bono, as it has done nothing but consistently lose $ over the past ~20 yrs > also consider that we've bin able to publish a total of 78 titles, whereas Tyrant only put out 24, b/c each title required a more significant investment

Pricing

> so now u have your book, what price tag do u slap on it? the rule of thumb is that the list price of a book shd be at least 4x the cost 2 print it, at least if you're dealing w/ distributors > sum recommend even higher than this (Tyrant wd mark them up as much as ~8x, b/c of returns, which we'll get 2 below) + recently SPD has put a $16 minimum on new books (which we had 2 defy/ignore 2 put the 110-pg Residue up for $12 (this is at least 4x what it cost 2 print)) > off the top of our head, the publisher gets about 30–40% on avg of the retail sale... tho there's a lot of factors, like the profit margin is much less if the sale is via Amazon (who take a ridiculous cut just for having the link on their site), + this is all w/ SPD, we don't know what kind of cut the big distributors take > of course the profit margin increases as u eliminate middle men... selling directly is the best option, a customer buying directly from SPD is 2nd best > Amazon is the worst (for the publisher + writer), a last resort, but the convenience of it is just to great for many to overcome (including us... especially living overseas, when we can get a book (assuming it's available) from Amazon.it for retail price + free (or local) shipping, but if we got the book straight from the press in the U.S. the shipping fee wd probly be more than the book > usually when we get folks overseas inquiring about getting books directly from Calamari we tell them they're better off getting them from Amazon in their country

> perhaps we shd say sumthing about SPD since there seems to be a shit storm of bad press around them in recent years, w/ ppl calling to boycott them + prospective presses perhaps reluctant to sign on w/ them (+ maybe even sum existing presses that severed ties b/c of it) > the thing is, right now there is no other alternative, for small press distribution... u can go w/ bigger distributors (subject of next section) or can do it yrself (which we also did for a # of years b4 we got tired of schlepping to the P.O. + bookstores never paying us (w/ the exception of Powell's + St Mark's who were always good about it) > we even fulfilled Amazon directly for a # of years, which isn't so bad if u don't mind dealing w/ robots that take a 55% cut to send their leader in2 outer space > but boycotting SPD is throwing the baby out w/ the bathwater... it's like boycotting all Weinstein films so then all the individual film makers + actors who had nothing 2 do w/ it get fucked too > if u boycott SPD it FX all the small presses that work w/ them + all the writers that these small presses publish

Distribution

> we remember a drunken night or 2 on our terrazza where Gian wd extol the virtues of distribution, advocating for the Scarface approach:

> Gian wd ask us about Small Press Distribution + likely we did a terrible job of convincing him cuz he committed to the bigger Consortium road + eventually couldn't resist the Ingram super-highway > maybe it was b/c we were weened on DiY cassette culture, where the likes of Daniel Johnston not only made their own tapes but put stuffed 'em in mailers + took them 2 the P.O. themselves, but we always figured the less middle men the better > our reluctance 2 go w/ a big distributor probly also stems from conversations we had early on w/ Vincent Standley, when he was passing the 3rd bed baton over 2 us, essentially blaming a big distributor (can't remember whether it was Ingram or Consortium) for 3rd bed's demise > the allure of big natl distribution is that they get physical copies of yr books in2 brick + mortal stores all over the country, if not world (we've seen Tyrant books in shops around Europe) > but what no 1 wants 2 talk about is this ugly business of returns > after 6 months (or even less), if the book hasn't sold, then the bookshop sends it back to the distributor + essentially demands a refund for it + then this in turn gets charged back to the publisher + there's the shipping fees too > so while a publisher + author are celebrating the release + the 1st few months of sales, a few months after that u get stuck w/ a bill for the returns + u already spent the proceeds on prosecco (this is what happened to 3rd bed, minus the prosecco + also contributed to Gian's financial woes) > industry standard for returns is 30%, think about that... for every 100 u send out, 30 get sent back, on avg... such inefficiency + waste > 1 of our 1st jobs in high school was working @ a bookstore (dare we admit, Crown Books) + 1 of our tasks was to take books that had passed this 3–6 month shelf-life + rip the covers off > the covers we'd keep 2 send back 2 the distributor as PoP for a refund, the rest of the book we were told 2 throw in the dumpster (b/c giving them away wd diminish demand 4 the book as then they'd be widely available in 2nd hand shops (minus the covers)) > it always struck us as insane + wasteful (we didn't last long @ that job)

> don't get us wrong, having yr book available in every shop around the country or world is definitely alluring + obviously contributes to sales, but u got to have the marketing muscle behind its publication to warrant it, which leads us to...

Promotion

> hands down the single most important aspect... u can publish as many copies of a book as u want, but ppl won't even be aware of it's existence unless u effectively promote it > we won't say nothing about promotion b/c we suck at it... until a few months ago we didn't even have the stomach for social media > in the early days of Inurnet, the web was an effective tool for little guys, but that's no longer the case > this is where Tyrant beat us hands down, why you've heard of Tyrant + not Calamari... Gian «hustled» (as he called it), he had a publicist, was savvy w/ social media, gave launch parties w/ open bars... he got the word out about these books + they moved off the shelves > he might of lost his shirt doing it, but if books are the true currency there's a hell of a lot Tyrant books out there in the world > what's more, he had fun doing it + this «fun factor» is not 2 be underestimated... if you're not having fun then what's the point? cuz no matter how u slice it u ain't gonna make money as a small press publisher (or a writer published by a small press) > u got 2 do it 4 the love of books

Music

> in recent years we've entered the music space, or guess we shd say re-entered, cuz back in the '80s our 1st media venture was w/ music (a cassette-only label called Tapestry Tapes) > we recently reissued a compilation of those cassettes (The Unheard Tapes) + also a mixtape issue of Sleepingfish

> recognize the dimensions? the 4.25 x 2.75 cassette box just happens to be in golden ratio proportion > the beauty of tapes is that u can dupe them yrself (w/ the right deck), or u cd get sum 1 to do it 4 u 4 next 2 nothing > anybody can make a tape (just like anybody can make a chapbook) > any 1 can make a CD too (+ their cheap 2 dupe, from what we've bin told) but who listens to CDs anymore? vinyl was always a pipe dream in the '80s, don't think we had the options (for short-run pressings) that we have now, now that it's become retro-trendy > but it ain't cheap to press a record + like w/ books the lower the # u press the higher the cost > if u want to press less than 100 records it's usually lathe cut (as opposed to vinyl pressed from a metal master), which sound-wise is inferior > our 1st record was lathe cut (by an outfit coincidentally in Bologna, b4 we moved here), b/c we wanted a picture disc + we only pressed 2 copies (for our own vain geeked out gratification + as an anniversary present to ourselves (Sound Furies)) > it's nothing we'd listen to, we just wanted to hang it on our wall, more than anything we just selfishly liked the idea of it, as a record of our existence > Herd of Birds we had 100 copies pressed on vinyl, the more traditional way > for any 1 curious, it cost $1,275, so $12.75 per copy... now u know why vinyl is so expensive + why we have to charge $20 (+ haven't sold a single copy)... again, the currency of listening to our music on vinyl, for the record, is worth more than a piece of paper that has $20 stamped on it

> the greatest thing about music tho is how easy + cheap it is to make it accessible digitally (not to mention how ez it is to make on a laptop, for sum 1 that grew up bouncing tracks on 4-track tape-recorders) > u have Bandcamp + SoundCloud which are free (4 the musician 2 upload + 4 listeners 2 stream... Bandcamp even lets u set the price @ $0/PWYW > for $20/yr (via DistroKid) u can have yr album available on Spotify + Apple + every known digital music seller/streamer known to man... granted, we haven't seen a dime of revenue, but at least these albums are widely available to the world, whereas w/ book publishing u can spend a lot of $ just 2 have boxes of books sit in yr closet > sum 1 cd make the same argument for digital books as we made for digital music, but we're dinosaurs when it comes to tree-based books (tho we do provide dbook (PDF) alternatives for all the Calamari books)

> continued in «publiɔhing manifesto part 2: ɔopyleft + the rites of writer's rights»

923 <(current)> 925 > Tributary #15: «Ogeechee»—2 come up w/ a new form of currency
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