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One Book at a Time

Non-Profit Publishers Prefer to Stay Small

Look at the basic numbers, and you'll know instantly that non-profit publishers do things differently. For example, the 12 employees of Berkeley's Heyday Books work long hours to publish a mere 20 titles per year. If a title sells in the hundreds, it's a success; one of their runaway, break-out-the-champagne bestsellers, Gary Snyder's High Sierra, sold a whopping 6,000.

For non-profit publishers, it's about the opportunity to publish something culturally important, about creating a document that will be treasured when bygone mega-sellers are lining landfills. After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 and the subsequent pressure on Americans of Middle Eastern descent, Heyday's books on the Japanese internment during World War II (and other xenophobic moments in California's history) became popular with customers, according to Heyday development director Patricia Wakida.

Legally, non-profit presses must be, like all other non-profits, 501(c)3 registered entities. In practice, many presses, often run from someone's garage, barely break even, much less make money, so that the total number of presses which might be called non-profit greatly surpasses the number that have 501(c)3 status.

So how do they survive? In this niche, to have the financial leeway to pursue culturally important projects, pet projects, and flights of fancy on the margins of profitability, a non-profit publisher needs long-term revenues, the main source of which comes from college and university curricula.

"Academic adoptions sustain us," said Brent Cunningham, sales and web manager for Small Press Distribution (SPD), a Berkeley-based distributor for more than 500 independent presses, many of which are non-profit. One of every five books SPD sells is for a college course.

A second source is government grants, but those are harder to come by and require additional resources. Grant writing is time-consuming for a publisher with little or no staff help. Also, competition is intense and sometimes comes from non-profits in different fields such as soup kitchens.

With money scarce, non-profit presses are exposed to dangers larger presses don't encounter.

The non-profit Gnomon Press of Frankfort, Kentucky, was almost killed by what at first seemed a success story. When Robert Morgan had his novel Gap Creek selected for Oprah Winfrey's book club in early 2000, the exposure ignited a feeding frenzy among the national chains for Morgan's other books, including a short story collection that Gnomon publishes. (Gap Creek was published by Algonquin.)

To meet the demand, Gnomon had to plug much of its scarce cash into an exceptionally large print run. However, Oprah's fans proved fickle and only bought Gap Creek. Morgan's other books languished on the shelf. Chain bookstores finally returned them with impunity, and the effect was devastating, putting Gnomon in the red for the first time in 38 years. The returns are still coming in.

Even though non-profit publishing can be wrought with pitfalls, many publishers probably wouldn't expand even if they could. "If only sellable books were published, before long we'd have narrowed the availability of books down to just the best-best-sellers," said Kirsten Janene-Nelson, the only employee of San Francisco based Mercury House. "No new poetry, no avant-garde essays, no experimental fiction."

Janene-Nelson says she survives by frugality and by not saving for a rainy day. In the face of poor pay, non-profit publishers' dedication to books they feel to be important enriches the publishing industry, to all our benefit.

"As it is, the big presses are cutting out their authors who sell 'only' 15,000 or so," said Janene-Nelson, "but a book that sells even 5,000 copies could have a life-changing effect on those few readers. Think of how many artists were unappreciated in their time."