Hundreds of Small Presses Just Lost Their Distributor. Now What?

When LittlePuss Press opened in 2021, it had one completed book that had been published elsewhere and fallen out of print and a plan to focus on trans authors. Fledgling as it was, LittlePuss was able to get its book into stores through a company called Small Press Distribution, and LittlePuss has grown steadily since.

But late last month, S.P.D. shocked its clients — about 300 small publishers — by announcing that it would abruptly close, leaving the presses scrambling to retrieve their inventory before the books were destroyed and wondering if they’d ever be paid the money S.P.D. owed them for past sales.

The effects could ripple far beyond those tiny companies. Small presses play a crucial role in the American literary landscape, publishing books that have artistic merit but little commercial potential — like poetry, for example, most of which doesn’t sell much. Without S.P.D., it could be far more difficult for small presses to get their books to readers, or for those books to exist at all.

“Smaller presses like the ones distributed by S.P.D. are willing to take chances on labors of love, or books that are weird or strange or that readers don’t necessarily know they want,” said Casey Plett, the publisher of LittlePuss. “S.P.D. was an enormous under-the-radar institution to help fill that gap.”

In order to get their books to brick-and-mortar stores and online retailers, publishers need a distributor, which collects books from multiple publishing houses and makes them available to sellers in one place. Bookstore owners can place a single order through a distributor instead of placing dozens of orders through individual companies.

S.P.D., a nonprofit founded in 1969, kept its fees extremely low, though it took a significant percentage of sales, often about 50 percent of net. That low overhead allowed presses that run on a shoestring to have their books available in independent bookstores and Amazon.

“What I can say definitively is that we will not have relationships with all 300 presses that were represented by S.P.D.,” said Paul Yamazaki, the chief buyer at City Lights Booksellers in San Francisco.

Mary Gannon, the executive director of the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses trade group, said that while few of S.P.D.’s books were best sellers, that didn’t diminish their value. “Gorgoneion,” by Casey Rocheteau, published by Noemi Press, was a finalist for a PEN Open Book Award. “Punks,” by John Keene, published by The Song Cave, won the National Book Award for poetry in 2022.

“This is going to be devastating for stores like City Lights and so many independents throughout the country that saw these independent presses as a really important part of what we do,” Yamazaki said. “A future where I’m going to lose relationships with anywhere from 85 to 90 percent of them is hard to contemplate.”

S.P.D. has been under financial strain for years, and was the subject of a scandal three years ago over allegations of wage theft and harassment. In a statement when it shut down, the company said, “Several years of declining sales and the loss of grant support from almost every institution that annually supported S.P.D. have combined to squeeze our budget beyond the breaking point.”

The company has been roundly criticized for the way it executed its closure, offering no notice and creating a frantic scramble on the part of small presses, leaving them with very little information and stranding newly published books with essentially no distribution.

Alan Bernheimer, the president of S.P.D.’s board of directors, said in an email, “We believed that any closure pre-announcement would create a chaotic and unmanageable situation.” He said the company’s dissolution is being overseen by the Superior Court of California, which will decide how to distribute any of S.P.D.’s remaining assets to creditors. LittlePuss, for example, is owed about $12,000, which Plett said is about a third of their total revenue from last year.

S.P.D. has shipped its inventory to two other distributors, Ingram and Publishers Storage and Shipping.

Ingram, which said it had received books from scores of S.P.D.’s clients, initially told presses that they had 60 days to remove their inventory or it would be recycled, though a company spokeswoman said in an email that there is “some flexibility” on that time frame. P.S.S.C. said it was storing books from even more former S.P.D. publishers and was offering free storage until the end of June.

When S.P.D. was responsible for getting their books into stores, small presses could focus on what they do best: nurturing unknown and emerging writers, many of whom move on to larger houses as their audiences grow. Plett said she worries about the presses that haven’t yet been founded, and perhaps now never will be.

“I think the worst effects of this, honestly, are going to be long term,” Plett said. “We’ll be fine, but whoever is the version of us from five years ago, if that’s where they are today, they’re not going to be fine.”

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