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Connecting Small Presses With Readers for 35 Years By MATTHEW ARTZ

Tuesday December 07, 2004

Small Press Distribution (SPD) is celebrating its 35th year as the nation’s only non-profit book distributor. 

“It’s one of the great resources in publishing,” said Robert Gluck, a poet and novelist, who has relied on SPD to distribute his works nationally since 1973. 

On Saturday Gluck was one of several authors to read from his latest work at SPD’s open house, which let dozens of local literature fans peruse its shelves of 250,000 volumes in search of books that can’t be found elsewhere. 

“This place is such a treasure,” said Dan Fisher, a local poetry writer. “Every small press book you could imagine is here. Even at Moe’s or Cody’s, it’s hit or miss.” 

SPD’s central mission is to get books of literary merit into bookstores, libraries and college reading lists by working as a distributor/wholesaler for over 500 small publishers.  

Since bookstores don’t have the resources to negotiate with multitudes of independent publishers, SPD gets books from the printer to the consumer.  

“If we didn’t exist these publishers wouldn’t sell books and then they wouldn’t exist,” said SPD Deputy Director Laura Moriarty. 

She said that currently the organization, comprised of six paid staffers and about eight volunteers, distributes 13,000 titles to bookshops and libraries in 36 states. SPD, which has a budget of just over $1 million, collects fees from publishers, but makes most of its money from sales, Moriarty said.  

SPD got its start when Peter Howard the owner of Serendipity Books and five independent Northern California publishers decided to join forces to get the work of local poets into book stores. 

The first employees stored the books in Serendipity’s retail store on shelving they built themselves, said Victoria Shoemaker, one of SPD’s founders and a former president of the board of directors. SPD has since moved several times before settling down at its current location in a West Berkeley warehouse. 

Over the years, the organization has distributed the works of Berkeley poets Devorah Major, Lyn Hejinian and Leslie Scalapino and served as a farm team for bigger publishing houses by distributing the early works of prominent authors like Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient. 

SPD has expanded from distributing solely poetry to other forms of literature and some non-fiction, which now accounts for about 40 percent of its sales, Moriarty said. 

As the organization matured it took on more publishers, but never turned a profit. Shortly after Howard decided to divest himself from the venture in 1979, SPD registered as a nonprofit, enabling it to qualify for state and federal grants which combine for about 25 percent of its funding.  

Public funding has helped keep the organization afloat in a publishing world that has been marked by increasing consolidation of publishers and book shops, making it increasingly difficult for distributors to find retail outlets for independent publishers. All of SPD’s early competitors have gone out of business, Shoemaker said. 

She added that in the past decade membership in the American Booksellers Association has dropped from 3,600 to 1,800 stores as chains pushed out independent shops.  

“Independent stores are our most reliable customers, so when they fold it makes business a lot harder,” Shoemaker said. Among SPD’s biggest customers, she said, are the New York Public Library and St. Marks Bookshop in New York. 

For small literary publishers who are more concerned with having their authors read than turning a profit, SPD provides an invaluable service. 

“We’d be nowhere without them,” said David Buck, editor of Tripwire, a Bay Area-based literary journal that SPD has sent to independent bookstores across the country and to a literature class at the University of Maine. 

Tobin O’Donnell, a founder of Low-Fidelity Press in San Francisco, said bigger distributors repeatedly rejected his firm’s books before he turned to SPD. “They just seemed excited that there was a new press that was publishing quality work,” he said. 

Moriarty, however, said SPD rejects about three times as many publishers as it accepts—about 100 rejections a year—either because they don’t find literary merit in their books or they simply can’t add to their roster. 

For writers like Gluck, who specializes in novels on romance and sexual obsession, SPD gives him an outlet in an industry that largely ignores mid-level novelists. 

“With the consolidation of publishers, the industry stopped caring about fiction because they didn’t think it was profitable,” he said. “SPD is essential for writers like me who have an audience of around 5,000 readers.” 

Cole Swensen, a poet and creative writing professor at the University of Iowa, doesn’t earn a living from her writing distributed by SPD, but is happy to know her works are on book shelves in cities across the country. 

“At times I’ve seen my writing in stores, and I think, wow, I had no idea they carried me here,” she said.