As the returns dwindle, the sources accumulate. Below, more on the economics of this crazy “biz.” Originally from Charles Bernstein’s “Provisional Institutions: Alternative Presses and Poetic Innovation,” Arizona Quarterly, vol. 51, no. 1 (Spring 1995); reprinted in Steve Clay and Rodney Phillips, From a Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing, 1960-1980, (New York: Granary Books and The New York Public Library, 1998), 259.

Poet Charles Bernstein on the economics of small press literary publishing, using Sun & Moon Press as an example:

The printing bill runs from $2600 to $4000 as you go from 1000 to 2000 copies. [Douglas] Messerli estimates the cost of editing a 100-page poetry book at $300: this covers all the work between the press receiving a manuscript and sending it to a designer (including any copyediting and proofreading that may be necessary as well as preparation of front and back matter and cover copy). Typesetting is already a rarity for presses like Sun & Moon, with authors expected to provide computer disks wherever possible. Formatting these disks (converting them into type following specifications of the book designer) can cost anywhere from $300 to $1000, one of those variable labor costs of small press operations. The book designer will charge about $500. The cover will cost an additional $100 for photographic reproduction or permission fees or both. Publicity costs must also be accounted for, even if, as at Sun & Moon, no advertising is involved. Messerli estimates publicity costs at $1500, which covers the cost of something like 100 free copies distributed to reviewers, postage and packing, mailings and catalog pages, etc. The total cash outlay here, then, for 2000 copies is around $6800. (For the sake of this discussion, overhead costs—rent, salaries, office equipment, phone bills, etc.—are not included; such costs typically are estimated at about 30 percent more than the cost of production.

If all goes well, Sun & Moon will sell out of its print run in two years. Let’s say Sun & Moon prints 2000 copies of the book and charges $10 retail; let’s also say all of the books were sold. That makes a gross of $20,000. Subtract from this a 50 percent wholesale discount (that is, most bookstores will pay $5 for the book) and that leaves $10,000. Subtract from this the 24 percent that Sun & Moon’s distributor takes (and remember that most small presses are too small to secure a distributor with a professional sales force). That leaves $7600. Now last, but not to be totally forgotten, especially since I am a Sun & Moon author, the poet’s royalty; typically no advance would be paid and the author would receive 10 percent of this last figure or $760. That leaves [a] $6840 return to the publisher on a cash cost of about $7000. As James Sherry noted years ago in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E: a piece of paper with nothing on it has a definite economic value. If you print a poem on it, this value is lost. Here we have a vivid example of what Georges Bataille has called general economy, an economy of loss rather than accumulation. Poetry is a negative—or let’s just say poetic—economy.

There is also an interesting interview with Adam Robinson of Publishing Genius talking about the success of one of his press’s newest books, Light Boxes, a novel by Shane Jones (a true small press success story: first, Spike Jonze bought the movie rights to the book, and then Penguin picked it up for re-publication). What is success for a small press anyway?



The other morning when I was walking to work, I had a revelation—one of those revelations that is simply the voicing of something that you have known for a long time. I realized that the NewLights Press will never make enough money to be my primary source of income. This thought left me with two distinct feelings: disappointment and liberation. (The “disappointment” part was yesterday’s post, below. Today is liberation!)

Liberation: So how is the idea of being chained to another job to keep the NewLights Press going liberating? It’s simple, it’s the easiest thing in the world, it’s the old idea that without concern for financial gain, the artist (or company or whatever) is able to take risks and (hopefully) produce extraordinary work that they wouldn’t be able to if they had to worry about sales. For reference, see the life story of just about every avant-garde artist from the first half of the 20th Century. (I believe that good, innovative work, if done with deep commitment and regularly shown, will find an audience. The problem lies in lining up that audience with a market. They are not always the same thing.)

So if there’s another source of money, the press is free to do what it needs to do. But there is the counter-idea that the pressure of the market (of paying the rent) forces an artist to make work that is relevant, that is in a real dialogue with the contemporary world (or art world). There is some truth to that, if even through the negative example of those artist/professors that have been able to spend their time making completely uninteresting work because their academic position keeps them safe. So the question is, how does one find a balance between risk and security in order to keep the work vital? It is possible, I have seen it done. It comes back to that idea of making work with a deep commitment. It comes back to that intense, horizon-bound desire to be in conversation with, and to know more about, the world.

It’s the easiest thing in the world.



The other morning when I was walking to work, I had a revelation—one of those revelations that is simply the voicing of something that you have known for a long time. I realized that the NewLights Press will never make enough money to be my primary source of income. This thought left me with two distinct feelings: disappointment and liberation.

Disappointment: I would love to be able to run the press full-time. In order to do that I would need my own studio space, equipment, and enough of an income to pay for all that, plus the next book, plus my basic living expenses. In order for the press to generate that much money there would have to be at least one major change in my approach—NewLights would either have to start putting out mass-produced (“real”) books, or I would have to start charging a great deal more money for the books than I currently do. (Right now my prices are based vaguely on materials cost, the rough cost for the next book, and what price I think the “market” will bear. The time spent on the books is a minute consideration.) Most people tell me that the books are underpriced. When I tell people that The Drownable Species costs $400, they say that it’s worth it, and then they don’t buy one. I don’t blame them—my current audience cannot pay that kind of price for books. Also, prices that high make me (morally) nervous. I couldn’t afford them either.

So does NewLights start making mass-produced books? Can I legitimately separate the book (and myself) from the means of production? Do I pour my energy into editing, design, and marketing, as opposed to all of those plus production? Do small presses even make that much money off of their mass-produced books anyway?

Could I potentially subsidize the smaller, cheaper works by selling large, unique books for inflated fine art prices? That seems to me to be the only viable way to make the press, in its current incarnation, to approach funding itself completely.

So I am back to accepting that I will always have to have another job in order to keep the books coming. The focus, always, is on the next book.





These are some of the in-process photos of the new broadside by Justin Sirois. It's a piece from his new book MLKNG SCKLS (which I highly recommend, by the way).



Saturday, August 22 from 11:00am – 6:00pm
Sunday, August 23 from 11:00am – 6:00pm
SF County Fair Building
(formerly Hall of Flowers) 9th Ave. at Lincoln Way (in Golden Gate Park)

The SF Zine Fest is a FREE annual two-day conference for independent and underground publishing. Exhibitors come from all over the West Coast, and while the focus is on
zines, all walks of DIY life are represented — comics, arts and crafts, literary presses, and more. SF Zine Fest was founded in 2002 by Jenn of Starfiend Distro.

SF Zine Fest 2009 is brought to you by the hard-working folks at
Family Style, Miromi, NewLights Press, Monkey & Seal, and many other wonderful volunteers.

There is also a benefit after-party on Saturday night with:

Fleshtone (Portland)
Toby Dick

and an animation screening by Wu of Ghost Family

DJ Neil Martinson (SMiLE!) spins psych, pop, soul, glam, disco, bubblegum, laserboogie, etc.
All the proceeds benefit the SFZF, and will help us cover this year's costs and prepare for next year, our 10th Anniversary! Please come out, have a beer with your favorite creators, and have a great time!

Saturday, August 22 9 p.m onwards at:
853 Valencia St between 19th and 20th

$7 donation - Proceeds benefit SFZF!

Click here for more info about both events.



The NewLights Press is pleased to announce that there are two more broadsides on deck for this year, with poems by:

KC Trommer
Brenda Iijima

That makes a definite five broadsides for this year’s subscription. Images of the first three will be posted in one week, and they will be officially available for order.



Also, what looks like a great project documenting Black Mountain College:



This looks really really interesting:


A new experimental journal.



The Ubuweb is one of my favorite sites on the Internet. It is an incredible archive of hard to find material, ranging from the early days of modernism and the avant-garde to contemporary work. And it’s free. And it’s right there. And it’s always growing.

I was trolling through some old favorites the other day when I looked at this excerpt from Beckett’s Watt. Not only is the cruel, cold, absolutely resigned, repetitive writing of this passage beautiful in that special way that only Beckett’s work is, but the typography and composition (letters + negative space) of this web version is as well. I assume that it is a fortuitous accident (as much typography is). Or perhaps not an accident, but an incredible convergence.



Cynical Conceptual Practice #4: Form vs. Function
Found objects