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Jeffrey Lependorf

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I probably throw around the name of today’s guest more than any other. I’m thinking of starting my own indie publishing house. Who should I talk to about this? Jeff Lependorf. Is there a way to tell the legitimate small presses from the scams? Yes. Ask Jeff Lependorf. Is publishing poetry a futile effort? No. Ask Jeff Lependorf. We can’t seem to keep our literary magazine afloat. Lependorf. Quick!

Jeffrey Lependorf is the executive director of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) as well as the executive director of Small Press Distribution (SPD). And I don’t know of a more knowledgeable advocate for literary and non-profit publishers. If you’re going to the AWP conference in Atlanta next week, be sure to say hello to Jeff. Or you can say hello right here, right now!


An assortment of literary magazines.

Talk to me about the current state of publishing, as you see it. First with mainstream press and then with small, independent press.

Lots of ways to answer this question! All of publishing finds itself in something of a crisis: will most people chose to read a book or watch a DVD? The National Endowment for the Arts‘ “Reading at Risk” study indicates that literary reading is on the decline, particularly among younger readers. From the perspective of committed readers, more than 700,000 books appeared last year; even if we do already love to read and buy books, how do we sort through all of that? The publishing of a book…bringing a work from a writer to a reader…requires many steps through a labyrinth of entities well beyond the actual publisher, including distributors, wholesalers, booksellers, and a variety of marketing means and media that let readers know about a book. Readers are out there, and many of them want to read better books, but how do we reach those readers? All publishers face this same dilemma. Because most books find their way to readers through a single, giant marketplace, literary books face considerable challenges in competing for attention, and whether a press be large or small, commercial or non-profit, most of the books they produce will only have a chance of reaching readers if they do enter this highly competitive marketplace and make themselves known.

Because there are so many books, and because there are so many other things competing for the attention of potential readers, in some ways smaller presses may be better positioned these days to reach their potential readers and, within their own scale, to fare better in the marketplace. From a financial perspective, because there is less financial risk in publishing smaller print runs and marketing budgets tend to be smaller, smaller publishers can sometimes fare better in a competitive marketplace than their larger, commercial counterparts. Here’s why: books from the largest publishers generally exist unto themselves; a book sells because of the interest in that book, not because a particular house publishes it. With a small press, however, each publisher represents a particular, focused sensibility (it’s easy to talk about a “Copper Canyon” book or an “Ugly Duckling” book or a “Soft Skull” book), and readers in the know recognize that those “brands” mean something well beyond the size of a budget. Also, because the audiences for things like poetry, experimental fiction, works in translation, etc….the kinds of books most likely to be published by small publishers…often know each other (be it through reading/writing groups, blogs or online communities, MFA programs, etc.), “viral” or word-of-mouth marketing can be quite effective as these readers may be more likely to seek out the particular books and publishers that specifically serve their needs. One a small press identifies and reaches its community, that’s a community likely to remain loyal. And of course, a book that doesn’t fair well represents less of a financial loss. Small Press Distribution had a fantastic year, experiencing an impressive increase in book orders, and this reflects a healthy marketplace for small publishers, even given the many hurdles that must be traversed along the way.

2007 Small Press Month Poster

Define small press. What kind of budget and distribution are we talking about?

I prefer to “officially” use the term “independent literary publisher.” Some are very tiny, with budgets well under $10,000, who may produce only a title or two a year, and some have budgets well over a million dollars with catalogues boasting more than 75 titles a year. The great majority fall into the former category. What makes them unique is that they are mission-driven to publish literature (poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction), as opposed to bottom line-driven, and obviously they are not part of a larger conglomerate.

In what ways can CLMP and SPD help small press publications?

Both organizations help small publishers through the business of publishing. CLMP provides technical assistance and advocates on behalf of small publishers. Technical assistance can come in the form of one-on-one help, through workshops, publications, re-grants, or through a variety of activities that allow our community to use each other as resources. We help with things like non-profit or small business management, distribution, marketing, and fundraising. We advocate on behalf of the field to potential funders, and other sectors of the publishing ecosystem, and hold a number of public events, such as small press and literary magazine fairs, to raise the profile of independent literary publishers to readers. Small Press Distribution similarly serves independent literary publishers, primarily as the last remaining non-profit distributor of small press books. It’s through SPD that many of the books produced by our community physically find their way into readers hands. SPD also advocates on behalf of publishers through public programs and provides them with technical assistance to better maneuver the marketplace.

Houston, TX Literary Magazine and Small Press Fair (a sampling, before the buyers arrived)

You’ve talked before about the difference between printing a book or magazine and publishing one. What are the common mistakes folks make in thinking they’ve published something when they’ve merely printed it?

Simply put (perhaps this should be printed on my shirt by now”¦), as far as we’re concerned, until a book reaches a readers’ hands, it hasn’t really been published. “To Publish” means “to make public,” so that incorporates the full gamut of activities from editing to printing to marketing to distributing to bookselling, etc. Many publishers and writers make the mistake of thinking that the mere existence of a book constitutes publishing. It doesn’t! Potential readers are unlikely to buy a book if they’ve never heard of it or can’t find it in a bookstore (or online, etc.). Again, books exist in a sea of possibilities, and part of the publishing process is narrowing those possibilities for a particular reader. Not putting an emphasis on marketing is one common mistake (a similar misconception is that marketing requires a large budget), another is not paying attention to good design and layout (to many readers a book can really only be as good as its cover), and another is for the writer to not be actively involved in the process of getting a book out there.

If someone wants to start a literary magazine, what advice would you give them? And how about if someone wants to start a new indie publishing house? (Maybe “house” is a silly word to use.)

A good place to start would be to visit, where there’s a treasure trove of basic information (such as a monograph called “How To Start a Magazine”). We’ve been helping small publishers through start up phases since 1967, so there are a multitude of wheels that don’t need re-inventing. Secondly, be clear on a focused mission. A common mistake is to simply want to publish good stuff; it’s much better to narrow that focus and be clear about exactly who your potential readers will likely be. You’ll get more attention and have a greater impact. Also, talk to as many other small publishers as you can. We’re a helpful and generous community, so take advantage of that…those of us who care about literature are all in this together. Finally, start modestly and then grow. Cash flow can be a major issue for start-ups (and in fact for publishers at any stage)…plan ahead and don’t over-project potential income; there may not be any for a while. Try to gather support and identify your audience first.

Flyer for panel discussion and poetry karaoke event as part of Hudson, NY Literary Magazine and Small Press Fair.

Thoughts on self-publishing and print-on-demand?

Self-publishing if done well can be terrific, but unfortunately it generally exists, as described above, more as mere printing. If you are an ace guerilla marketer, go for it, but if not, you’re probably far better off putting in the work to be published by an experienced press. They will have a catalogue, the work will be more likely to be reviewed, and most writers benefit from a professional editor, among the many things that a real publisher provides. Print-on-demand (POD), which is simply a way to print, gets better and better; in fact, to most eyes, when done well, it will be fairly indistinguishable from traditional offset printing. For many small publishers, particularly poetry publishers, POD provides a cost-effective means toward real publishing.

What plans do you have for AWP?

There are more independent literary publishers at AWP than at any other one place in the entire year. CLMP has a full roster of roundtables, panels, and workshops planned for independent literary publishers, including how to market experimental titles and how to develop a business plan. SPD will also be there representing hundred of publishers who can’t be there in person. I think the best aspect of the conference is a chance to meet each other and experience in person the wonderful scope of our community.

What are some ways publishers, editors and writers can take advantage of AWP?

The best thing to do is make sure that you meet each other…there’s no substitute for spending time with colleagues.

2006 Small Press Month poster

What are you reading these days?

I’m just finishing a book from Graywolf Press called The Translation of Dr. Apelles: A Love Story, by David Treuer, which I absolutely love; it somehow manages to be a good old-fashioned read and groundbreaking at the same time. I also just read The Grand Piano: An Experiment in Collective Autobiography from Mode A/This Press, a collection of writings by San Francisco language poets that makes for a wonderful read through an important poetry movement by some unique voices that were a part of it. My favorite book of last year was one from Archipelago Press, called Gate of the Sun, by Elias Khoury, a stunningly beautiful novel in translation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a love letter to the art of storytelling.


On another topic, those of you regulars who know and love the giant-hearted Lance Reynald, would you leave him a note to remind him how adored he is around here? Lance’s dad just died, and he has some business to sort out. Some of us come into the world with a host of supportive family members and others rely on the family they adopt along the way. Don’t underestimate how important you are to him.

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  • Ellen Meister
    February 21, 2007

    I suspect a lot of folks will bookmark this interview. Great info here. Thanks, Jeffrey and Sue!

  • Robin Slick
    February 21, 2007

    I really, really wish I were going to AWP, damn it. I suspect I could spend hours picking Jeff’s brain about a lot of things (ha, like he’s got time for that).

    And Lance, if you happen to swing by here today, my condolences for your loss. Just know that reading your posts are one of the many highlights for me at LitPark.

  • Betsy
    February 21, 2007

    This is fantastic. It really emphasizes for me the reasons I’m leaving a big house and going with a smaller house (Punk Planet) for my next book, and I was already excited about that, but now I’m even more heartened.

  • Gail Siegel
    February 21, 2007

    Oh, Betsy, I’d like to hear about why you’re leaving the big house (sounds like prison).

  • LaurenBaratz-Logsted
    February 21, 2007

    Thanks to Jeffrey and Susan for a very informative interview.

    Lance, I am so sorry for your loss.

  • Wm Reese Hamilton
    February 21, 2007

    Thanks a lot, Susan and Jeffrey, for this very informative interview.

  • Susan Henderson
    February 21, 2007

    Ellen – Jeff’s one of my heroes in this business so I’m happy to show him off and lead as many as I can to CLMP, which is keeping small presses alive.

    Robin – I’m with you. Lance makes my day again and again.

    Betsy – Like Gail said, Tell us more!

    Lauren – I very nearly veered off track with being informative because my instincts, naturally, were to ask Jeff how he gets such handsome arms.

    William – Welcome!

  • Juliet
    February 21, 2007

    Another great, Susan. Jeffrey: I’d love to chat at some point in more detail.

    Lance: you know the words my heart has lined up, and the depth of my sorrow at your loss.

  • Myfanwy Collins
    February 21, 2007

    Enlightening doesn’t even begin to describe this interview. Thank you for it!

    So sorry for your loss, Lance.

  • Betsy
    February 21, 2007

    Mine is a very long story… and I have to go walk the dog! Lance, I tried to send you an email, but I don’t think it went through, so please accept my heartfelt condolences.

  • Carolyn Burns Bass
    February 22, 2007

    Jeffrey said: “Self-publishing if done well can be terrific, but unfortunately it generally exists, as described above, more as mere printing.

    These days everyone knows someone who has “self-published” a book. When my well-meaning friends ask why I don’t publish my own book like their friend so-and-so, I try to explain how publishing is different than mere printing. I wish I could point these well-meaning friends here, but sadly, I still don’t think they’d get it.

    Lance, I lost my father 18 years ago and am only now able to write about him. Take your time and be blessed.

  • Roy Kesey
    February 22, 2007

    Wow, great interview. Thank you, Sue and Jeff. Elizabeth, walk that dog fast and come back with news! And Lance, for what little it’s worth, I’m very sorry for your loss.

  • Lance Reynald
    February 22, 2007

    I’ll get to comments for Jeff when I can… But, thank you for coming to LitPark Jeff.

    And to my LitPark family, thank you for your condolences, love and support…means the world to me. I’ve gotten all your messages and comments via my website and MySpace and you have the deepest of gratitudes from me…I adore you all, and am forever in your debt…

    and to my wondertwin- I’ve no words, but we are so alike I know that you know what you mean to me; forever greatful and forever a friend. Your kindness and love is inspiring. Thank you.

    tomorrow is a travel day, Friday is Rock Creek Cemetary…I hope to see all of you soon thereafter.

    thank you with all my heart-
    xo- LR

  • Anneliese
    February 22, 2007

    Thank you for this interview for its direction and hope. A road map to the market instead of the despair over the state of the market.

  • n.l. belardes
    February 22, 2007

    Noveltown as an Indie Publisher has a long way to grow. It’s all about upward mobility! We’re definitely going to scrape our pockets to attend a future AWP conference. It’s a must. But we have to get a few more titles under our belt to convince the literary world we’re legit. And we’re working on that too because we are mission driven…

    It takes time. It takes working with the right people…

    It also takes networking and learning through great articles like this one. Jeff and CLMP really look like a saviour for a lot of the people/businesses in the world with literary visions. And by saviour I mean, they’re the ones bringing the love and community together, this sort of shared fanatical religion of creative intellectual properties…

    As for Lance. That’s a tough road. We all go through it and get torn up inside. And then we go and act strong for the people around us when we’re really just big babies ourselves who need hugs. I get sad just hearing about him being sad. I’m only in my 30s and my parents have been gone for years. It sucks. I just try to be close to my kids. We trudge through the muck of life and death and try to laugh as much as possible…

    We imitate Jim Carey a lot.

    Now, all of you go and buy Noveltown’s book, Lords! Hey, we had to start somewhere! We’re only publishing other authors from here on out, and I hear we might be in secret negotiations… shhh…

  • Matildakay
    February 23, 2007

    I really enjoyed this article! Jeffrey Lependorf seems like the man to know in the indie literary press world! Noveltown will benefit and grow because of the type of advice and services Jeff Lependorf and others like him provide. I too, after reading this article, wanted to attend the AWP conference, hopefully in the future Noveltown will be able to.

    My thoughts and prayers go out to Lance during his time of loss.

  • Betsy
    February 23, 2007

    Ah, the grisly details. The problem with telling this story in a public forum, is that I think it’s sort of important (not Iraq important, but certainly writers who want to or are trying to publish important) and that I don’t want to come across as bitter because I’ve been SO freaking lucky from the get-go in many ways. That said, due to a complex web of errors at my former publishers, my second book did not get nearly the amount of press that my first book did. They had made it clear that they wanted a novel, and although GLORY was as close as I may ever come and could have conceivably been marketed along the lines of The Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing insofar as it was a collection about one character and in some ways functioned as a novel – it didn’t really get marketed much at all. One problem was that the publicist who’d worked very hard on my first book, kind of fell off the planet at the exact wrong time for the sake of my second book (and apparently a couple other authors with imminent books as well), and in spite of numerous phone calls on my part, I could not get them to get much going in terms of press or advertising until it was pretty much too late. Their concession to me was to put a new, more eye-catching cover on when the paperback came out. (For more on how much I don’t love this cover – check my myspace blog for a big rant.) I have to say, in spite of this, almost 2 years after its initial release, the book is amazingly still chugging along and a lot of great things have been happening I guess by word of mouth, bits of press very late in the game that did not come from the publishers efforts. (And again, I have to say, my editor, Reagan Arthur, is exempt from any blame, she rocks and has nothing to do with any of this.) Anyway, fast forward to last year around this time, my new editor from PP approached me and planted a seed, and I’d known about Joe Meno’s success with HAIRSTYLES OF THE DAMNED and she spent some time telling me about their business model which makes so much more sense – much like Jeffrey detailed.
    Ok, I’m needed elsewhere – part 2 soon.

  • Betsy
    February 23, 2007

    So… mid-last year I finished my third book of stories, which I kind of love, if I may say so, and my new best editrix friend Anne Elizabeth Moore at PP was still mentioning how much they’d love to have a book from me, any book, and I was very, very interested all along but also wanted to be sure I made the best choice in all ways – I’d had relatively fat advances for the first two books, as far as collections go, and that’s hard to turn away from for obvious reasons. Looking at the bigger picture, what I really want is for people to read my books – and a smaller press was looking really, really good. I talked to a lot of writer friends about the possibility of switching houses, what their experiences were, I got some good advice, and in the end – my former publisher made the decision for me, basically it was the old ‘short stories don’t sell’ issue (which – don’t get me started on this – I believe in my heart that they COULD) – it’s all about the bottom line (forget the fact that the actual marketing of the book seems like the reason you’d go with a big house – they have all kinds of people who are supposed to be there to do just that, and it’s only being in the publishing arena for a while now that I’ve learned anything about how to self-promote, and that that is going to be a big part of the deal from here on out) since they seemed to agree that it was my best work yet. Complicating things a bit more was that my agent, who I also love, was less ready to let me make the jump without approaching other big houses first – several of whom rejected the book with similar comments. It’s great it’s great it’s great we want novels. At which point I was like, listen, my gut feeling from the beginning – usually pretty keyed in – was to go with Punk Planet. It’s essentially impossible for anyone to lose this way. Low advance, small print run, if you sell a couple thousand copies you make your money back and sell a couple thousand more you make a profit. By way of example, I’ve already gotten royalties from the French edition of my first book, but will probably never see any from my first two books unless I suddenly become a superstar. (Although – suddenly has already come and gone so I guess even if my future superstardom arrives tomorrow it won’t have been sudden.) It kind of amazes me that this went down as it did in spite of the fact that the reviews for my first book were great, sales positive enough for them to give me a second deal – and the reviews on the second book – the ones I did get – were also all positive.
    This, believe it or not, really is the short version.

  • n.l. belardes
    February 23, 2007

    Betsy, you rock… I want to pick your brain… pick pick pick…

  • Susan Henderson
    February 26, 2007

    Juliet – I hope you get a chance to talk with Jeff. He’s not back in town until tomorrow, so maybe he’ll stop by.

    Myf – Thanks. Isn’t he the best?

    Carolyn – It’s hard for non-writers/non-artists to ever get it. Our business is truly insane.

    Kesey – Yay for you for getting into the Best American Short Stories of 2007!!!!!!! And kisses to Stephen King for picking you!

    Lance – We’re right there with you. And I’m totally cool with you getting snot on my shoulder.

    Anneliese – Isn’t he wonderful how he can be realistic and hopeful all at once?

    n.l. and Matildakay – Noveltown rocks!

    Betsy – Thank you so much for your story of moving from big press to small press and why you’d take a smaller advance. I admire you! And my heart has always sided with indie presses because of these stories of writers losing their artistic freedom and stories of crappy stock photo covers and stories of good books being neglected in favor of big money makers. I will plug your book here like mad to support your decision.

  • Betsy
    February 26, 2007

    Golly, thanks, Sue!

  • Mary Akers
    February 26, 2007

    So sorry for your loss, Lance. My heart goes out to you.

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Susan Henderson