Article: “The Small Press World is About to Fall Apart.” On the Collapse of Small Press Distribution

Lit Hub report

Adam Morgan Talks to Small Press Publishers About What Happens Next

Last week, Diane Goettel was on vacation in Florida when she saw an alarming email on her phone. After 55 years, Small Press Distribution (SPD)—one of the last remaining independent book distributors in the US—was shutting down immediately, with no advance notice or transitional support. Its website went dark, its Twitter account was deleted, and no one was answering calls.

“The small press world is about to fall apart,” Goettel remembers thinking. She’s the executive editor of Black Lawrence Press, one of more than 400 publishers that relied on SPD to fulfill online orders and make copies available to bookstores and libraries. “A lot of people are really angry,” Goettel says. “I’m a little angry myself, but mostly I’m sad about the loss of this organization, and afraid of what it means.”

On the other side of the country, the executive editor of Noemi Press, Sarah Gzemski, was about to hop on a Zoom for her day job at the University of Arizona Poetry Center in Tucson when she received a text about SPD. “We were shocked, [though] some of the fulfillment issues we encountered over the past few months began to make more sense,” Gzemski says. “We’re already working on shoestring budgets, so for our distributor to close abruptly, without warning, while not paying us our earned income, is devastating.”

Distributors are perhaps the most opaque and byzantine part of the publishing industry. When you buy a book on Amazon or, it’s usually the distributor—not the publisher—who ships you a copy from its warehouse. When bookstores, libraries, and schools order books for their brick-and-mortar locations, they use online catalogs populated by distributors. Even further, most distributors (including SPD, before it vanished) employ sales teams that work to get copies in Barnes & Noble, independent bookstores, and other retail outlets like gift shops.

Without a distributor, presses like Black Lawrence and Noemi are completely cut off from their main sources of income—and for some, SPD might have been the only affordable option left.

“I don’t know where else these presses can go,” says Meg Reid, executive director of the Hub City Writers Project in Spartanburg, SC. “Larger distributors are going to have sales minimums that might not be financially viable, and self-distribution basically takes them out of the system in terms of getting reviewed in major publications or public radio.”

Reid’s publishing imprint, Hub City Press, is distributed by Publishers Group West, a once-independent distributor that was acquired by Ingram in 2016. Based just outside of Nashville, Ingram is the largest book wholesaler and distributor in the US, with more than 17 million titles available (Ingram is a sponsor of Literary Hub). In its email to publishers last week, SPD said all of its 300,000 books had been transferred to either Ingram or Publishers Storage and Shipping (PSSC) warehouses—but that publishers would have to contact Ingram or PSSC themselves to get their books back.

Right now, the future is extremely uncertain for SPD’s former small presses—but they’re adapting as quickly as they can.

To make matters worse, many small presses say SPD owes them money. “We’re owed upwards of $8,000,” says Gzemski. “We just released three books [at Noemi], and all of the preorder and event order revenue from those books has disappeared. This is an enormous loss for us that impacts how we’ll need to proceed moving forward.”

Back on the east coast, Goettel says SPD owes Black Lawrence Press more than $17,000—an enormous sum for a small press. “It could be devastating. I don’t know what will happen if we don’t receive those funds,” she says. In the meantime, Black Lawrence Press has launched a GoFundMe campaign to help.

As of this week, it’s unclear when or whether SPD will be able to pay its presses back. “As a California nonprofit, SPD’s dissolution will be overseen by the Superior Court of California, which will determine the equitable disposition of SPD’s remaining assets to the extent all claims from creditors cannot be satisfied,” SPD executive director Kent Watson wrote in his sudden email on March 28.

However, “it’s difficult to say what remaining assets exist,” according to Mary Gannon, executive director of the Community of Literary Magazines & Presses (CLMP), many members of which were distributed by SPD. “Having to submit claims and figure out what may or may not be owed puts a significant burden on these small operations, especially when we’ve heard from some presses that they no longer have access to sales reports,” Gannon says. “Additionally, any presses that want their books returned from either Ingram or PSSC will need to pay for shipping, [which is] an additional cost.”

I contacted Kent Watson at SPD to ask several questions for this story, but didn’t receive a response before publication. Gannon, Gzemski, and Goettel have also attempted to contact Watson, with no response. In his mass email, Watson said that SPD staff had been “reduced to a minimal team that is in the process of winding down operations” and that they “are not able to respond to individual queries.”

Right now, the future is extremely uncertain for SPD’s former small presses—but they’re adapting as quickly as they can. On an emergency Zoom call organized by the CLMP the day after the news broke, representatives from two alternative distributors answered questions from publishers: Bookmobile, a Minneapolis-based company long known for its beautiful typesetting and printing services, and Asterism, a newer company founded in 2021 by Joshua Rothes, publisher of his own small press in Seattle, Sublunary Editions.

“I was distributed by SPD for about a year until the troubling allegations about the working environment came to light, which, coupled with the abysmal business terms, made for an easy decision to try something different,” Rothes tells me. He’s referring to an essay published by a former SPD employee, as well as further reports in 2021 that accused SPD of fostering a toxic workplace and poor labor conditions, as well as “financial issues and mismanagement.”

On the CLMP’s emergency Zoom, some presses were bullish on Asterism thanks to its low costs. But unlike Bookmobile and most other distributors, Asterism doesn’t currently offer returns to retailers, which leaves bookstores on the hook for any copies they ordered but didn’t sell.

“Our returns policy has raised a few eyebrows, but I wouldn’t say we’ve met fierce resistance over it,” Rothes says. “We compromised with bookstores on event orders, [more] than 200 bookstores have signed up for accounts with Asterism so far, and it seems booksellers are generally happy to order fewer copies of more titles, and re-order when they need to.”

Asterism also doesn’t currently distribute to Amazon, a major source of income for many small presses who see it as a necessary evil. “We don’t sell into marketplaces that routinely discount titles below what booksellers can sell them for,” Rothes says, “but we’re not exclusive and don’t demand control over all of our publishers’ sales channels. Publishers can and do manage their own Amazon seller accounts, or take advantage of the integration options through print-on-demand services.”

Still, Rothes says Asterism will continue listening to what small presses need: “We’ll absolutely maintain a dialogue with both booksellers and publishers, old and new, to determine when we might need to compromise or change course.”

The CLMP says they’re exploring even more options in addition to Ingram, which could be prohibitively expensive, and Bookmobile or Asterism, which might be more affordable. “If they have the bandwidth, these presses can also sell their books directly to consumers, but the problem is discoverability,” Gannon says, echoing Meg Reid. “This is a devastating and sudden turn of events, [but those presses are] distinguished by their innovation and resilience.”

“Noemi is exploring all of our options right now,” says Gzemski. “I feel some comfort that we’re in the same boat as everyone else, and rushing into a new distributor without the proper research will not serve us well.”

Goettel is optimistic about Black Lawrence Press, but anxious about the situation more broadly. “I’m not panicking at this point, but I would not be surprised if some small presses completely close because of this.”

Meanwhile, the CLMP is planning on holding future Zooms with Ingram and Independent Publishers Group (IPG), an international distributor based in Chicago with more than 1,000 publishers, including its own parent company, Chicago Review Press, which acquired IPG in 1987.

“The contributions these small presses make is essential to writers, readers, and literature in our country,” says Gannon. “They’re in the business because of their dedication to publishing the work of writers who would otherwise not have a home for their work. [The CLMP is] going to do everything we can to support them and find more robust solutions to make their books available.”

If you’d like to help the small presses impacted by SPD’s sudden closure, you can purchase books directly from their websites, and/or donate funds if they’re nonprofits like Noemi Press, Rose Metal PressFence, and The Song Cave. Here’s a full list of presses that were distributed by SPD as of January 2024, courtesy of the CLMP.