Writer in Residence ยท 11/22/2010

The Future of Indie Publishing: Dzanc Books and the "Conceptual Conglomerate"

As some of you already know, the book press I co-founded and currently run, Other Voices Books , is now referred to as an “imprint of Dzanc Books.” We get a lot of questions about this, ranging from “Uh, how do you pronounce that?” (answer: Da-zaynk) to “Do they have to approve the books you publish?” (answer: in terms of the creative selection process, we retain total control) to, most frequently of all, “But wait, isn’t Other Voices Books a nonprofit, and if so, how can Dzanc own you?”

Let me unpack that last one here:

Yes, Other Voices Books is a nonprofit. So, for that matter, is Dzanc Books. So are some of the Dzanc imprints, which now include the book presses Black Lawrence Press, Starcherone and Keyhole, as well as the literary magazines The Collagist, Absinthe and MonkeyBicycle. And yes, that’s correct: nonprofits cannot technically be “owned” by another coproration—the corporate model held by most of the New York publishing industry doesn’t apply to us. Dzanc does not, technically speaking (and this is a very important way of speaking) own its imprints. Likewise, Dzanc doesn’t have shareholders to whom it must answer, and it can’t just “replace” an editor at the head of one of its imprints or any of these antics that are commonplace in the dominant publishing industry. Rather, Dzanc has pioneered a model of the “conceptual conglomerate,” wherein a group of independent, nonprofit literary endeavors band together to achieve greater goals than would be accessible to any of the members individually.

An honor system of publishing, if you will.

(I know, I know: that kind of defies everything we think we know about publishing. But Dzanc has been doing this since 2007, and thus far no imprint has ever sought to leave the collective or broken its liaison with Dzanc, so we’re 3 years into proving that it is indeed possible.)

Invariably, the answer to this question leads to several other questions. Namely:

1) What’s in it for Dzanc?
2) What’s in it for the imprints?

We’ll start with #2. As the Executive Editor of one of the earliest imprints, I can speak to precisely what’s in it for us. The number one draw for almost all the Dzanc imprints is distribution. In this day and age, distribution increasingly separates competitive publishing endeavors from DIY labors of love. Dzanc’s distributor, Consortium, is one of the holy grails of indie publishing: if you have Consortium, you don’t have to jump through the hoops and fire walls like dealing with Small Press Distribution (SPD is a heroic endeavor, but anyone who uses them knows that a great many bookstores nationally can’t be bothered to deal with them, hence a title carried by SPD may end up with only a hundred copies or so, MAX, in bookstores nationally) or print-on-demand technology (which—while it saves publishers a fortune in up front printing costs—is generally even less desirable than SPD when it comes to getting books into stores, since POD titles may not even be part of any catalogue for booksellers to order them: the only way booksellers know the book exists is word of mouth or if the author is having an event at that store . . .)

Consortium, on the other hand, supplies titles to chain and independent bookstores across the country at numbers that are significant and give a book a genuine chance of success. And while most small indie presses would find this a desirable situation, many could not attain it on their own due to their list (annual titles) being too small to attract Consortium, or that they may be too new, or due to the fact that the potential fees of warehousing and returns would bankrupt a small press putting out only a couple of titles annually.

Dzanc, by combining forces among several indie book presses, is able to put out an enticing (and large, by indie standards) array of diverse titles annually, with which to lure Consortium. But further, Dzanc handles the economics of distribution for its imprints, so that if a particular title is returned in large numbers, the larger “entity” of Dzanc absorbs the brunt of those costs, allowing the individual imprint to survive. Because there are so many titles across the imprints, invariably some succeed more so than others. In addition to its more successful titles, Dzanc and its imprints also bring in money through a variety of fundraising efforts such as writing mentorships, a Write-a-Thon, and “Dzanc Day,” where workshops are held across the country by Dzanc affiliated writers. Individual imprints also retain the ability to apply for grants for special projects, given that we all retain nonprofit status.

This, then, might be called the “commune” model of publishing. Dzanc allows an old-world publishing model in which books the editors believe in—but which may not make money—can still be embraced, and in which gambles on a title’s success can still be taken without a mistaken roll of the die bringing down the entire house.

There are other perks, too. Dzanc-family writers can tour together or cross-market across imprints, such as with the new Dzanc eBook Club, which will involve titles from each of the imprints. A potential deal in the works may soon see the release of numerous imprint titles in the UK. The imprints’ authors are all invited to contribute to one collective website, thereby attracting more readers than they could on their own. And, of course, then there’s Dan Wickett, the busiest, hardest working man in publishing, who not only sends out galleys for Dzanc’s own list, but takes on many marketing chores for its various other presses, so that postage costs and necessary manpower are both decreased in the home office.

The man behind the curtains is author, attorney and philanthropist Steve Gillis. Dzanc’s (usually) silent partner, Steve and Dan collaborate closely on all ideas and decisions, but Dan usually acts as the front man for Dzanc’s many operations. It is Steve, though, who provided the initial capital to take on imprints, and whose belief in philanthropy has led a handful of presses and magazines to grow and thrive under the Dzanc model.

Steve and Dan are such rare individuals that the question, “What’s in it for Dzanc?” almost seems not to make sense. I mean . . . yeah, I guess Dzanc Books looks bigger, more powerful, by having a group of imprints, and maybe that’s good PR. But “looking bigger” could have been achieved simply by BEING bigger—the money and time Dzanc spends on its imprints’ titles could have been spent growing their own list or paying desirable authors bigger advances. What seems, at the end of the day, to be “in it” for Dzanc is a belief in literature so strong that Gillis and Wickett have been willing to put their money (and their time) where so many mouths are, not only in embracing imprints but through things like the Dzanc Prize, which gives money to writers who contribute valuably to underserved communities. In short, these guys are the real deal.

Is there a down side?

Well, it’s hard to say. While the presses retain creative control of the titles we choose, major decisions—say, starting a new series or running a special program—need to be run by Dzanc. Giving up some financial control of one’s own imprint has more up than down in terms of it helping to secure a press’ survival, but it would be untrue to say that there’s never a mark in the “minus” colmumn when it comes to simply not being in full control of one’s money, and viewing economics as a group endeavor. While an individual press can usually make the decision to gamble big on a new venture, a Dzanc imprint needs approval from the top before making a similar call. Sometimes things take longer to achieve via a collective process than they would if you could simply do them yourself. Sometimes there is red tape, or things fall through the cracks because there are too many people involved and the right hand doesn’t remember what the left was supposed to do. And so on.

Nothing is perfect.

But the model Dzanc has pioneered is one of the most viable alternatives I’ve found to a model that keeps indie writers and presses from relying predominantly on selling DIY books out of the trunks of their cars. Life with Dzanc and Consortium is an easier, more secure life that permits indie press editors to actually focus on EDITING rather than incessantly scrambling just to scrounge up printing costs and get books carried on consignment at a few local stores. In Dan and Steve, small indies automatically have partners (as well as the talented Matt Bell, who’s just revamped the whole Dzanc website, and Steven Seighman, the in-house designer who stuns me repeatedly with his speed and great artistic instincts.) In a world where writers and indie publishers often feel alone, the Dzanc model has offered presses a community with whom to sink or swim, and a far, far better chance of navigating today’s choppy waters than we could ever achieve solo.

I not only think the best Dzanc days are still ahead of us, but I think the future of indie publishing may just rest in other presses taking up this model and beginning to ban together so as to remain competitive and offer the best exposure to their authors. It’s a model that can be terribly difficult—even insurmountable—if the people involved let ego, tempers and singular ambitions get in the way. But if one can take a leap of faith into a world where a handshake means everything and cooperation is more important than glory, indie publishers may just have a way to beat some of these corporate publishers at their own game: by forming “conceptual conglomerates” based on a love of literature rather than on pandering to shareholders.

This week, I’ll highlight some cool titles coming out from Dzanc. Stay tuned!

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posted by Gina Frangello