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In a sudden move in late March, the book distributor Small Press Distribution abruptly announced it would be closing up shop after a 55-year run – effective immediately.  (Getty Images)
In a sudden move in late March, the book distributor Small Press Distribution abruptly announced it would be closing up shop after a 55-year run – effective immediately.  (Getty Images)

In a sudden shock to the book community late last month, the book distributor Small Press Distribution abruptly announced it would be closing up shop after a 55-year run – effective immediately. 

Until the announcement, the distribution house had been serving more than 300 independent literary publishers and distributed titles, including books that were National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winners.

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Small Press Distribution, or SPD, issued a statement pointing to “years of declining sales and the loss of grant support” as well as “the challenges of a rapidly changing book industry and funding environment.” With the closure, hundreds of indie presses and authors are now scrambling to figure out how to pick up the pieces and move forward.  

Leland Cheuk, founder of the Los Angeles-based 7.13 Books, said his company has four books that were set to be distributed by SPD, two of which were the indie press’s bestsellers. The publisher had until then been ordering print runs of around 500 books for each title and then replenishing as needed; there are hundreds of books they’re trying to account for. 

Cheuk is just one of many wondering, “How do I get them? How do I sell them? Are these just out of print?” 

According to Cheuk, the New York publishing scene often shies away from experimental literature. “We publish primarily debut books,” he said. “I just don’t think people should have to wait until they’re on their deathbed like I did to publish this first stupid book” – Cheuk’s own near-death experience led him to publish his first book – “It’s just a book, right? You should go out and share it with people. It doesn’t have to be The Big New York Book.”  

For bookworms looking outside of what’s found on the bestseller lists or celebrity book clubs, Cheuk said it’s already difficult for readers to get their hands on literature outside of the mainstream. “You really have to be a fan of small press literature to go get them. Those displays that you see in indie bookstores, the small press showcases and stuff like that, those disappearing will be bad,” he continued. “I think for a lot of bookstores, it’s easy for them to just call up Small Press Distribution and say, ‘Hey, what are your bestsellers? Should we stock some of those books?’ I think those going away will have an impact on people who are shopping for books in brick and mortar stores.”

Unnamed Press editor and publishing manager Allison Miriam Woodnutt echoed Cheuk’s take on corporate publishing, adding that while “these corporate entities that are in the business of making art,” they don’t always leave room for experimental works. As well, she says that’s also true for books in translation, works by marginalized voices, and “anything that kind of goes beyond a kind of channel of the mainstream becomes harder to sell.” 

“They’re in the business of selling as many books as possible to keep their giant houses running,” she continued. “Smaller presses and independent presses – they’re independent. We all work to publish the books that we want to publish.” 

Woodnutt said small presses are able to publish books that cover taboo topics, and marginalized writers whose work may have been overlooked.

“The health of publishing, books, art and writing in general – it depends on who’s advocating for it, what we’re advocating for, how we do that, and how we distribute it and get it on shelves.” 

According to Allison K. Hill, CEO of the American Booksellers Association (and a former books columnist for these newspapers), it’s readers who ultimately suffer the consequences when an institution like SPD closes, which she believes is the result of Amazon’s stranglehold on the book industry. 

Small presses are vital to the literary landscape,” said Hill. “They publish debut authors, champion diverse voices, introduce experimental formats, and ensure that a variety of books from a variety of sources are available to readers. And many small and independent press titles and authors are award-winning and/or bestsellers that might not have been published without this support.”

Small Press Distribution’s abrupt closure hasn’t just disrupted the availability of indie books; it’s also created a financial challenge: Publishers and authors need to get paid, and there are now tens of thousands of books stuck in limbo.  

“I emailed frantically,” said Holly Crawford, who founded and runs San Diego’s AC Books, a small nonprofit publisher that specializes in contemporary art history, criticism and art practice. “I had to quickly tell people, please don’t ship to the [SPD] warehouse.” 

Crawford said she had to break the news to authors expecting their work to be distributed by SPD. Crawford said she’s been working tirelessly to find alternatives and save these authors’ books. 

“I feel a responsibility to people,” she continued. “I’ve taken on their books, and I need to figure out how to get them out.”

New York’s Black Lawrence Press had used SPD as their primary distributor for the past 12 years. The independent publisher launched a GoFundMe campaign, stating that it could not withstand a financial loss of this magnitude. According to the crowdfunding page, the closure had put Black Lawrence Press in a dire position – uncertain how or when it would have access to 18,289 books in SPD’s warehouse or collect royalties owed. (On April 4, Black Lawrence Press posted an update stating it had met its GoFundMe goal: “We still have a logistical mess on our hands, but we’re working diligently to come to solutions as quickly as possible. Thanks to your donations, however, we are not in the dire financial circumstances that we found ourselves one week ago today.)

While rising rental costs, book publishing costs, increasing postage, and across-the-board price hikes for backend operations have hit the publishing industry especially hard in recent years, Jhoanna Belfer, who founded Long Beach’s Bel Canto Books, thinks SPD’s closure should serve as a wake-up call for book lovers. 

Belfer said now is the time for folks to get to know the small presses in their communities, to make sure that you’re purchasing books from them, interacting with them on social media, signing up for their newsletters, and becoming involved. 

“It’s gonna take each and every one of us to get more involved in the publishing and book reading community to ensure that authors across the spectrum – especially authors from historically marginalized communities – are still able to find their audiences and get in front of readers,” she says.