A Question for Book and Magazine Publishers
I had an interesting telephone conversation with V. Vale last night — he’s the legendary San Francisco-based publishing entrepreneur behind the RE/Search Publications book imprint, which has been documenting underground and unknown subcultures of all stripes for something like 25 years now. Before founding RE/Search, Vale launched a ground-breaking punk zine called Search & Destroy, which is still considered one of the most important cultural punk publications ever. So in other words, this guy’s no slouch when it comes to publishing, writing, cultural anthropology… and who knows what else. I was interviewing Vale for the first issue of Young Pioneers, my soon-to-be-relaunched punk-rock business magazine, which will be rolling off the printer’s wheel before you know it.
Those of you without much knowledge of the independent publishing universe may not be familiar with Vale’s name, but there’s a good chance you’d recognize the cover of Modern Primitives, one of Vale’s best-selling books — it was almost single-handedly responsible for exposing the tattooing and piercing subcultures to a mainstream audience. In fact, if you’re a twenty-something female with a navel ring, you can thank the book pictured above for more or less launching the trend you so blindly followed. Same thing for all you twenty-something guys with shitty Celtic and tribal tattoos you now regret. Personally, I’d suggest picking up a copy of the book and attempting to learn at least a little something about the various ancient traditions of body modification. Click here to pick up a copy from the RE/Search store; Vale himself will even autograph your purchase at no extra charge if you include a request in your order.
Anyway, Vale and I got to talking about the unique distribution problems faced by magazine and book publishers today. Of course, distribution has essentially always been an Achilles’ heel for independent publishers. But thanks to the fairly recent implosion of the Independent Publishers Association (IPA), and with it its wide-reaching BigTop Newsstand Services distribution arm, magazine publishers who can’t quite afford massive print runs and four-color print processes don’t have many small-press distro organizations to turn to.
Book publishers like Vale don’t have it any better. The recently bankrupted Publishers Group West (PGW) was essentially the BigTop of independent book publishers, and I haven’t yet talked to anyone in the industry who didn’t personally experience a hit. Vale told me he felt the pinch himself, because PGW was one of RE/Search’s biggest clients at the time. Right now, he says, RE/Search’s biggest struggle is trying to decide if they should move away from books and into video and music production, where at least the stakes are slightly lower.
So here’s my question for any pioneering publishers out there, especially any of you who may be doing things differently since the fall of PGW and the IPA: What other options, exactly, do we have?
I’m relatively well acquainted with Disticor, and from what I can tell they’re picking up the slack rather well. But I’m very curious to learn about any other tricks being employed by independent distributors these days. After all, aside from the hip-hop guys who sell CDs direct to the customer from the trunks of their cars, I really haven’t been seeing any new or interesting ideas. And since I’m only a few months away from publishing again myself, my eyes and ears are wide open to any distribution ideas, no matter how unusual or implausible. I’d love to hear from anyone…