Distributed Mean – 02/05/2021

I actually drafted this piece nearly a decade ago, as an assignment when I was earning my MFA. I’m glad I did, as neither the details nor the sense of betrayal and anger are still with me. And this story is definitely part of my story – I hope never to be any closer to what people call a “nervous breakdown.” – JH

Here is the way a small sex book publisher works. You have something you want to say about sex. You want to turn someone else on with the fantasy that’s been bedeviling you for years. You want to teach someone how to tie the perfect bondage harness. You want to explain your amazing insights into sex as a form of meditation or radicalization or dieting. You send your manuscript off to Knopf, and get back a form rejection letter with coffee rings on it. So you buy a copy of InDesign for Dummies, do a clumsy but legible layout, pay someone the money you were saving for rent to print it for you, clear away enough space in your garage to stash fifty cases of twenty books each, and voila, you’re a publisher.

Here is the way a book distributor works. You have sold forty copies of your book and, encouraged by the trickle of money, sweet-talked the landlord into waiting another month or two, published your best friend’s sex book and your ex-boyfriend’s sex book, and now you’ve got a “line.” You are noticed.

You are taken out to an expense-account lunch, which is the first time you’ve seen cloth napkins in months. You sign a contract: your distributor will warehouse all your books (at last, room to park your bike again), represent them to chain bookstores and independent bookstores and on-line bookstores, and send you a report every month on what you’ve sold. In exchange, they will charge a percentage of sales over and above the enormous bite the bookstore’s discount has already taken from your profit margin.

And, you know, it can work. Stories like this one are the reason you can walk into Barnes & Noble and buy a copy of Doc and Fluff or The Good Vibrations Guide to Sex alongside hoary big-publisher classics like The New Joy of Sex or The Story of O. Chain buyers are not interested in small publishers: they have 500 new books from Simon & Schuster to peruse; they simply don’t have time to look at your fabulous release of The Compleat Spanker. But if you team up with a bunch of others like you, there’s a fat four-color catalog and a sales rep in a non-thrift-shop suit, and someone will actually pay attention.

This story is my story. I began self-publishing my own books in quick-printed, spiral-bound editions in 1992. After a few years of that, I borrowed from friends to print 1500 “real”[1] copies of my first book, The Sexually Dominant Woman: A Workbook for Nervous Beginners. The book sold well enough that I was able to pay back the loan and repeat the strategy with several other books by other authors. And then, somehow, without much volition or planning, I was a reasonably successful, struggling, frustrated, perpetually broke small sex publisher (every adjective in this sentence is redundant, except “successful”).

And I was approached. The approacher was one Mr. W, president of a small distributor specializing in “edgy” topics: sex, radical politics, underground comics, that sort of thing. He wore a tidy ponytail and a diamond earring, so I knew he was dedicated to the counterculture, and he smiled a lot, so I knew he liked me. He bought me a very nice lunch indeed, and, dazzled by visions of A Hand in the Bush: The Fine Art of Vaginal Fisting on the shelves at Borders[2], I signed.

Flying on the strength of that contract and a big hit of dot-com-boom optimism, I incorporated the company, sold shares to friends, signed an expensive lease on an office sublet, hired three employees, and churned out six to eight new books a year.

And at the end of four years it was falling apart. All around us the economy was gracelessly collapsing, like a hot-air balloon over a dying fire. I was taking several different psychoactive drugs for anxiety, depression, near-daily crying jags. Something was wrong at Mr. W’s company: stories were not matching up, calls were not being returned, checks were showing up late or for the wrong amount, books that ought to have sold brilliantly were gathering dust.

One day, on vacation in Oregon, I got a call from my office. The latest check from Mr. W was shy about $7,000, a third of its total. Nobody would explain why. I called Mr. W and told him I wanted out, and he let me break our contract and go. Less than a month later, the distributor filed for bankruptcy.

Apparently Mr. W had tried to save his company by opening a line of credit using “his” inventory as security. But here’s the thing: distributors don’t own their inventory – they warehouse it, and sell it on consignment. When the bank found out and called the loan, seizing hundreds of thousands of dollars that were supposed to be in escrow for publisher payments, the company folded.

Because I’d ended the contract before the bankruptcy, I was able to get our inventory back, and at least some of the money we were owed. I let the staff go, moved into a loft where I could keep warehouse shelving, and got to work trying to save my little company. Another distributor made me another offer, which included fronting us some money to keep us going[3]. I sold my condo in San Francisco, lent the proceeds to the company, cried a lot, took a lot of Klonopin, hosted fundraising events, wheedled my printer into extending unconscionable amounts of credit, and slowly, agonizingly, brought my little press back from the brink.

Several of my fellow publishers were not so fortunate, and if you want to do some homework you can make a list of the fierce, talented, innovative companies that didn’t survive the crunch. But small sex publishing soldiered on, sort of­­­­. Until 2007, when the same story happened on a much larger scale.

Publishers Group West was the distributor we all lusted after: you knew you’d made the big time when PGW offered you a contract. They distributed indy heavyweights like McSweeney, Cleis and Seal, as well as edgy attention-getters like Soft Skull and one-book wonders like Goofy Foot Press (publishers of The Guide to Getting It On, arguably the best young-adult sex title ever published and certainly one of the top sellers in its category). They were high-visibility, high-credibility, financially responsible.

Nobody worried much when they were purchased by AMS, a San Diego-based firm that specialized in large-volume sales to discount outlets like Costco. That’s the way of corporate America these days, little fish get digested by big fish, so what else is new, and when’s some rich outfit gonna buy me?

And then in 2007, AMS folded – apparently their finances had been shaky for some time. And PGW went down with it. And suddenly there was no mechanism left for getting The Leather Daddy and the Femme or Public Sex onto the shelves. And because PGW was the Titanic, suddenly everybody was paying attention.

An editorial in an indy-publishing trade magazine called for an industrywide system of legal protection for independent publishers whose distributors have failed them, including insurance and a voluntary code of practice for financial accountability[4]. These would certainly have been excellent barn doors, but horses had been getting stolen all over independent publishing for decades. PGW was purchased by Perseus Books in 2007, and Perseus was purchased by Ingram, the publishing industry’s 500-pound gorilla, in 2016.

Of course, Amazon came along, making it possible for many niche publishers to stay in business, and for many more to start publishing in ebook formats, whose barrier to entry is a day or two at the keyboard and a decent (or sometimes not) cover design. But I worry about these Amazon-dependent publishers: Amazon makes no secret of its desire to monopolize publishing, particularly ebook publishing. Does anyone out there think that they will continue to offer respectable terms to micropublishers once they’ve achieved that goal? I admire but do not emulate that optimism.

I have to wonder whether the commodification of sub-sub-cultures, so vital a part of our next-big-thing-seeking society, must create this story over and over again. When the desire for self-actualization, new modes of thought and really mindblowing orgasms rubs up against the cold hard realities of capitalism, it may be that any buffer placed between them must inevitably fray.

But I also know that I, and many other talented and dedicated publishers, fell victim to genuine dirty dealings. The opportunistic Mr. W was at the helm or behind the scenes at a significant percentage of the failed­ distributors, and I’m sure others of his ilk lurked in other book distributors, financing expense-account lunches and two-carat ear-bling with the sweat of the poor schmos who still cared about small publishing.

So: if you want to become a small sex publisher today, here’s my advice. Sell your books from your website, in articles you write for other people’s blogs and websites and zines, and at the workshops and events you set up. Sell on Amazon if you must – the discount’s a killer but a lot of people will only buy books there. Keep your day job. When it starts to be no fun any more, stop. And if you see someone coming toward you with a ponytail and a diamond earring, run like hell.

[1] e.g., “perfect-bound.” Perfect-bound books are the kind with flat spines that have the title printed on them. Most bookstores will not carry books that are not perfect-bound.

[2] Many of the business entities in this piece no longer exist, including this one.

[3] I later sold the company to this distributor. I went on serving as Editorial Director under contract for quite a few years, and retired early in 2020. Add it up: I spent 28 years running Greenery Press. That can’t be right, can it?

[4] As far as I know, no such thing ever happened.