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The Newsletter of
The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic

Volume 1, Number 2 (Winter 1996)
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Fantastic Co-Operative

by Brian Clark bcclark@igc.apc.org , Publisher, Permeable Press
Copyright © 1996, Brian Clark

Zowie!: Inscriptions for a New Environment (or Zine, for short) has just published its first issue of speculative fiction, poetry and reviews. Editor Maggie the magnificent zine lady Quark gets a few wholesalers to distribute her fine looking publication. The deal they give her is this: they get a 55% discount, pay only for the copies they sell, dont return the ones they dont sell, and pay 90 days after her next issue comes out. Maggie does some math: it cost her $2,000 to print 1,000 copies of Zine #1, she's selling it for $5 retail, and the wholesalers took 600 copies between them. Maggie quickly realizes that if the wholesalers pay her for every single copy she dealt out to them, she'll get $1350 in return 3 months after she prints another issue. She gulps. Her colleagues tell her she'll be lucky if the wholesalers pay her for even 33% of the magazines she dealt them.

Welcome to the harsh reality of magazine publishing. A deck stacked in favor of the wholesalers, with slow payment schedules, deep discounts, and poor sell-through. Poor sell-through is a problem for all zine publishers, but especially bad for fiction publishers, where competition is steep and reader interest often low. Maggie, determined, sighs and figures she'll take up her grabby-handed boss' offer of over-time at her crappy slacker job just to keep Zine alive.

Small-press fiction book-publishers don't fare much better, but at least they don't have to contend with no returns of product, poor sell-through, and the business of getting paid at some date after the next issue comes out is a non-issue. But the fiction book-market is so glutted with offerings (mostly crap, but some very good as well) from the Big Houses, that a very small press can drown without ever breaking the surface of the pond. (Publishers Weekly recently ran a survey of small presses: the smallest had sales of U.S.$3 million per year. Maybe I should say micropress, which certainly better places my house, Permeable, in such a ranking.)

What is to be done? As individual atoms in the radioactive market soup, not a hell of a lot. But Ive been thinking that if some of us banned together and worked co-operatively, we might be able to bootstrap ourselves into the black.

Basically, what Im proposing is a co-operative network (though please call it what you like) that deals directly from the publisher to the bookseller, bypassing traditional wholesalers completely. A Fantastic Co-operative could offer a better discount to booksellers, since the middle would be somewhat excluded (but not entirely excluded, as Ill explain). If wholesalers offer booksellers a 40-47% (typical) discount, we could start at 45%, with even better deals for volume, orders placed electronically, pre-paid sales, or whatever other incentives we publishers can think of to get the stores to buy through the co-op and fork over the dough.

There are a few problems: any organization requires, well, organization , an infrastructure. Books and magazines, being bulky and heavy, need a clean, dry, big place for storage and shipping. This problem might be circumvented--especially in this day of fax and e-mail--by distributed warehousing: since what the co-op is really selling from is a catalog, orders are sent to a single address, with someone at that address then redirecting the orders to the publishers. Another problem is that normal wholesalers will feel threatened, and might refuse to carry our goods in retaliation. Thats a risk: however, there are case studies of similar co-ops working in the face of this risk and succeeding. (AK Press, for example, is a collectively-run publisher and distributor, and although they dont co-op with publishers in the sense Im suggesting, they are a viable alternative worth studying.)

I think a co-op focused on selling books and magazines from speculative-fiction publishers could have an infrastructure, perhaps organized as a non-profit corporation, that survived on dues from member publishers and a few percent of sales. The co-op would direct-mail to booksellers a main catalog a couple of times a year, with perhaps quarterly or monthly updates. The co-op would have to do some simple accounting to tally its income from sales and dues. The co-op would have to have a quick way of disbursing the orders from stores to the publishers (a fast order-filling policy is, Ive noticed, something many of the wholesalers I work with brag about but that many stores complain about because, in fact, response is slow). Co-op members, no doubt hard up for cash, might be able to offset part of a dues with, say, a mailing list, world wide web space, or some other valuable service or information.

Naturally, there'd be a lot of organizational details to work out, but it seems to me that from what I know of the core of CLF, the possibility is real and begging to be tried. Anybody up for a little fantastic co-operation?

[NOTE: By way of a co-operative step forward, Brian Clark is expanding the Permeable Press catalog to include items by other publishers. So if anyone is interested, let him know!]

The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic is based at the Department of English of the University of Rhode Island. We thank the University and the Department for their support.

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