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Berkeley’s Small Press Distribution, Champion of Indie Books, Shuts Down

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The old sign at Small Press Distribution’s Berkeley facilities, which they finished moving out of in February in an effort to cut expenses. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

Updated Friday 6 p.m.

Small Press Distribution (SPD), the 55-year-old nonprofit literary distributor, has closed its doors effective immediately. A reduced team is winding down business operations.

“We know this news is both sudden and devastating,” read the March 28 announcement on the SPD website. “Several years of declining sales and the loss of grant support … have combined to squeeze our budget beyond the breaking point.”

In February, SPD completed the move of over 300,000 books from their Berkeley warehouse to facilities run by Ingram Content Group in Tennessee and Publishers Storage and Shipping in Michigan. This was part of an effort, according to Publisher’s Weekly, to cut operating costs while increasing services for the some 400 publishers who use SPD’s distribution services.

The nonprofit had raised more than $100,000 in a GoFundMe to support the move, and earlier this year SPD launched yet another fundraiser to help it focus on expanding print-on-demand, eBooks, and global distribution. Donations were still coming in this week.

“Despite the heroic efforts of a tireless staff to raise new funds, find new sales channels for our presses, and move from our outdated Berkeley warehouse, we are simply no longer able to make ends meet,” said Kent Watson, SPD’s executive director.

Founded in 1969, SPD is the only nonprofit literary distributor in the country. It distinguished itself as a place that helped indie publishers to get experimental, avant-garde works into the hands of booksellers and customers across the country.

Warehouse shelves full of boxes of books
Small Press Distribution, one of the last remaining independent book distributors in the country, moved over 300,000 books into facilities owned by Ingram Content Group and Publishers Storage and Shipping. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

“Against all odds, a tiny distribution service in the back of Berkeley’s Serendipity Books grew to help authors attain some of the literary world’s crowning achievements,” the announcement says. “SPD-distributed authors won multiple National Book Awards, Pulitzer Prizes, MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grants, PEN Awards, Lambda Literary Awards — nearly 100 awards since 2019 alone.”

Poet Jean Day, who worked at SPD in the late 1970s and served as its director beginning in 1983, said the end of SPD is a blow. SPD introduced her to the poetry world during an era when the Bay Area was one of the centers of small press publishing.

Now, it will be a lot harder to get small presses into libraries and bookstores, Day said.

SPD survived for decades through shrinking arts funding, the decline in independent bookstores, the rise of the internet, and the domination of the book market by Amazon.

“Publishing poetry especially, but any kind of non-mainstream literature, is never going to attract the numbers that make publishing possible,” Day said. “I don’t mean profitable, I mean even possible to break even.”

In recent ears, SPD has been rocked by instability and controversy. Watson, the current executive director, was hired in 2022 following an 18-month period of uncertainty after the resignation of Brent Cunningham. Cunningham’s tenure was cut short after accusations of discrimination and wage theft.

Despite efforts to raise new funds, SPD simply couldn’t afford to go on: “SPD lost hundreds of thousands in grants in the past few years as funders moved away from supporting the arts.”

SPD had lost $125,000 in annual grants in the past year from half a dozen institutions, the nonprofit said, and the warehouse shift also took longer and cost more than expected, straining its financial resources even more.

Available tax filings from 2022 and 2021 show net losses of over $230,000 combined, and an operating budget of around $1.3 million a year.

In the announcement, the distributor told publishers their books were in safe hands with Ingram and PSSC, but they would need to contact them directly about distribution or the return of materials.

In the statement sent to publishers, Watson said SPD’s dissolution would be overseen by the California Superior Court, which would determine next steps for its remaining assets and “the extent all claims from creditors cannot be satisfied.”

When reached for comment from Watson, an automatic email says SPD regrets not being able to respond to individual queries.

It’s unclear what’s next for the hundreds of publishers who rely on SPD, or how those small presses will find their way to bookstores and libraries.

Poets and presses on social media have expressed disappointment, shock and frustration over the sudden closure. Many described feeling abandoned or betrayed.

Writer Ryan Ruby posted that the collapse of SPD is a disaster.

“When a magazine goes, it’s a terrible thing, but from the point of view of the magazine world it’s like losing a limb. For small press world, this is heart failure,” Ruby said.

Presses did not see this coming, said Josh Savory, the editor-in-chief and co-creator of Game Over Books in Boston. He said he had been in communication with SPD over print-on-demand options as recently as this week, but was not warned about the pending end to the nonprofit.

He worries about how, when, or if small presses distributed by SPD, which already have very small budgets, will receive their next payments.

“They’re going to have to go on hiatus or not sell books for a while, maybe they’ll close,” Savory said. “That’s a huge loss,”

The Community of Literary Magazines and Presses organized an “emergency session” on Friday to discuss SPD’s closure and for presses to exchange advice and discuss next steps. More than 250 attendees showed up for the virtual meeting.

“Everyone at SPD is heartbroken at this devastating outcome, which seriously jeopardizes the ability of underrepresented literary communities to reach the marketplace,” SPD’s closing announcement concludes. “We thank you for your years of support.”

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