Popular Culture  •  February 4, 2004

On the Ever Increasing Difficulty of Selling “And Then”

Brief Introduction by Dyske Suematsu

The other day, Robert Roth was lamenting about the increasing difficulty of selling his print magazine, “And Then”. I asked him what he thought the reason was. He then gave me this article to read which he had written back in 1998. After reading it, I was quite convinced that it is the Internet that diminished the interest in independent print publishing. In the early 90s, I remember seeing at local bookstores a lot of so-called “zines” which were printed using Xerox machines. No one publishes them anymore.

The appeal of the Internet for independent publishers is quite obvious. 1. It is cheaper. 2. The potential audience is much bigger and wider. 3. It is immediate. 4. You never run out of copies. 5. It is easily searchable. 6. Unless the topic of the article is time-sensitive, it remains current and accessible indefinitely. (In contrast, as printed magazines get lost and become scarcely available, the articles in them too become inaccessible for those who might be interested in reading them years later.)

This is bad news for people like Robert who appreciate printed matter. Now that eBooks are becoming more popular, where people read books on their handheld devices, I wonder what the future holds for printed books as a medium. Writing, or use of language, is such an elusive form of art that it craves for something physical and tangible. In fact, part of what drives us to write is our desire to give our thoughts a tangible form. So it naturally follows that we would want our writing to be even more tangible by giving it a physical form. It would be unfortunate if the digital revolution ended up preventing independent publishers from pursuing their passion for print.

Here is Robert’s essay:

I just came back from the Coliseum Bookstore where they wouldn’t take the new issue of and then. Only one of the old issues had sold there in the last two years. They gave me three returns and with genuine regret the manager said he is cutting back on consignments. It is too much work for him. Biblio a more funky bookstore did the same thing. The manager said somewhat regretfully that they are cutting back on consignment magazines, took a quick glance anyway and then reconfirmed his original decision. The St. Marks Bookstore, ever in the vanguard, pretty much says the same thing. Two years ago they took only one issue of the magazine, threw it into a pile of similar publications, and that was that.

At one time magazines like ours were the real backbone of a place like the St. Marks Bookstore. There was a gigantic wall filled with small magazines, each prominently displayed with their covers facing out. Why the change? What is important to understand is that it is not content that is at issue. There isn’t a thing about our magazine that at least contentwise couldn’t appear elsewhere in any of the bookstores. What links us to the other publications thrown into a pile at St. Marks and rejected at Biblio and the Coliseum is that we don’t have a spine on the side of the book. This means when it is stuck into a shelf it is impossible for the customer to know what magazine is facing them. Without a spine only the most avid small magazine lover will take it out to look at. Basically our magazine is put into the bookstores more for show than anything else. At best we may sell four magazines. It is a high to think any stranger just browsing in a bookstore might buy it. And I think we have had some people who have really gotten attached to the magazine in just that way. We don’t have much money and we rely on our friends, their efforts, their free labor and their donations to come out at all. Most of the magazines on consignment are like ours. Essentially poor and borderline broke. These bookstores are obviously in it for the money. But also because they often are made up of politically progressive people they in some way also want to serve the community. The books and periodicals on prominent display often have some insurgency about them. Maybe something subversive or outrageous or importantly informative. But there is no place for publications that operate as poorly as we do. That is why at best we are all thrown into a pile. And now more likely than not we are not even allowed to be in most (there are some notable exceptions) bookstores at all. The man at the Coliseum is a decent guy. Outside of his job he has been around the world of small literary publications his whole life. He was straightforward and honest on why he wouldn’t take us this time around. I think I could have guilt tripped him into it, but it really wasn’t worth the effort.

Progressive literary agents with dollar signs spinning in their eyes often enough don’t have the courage to be as forthright. Someone gives them a manuscript that they think won’t sell they give some half-assed critique to justify their decision. They function as the first line of screening for publishers. They reassure themselves of their integrity with the books they do push, which often enough are wonderful and important. But the sad truth is you don’t exist if your not on the best sellers list. The pile at the St. Marks Bookstore is so demoralizing. Magazines thrown on top of each other. Even the ones on top are half covered with something else. So all of us are joined together. Our solidarity ends each time any one connected to any of the magazines looks at the pile, rummages through it, and puts their own on top. So for the fifteen minutes or so that it remains there if anyone looks at the pile it is there for them partially to see. As I mentioned earlier at one point in time all these piled up publications formed the essential core of places like the St. Marks Bookstore. At the time all kinds of underground publications populated the shelves, giving the bookstore a feeling of being the hub of an insurgent community. It was exciting to be in the bookstore surrounded by so much energy, resistance and hope. You were a part of something very large. Now it is different. And it is again important to understand that it is not content that is the deciding factor. At that time radical content was also marginalized content. Sexual content was forbidden content. No longer. Real money can be behind both now. Progressive or even radical stuff if properly packaged has a market. Explicit sexual material obviously can be bought almost anywhere. Even cultural radicalism is part of the curriculum of major universities. Anything that sells is sold. A place is found for it.

Our magazine in a real sense is obsolete. It is part of an old time. The experiences at the bookstores are compounded in places that really matter in terms of the life of the magazine. At parties it was easy as pie to sell it. Many people were interested in it. They enjoyed buying it. It was fun to sell. Something has changed. Parties at one time were mostly parties. Not entirely. But now they are places that people go to network, make deals, do business. Business is much more fully integrated into the social setting. As a result it is harder to make a sale where money actually exchanges hands. This brings the nature off the party more out in the open. Money changing hands strips the party of its cover. The real market place is brought into the market. The Jewish peddler without cultural or institutional backing is always rude and crude. So to sell a magazine is more disruptive than it might have been at a previous point in time.

I am a little more than bitter about this. Because it really handcuffs me. Parties are essential for us to break even. The small scale hypocrices of my friends has had a large scale impact on my abilities to sell it. The magazine will die without a certain amount of party sales. Bookstores won’t even display it now. Parties are for networking, not a place for a spontaneous little subsidy of a strange and gallant undertaking.

Everyone understands the sensitivity of the host. Hardly anyone understands the incredible difficulty we are faced with. You go into a situation. Feel it out. It is somewhat comical, somewhat charming, increasingly painful to do this. At times people laugh with you at times they laugh a little more than they like to admit at you. Friends get their backs up. You want contributors to buy extra magazines if they can. But you don’t want someone to feel that they have to buy extra copies in order to get in. No! In fact a certain number of contributors are stone broke or close to it. But those that can give us a little support in this way should. We rely on the contributors and their friends. For if not largely them, Who?. You have to be very determined not to give the magazine away for free. It is often very tempting to do so. Ninety-nine out of a hundred people who buy it are people you almost spontaneously would want to give it to as a gift. The gift of course is in the asking. You are trusting the person not to take offense. Trusting that they will join for a moment in a project that in human terms even on the small scale we operate on is extremely important. A five dollar subsidy. They get a beautiful magazine. More they help something to survive that gives a significant amount of people real pleasure. The resistance I’ve encountered has made me more awkward and up tight about selling the magazine. Every person who has had an attitude about me selling the magazine has contributed to this. And I don’t feel very warmly towards them as a result. And this is true of people I otherwise love, respect and am close to. I can forgive them for this just as they forgive me for my minor and not so minor transgressions. But really they should know better. And even when I tell them this it doesn’t register.

So who do we rely on? We rely on friends to buy it. Gracious strangers to buy it. People with real curiosity to buy it. Contributors to buy it. Friends of contributors to buy it. Collectors of small publications to buy it. Anyone who wants to make me happy to buy it. Even people who love me but who are stingy to buy it. Even people who are uninterested in the actuality of it but like idea of it to buy it. People who never read a word of it and leave it behind to buy it. People who want to give it to the next passing stranger to buy it. People who want to feel cool to buy it. People who know how painful it is to put out such a publication to buy it. People who have put out a similar publication to buy it. People who like to take a chance on something to buy it. People with thirteen dollars and a token in their pocket who have just enough for a movie and a magazine to buy it. People who have a friend they want to give a present to to buy it. And yes of course most importantly people who love it dearly and want it to continue to survive to buy it.