Publishing books in the spare room – La Alameda
Lessons learned by a small literary press
Some think monks and poets wrestle with the pain the rest of us are too busy to feel. Though the business world finds precious little room for a line of verse, the time comes when only a poem will do:
Worse than exile, life changed when my studio turned into a loading dock. Pull in at the blinking blue sign, you’ll find the business number nailed to a fencepost by the driveway. I’ll be in back at my desk.
Maybe free enterprise has jerked me over the edge, completely squirrelly. Life’s fire escape is the salty silence of blank paper. I’m going to quit early and make enchiladas.
Jeff Bryan wrote those lines, two stanzas of his poem A Good Word or Two. In many ways it summarizes his role as a small business owner. He and his wife, Cirrelda Snider-Bryan, run La Alameda Press out of their hand-restored home on north Guadalupe Trail in Albuquerque. As a publisher of poetry and a few novels, La Alameda skims along at tree-top level below the radar of “economic development” boosters, venture capitalists, mergers.and-acquisition specialists, and the other power brokers of private enterprise.
Down here, the daily challenge is survival – without compromising the ideals expressed in a deceptively simple mission. In Bryan’s words, La Alameda exists “to promote New Mexico literature, New Mexico authors, and the availability of poetry.” The end result is publishing books “as art objects.”
Easier Said Than Done
Creating La Alameda in December 1990 evolved from Bryan’s longstanding interest – and participation – in books and bookstores. He worked for years at the old University-area fixture, Living Batch Bookstore, where he cultivated his love of “hand selling” books and connected with a friend, Kate Horsley, who was working on a novel called Crazy Woman.
Horsley was striking out in her attempts to sell the manuscript to various small presses, Bryan recalls. Having read and commented on the novel in its early stages, he thought it was a uniquely powerful story. Given the lack of interest among other publishers, he took matters into his own hands.
The book was typeset on computer equipment long since antiquated by the Windows/Macintosh revolution. Then Bryan pasted up the book on his kitchen table and sent it off to a Midwest printer in January, 1992.
“People thought we were insane to do it,” he says, adding that he and Horsley were both “pretty wet behind the ears” in publishing. “But the book sold quite well.” Mass paperback publisher Ballantine even picked it up, giving it another incarnation beyond La Alameda-pretty encouraging for first-time author Horsley.
For his part, Bryan learned how to publish books. La Alameda became a turnkey operation, handling book design, editing, computer-based composition and typesetting, distribution, and marketing – everything except printing. Soon he forged alliances with UNM Press and several small-press book distributors, the key to moving books from the warehouse to the reader’s hands.
La Alameda pushed ahead, publishing books of poetry by area writers like Joan Logghe, V. B. Price, Miriam Sagan, Larry Goodell, and others. In 1996, La Alameda published Horsley’s second novel, A Killing in New Town, which won the Western States Book Award for fiction. It was a major coup for both author and press. The year before, Snider-Bryan had begun handling all promotion and marketing – sending out review copies, contacting the press, arranging book-signing events, setting up readings, and so forth. With the attention this novel was generating – including free publicity from the Western States Book Association-Bryan and Snider – Bryan felt they were on the verge of something big.
“We assumed if we worked hard enough, good things would happen,” Bryan recalls. “Our strategy was that the award would help us step up and become a bigger player, but it didn’t pan out. Market forces changed underneath me.”
The publishing world convulsed, jamming itself into a cramped new shape: megachains like Barnes and Noble and Borders squeezed out local, independent bookstores. Meanwhile, large publishing conglomerates were buying up the smaller publishers, editors who had nurtured “small” books quit the industry in frustration, and small presses floundered toward bankruptcy.
“We started under the old idea of quaint atmospheric book stores that were run by people who loved books, and would hand-sell books they really liked to their customers,” Bryan says. “That was part of their role.” But that world has yielded to a market driven by “product,” in which books are nothing more than commodities valued by the number of units sold. At the same time, “we were suffering from home-office syndrome,” Bryan says. “We had a two-year-old in the house. We just couldn’t operate at the same level as a larger press. It was ruinous to our mental health.”
What’s a self-described “micro business” and “curatorial press” to do?
“We used to bankroll the books ourselves. We were our own venture capitalists,” Bryan says. “Now it’s not viable to make our income on book sales, so we’ve made the author our partner. They help finance the operation by contracting to buy half the press run at cost. After all, if they don’t have the confidence that their book will sell, why would I?”
Snider-Bryan likewise decided to delegate the promotional tasks to the authors. “I finally realized I was always frustrated being five steps behind, and that created so much stress between Jeff and me,” she says. Working with knowledge gleaned from her work with a few experienced authors, she wrote a list of the steps involved in marketing a book. “I handed all those tasks to the authors. Instead of spending my 20 hours with the author, now I spend 1 hour with the author going over those steps.”
La Alameda avoids the “vanity press” stigma by only publishing books they think have merit, which goes back to the press’s mission. “We choose those that fit with our aesthetic,” Bryan says. While changing to this business model of co-venturing with authors, Bryan continues to make a living from freelance graphic design.
Another aspect of survival is a fundamental rethinking of La Alameda’s product, which means printing smaller books that involve less material and production costs. “We’re trying to get all the production into our own hands, so we can have more fun connecting with the artists and poets, and make art-object books, like simple, elegant chapbooks. It’s fun labor.”
Poetry chapbooks are 32-page, stapled or sewn softcover books. They can be printed locally, whereas La Alameda has relied on Thomson-Shore in Michigan to produce its trade-quality paperbacks until now. Bryan also recently has purchased an old-fashioned letterpress so he can physically print and assemble the chapbooks in the house.
All these developments at La Alameda reflect an evolution of the couple’s thinking about their business. “We’re not a full-time small press,” Bryan explains. “We’re not really salaried. It’s more of an art project,” though he maintains that La Alameda is a “viable and legitimate small business. This is the thing we love to do, but we have to take on jobs to pay for all the things we need.”
CHARLES POLING IS THE ASSOCIATE EDITOR OF THE NEW MEXICO BUSINESS JOURNAL.
COPYRIGHT 1999 The New Mexico Business Journal
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