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Authors scramble after the main distributor for small publishers suddenly closed

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The book on your nightstand was written by an author, put out by a publisher and sold by a bookseller. And there's another player that gets less attention - distributors, the people who get books into stores. A little over a week ago, the main distributor for small publishers closed down without warning. Deena Prichep reports on what happens now to small presses.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: Books are an art, but they're also a business. And for many small publishers, a huge part of their business was SPD - Small Press Distribution. They'd been around for 55 years, working with over 350 small presses. And then, they weren't. Publishers found out by email, by text.

DIANE GOETTEL: You know how sometimes if you fall down or something happens suddenly, and you can't tell right away how badly hurt you are? That's how I felt for the small press world when I got that email.

PRICHEP: Diane Goettel heads Black Lawrence Press. They publish poetry, literary fiction, debut authors - the sorts of books that major publishers won't always take a chance on.

GOETTEL: My gut instinct was this is going to be very bad. And for smaller presses or fledgling presses, it could be the end.

PRICHEP: There's kind of three parts to how bad this is. First off, there's the back pay. Publishing tends to pay quarterly, which means publishers are owed months of payments that they may never get. Josh Savory runs Game Over Books, which primarily publishes voices from marginalized communities.

JOSH SAVORY: We did the GoFundMe for about 5,000 to cover the costs of, like, paying authors.

PRICHEP: Many presses are owed several times that amount. And small presses run small margins.

SAVORY: And I have no idea how much it's going to cost to get those books back.

PRICHEP: That's the second part of the problem - the actual books. SPD consolidated orders for buyers by having all the books in the same warehouses, which just shut down.

SAVORY: I got an email from them that said that, like, here, fill this out. You have two weeks. If you don't fill it out, we're going to destroy your books.

PRICHEP: And publishers have to pay to ship the books back. For presses whose back stock could fill pallets, like Diane Goettel at Black Lawrence Press, that could add up.

GOETTEL: My husband and I might, you know, put together a really great road trip playlist and rent a U-Haul.

PRICHEP: And there are authors who are out on book tour right now. Alvina Chamberland's novel, "Love The World Or Get Killed Trying," came out one week before SPD shut down.

ALVINA CHAMBERLAND: So I got an email from my publisher that was like, don't panic.

PRICHEP: Chamberland is on the road to connect with readers but also to sell books.

CHAMBERLAND: I had just done, like, five events in New York. They'd all gone really well. Then all of a sudden on Monday, I get all these emails from bookstores. Like, we would really like to order the book, but it's not available.

PRICHEP: Small presses are dealing with the finances and logistics, coming together for emergency meetings, selling books from their own websites. But the biggest problem is - what happens next? There are other distributors, but they won't be able to take on everyone, or they have minimum orders that the smaller presses just aren't able to meet.

STEPHEN SPARKS: It becomes a loss culturally, in that we are not going to have as easy access to these kind of radical ideas or, like, creative ways of thinking and writing.

PRICHEP: Stephen Sparks runs Point Reyes Books in California and regularly ordered from SPD. These titles may not be the biggest sellers, but they make a difference.

SPARKS: To get a book to someone, you know, that could crack open the world, that may, like, change their life. I mean, that's why we do this.

PRICHEP: SPD - which is not responding to questions - reported under a million dollars in book revenue last year. This is a fraction of the book industry, but it includes books that have won national book awards and Pulitzer Prizes. They've launched careers. They've changed readers' lives. And small presses hope that even without SPD, they'll be able to figure out a way to continue doing that. For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Deena Prichep