Category Archives: Publishing

Compete or collaborate?

It looks like Amazon might have reported some positive earnings after the market closed last night and the stock is up $77 today or about 16%. I am trying to decide if there is a message I should be paying attention to here. Amazon, of course, is one of the major disruptors in the publishing world. Many independent bookstores went under during the recession as Amazon hit its stride selling books for below cost right while Apple came out with the smart phone and readers responded enthusiastically. But the recession is mostly over, surviving bookstores have stabilized, and Torrey House is waving a white flag and planning on converting to a nonprofit. But I still wonder if I am paying full attention. If(!) we had invested the money we poured into Torrey House into Amazon instead not only would publishing not have eaten my checkbook and my airplane, we could now have a shiny fleet of planes.  Here is the AMZN monster of a five year chart:

Stock up over 7X since we started THP.

Stock up over 7X since we started THP.

What to make of that? Is Jeff Bezos a million times smarter than we are? Are we continually rushing the wrong way down a dead end street? Are publishers on the wrong side of history, particularly small presses? Should we quit now before we fall even deeper and further behind? Well. on the one hand Amazon does carry all of our titles. They don’t do anything to help sell them besides list them and they take a bruising discount, more than any other, even slightly more than the wholesalers. But they do not return books (and man oh man do the wholesalers ever make returns). On the other hand disruption hurts in multiple ways. Amazon helps readers see what everyone else is reading and drives the herd into a few best selling titles. They publish all comers via CreateSpace creating a blizzard of white noise with millions of new titles. There is more disruption to come. AMZN is not going away, at least not soon. Given how Wall Street continues to finance them with virtually unlimited free money, much to my everlasting dismay, we have just begun to see what changes Amazon will bring. Jeff Bezos is the king of the hill of corporate competitors. We cannot beat him. Yet joining him is just another form of losing.
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Of course the world is ever changing and it appears that even though there is a growing winner take all phenomenon in the world of competition, there is a growing compensating factor in a robust nonprofit world. Three of our most admired publishing peers are in the Minneapolis area, Gray Wolf, Milkweed, and Coffee House. All three are nonprofit. And even though they presumably compete in their own backyard for funding, they are all raising a $million or two a year in contributions. Their titles are of the same high literary quality as ours and like us their experience is that book sales only cover about sixty percent of their costs. And yet they are getting award winning titles out that would never exist via Amazon alone. Donors are teaming up on the side of quality and diversity and nonprofit corporations are making the most of it.
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Maybe even some nouveau rich AMZN investor will want to share his spoils and make a contribution.

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The Publishing (ad)Venture

WTorrey House Press Websitee started Torrey House Press in 2010 with the tag line “Love of the Land” and with an objective to promote more grass on the mountains and water in the streams in the West and to do so via literature. We set out to get on the front lines of the very idea of literature and the environment. We are a publisher with a cause, to conserve the fragile environment for its own sake and upon which we depend.

Successful conservation is a challenge.  Compared to the 1960’s and 70’s there is less public interest in conservation. Driven primarily by the intense lobbying of the energy industry, it has now become a belligerent Republican policy plank to do whatever possible to undermine the environment and, sadly, this month the Republican’s overran the U.S. Senate.  What was already difficult, protecting the environment, has become more so. Energy industry money has succeeded in making conservation equate to being anti-people. Quite strange.

Like conservation, successful publishing is a challenge. Like conservation, the obstacles to success are mounting. Amazon’s growing monopsony means an ever larger slice of the revenue pie goes to them. And although Amazon makes millions of titles available, they are best at herding readers to the best sellers so that more than ever winner takes all. The growing internet produces infinite reading for free. Since the iPhone came out during the Great Recession readers are ever less available to something as demanding as a book. Smart phones and apps like FaceBook help readers find out what each other are reading which also amplifies the effect of winner takes all. People want to do what other people are doing and it is possible today to know where the buzz is in an instant. And with digital technology there is an ever increasing number of new titles per year, millions if self-published titles are included in the count, making any new title amount to a snowflake in a blizzard.

Four years in at Torrey House Press we have yet to figure out how to make our publishing venture sustainable and viable. We have learned more about the financial mechanics of publishing and what it will take to become profitable enough to continue. We see, for instance, that producing titles that sell less than 5,000 copies will never get us there. Our average copies sold per title is well less than that. We are considering our options. Help from conservation organizations might make sense. Going nonprofit might be necessary. Adding more nonfiction titles that address a specific market might help. Attracting mid-list authors with a substantial following helps. We are going to poke around at exploring all of these options and try to hold our eyes and minds open to other solutions at the same time.

A regular (ad)venture.

The Elephant in the Room is a Cow — Grazing Impacts on So. Utah Forests

 

Bull in the china closet

Bull in the china closet

My wife and I are both sixth generation Utahns. We own homes in both Salt Lake and Wayne counties. We were married in the Capitol Reef National Park outdoor amphitheater in 2010. Together we cherish the natural landscape of Utah, our pretty, great state. Except for one thing. We have become sensitized to the damage done by livestock grazing on public lands. Our pioneer ancestors worked hard to survive in the arid country they were charged with settling, and we admire the determination and pluck it required. But public lands ranching doesn’t make sense anymore, and the more we learn about what our forests could be, the more we see the degradation–and absence–of plant communities and wildlife habitat. There is hardly anywhere we can go outside of the wilderness areas of the Wasatch where we don’t see it. This bothers us so much we started a publishing company in part to shed more light on public land mismanagement. We also volunteered with Mary O’Brien and the Grand Canyon Trust to do grazing damage assessment and now serve on the board of directors of Wild Utah Project with Allison Jones.

I borrowed the elephant part of the title to this blog piece from our neighbor in Torrey, Chip Ward, from something he said in a recent Tom’s Dispatch post about beaver habitat destruction by ranchers. Kirsten and I feel that if there is one simple, single thing that would most improve the natural landscape of Utah it would be the cessation of public land livestock grazing. It is everywhere yet its economic benefits are miniscule and for only a very few. Currently, 97% of the Dixie, Fishlake, and Manti-La Sal National Forests in southern Utah are actively grazed by livestock. But only one percent of Utah’s gross domestic product, or economic output, is agriculture, and only a small sliver of that is from public land grazing. Yet that one percent of economic production uses 82 percent of Utah’s water and almost all of the public land. Predators such as wolves, key to ecologic balance, have been eliminated. Others like coyotes, and now even crows, are hunted down by the state. Beavers have been virtually outlawed in Garfield County, just south of Wayne. Aspen, willow, and cottonwood growth have been stunted by livestock browsing.  The problem is conceptually easy to fix, but it goes largely ignored. When it isn’t ignored, reform is blocked by tiny but powerful special interest groups. In the West, the iconic cowboy and his cow remain mythical and sacred. Like the king with no clothes, the public land is exposed and much the worse for it.

Over the last four or five years we have gathered photos illustrating both the damage from livestock grazing and what the forests could be when protected from grazing. Clicking any of the photos in the gallery below will take you to a slide show where more detailed captions are available. Perhaps many of the pictures need no caption to tell the story. We often photograph “exclosures,” areas fenced off to keep livestock out in order to assess grazing impacts. Virtually all of the exclosures we find are routinely violated by the ranchers — which makes sense since it makes them look bad. Cows are also supposed to be herded away from riparian areas, but in all our forest travels we have only seen the one cowboy pictured below.

The Southern Utah Forest Service is instituting a grazing assessment and inviting comments (send emails to “grazingassessment@fs.fed.us”) and concerns. We hope they take this chance to begin to run the forests as other than a subsidized ranch.

***zon: Smooth Brome Grass of Your Local Economy

From my co-publisher at Torrey House Press. How Amazon does to the economy what public land livestock grazing does to the ecology.

Committed to the Quest

Have you seen your favorite nonprofits urging you to join ***zon Smiles: You Shop ***zon GIves program? Sign up, and your favorite public radio station, environmental organization, homeless shelter, you-name-it will receive a percentage of every purchase you make at ***zon, at no additional cost to you. Seems pretty win-win. And so feel-good. But don’t let the smile fool you: here be dragons.

First of all, the contribution the selected nonprofits get is small. Tiny, really. It sounds great to have a portion of your next order of printer paper going to your favorite children’s hospital, but only 0.5 percent of each purchase goes to the designated nonprofit. That means if you wanted to give $50, you’d have to spend $10,000 through ***zonSmile. Which means $10,000 to ***zon, $50 to your charity. Who’s the winner here?

Second, the donations are made by the ***zonSmile Foundation, not you, so one of…

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