Originally published in Inner Journeys (the Independent Press Book Review)
The Los Angeles Yellow Pages knows that L.A. is challenging New York as a major book-publishing mecca. The Pages list over 75 publishers. But rather than giants, L.A. mostly specializes in independent presses large and small. They range from companies with hundreds of fiction titles (Alyson Books) to business-books companies like Merritt, to software-focused publishers like Wildcat Canyon, to a house with their first successful children's title (Avenue Books). Wildcat Press is among them.
As book-biz people flocked to the 1999 BookExpo America, held in the L.A. Coliseum this year, L.A.-based indies got to view the BEA as their local book fair this year.
What are the attractions in L.A.?
Creative and technical resources abound. The L.A. area is rich in resources, from major media to digital printers to service bureaus, from graphics freelancers to PR firms to graduates looking for publishing jobs. Computer suppliers offer every kind of technical wizardry that a book publisher might need – or even just dream about.
Easy access to distribution and international markets. This is attractive, as indies look to expand book and rights sales overseas. LPC Group and Publishers Group West (both exclusives) are headquartered here. A publisher who has books printed and warehoused locaqlly, then distributed from here, might save mightily on freight. For publishers who print books in Asia, southern California ports are convenient. Wildcat's shipping associate drives straight from our office to the exporter's office with our boxes of books. We have steady sales in Australia, through Bulldog Books, and in recent months have concluded major rights deals with publishers in Japan and Hong Kong.
"The Industry" is right here. Meaning Hollywood, as more indies look to market any film rights to books that they happen to control. As Wildcat moves The Front Runner into film development once again, we recognize that we’re part of a larger trend. After all, independent publishers are to books what independent studios are to films, and independent record labels to music – the inevitable new wave of creative revolt. For gay and lesbian publishers in this arena, the proximity of the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, the spike in gay films, plus geographic closeness to industry networking, can be a plus.
Home-based businesses are legal. Another L.A. attraction: residence-based businesses are legal here. Last year, the city council reluctantly recognized that half the city was violating the old zoning laws. More and more media professionals were fed up with long commutes, and couldn’t choke the high office rentals, so they had quietly set up shop in homes within the city limits. The city finally caved in, and legalized the trend. Excellent city transportation even offers the lure of (gasp!) giving up one of the family cars. I knew I was looking at the ultimate in media home biz when I visited Joan Biles’ Rich and Famous agency, and saw one of the city’s most sophisticated video-editing set-ups – right in a Hollywood Hills manse.
While there are certain considerations – like how the city taxes writers, or whether your particular business might be considered a nuisance by your neighbors – it is possible to quietly site the headquarters of a small press in a residential neighborhood like ours, with the shipping department in your garage. L.A. homes aren’t the cheapest in the world, but they’re down from 1980s highs; a good buy during a dip in interest rates can be a good investment. A residence-based small press offers the possibility of helping to lower overhead.
The Wildcat office is located 3 blocks off Wilshire Boulevard. In this city where one supposedly can't survive without a car, we are within walking distance of banks, restaurants, Fedex, post office, xeroxing, 1-hour photo, office and computer supply. We have an inexpensive motel 1 1/2 blocks away for business guests, even one of L.A.'s few 24-hour coffeehouses. Right in a two-block radius of our address are home offices of one other small press, three PR firms, one film agent, one entertainment lawyer, two screenwriters and a digital printer.
An earthquake might happen, you say? Aw, it couldn't be worse than the hurricanes, tornados and floods happening in other parts of the U.S.
California printing gets more competitive. Historically L.A. has worn many hats: movies, media, arts, lifestyles. Yet, judging by the historic high price of printing in California, one might not have predicted the donning of this new book hat. Conventional printing methods have always been environmentally dirty, resulting in used solvents, polluted water, spilled lead. In the last couple of decades, as California’s strict environmental laws pushed up costs of cleaning water and disposing toxic wastes, print-job prices skyrocketed – along with the cost of new computerized presses designed for solvent-free technology.
Several years ago, a print-house executive friend of mine proudly walked me through his company’s Pasadena plant, showing off its new environmentally sophisticated equipment. Wanting to be Earth-friendly, Wildcat was gung-ho to print our first title there – till the first bid sheet rolled out of our fax machine. Their price was sky-high. After frowning at the figures of several other California jobs, Wildcat wound up printing in the Great Lakes area, where cheap paper is traditionally available. Other potential customers must have done the same – two years later, my friend’s Pasadena plant closed down.
Today, however, the gap is narrowing, as a few southern California printers are managing to offer bid prices that are more competitive with out-of-state printers. In Los Angeles, the enormous business in printing specialty books for short runs (for business presentations, promotions, etc.) has spurred a local trend in which short runs in trade books are also becoming more affordable. KNI, based in Anaheim, numbers Alyson among its local indie customers. And in San Diego, Trade Service Publications also is moving into the growing market in short-run books.
For publishers who dream of having their printer "right down the street," where you can interact with real live human beings, this might be the answer.
Money-making alternatives to trade fairs. High exhibition costs are pushing a exodus of small presses out of the major trade-fair world. They now prefer regional fairs and other venues where exhibition and travel costs are less, and they have a chance of showing a net profit for the weekend. California abounds in book-friendly events and fairs, all accessible on a few hours' drive from Los Angeles. These days, one of the best investments a small publisher can make is a $250.00 used booth, the pop-up kind that two booksellers can haul off the rack of their SUV and put up in 5 minutes (white is best, as it reflects sunlight).
The L.A. Times Book Festival, held outdoors under tents on the beautiful UCLA campus, has become a major U.S. book event. Unlike the BEA, the LATBF allows publishers to recoup exhibition costs by selling books direct to the public. The Festival's one drawback is that it is more and more dominated by chain-store retail exhibitions, who compete uncomfortably with the indie exhibitors by selling at deep discounts, thus luring most of the spectators. A small press has to ensure it has a booth on the main drag, not in the "back 40 acres" across the street.
Last year Wildcat forewent the BEA, and substituted significant cash sales at a dozen weekend events in California, including CSW Pride in L.A. and the Folsom st. Fair in San Francisco, where three days of selling grossed us over $4000 in book sales direct to the public. Forty percent of our net annual sales now come from event sales, with the remaining sixty percent divided between sales through distributors and retail stores.
Yes, we at Wildcat like the "neighborhood" approach to book publishing that L.A. offers. The Internet brags about its ability to bring people together digitally – but the personal face-to-face thing is good too. Being in L.A. has helped us diversify, and hold down overhead – always a killer in our business.
And there are always the surprises. While designing the cover for our newest fiction title, we found ourselves in pursuit of a discontinued 1960s font – and located it through an L.A. type-design company – who was located right around the corner on Wilshire.