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Distribution & Its Discontents

Like many of those involved in the Save Our Presses campaign, Staple Magazine relies on ad hoc and opportunistic strategies for getting itself onto the radar of potential readers and subscribers: events, as discussed in a post earlier this month, act as one such catalyst. Then there’s word of mouth, supportive efforts from existing readers and subscribers, flyer swaps with other organisations’ mailing lists, leaflet drops at venues, online activity and all the other methods, usual and unusual, of trying to maximise the numbers of people whose consciousness the magazine’s existence might cross at some point, while directing any interest roused towards our online shop or mailing address.

The two things we don’t seem able to break through to as ways of selling the magazine are conventional media coverage and getting copies into shops,  the former because there are so few outlets for reviews and notices of poetry generally, let alone journals, beyond the pages of magazines (perhaps ironically) like our own, and the latter because retailers seem broadly united in feeling that these things just don’t sell. There’s obviously something of a Catch 22 here, since the unappetisingly limited range available in most bookshops means that there’s rarely anything of interest to even a poetry and short fiction obsessive like myself, and the lack of books and magazines to browse pushes ever more readers’ purchases online, thus closing the circle of assumption that ‘these things won’t sell’ within physical shops.

In many ways, it’s a classic self-fulfilling prophecy, though there are signs that retailers may be finally coming to realise this, as their range narrows to bestsellers and proven formulas, sales continue to fall, and the few success stories are outlets like Donlon Books in London, or The Bookcase in Lowdham, whose stocking policies aim to take their readers by surprise, with a range of books that their customers might not have thought to search for on Amazon: whether Mark Pilkington’s wonderfully eclectic Strange Attractor, the beautifully designed pages of poetry and illustration in Popshot or  a whole range of one-off chapbooks, hand-made books and newsheets, these are the things that the browsing experience is tailor-made to fit.

Yet few industries can be built on as many sick notes as mainstream marketing, a profession whose only purpose is to sell things, but which habitually insists that only things that suit its methods will sell.  It’s akin to a doctor who knows nothing about human anatomy or symptoms, but does have a bottle of aspirin, so considers only conditions that can be treated with a dose of aspirin curable. Yet rather than being struck off, these quack doctors have been given ever greater influence in mainstream publishing and retail, simply to ensure that only the relatively few types of book marketeers feel comfortable about selling are presented to readers.

It’s an unduly harsh observation, to be sure, and there are some wonderfully dedicated and inventive marketing people out there: but the grain of truth is there, too, and I suspect that until we return to a more diverse ecosystem of retail, coverage and distribution, the breadth and depth of the market will continue to shrink. Perhaps the current development of electronic systems of distribution will help, in presenting readers with a far broader spectrum of published material than the present restricted range available to all but the most dedicated, just as Spotify and other services have opened up vast regions of musical activity to many previously resigned to choosing among the contents of their local HMV and mainstream radio playlists.

The emergence of the downloadable book or magazine brings its own problems, of course, not least the difficulty of payment and resources in a context where refreshed enthusiasm for new discoveries and growth of readerships comes at the expense of any certain way of bringing in enough to cover authors’, editors’ and other costs. It will be ironic if the biggest potential growth in readerships since the introduction of mass literacy also results in a situation where the ability of anyone to actually produce anything without patronage ends up returning us to a kind of pre-Modern age where only the wealthy, institutions and the odd sensational, random bestseller are able to make ends meet.

But that’s a negative view: beneath the radar of the least imaginitive mainstream marketing are a host of options, from the previously mentioned likes of Hatch, to the way that small, highly nimble outfits like Annexinema and 7 Inch Cinema have built devoted non-mainstream audiences for events that showcase quirky, surreal and challenging short films even as the multiplexes grow ever more dominant on out-of-town sites, or, in music, labels like Trunk Records, Finders Keepers and Ghost Box create limited issue releases that sell out almost instantaneously to enthusiasts for the sounds they create.

Perhaps publishers – especially those of us whose print runs are already small enough to count as limited editions without being labelled as such – can learn from efforts like these, and while we might not be making fortunes, we might eventually manage a living while keeping the range of available work a good deal wider and more appealing than that amenable to the marketing teams’ off the shelf bottles of aspirin.

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