One of the books that shaped my perception of the publishing industry at large, and served as the inspiration and impetus for us to start our own press, was Andre Schiffrin's "The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read". In it, Schiffrin, the former publisher of Pantheon, chronicles the seismic shift in ideology from the post-World War II years -- when publishers considered themselves to be purveyors of culture -- to the corporate-driven, profits-minded present.
In the past, books were allowed to subsidize one another, which allowed for a broader swath of ideas and afforded new writers or challenging voices a greater window through which to discover an audience. The "new policy was that each book should make money on its own and that one title should no longer be allowed to subsidize another." Random House initially grew and built their reputation by subsidizing voices such as William Faulkner's with a book of jokes or puzzles. Today, that logic wouldn't fly.
Most small presses are inspired to continue in the tradition from the mid-twentieth century, to publish quality books with a discerning taste. When you publish two or ten books annually, you can't afford to deviate from your program without risk of soiling either your reputation or your credibility. So, generally speaking, maybe with the exception of non-profits, most small presses are functioning similar to their corporate counterparts but on a much more dramatic precipice, where the success or failure of each book can make or bankrupt a publisher.
At Two Dollar Radio, in order to keep our book line pure and generate some alternative revenue to help subsidize the adventurous voices we elect to publish, we sell tee shirts. We get the shirts from a local wholesale distributor where we drive to pick them up, and actually do print them ourselves. Usually this happens late at night on our kitchen table, our daughter Rio crowding at our elbows eager to watch. There are always slight imperfections, but that's what makes them unique. It's funky and it's cool, and they mesh well with the ethos we employ in our publishing program. We have over a handful of designs, mostly involving random animals. We have one with a pig that says "Read like a pig." Our top-seller sports a unicorn, with the tagline "Unicorn-level books," inspired by independent book publicist Lauren Cerand.
The idea is nowhere near original. When my wife Eliza and I conceived Two Dollar Radio, we were living in San Diego, where we met three young guys -- Josh Abramson, Jakob Lodwick, and Ricky Van Veen -- who made a living managing a website called CollegeHumor.com. At the time, they were drafting designs for a line of faux-vintage tee shirts. Later dubbed Busted Tees, the idea exploded and by 2005 accounted for half of their very significant monthly revenue.
While we aren't anywhere close to as successful with our shirts, at the recent Brooklyn Book Festival tees accounted for twenty percent of our total sales. Of sales made directly through our website since August, thirty-eight percent have been tee shirt orders.
We aren't the only press who sells clothing or accessories. For example, I have tee shirts from Small Beer Press and Featherproof Books. (The Featherproof logo -- an owl with a toy arrow on its head -- was a huge hit when I wore it on my parent-helper day at my daughter's pre-school.) Perhaps the publisher with the most diverse merchandise is McSweeney's. For sale through their website they have nearly two-dozen different tee shirts, a Believer Faces Poster, a tote bag, and Nick Hornby's Songbook CD.
As a small press, it is much easier to craft an identity. If you buy a book published by an independent press, then chances are good you really did intend to buy that book. Either it was recommended to you by a friend, you read a review, or you discovered it on the shelf of an independent bookstore: small presses deploy no marketing sleight of hand, no clever gimmicks or paid product placement in order to finagle someone into buying one of our books. As a result, I would wager that consumers of small press books are more aware of who published the work than those of corporate presses, which makes it easier for an independent publisher to sell brand merchandise. I doubt anyone would buy a shirt that says "Random House" on it; it just isn't cool. Nor would it stand for anything: one person might stop you in the street imagining you share an affinity for raising the perfect dog, while another might be a John Irving or Kurt Vonnegut fan. But I've seen students at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, rocking McSweeney's shirts and I know their taste.
If the task of a small press is to foster new talent, to serve as a platform for innovative ideas or challenging voices, in hopes of achieving a reasonable readership in the thousands, then it seems practical to look to additional sources of revenue in order to keep the ship afloat. At Two Dollar Radio, that means allowing us to publish the type of bold work we've built our reputation on without resorting to publishing the modern equivalent of the joke book.
While not every publisher has a wholesale shirt distributor close by, or the energy and willingness to screen-print shirts themselves, there are other means to accessorize affordably. And, following McSweeney's example, it doesn't necessarily have to just be tee shirts.
Richard Nash pointed out in his 'Don't Call it a Comeback' piece in Publishers Weekly that respondents to a poll in the U.K. on what book will most likely get you laid, stated "anything published by Soft Skull." Since it's not always comfortable to cart a book to the bar with you, imagine how much more convenient it would be to simply don a Soft Skull tee shirt.