Plot twists in Ann Arbor's publishing scene

Steven Gillis says it’s good to be a publisher in "a nice town that is book-minded," but that Ann Arbor’s literary community still is not what it used to be.

"I’ve been here for 30 years, and before there was really an intense vibe here," says Gillis, founder and publisher of Dzanc Books. "I don’t think that’s any longer the case. It could just be the total climate across the country."

Gillis says that while a visiting author in town used to easily draw a crowd of anywhere from 30 to 50, it’s now more of a "fight" than a "flow" to draw that kind of attendance. However, Gillis and his local colleagues in the publishing business agree that the community still demonstrates above-average interest in literary events. University of Michigan Press editorial director Aaron McCollough says Ann Arbor boasts a highly educated population that turns out for readings and other events.

"One of the weird ironies of, say, New York City is even though it’s a great book town in lots of ways…I’ve gone to lots of readings there where very few people showed up because there are a dozen competing readings," he says. "So in some ways the combination of a small [town] with a really high percentage of educated and interested people is the perfect balance, the perfect mix."

However, in recent years Ann Arbor’s publishers have struggled to find local venues to bring their product to the community. Multiple publishers interviewed for this story sang the praises of Literati for creating a go-to gathering place for the local literary community. But, they say, the shop still doesn’t entirely fill the gaping holes left by the closing of Shaman Drum Bookshop in 2009, and Borders in 2011. McCollough describes the time between Shaman Drum’s closing and Literati’s opening in 2013 as a "dark age," and he says there are still troubling underlying trends in Ann Arbor that mirror the downfall of Borders "in a strange way."

"[Borders] was this sort of weird mom-and-pop store that got bigger and bigger and bigger and then became this corporate monster, and then the bottom fell out," he says. "The bottom hasn’t fallen out for Ann Arbor, but…the face of Ann Arbor has changed a lot, and I think that some of the do-it-yourself quirkiness has gone away in the publishing sphere as well."

Borders’ closing hit some publishers harder than others. Jeremy Sterling, director of sales and marketing for Spry Publishing, says Borders was his company’s number-one client when Spry was still known as the Ann Arbor Media Group. When Borders went under, Sterling says Spry "shifted gears 100 percent" into health and wellness publishing–often selling directly to pharmaceutical companies. Sterling says the transition was a natural one, and it’s proved successful for Spry.

"The pharmaceutical business was similar to what we were doing with Borders," he says. "The books go out and they don’t come back. They’re nonreturnable. It’s very good bulk sale business, and that’s why we ended up kind of going in that direction."

A new e-world

While changes in the Ann Arbor literary community have proved challenging for publishers to tackle, they’ve adapted more easily to the seismic national shifts in the way people read. Some local publishers had the good fortune to get into the business right around the time e-books came into vogue, while others are working in niches where e-books pose less of a threat to traditional print volumes. 

Some, like Ben Mondloch, had both factors working in their favor. Mondloch founded Cherry Lake Publishing in 2007 and acquired Sleeping Bear Press in 2012. Although both imprints publish exclusively children’s books, which still do better in print than many other sectors of the publishing market, Mondloch also says his timing was right.

"Like any industry, it kind of depends where you are in your life cycle," he says. "Where we started, e-books have always been part of what we’ve done. We’re kind of right-sized where we didn’t have massive backlist conversions that we had to deal with, because we were built in the newer digital age."

Gillis says he anticipated the growing popularity of e-books when he started Dzanc in 2006. In its early years the company started snapping up the rights to out-of-print contemporary literary works and converting them to e-book format, just before e-readers started really coming into vogue. 

"If you’re going to get people to read, you’ve got to be modern about it," Gillis says.  "You’ve got to bring the books to them in whatever way they’re reading."

McCollough says University Press’ scholarly audience is another one that still prefers the physical product to an e-book. However, he says the libraries University Press frequently sells to are beginning to shift towards e-books–and scholars likely will too, in time. 

"It’s going to change," he says. "It’s already starting to change our business model and it’s presumably going to continue to change it."

An on-demand future?

E-books aren’t the only technological shift local publishers are welcoming. The recent emergence of print-on-demand technology is allowing some small publishing endeavors to print volumes as needed, rather than committing to an entire print run. Robert Russell cofounded the Ann Arbor-based literary journal Midwestern Gothic in 2011, and he says the journal’s success so far has been largely due to the convenience of print-on-demand.

"For us, especially being a literary journal, people generally want the newest issue that comes out," Russell says. "So we kind of weighed our options and if we do a print run of 1,000 journals and we only sold 500 journals, we’re going to have 500 copies of that issue sitting around that we’re not ever going to be able to get rid of. It’s a little different from a novel in that way."

Although McCollough runs one of the larger traditional publishing houses in town, he too has taken advantage of print-on-demand publishing. McCollough runs his own small press, Splitlevel Texts, which prints two books of poetry per year. He says the endeavor is possible only because of print-on-demand technology, and he hopes even more innovative projects will come about in Ann Arbor and beyond as a result.

"It’s sort of like the Xerox culture and the zine culture of the '80s has been replaced by print-on-demand culture," McCollough says. "I see a real interesting future there, and I think we’re already in an interesting era in terms of publishing nationwide for independent literary publishing."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and a senior writer at Concentrate and Metromode.

All photos by Doug Coombe except where noted.

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