George Stranahan’s People’s Press Earns Awards (Not Profits)
Andrew Travers of the Aspen Daily News online writes this great piece on Aspen local George Stranahan and his publishing company – People’s Press. It explores some of the challenges faced by the entrepreneurial and innovative venture in trying to sell books when the publishing industry itself is in dire straits.
Four years after its founding, local book publisher People’s Press can boast many successes, but none of them are measured in dollar signs.
The press, founded by the local entrepreneur and creative polymath George Stranahan, has won two Colorado Book Awards and, in the last 20 months alone, published 13 books. It has shared stories from the valley and western Colorado spanning nearly every genre, from memoir to mystery to poetry and photography.
Yet the dire state of the national publishing industry, and a surprisingly chilly reception from shop owners, has made selling and distributing the small press’ titles tougher than expected.
“We thought that we could do it ourselves on marketing and distribution,” Stranahan said on Friday. “And I just don’t think we’re good enough at it.”
The press began with a “guerilla-style” marketing and distribution strategy, which fizzled.
Local grocery stores and other outlets wouldn’t carry their books, which Stranahan hoped would be an easy sell, given their local roots and “David and Goliath” charm.
“We thought they would more cheerfully enter the battle,” he said.
Meanwhile, over the short life of People’s Press, two Roaring Fork Valley bookstores have closed down and the national industry has struggled with moving onto digital readers.
Stranahan and his publishing majordomo Mirte Mallory said that their business model has been overhauled on the fly over the last four years. As finding places willing to carry their books hampered them, in 2010, they signed on with Globe Prequot Press as a national distributor. They’ve cut their local marketing and distributing staffers, resulting in Mallory being the company’s only employee.
“There were pieces of the business model that we either didn’t execute well or weren’t going to work if we did,” Stranahan said.
A unique profit-sharing model, which would split profits 80/20 between the publisher/financial backer of the book and the author, respectively, until production costs were covered, then switch to 20/80 after costs were covered, hasn’t come into play, for instance.
Since Stranahan’s seed money for the nonprofit ran out, People’s Press has become more reliant on co-publishing partnerships and self-funded authors to cover the costs of paper, ink and printing.
This year, for example, the company partnered with the Denver Museum of Nature & Science to pay for “Snowmasstodon,” a spirited retelling of the 2010 Ice Age discoveries in Snowmass Village.
At this point, the press is focusing on producing quality books, and paying for their production on a case-by-case basis.
“People are interacting with the written word in such a different way that it’s hard to keep up for even a large-scale publisher,” Mallory said. “For a small-scale publisher, it’s even more of a challenge. So we’re focusing on keeping the printed book alive on a local level.”
The press published eight books last year, including Daniel Joseph Watkins’ “Thomas W. Benton: Artist/Activist,” which last month won the Colorado Book Award in the pictorial category.
For now, the only book in the slate of future releases is “A Predicament of Innocence,” a collection of Stranahan’s photographs of local schoolchildren spanning 30 years, accompanied by his writing about education.
Scheduled for a September release, it’s Stranahan’s follow-up to his Colorado Book Award-winning “Phlogs.” It promises to be a provocative take on the state of education in the country.
Along with the awards, the press has released a diverse array of titles — including a paperback collection of the late Karen Chamberlain’s poetry this summer, Sandy Munro’s World War II-based memoir “Finding Uri” last year, and regional guidebooks.
Mallory noted they’ve dabbled in nearly every genre, other than comic books.
“What we have done a good job of is finding local authors and good books,” Stranahan said. “We just weren’t man enough to tackle nationwide popularity.”
The press keeps an editorial board that reviews submissions and decides which they’ll publish. The board will evaluate spring releases in coming months.
“We don’t have any rules,” Stranahan said. “So when we see a jewel we just say, ‘OK, we’ll pick that one up.’”
They’re forging forward with small press runs, making a few thousand copies of books targeting the local and regional market, and an eye on excellent writing, design and production.
“We didn’t know what to expect because it was an unknown trail, local publishing,” Stranahan said. “But I think we’ve traversed the trail pretty well, and pretty thoroughly found it was not an easy one. But there is an appetite for the story.”