In Face of NEA Cuts, Small Presses Worry About Their Futures

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With the arrival this week of President Donald Trump’s first budget plan, a number of members in the arts community have become deeply concerned about the proposal to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The elimination of the NEA could have a severe trickle-down effect in the small press world, as many indie publishers depend on funding from the organization to stay afloat.

The NEA, which had a budget of nearly $148 million last year, supports arts participation in American communities. It also supports numerous small publishers throughout the country.

One group particularly worried about Trump’s budget proposal is the Berkeley, Calif.-based Small Press Distribution (SPD), which serves more than 400 small publishers. The nonprofit literary distributor was founded in 1969 by bookseller Peter Howard and bookseller/editor/publisher Jack Shoemaker.

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SPD has received $1,198,000 in grant funds from the National Endowment for the Arts since 1998—funds that support all the publishers served by the distributor. The group’s executive director, Jeffrey Lependorf, said the NEA cuts would have a dramatic ripple effect on independent publishing.

Last year, the money SPD received from the NEA accounted for 4% of the nonprofit’s $1 million budget. “While 4% may sound like a small percentage of [our] overall budget, those monies more or less flow through to our hundreds of publishers,” Lependorf explained.

In Lependorf’s eyes, if the NEA money stopped flowing to SPD, it would put many small presses out of business. “A 4% cut to the income of our presses could easily make the difference between just covering costs and just failing to cover their costs. It’s the difference between existing or not existing.” Lependorf recalled that in the 1970s and ’80s, the NEA provided about half of SPD’s operating budget, noting that “without that support then we surely would not exist today.”

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During the 2014-2015 sales year, SPD sold nearly 165,000 books, and its sales exceeded $1.75 million. More than 60% percent of those titles were poetry books—a category with historically small print runs and sales spread out over many years. These razor-thin margins give small publishers little wiggle room when it comes to the bottom line. As Lependorf put it, those working at many small presses in the U.S. essentially “donate their labor” and hope to cover costs “without dipping too far into their own finances.”

Despite the shock Trump’s proposed budget has sent through the arts community, the attempt to cut off funding from the NEA is not new. The arts organization, which was founded in 1965, has been a popular target for conservative leaders since the 1980s. During his first days in office, President Ronald Reagan threatened to cut NEA funding in half. In the end, the federal budget shaved $16 million off the organization’s $159 million budget that year. Reagan’s transition had considered, though, dropping the NEA altogether.

The NEA’s future remained in jeopardy throughout the 1990s. Controversy over NEA-funded projects early in the decade inspired Republican Congressional leaders to suggest eliminating the organization. In 1997, the House voted to shutter the NEA, but the Senate restored funding for it. By 1998, NEA funding had dropped to its lowest levels in 20 years.

Although Lependorf is deeply concerned about the NEA’s fate, he stressed that small publishing will survive this coming storm. His more immediate concern is that, if the NEA cuts happen, it will affect the kind of stories small presses publish, forcing them to reconsider taking chances on marginalized and risky material.

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“Without crucial NEA support, we could still find a way to operate,” Lependorf said. “But we would be forced to take on fewer new presses without a proven track record of sales. We would be forced to make more of our decisions based on marketplace potential alone, and this would be critically damaging to literature in the long term.”

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