Seattle prides itself as a bookish, well-read city with a storied literary heritage of Pulitzer- and National Book Award-winning writers and publishers. Seattle’s literary culture is so vibrant and rich that it earned the city a UNESCO Creative City of Literature designation in 2017. But this April, Seattle’s role in North America’s small press publishing world was elevated to a new level of importance when one of the few remaining independent book distributors in America, Bay-area Small Press Distribution (SPD), shuttered without warning in late March. SPD sent out only an email and a social media post after 55 years of serving small indie publishers, as first reported by Publishers Weekly, LitHub, and the Washington Post

Book distribution is a vital yet often unseen part of publishing. It's how many presses get their books into readers’ hands, usually through bookseller, library, or direct orders, which the distributor fulfills. SPD’s closure has left more than 350 small press publishers scrambling to find a new distributor for the 300,000 books SPD has left in limbo. Enter Pioneer Square’s Asterism Books.

“I was hunched down by a shelf pulling books for an order when Josh came in and told me, ‘SPD folded. It’s gone,’” recounted Laura Paul, marketing director of Asterism Books and Sublunary Editions, “I was in shock.” 

Asterism Books started in 2021 as Asterism by Joshua Rothes, publisher of Sublunary Editions, and then later relaunched as Asterism Books with Chatwin Books and Arundel Books’ Phil Bevis. They’re one of the few independent book distributors in the United States stepping forward to fill the void left by SPD’s closure. 

“We’re trying to get people on a lifeboat,” said Paul of Asterism Books’ attempt to extend a lifeline to many of the independent publishers trying to find a new distributor. “Within three days, Asterism had more than 100 publisher applications. We’ve been taking meetings nonstop, building new bookshelves, and trying to expedite approvals for over 30 publishers,” Paul shared. 

“The SPD closure exemplifies why we need more distributors, not less. Since US book distribution has become increasingly consolidated, if something happens to one company, it takes out a huge portion of the entire system. It’s dangerous to the freedom of books to circulate, and whose texts will get seen and read.”

The Pacific Northwest is no stranger to book distribution, according to Rick Simonson, long-time book buyer and reading series manager of Elliott Bay Book Company. He said, “Seattle has been home to some good wholesaler and distribution centers before, dating back through the decades, though none were devoted strictly to literary presses as Asterism is. Having Pacific Pipeline, Moving Books, Partners West, Koen Pacific, and others here all served the regional bookselling community well—they made the bookstores here all better.”

Elliott Bay Book Company aka book heaven. Ben Lindbloom

Local Presses Feel the Pressure

One of the local publishers dealing with SPD’s closure is Anne de Marcken, editor and publisher of Olympia’s the 3rd Thing Press and winner of the Novel Prize for her novel It Lasts Forever and Then It’s Over. De Marcken, who had been using SPD for the 3rd Thing, had coincidentally run into Rothes the night before SPD shuttered: “I was shocked by the suddenness of SPD's announcement, but I was not surprised. Things had been rocky at SPD for some time. As it happens, the night before the fateful communication from SPD, I ran into Joshua Rothes at Third Place Books—we set a time to talk the following Monday about finally making the shift. I sent him a note the next morning saying maybe we’d better move up that conversation. Within 24 hours, we had an agreement in place and by the end of the next week, all our titles were listed for sale on the Asterism site.” 

Despite signing Asterism as a book distributor, de Marcken says the 3rd Thing Press is still walking a short-term financial tightrope: “We estimate that we’re owed about $5,000. [SPD’s closure] does leave us in a precarious position … a little more precarious than usual.”

Knox Gardner, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Seattle’s Entre Ríos Books, which also recently signed with Asterism, echoed de Marcken’s experience: “Like everyone else, I learned of SPD’s closure with an email in the morning—not surprised that they were closing, but shocked that they just closed with no planning or information on how to get our books back from the new warehouse.” 

While still unexpected, Gardner saw the writing on the wall: “Did I see it coming? Yes. I had two phone calls over the last several months—one of them just the week before the closure—with staff there about issues we were having: books not listed correctly, if at all, advertising we paid for that was not happening, and even in the small quantity of books we work with, clearly no books were being sold, which was noticeable.” 

SPD’s Closure Creates Financial Headwinds

There are two concerns for many indie publishers like the 3rd Thing and Entre Ríos. First, SPD sent all 300,000 books to two major book distributors, Ingram and Publishers Storage and Shipping (PSCC), and their closure has left presses searching to find where their books are and saddling them with shipping costs to recoup their stock. Gardner lamented, “We’re probably going to lose about $1,000 dollars getting our books back.”

Second, publishers claim SPD still owes many of the presses substantial amounts of sales that haven’t yet been paid out—to the tune of at least tens of thousands of dollars, if not hundreds of thousands in total. Portland press Fonograf Editions alleges SPD owes them $12,000 in royalties, while other presses around the country are sharing similar situations. The full extent of SPD’s purported financial impropriety will most likely be revealed in its dissolution by the California Supreme Court, though there are serious questions about whether or not presses will see any money at all. 

According to ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer, SPD’s last nonprofit tax filing from 2022 shows they were already operating at a negative net income of over $200,000, with net assets of just over $18,000—a potentially ominous sign for those presses looking to recoup the money they are owed through sales. While $1,000 or $5,000 may be a drop in the bucket for the “Big Five” publishers—Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan Publishers, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster—and their subsidiaries, small presses often operate on already tight budgets and publish work that doesn’t always reach the mainstream (with some even actively avoiding it). 

Simonson shared, “Small and independent presses are vital because they're the starting point for so many writers, ideas, notions, aesthetics (including translation) that may not pass a big commercial sniff test. Big publishers actually follow the leads of independent presses when and where the indie presses hit on something that takes off. The big publishers chase as much as they make, at least from the seed of things. And there's an ebb and flow. Small presses can handle small scale better than big publishers. 

“Small and indie presses can also operate anywhere, more sustainably if they develop distribution systems. But you can have small presses in Seattle, Port Townsend, Buffalo, Wyoming, Ashtabula, Biloxi, Minneapolis, Dallas, and Albuquerque, while the corporate houses pretty much roost only in New York, at least in this country.”

Small publishers often have much smaller print runs and limited titles, which often precludes them from being able to use major distributors like Ingram or PSCC. But that also allows them to take more chances on debut writers, publish more experimental or audacious work, and create space for writers and readers who haven’t historically been represented.

According to Third Place Ravenna’s General Manager, Kalani Kapahua, “LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC authors often find homes at small presses.” In fact, Kapahua has already seen what SPD’s closure means in terms of representation: “One of the main titles I have been monitoring and ordering in for the store is Hannah Baer's trans girl suicide museum, which has sold a half dozen or so copies since the end of last year at Ravenna. We were in the process of getting some more in but SPD said it was on backorder on March 19 … knowing that we might not carry a title like trans girl suicide museum again at our store [due to SPD’s closure] is such a disappointment.” At the time of this article’s publication, it should be noted that Hesse Press, publisher of trans girl suicide museum, has since switched to Asterism Books for distribution.

Asterism's Paving a New Path

One major sticking point differentiates Asterism’s operating model from traditional distributors: “We don’t make money unless books get bought,” opined Paul. 

Operating as a for-profit venture, Asterism eschews traditional distributor fees in lieu of a 24% cut of each book sale, the price of which is set by individual publishers along with a bookseller discount. In contrast, many book distributors have traditionally charged fees, particularly to store books in their warehouses, a practice SPD used.  

Asterism also doesn’t allow book returns (a common practice) unless a book is damaged or if it’s for an event, and Paul says they also dissuade window shopping for books—that is, consumers finding something they love, taking a picture of it, and ordering it online for a discount later. “We want to specialize in offering books that aren’t found on Amazon, or at least aren’t undercut on price by other platforms. We want to protect the list price, so we can redistribute profits back to creators. We protect the prices set by our publishers, which is a big deal for small presses, who usually are just trying to create good work and break even at best in some cases.”

How Seattle Readers Can Help

Despite a looming publishing crisis, there are direct ways you can help small presses get through this moment. Kapahua suggests, “Purchasing books directly from the presses goes a very long way in this situation,” especially for those presses previously with SPD, which the Community of Literary Magazines and Publishers (CLMP) has compiled. 

Kapahua went on to share that “[i]t sounds like a number of these presses may not be able to continue without SPD in the picture now and the thought of many small presses just shuttering en masse is tragic. I think there needs to be a collective awareness of what SPD's closing means to the greater publishing landscape. Hopefully, Asterism can immediately fill the void. The fact that Asterism is so new can be a great advantage and they can learn from and adapt to the changes in the industry now.”

Gardner had a more tempered message along with his optimism, “There are a lot of presses that will not have the financial means to get their books back or the ability to pivot quickly to new distribution. … I feel fortunate that I started conversations with Asterism months ago and the very first thing I did after reading this email was to drop them a line, so we will be [working] with them. It’s a different model than SPD, but given the flux in the industry, I am excited to see how it might work out for us and them. Obviously, my goal is to get our authors into as many curious readers’ hands as possible and so I am hopeful that the engaged team at Asterism can help us with that. Poetry is a strange ask, right? Most bookshops will only have a few tiny shelves of it, so it helps bring our books to the attention of shops we might not have a relationship with.” 

Asked what happens to books lost to the system, Paul had a blunt, sobering answer: “They get pulped.”

De Marcken reiterated these sentiments: “We are an entirely volunteer-run operation, so every cent we make from book sales (whether directly through our website or from indie bookstores) goes to paying writers and to publishing the next innovative book. Right now, we’re gearing up for production on Seattle comix artist and poet Mita Mahato’s stunning Arctic Play. We have never relied on donations, but making up for the $5,000 that evaporated when SPD closed is going to take some special magic. Thanks to our fiscal sponsor Northwest Film Forum, all donations are tax deductible. I am hopeful, though, that the community is coming together to find a way through this latest crisis. Authors, small presses, and independent booksellers are extraordinarily resourceful. This is a community of people who care deeply about what they do.”

Readers, who dictate a book’s commercial success, have a lot of collective power to create demand and buzz for a title, which is especially important for a small press, new authors, translations, and work found outside the traditional publishing landscape. Taking a chance on an indie book often allows publishers to give more opportunities for other writers and books down the line—a necessary endeavor in cultivating impactful, important art and culture—and smut and counterculture alike.

Asked why people in Seattle should take note of Asterism, Paul said: “Asterism has been distinctly shaped by Seattle. The company sits at the intersection of technology, culture, and innovation. Buying from us creates social good—reducing economic exploitation in the arts and getting money back into the hands of the people doing creative work.

“We want this space to feel like a community—we want to support local writers, publishers, booksellers and readers, as well as mentor those thinking about starting a press,” she added. And when asked what it’s like to be across from Lumen Field, Paul said she “likes to walk around the stadium and meditate on how many millions go to sports that could be going to books … I joke about having pop-ups during a Mariners game.” 

Make no mistake about this is a vital moment in America’s literary history—SPD’s closure is a huge blow to publishers, writers, booksellers, and readers, but there’s also something inspiring about a group of Seattle entrepreneurs leading the charge to upend a system and ensure writers and creators have the chance to hold space in our country’s zeitgeist with books that might not exist otherwise. 

Paul is hopeful for the future. “The more we can bring people doing quality work and innovating with words into the spotlight, the more people will be excited to read. I think the future is hopefully more of what Asterism is doing—people coming together to share resources and the strength that comes from that.”