April 29, 2016
Surprising news about the future of CCLaP.
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As regular readers know, my arts center CCLaP is in a state of near-total dormancy throughout the entirety of 2016 -- we're still publishing book reviews at our blog every day, but otherwise we have shut down our original books, our weekly magazine, our live events, and accepting any submissions until 2017 rolls around -- and it's not exactly a secret that one of the main reasons for this is that I was experiencing a catastrophic state of burnout by the holiday season of last year because of it all. The simple fact is that I tried to take on way too much in 2015, and paid a dear price for it; in the first six months I attended the insanely immersive computer programming school DevBootcamp (fourteen hours a day, seven days a week) while still trying to publish a new original book through CCLaP once every single month, then in the last half of 2015 I tried to play catch-up with all those six books, while still publishing yet another six books, and spending 20 hours a week looking for a job, and also trying to put in yet another 20 to 30 hours a week practicing my coding.

It was simply too much, and it resulted in me having to cancel several of those books at the last minute, releasing the rest of them in this half-assed way they didn't deserve, pissing off a bunch of those authors in the process, and with me still without a job a full nine months after graduating DBC, because frankly my coding skills continue to be subpar because of the lack of practice, and with me continuing to fail all the practice tests that are regularly given during job interviews for coding jobs. (Yeah, artists, welcome to working in the STEM industries, where instead of your chances of getting hired relying on how well you can bullshit during job interviews, they simply give you an exam then hire the person with the highest score.)

What I learned in 2015 -- or what I thought I had learned, anyway, but more on that in a bit -- was that trying to make a living from CCLaP is simply a fool's errand that I needed to finally let go of; I had been attempting it for eight years at that point, regularly putting in 80-hour workweeks that entire time, and while that certainly led to a lot of accomplishments that I'm proud of (publishing 40 titles; distributing 10,000 copies of those titles; winning or being a finalist for a dozen literary awards; getting named one of the ten best indie presses in the United States by several publications), the money itself was simply slipping through my fingers even almost a decade in, with it seeming on a day-to-day basis in 2015 that we were just hemorrhaging money with nothing to show for it.

Ah, but then I did my taxes last week, which is typically the first time I actually add up all of CCLaP's numbers from the previous year, to see exactly what kind of year we officially had, independent of how it emotionally felt on a day-to-day basis. (Yes, I know, if I truly want to be serious about running a small business, I should be doing those numbers on a monthly basis; now you're starting to appreciate my predicament of having way too much to do and not nearly enough time to do it.) I'm publicly transparent about CCLaP's finances, so I don't mind sharing the numbers with you; two years ago in 2014, for example, we had gross revenue of around $12,000, and we've been averaging a pretty steady growth rate of around 20 percent every year we've been open, so I had been fully expecting CCLaP's gross for 2015 to be int he neighborhood of $14,000 to $15,000. But that's when I learned the big surprise -- CCLaP's gross last year was actually $20,000, nearly double what we've ever made in a single year previously, constituting a growth rate of around 80 percent between 2014 and '15, a percentage that most small businesses would kill to have.

But here's the rub, and why it felt like we were bleeding money all last year; that when you start subtracting all of CCLaP's costs and expenses in 2015 -- the $5 per book our printing plant keeps from each sale, the $6 per book that retail bookstores keep, the $2 per book I pay to authors as their royalty, the $1,200 I spent in postage last year, the $400 in envelopes and packing tape, etc etc etc -- the center ended up with a net loss of $3,000 despite a gross of $20,000. and since legally speaking, CCLaP and me are the same thing right now, that means that I personally lost $3,000 out of my own pocket last year running CCLaP; and believe me, when you're unemployed and are desperately trying to make your small business be your sole means of income no matter how hard you have to work, it is a heartbreaking thing to learn that you spent $3,000 of your own money for the "privilege" of working 80-hour weeks for absolutely no pay.

So, a good realization and a sobering realization this week: that CCLaP is actually in a much more solid financial position as a money-maker than I realized, and has a bigger chance of being a full-time success than I had guessed; but that the way we're doing things right now is profoundly wrong, and that some big fundamental things about our operations need to change if I ever want the center to be a success. Those changes include...

--We need a lot more spendable cash on a day-to-day basis. This is perhaps the biggest thing I've learned about small businesses by running one, is that there's a huge gap between when you have to spend money on a project and when you finally have the profits from that project literally in your pocket and ready to spend again; in the case of traditional publishing, for example, it's literally nine months, which means you need enough cash in your bank account to keep operating on a daily full-time basis for those nine months, which I've never had because I've been otherwise unemployed the entire time so far that I've been running CCLaP. "No problem," I thought at the time, "I'll just take the profits from book 1 and use them to fund book 2, then take the profits from book 2 to fund book 3, etc," but it turns out a small business simply doesn't work like that; some months you only see a trickle of revenue while other months you see a big bonanza, while some months you have almost no expenses and other months you have a big giant payment you need to make all at once. (Also, some of that revenue I never actually see; for example, an entire $5,000 of last year's $20,000 in gross revenue was from authors directly selling copies of their books to audience members at live readings, in which case those authors simply keep that cash and it gets deducted from however much in royalties they're owed.) That's one of the big reasons I attended DevBootcamp last year in the first place, so that I could get a middle-class job as a coder (entry-level positions in my industry average $65,000 in Chicago), then take a good $20,000 of that salary just to fund the day-to-day expenses of CCLaP. It's become clear that there's no way for the center to be a success until that happens, so here's hoping that I finally have that cushy middle-class job by the time 2017 rolls around.

--We need to eliminate retail bookstores from our operations altogether. Of the $3,000 CCLaP lost last year, an entire $2,000 of it was caused directly by brick-and-mortar bookstores. How? I'll fucking tell you how...

Metal plate printing machine

For 150 years now, there's been a tradition in the publishing industry, that bookstores are allowed to return unsold copies of books whenever they want, for a full refund from the publisher. See, for a long time, books were made by literally loading giant metal plates of each page into these monstrous Victorian-style machines the size of factories (see above image for an example); and since it was such a pain to load these 300 or 400 or 500 metal plates into the machine for every title printed, for economic reasons they would run off a whole bunch of copies at once before swapping out those plates for the next book scheduled to be printed. So, say, if you're Simon & Schuster, you might for example print 10,000 copies of your latest novel all at once, and then you would park all 10,000 of those copies in some warehouse in New Jersey; then every time a Barnes & Noble in Connecticut would order 30 copies of that book, you'd stick 30 copies in a truck and drive them out to them. Given that situation, then, it doesn't really matter if that bookstore sends back 20 of those copies; all 30 copies existed in the first place, and it's simply a matter of whether they're sitting unsold on a shelf in New Jersey or sitting unsold on a shelf in Connecticut, so it becomes much more tempting for a bookstore to order and carry that novel if they know they can ship back the unsold copies for a refund at any time, which is why publishers like Simon & Schuster starting making these kinds of offers 150 years ago to begin with. And for a long time that's how publishing worked, which was why the only people who could be publishers back then were people who could afford to print 10,000 copies of each of their books all at once, and also could afford to rent a warehouse somewhere to store those 10,000 copies.

Digital printing machine

In the 21st century, though, books are now printed digitally; that picture above, for example, is of the machine literally used to print all of CCLaP's books (a machine, incidentally, that you can buy yourself for a mere $100,000, certainly within the price range of many arts organizations with strong ties to grant foundations), in which our "plates" are virtual via PDF files, fed into the machine through an internet connection, then five minutes later a fully printed and bound copy is spit out the other end. The brilliance of digital printing is that you only have to print a single copy each time someone actually buys a single copy, which is what allows a tiny organization like CCLaP to be able to publish a dozen titles a year for almost no upfront money and needing no warehouse space at all, and by extension is why there's been an explosion of literally thousands of small presses in the last twenty years, when there used to be only a handful in the entire United States. There's a good reason, after all, that this technology used to be referred to as "print-on-demand publishing," before the public started equating the term "print-on-demand" in their heads with "shitty self-published crap that no one wants to read."

There's one big giant problem with all this, though, which is that brick-and-mortar bookstores still insist on being allowed to return any unsold copies of books they order; and in a world where those books would've never existed in the first place if the bookstore hadn't deliberately ordered them, that throws the entire economic benefits of digital printing out the door. So for a really good example, take the great Ben Tanzer's latest book with us, The New York Stories, which ended up being the biggest selling title we had last year, because Ben did this giant tour last summer to promote it and ended up hitting something like twenty different bookstores for live events. What each and every one of these bookstores did, though, was order twenty copies of Ben's book to be on the safe side, just in case an unexpectedly huge crowd just happened to show up; then when they sold the ten copies they were expecting to sell all along, they packed up the ten unsold copies and mailed them back to us for their full refund, a grand total of 200 unsold copies nationwide over the course of a year. So, not only did I have to return the $1,800 those bookstores originally paid me for those books, money I had already received and spent, I had to pay yet another $1,000 to my printing plant for printing those 200 books in the first place, a thousand-buck commitment that would've never existed if those bookstores hadn't ordered those copies to start with; and I had to pay twenty bucks in shipping each and every time my distributor sent me back on of those ten-book returns that the bookstores sent to them. And that's how it is that our biggest selling book of 2015 still somehow caused us to lose a thousand dollars, and why it is that I now have 200 copies of The New York Stories sitting in a book case in my apartment and have no fucking idea what to do with them.

So you know what? No more. Starting in 2017, CCLaP will be exclusively selling its books either through Amazon (which owns its own digital printers, and thus never makes even a single wasted copy of the books they sell, a big reason they have such huge profits), or we'll be selling them directly to our customers ourselves, either through mail-order or at live events at non-bookstore venues like bars and cafes. Or, you know, technically bookstores will still be able to order copies; but we're no longer going to give them the option to return unsold copies, an option any publisher can technically choose but that almost no one ever does, because bookstore owners largely just flat-out state in their buying policies that if they're not allowed to return books for a refund, then they simply won't order any copies at all. But, you know, zero dollars in sales from brick-and-mortar stores is still a hell of a lot better than negative $2,000 in sales, so I'm fine with bookstore owners being all pissy and threatening to not carry our books if we won't offer refunds. And if the bookstore owners don't like that, the bookstore owners can go fuck themselves.

--We need to finally implement a well-funded, well-organized touring system for our authors. This was the other big realization I made last year from our numbers, that literally something like 75 percent of all our revenue came from just two books (both Ben's and Leland Cheuk's The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong), and that not by coincidence these two authors were on the road constantly, together racking up something like 100 live readings in 2015. In a world where a million new novels get published each and every year, from thousands of small presses with no marketing budgets and that no one has ever heard of, within a society that is reading for pleasure less and less in the first place, it's become clear that the personal connection and dynamic energy of live events is the single biggest key to moving product, and so this will also be the single biggest priority that CCLaP will have as an organization in 2017.

The problem, of course, is that such a thing has so many different moving parts, the biggest reason we haven't taken something like this on before...

--You need to establish friendly, ongoing relationships with dozens of other reading series in dozens of other cities;

--You need to get your author prepped with a couple of great short pieces to impress the crowd, and the kind of energetic performance style that moves books;

--You need to make sure they have enough copies of their books on them to sell;

--You need to do enough social media work in each of those cities, and have enough local fans, to ensure that people show up in the first place;

--And of course you have the financial burden of lodging, transportation and food for that author.

Yeah, starting to understand why you need $20,000 of spendable cash in the bank before you can even start thinking of taking something like this on? And related to this...

--I need to finally start hiring some truly talented people in exchange for actual competitive wages. So in other words, no more interns, no more volunteers, and no more newbies willing to accept a pittance wage in exchange for something substantial to add to their resumes; for while all the CCLaP people like this over the years have certainly been very nice and hard-working people, and while they certainly tried their best, there's absolutely no denying that, all of these people I just described (with the single exception of Behn Riahi, who truly was an asset to the center who will be missed) ended up causing me more work instead of less, because of the constant fine-tuning I was having to do to their work afterwards, the months of training I would have to give them, and the innumerable times I would have to do their work for them because something would suddenly come up in their personal lives, and by definition unpaid work is the lowest priority with most people when multiple responsibilities clash. Not to mention the habit of such people to quit their jobs at the drop of a hat (see previous comment about unpaid work being the lowest priority of the too-busy), which for example is how it is that we burned through six different photography editors in a year and a half, not a single one of whom lasted longer than a month, after taking two to three months to find them, recruit them and train them in the first place. Again, not a thing you can accomplish when you're financially holding on by the skin of your teeth, which is why none of this is going to be able to get implemented until I finally have a day job and am able to build up a nice little pile of petty cash. Starting to see a running theme today? And speaking of generating money...

--We need to start doing more of the things CCLaP has always planned on doing in order to generate revenue. CCLaP has never been envisioned as primarily a small press, which is what it currently is, but rather a full-featured community center, using one central marketing budget in order to cross-promote a whole series of different activities that each make money on their own, and which each have their own distinctive customer base who don't necessarily overlap with the others. So we need to finally start putting some of this stuff into place, things like live events that actually generate revenue (or in other words, live events that people will legitimately pay money to attend, such as nights with live bands, a witty weekly podcast recorded in front of a live audience, or perhaps a reading series that regularly features celebrities [yes, much like my friend Todd Zuniga's Literary Death Match, which is where I stole the idea was inspired to try something similar]); and local photography exhibitions, not necessarily to sell the photos themselves but rather as an excuse to make merchandise out of the images like refrigerator magnets, posters, catalog books, etc; and especially more classes and workshops, which we've attempted twice now but did both in this half-assed way that resulted in them being complete disasters that not a single person signed up for. It's nearly impossible in the 21st century to make a decent amount of money just from publishing paperback books alone, and it's become clear that it's finally time for us to start spending the money needed to make these other operations a reality for the first time.

--And finally, I need to acknowledge that the "fun" part of running a small press only takes up two percent of the responsibilities. Editing books? Picking cover art? Throwing a release party? Sure, those are the reasons we publishers become publishers in the first place; but unfortunately those parts are finished and over in the blink of an eye. The vast, vast majority of stuff I actually do as owner of CCLaP is all the marketing and administrative crap that everyone hates to do, which is why it is that the US is not comprised of a billion different small-business owners; hundreds of emails to reviewers and the press every single month, hundreds of mailings prepared and run to the post office every single month, endless fucking pestering of the people you need things from, endless tweets, endless press releases, endless good attitudes at live readings with four audience members, and so on and so on and so on. If you truly want to be your own boss, if you truly want to call all your own shots, this is what it takes; and to be frank, I've been in a bit of denial about this the last couple of years, a habit I need to nip in the bud if I ever want CCLaP to be a true success.

So, that's it, that's the plan moving forward, which felt like pie in the sky for a long time, until running last year's numbers and realizing, no, there's actually something working here, something actually starting to click with CCLaP after nearly a decade of being in business. It will take a lot of hard work for sure, a ton of extra money, and not just a little bit of sheer luck; but after realizing just how close the center is to truly making it, I have to admit that I'm more committed now than ever.

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