Week Three

seeking stimulus

Funny thing about spending an inordinate amount of time thinking, just thinking, about a business, and how it is faring. It is something I have been dealing with for going on seven years now, and it never goes away, the nagging, always-present thinking about how things are going, how things might go. I can always tell anyone how much is in our checking account without looking; I know exactly how many books we have shipped through Ingram that month without looking. Think your own personal finances and extrapolate. Except there are more dependents, as it were. This week, it’s all, for the most part, fantasy, the thinking, because it all pegged to the future: three and four months from now, when we will be reckoning with drastically reduced payments from Ingram, our distributor, for the drastically reduced sales in March and April (and May? June?).

So that’s this morning, what went through my head—”August will be impossible.” But, about that funny thing, for most of this week, I was feeling extremely optimistic. Orders to our online store doubled this month over February; we have brought in new self-publishing projects that will help pay the staff; the stimulus bill looks to offer us two different options for relief: the expanding unemployment benefits that include the self-employed, and the small business covered loan, which also includes LLCs like Belt Publishing. I google the latest articles with details on both plans three times a day, and I’ll be ready to pull one or the other trigger as soon as the programs are launched.

Other proactive, positive things we have done this past week:

—we made ebooks available on our store, something I’ve been meaning to do for, um, years, and that Dan, Martha, and Meredith accomplished with some truly impressive teamwork in a few days (go look!).

—feeling useless, pandemic-wise, I offered to send free classroom sets to high school or college students. This offer was taken up by an AP class in Michigan, who will now be studying and discussing Happy Anyway: The Flint Anthology, and a high school class in Cleveland who will do the same for Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology, and soon we will ship out a classroom set to a group of nursing students in Missouri. That made me feel somewhat less useless.

—Martha, Dan, Meredith, David, Bill, and I (aka ‘the staff’) held a Zoom happy hour yesterday. We discussed hula hooping (Martha is currently taking virtual hula hoop courses), eggs (Bill is eating one egg a day as part of some strange challenge he set for himself for 2020), and what David was making for dinner, as we chatted, for his wife and two young daughters (learn about David’s life as a stay-at-home, full-time-freelancer dad in his just released comics series, The Everyday) :“I don’t know—gonna put some olive oil in this pan, add some potatoes and cheese, hope they like it.” (They did.)

I love what I do, and what we do together as a staff, and the amazing authors who take a chance on publishing with us, and the kinda breathtaking supporters who always show up in our New Orders queue (some of these names; man, I see your names, yet again, and am so thankful.) Also, I cannot express how much I appreciate the notes so many of you have been sending me in response to these ‘pandemic, what now?’ newsletters.

I’m going to use the rest of this newsletter to do some promotion, if you don’t mind:

  • Rust Belt Femme, published March 11, is for those who adore Maggie Nelson and hardscrabble stories mixed in with 90s punk. Steve Almond calls it “a brilliant mixed tape of a memoir”

  • Midwest Futures, publishing April 7 but available now, is for those who admire Marilynne Robinson, William Cronin, and Rebecca Solnit. “Christman’s writing is readable, engaging, and funny as hell, while also maintaining intellectual rigor,” says Tressie McMillan Cottom.

  • We have a book club: for $20/month, we will send you every book we publish this year, plus swag such as t-shirts and the like. If you sign up now, we’ll backdate and send you the above titles and others already published this year.

  • We sell gift cards!

  • Want to talk about our self-publishing services, through Parafine Press? Email me at anne@beltmag.com.

    Wow, I feel so much better now. Thanks for listening. Stay healthy, stay home.

    This newsletter is free, but you can also subscribe and receive additional posts and read past ones. So You Want to Publish a Book?, based on previous newsletters, publishes in July.

Okay Then

Week Two Thoughts

I received nice notes from many of you, responding to last week’s newsletter; turns out my thoughts helped others navigating suddenly uncertain waters. Thank you so much for letting me know; it buoyed my spirits.

Here’s where we are since last Friday (bad news first; good news later—keep reading!):

  • Orders from our distributor have basically flatlined. Bookstores are closed; Amazon is deprioritizing books.

  • Returns to our distributor have jumped. See above. In fact, I think returns are outpacing orders, which means our account is probably in the red for the past week. The returns system in publishing is so insane you could literally lose money by selling books.

  • Because sales from our distributor are paid 90 days later, but returns deducted immediately, our April payment, for books sold back in December (I know! It’s so crazy!) will be lower than I planned (I won’t know until April 5, the day the check is sent, how much it is for) (I know! It’s so crazy!). Obviously I can estimate reductions for our May payment, for books ordered in January, as well, as more books are returned by now-shuttered stores.

  • Because of returns and lower-than-projected sales, I expect that the crisis that indie bookstores have been under this month will be echoed by small presses in two to three months. It’s one big chain.

  • However: orders placed directly to our online store have surged. Yay!

So for my current take: I feel optimistic Belt will be able to weather this. Here’s why:

  • People are buying from us directly, though our store. As I wrote about in earlier newsletters, direct orders have always been central to our business model. We sell 25% of the total number of books direct to consumers, but that brings in 40% of our revenue, as there are no middlemen. 40% of estimated income—plus perhaps an additional 10-20% because more people are aware of this option and other options are harder—will help us weather the downturn in the distributor payments.

  • Earlier in 2020, I decided to publish a series of books under our Parafine Press company. Parafine Press is the rubric under which we help others self-publish. For a few of these, I decided to underwrite the costs. These books fit into our overall list, and have very niche audiences, so we can reach the intended audience easily, without the help of a distributor sales team, and with fewer publicity costs. We will print a smaller number of copies, lessening our printer bill. All of the sales for these books will come directly to us, either through our online store or wholesale orders we handle in-house. So these books will bring in quicker cash, and can be turned around much, much faster than a Belt Publishing title, given the requirements of distribution and the expectation of media.

    We have five of these projects in the works for 2020; most are not listed in our catalog (or anywhere else) yet, but a few, such as Chicago Transit Hikes, are up for pre-order on our store. But most importantly: working on these books keep our staff occupied and paid, and the quick revenue from sales should throw off enough income for us to keep it that way.

  • Parafine Press also offers self-publishing services. Normally, clients pay for our the work, and that pay goes to the (part time, independent contractor) staff as additional money they earn above their Belt stipend. For the next few months, staff work will work on these projects as part of their base Belt pay. Because some of our Belt Publishing titles are now delayed, we need to keep enough work in the pipeline to justify current stipends. Plus, Parafine Press titles are not a risk, as all Belt titles are: clients pay us for our services. Those checks, unlike so much in this business, are guaranteed.

So that’s where I am today. I can project we will all be able to keep doing the same work, for the same pay, for another two to three months, even if sales continue to go down and returns continue to rise.

Come June I am less certain, of course, but at least there are actions I can take to help things more forward: I can work on attracting more Parafine Press clients (interested?); I can increase the visibility of our online store (come shop! we are having a big sale—and our shipping time remains very quick and reliable.) Having some measure of control over the business—-something the distribution system often deprives me of— makes the difference.

Of course, week three may upturn everything here written here. Just take it day by day; we are all in this together.

Be like these guys: come on in and pick out some books from our store! We are shipping quickly, and our office is safe and socially distanced.


relatively unimportant notes from a small press

Does anyone need this newsletter today? No, of course not. But I’ve been mainly at home since Sunday, self-quarantining, as I returned from a trip on March 3 with a cold and it seemed sensible (I am no longer sick): it helps to do some writing as a break from news and twitter!

Here are the Belt Publishing responses to COVID, as it were:

-On Monday morning I emailed the staff and told everyone to take the week off (paid). Seemed like an easy thing we could all do, since our schedules meant nothing urgent would be delayed (and the knowledge that many things beyond our control would be delayed anyway).

—On Tuesday I bumped publication of four titles back. One was due to publish June 2, and we moved it to June 30, with hopes we could have a party to launch it by then. I also delayed my book a month, to late July (sorry!), because I expect that soon there will be delays in parts of the book production and distribution chain that we need to build in. One book we were planning to publish before the election we decided to delay until afterwards.

—We had two authors doing events this week, and most were canceled. I hurt for the authors, but have no reservations it was, and will continue to be, the right thing.

—On Wednesday I emailed the staff and let them know to expect uncertainty a few months from now. Since a good portion of our cashflow comes 3 months after sales of our books, I have a good sense of what things will look like in April and May, but come June the numbers are impossible to predict, and it felt better for me to be upfront about that sooner rather than later. All of us are independent contractors (all also have other gigs they do in addition to Belt work, as no one except for me is full time). This week is the first I regretted this is the way we are set-up; I hope that regret will quickly pass.

—On Wednesday I also lowered all our ebook prices (something I had been meaning to do for ages, and kept forgetting.) Seemed an easy thing to do to make some titles more available to some folks.

—Yesterday I left the house (!) and went to our office, which is located in a building where there are never other people, so social distancing is easy to practice. I packed up four boxes of orders of our April titles; the final copies had arrived last week. It was very soothing work!

—Then I settled in and started thinking down the line. Will printers still be operating on the same schedule? How about trucking companies? What about paper supply? I have been through one bankruptcy of a distributor, so I’m wondering about the fiscal health of our current one. I’m trying to get my head around what may (or may not) happen over the next few months.

I am not panicked; just trying to prepare, clear-eyed and realistically. And today, none of this matters much: what does is staying home as much as possible, helping those who will feel the economic brunt first (I walked around my neighborhood yesterday, went into my favorite local establishments, and gave out tips-in-advance to all, as they will be losing my business for awhile). Books don’t spoil, or get infected: they will be there after we weather this crisis. (And they are here now, too :)

We are all in this together.

What I’ve Been Watching: I watched this interview with an epidemiologist on Sunday, and it informed my behavior this week.

Shout Out: The most unlikely of all: Ohio Governor Mike DeWine! He’s been exemplary all week.


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