Transcript: Profit and Publishing

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Interview with Kate Gale, Red Hen Press

For podcast release Monday, July 16, 2012

KENNEALLY: Profit and publishing – two words that have an increasingly antagonistic relationship. But Red Hen Press, based in Pasadena, California, has made a virtue of being a not-for-profit. Founded in 1994 to publish and promote literary works often overlooked by the mainstream, Red Hen Press has built its catalog and balanced its checking account by becoming a virtual hub of the Los Angeles area literary community.

Welcome, everyone, to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series, Beyond the Book. With 250 titles published to date, Red Hen Press can claim a Guggenheim Fellow and a Whiting Award winner among its authors, as well as relationships with urban school districts and numerous reading series held across southern California and in New York City. Joining me, Christopher Kenneally with her tale of why small matters is Red Hen Press co-founder, Kate Gale. Kate, welcome to Beyond the Book.

GALE: Thank you so much, Chris.

KENNEALLY: Well, it’s good to have you join us today. We’ll tell everybody that you’re the author of five books of poetry and six librettos. In addition to your work at Red Hen Press, you are managing editor of the Los Angeles Review, and president of the American Composers Forum, which reminds me of a line my mother used to say. She said, if you want to get something done, go find a busy person. And clearly, Kate, you’ve been pretty busy over these last few years.

We brought on the show to talk about Red Hen Press, but also to take a look at this model that you’ve put together, the non-profit literary press, and examine it in the light of what’s going on in publishing today.

So tell us. You’re now 17, 18 years in. What’s it take to survive?

GALE: Well, I would say that when we began Red Hen Press in ’94, the publishing companies that I most wanted to, let’s say, be when I grew up, were Copper Canyon, Gray Wolf and New Directions. And –

KENNEALLY: That’s a pretty ambitious list, obviously.

GALE: That was ambitious. Interestingly, if you look at the, say, 15 biggest indie presses in the country at this point, almost all of them were founded in the ’70s, with the exception of Sarabande and Red Hen. Sarabande started the same year we did, and they’re in Louisville, Kentucky.

And so the big challenge for us became that – first of all, there’s presses that started in the (break in audio) – you know, had access to the big NEA grants of the early ’80s that really helped them. They’re multi-year grants, they’re advancement grants that really helped them. And those grants are not available anymore. So the kind of funding that was available for Gray Wolf and Copper Canyon and those presses is just not around. So we had that to contend with.

And then, you know, if you look at what Sarabande has been able to do, they are, first of all, in a very inexpensive city to live in, L.A. and New York being two of the most expensive cities. And so, we have to have a great deal more funding, just for payroll.

So we had these challenges. And then the other problem with being in a sprawl city like Los Angeles, which really has no literary soul, at the heart of it – maybe it has a movie soul – was that – you know, it seems as though almost nothing that you do will make much of a dent in those 10 million people sprawled out like that.

And so, we actually worked at a different model than what some of these other presses had done. We decided to sort of invent our own method of guerrilla publishing. And that involved community building.

And so, hence, we’ve got the four reading series in L.A. and four in New York. We have our Writing the Schools programs, which is an extensive part of what we do. Christa Bonney (sp?) has taught in that, Doug Kearney. And we also have the Los Angeles Review that we publish twice a year. We have $5,000 we give out in awards a year.

So we built a number of other programs into the publishing model, beyond simply the publishing of 20 books a year, which would help us to build community, to have more people know about what we do, and to have a sense of some partnerships. And –

KENNEALLY: Well, Kate, if I can ask you about all of that, because it seems like a pretty neat way of going about it. And the notion of community is one that’s very much in the ether today around social media. But you were thinking about community long before anyone had heard of Twitter or Face-book back in the early ’90s. And yet, what that model provided you was, I would assume, an audience for the books, as well as a source of contributors.

GALE: Absolutely. Because when, you know, the community sees that you’re doing something for them, then you’ve increased the chances that the community will give back to you. And so that becomes a reciprocal situation.

So, Red Hen would not be in Pasadena here in 3,200 square feet if it weren’t for the fact that the Pasadena has been particularly (break in audio) of us. But actually what happened in terms of that community building is that we became quite well known nationwide. Again, we have four reading series in New York. And so, some of – most of our biggest contributions at this time in Red Hen are from outside Los Angeles itself.

KENNEALLY: So – I mean, again, and I think that’s interesting. You established, if you will, a satellite presence in Manhattan, then, to get you on the map there. You didn’t need an office, but you needed some kind of a presence, and so you’ve partnered with various organizations to conduct these reading series. And looking at it here, it’s the Bowery Poetry Club, Poets House, Cornelia Street Cafe, and KGB Bar. So all of those placed allowed you to have a place in Manhattan, and a stake in the community there.

GALE: Absolutely. So, you know, you do want the New York publishing world to know who you are, and know that something is going on, on the other side of the Hudson River. And so, we – the way to do that, as far as I was concerned, was to have an actual presence there.

KENNEALLY: Well, tell us about the non-profit challenge, and the challenge for a non-profit. Of course, being a non-profit doesn’t mean you don’t make money. You have to make enough money. You’re just not doing it for profit alone. Fundraising must be a part of that, grant writing, and so forth. That, itself, is its own challenge. Tell us.

GALE: Well, you know, let me say, if you were going to divide non-profits into just two models – there would be a lot of different ways you could divide them, but let’s say you were going to divide them in two. One would be the kind of non-profit that Oxfam is. I’m assuming we’re all familiar with Oxfam. But they take in revenue and then give out that revenue for a particular purpose, obviously, working on world hunger.

And so, if Oxfam is selling anything, a t-shirt or something like that, it’s essentially a memory item. You’re hoping somebody wears that t-shirt, or that hat, or uses that mug, and other people think well of Oxfam.

What we are is the kind of non-profit that has a significant earned revenue stream. So, the other kind of non-profit would be a publishing company, a theater, an orchestra, an opera. And so, there is that earned revenue stream that you’re working on very hard.

In the case of Red Hen, you know, about 50% of our revenue is earned in some way, either through award fees or book sales. And then we have donations, and then we have foundations. And in many ways, in terms of the foundation grants, a lot of that is, really, what I consider contract work, because the foundations are mostly funding our Writing in the Schools project. So that does help the entire organization.

It certainly enables us – there are people like Brendan Constantine and Eric Morag, who are writers in Los Angeles, are deriving some of their revenue from doing that Writing in the Schools project. And it’s – our mission is involved with (break in audio) literature and literacy, and so, it’s working toward that mission.

So in terms of fundraising, what we have is a very active program for writing grants, and for soliciting donations from donors. And then of course, we have a very, very active program for marketing and publicizing our books, because that earned revenue stream is just as important, as far as we’re concerned, as bringing in donations.

KENNEALLY: Well, we’re talking right now with Kate Gale, who is the co-founder of Red Hen Press in Pasadena, California, and managing editor of the Los Angeles Review, about this non-profit model in the publishing marketplace. And I want to ask you about that balance, or that share of the business that is the revenue side, and then the grant-making and the fundraising side. You said it’s about 50/50 right now. Has it always been that way, and can you tell somebody who might be thinking about doing this what the mix seems right to you?

GALE: Well, no. In the beginning, the book sales were much lower. So really, what makes the revenue from book sales go up, I would say, would be three things. One, adequate marketing and publicity of the books you have (break in audio) do, until we are a way into this. And that goes along with the idea of trying (break in audio) not publish authors who aren’t willing to do anything to promote their book. No matter how good their book is, it’s just like bringing a child into the world that nobody’s going to want to raise. There’s no point. So, we’ve tried to be pickier with our authors that we’re going to take on, to make sure that they’re willing to promote the book, and obviously, do a better job with marketing and publicity.

And then we work at being more involved with getting the books out to bookstores. Now that we’re a distributor at the University of Chicago, that’s become quite a bit easier.

So – tell me your question one more time, though. Is there something else –

KENNEALLY: Well, I was asking about the balance. And so, what you’re seeing is – I mean, you’ve – you started from a kind of 90/10 balance between 90% revenue –

GALE: Right.

KENNEALLY: Sorry, 90% grants and non-revenue, and then the 10% is sort of direct sales. And now you’ve moved to a 50/50. Is that about your desired sweet spot?

GALE: Well, yes. And the other thing I forgot to say was, there’s the backlist issue. You know, we published a book by Ron Carlson this year, and that’s certainly a great front list book, in terms of pushing sales forward. But when you have a solid backlist, that helps, because those books – like David Mason’s book Ludlow, continues to sell, you know, sometimes as many – we got an order (inaudible) AWP for 2,000 copies of that, and that’s a book that’s been out for years.

So, it helps to have a significant backlist. It helps to have some big front list, and then it helps to know what you’re doing with marketing and publicity. So when you first start, you have no backlist, you don’t – you know, often, you don’t know what you’re doing in terms of marketing and publicity, which sort of leads of me to a small segue that when the press was started, I had met this guy, Mark Cull, in a writing group, and I had already gotten a little press started, and wanted someone to work with me who could do book designs. And I felt sure that I would be a really good editor. It’s good to be over-confident. (laughter)

And I also felt sure, in my late – you know, in mid-20s, when I moved to Los Angeles, that I could change Los Angeles to being a literary city. In fact, I felt like I was just the woman to do it.

Everything I owned fit in a tiny car, and I was a graduate student. So clearly, over-confident. But my friend Mark wanted to work on designing books, and I figured, that was really all we needed.

And if I were giving someone advice now, who were thinking of starting a press, I would say that other third person that’s interested in sales, marketing, maybe finance, maybe keeping the books, that person with a little math, accounting background, that person would be nice to have too. Recently –

KENNEALLY: So you need more than two English majors to get this going?

GALE: Exactly. Exactly. Recently, someone said to me, what does Red Hen’s business plan look like? And I just kind of blinked a few times, because I didn’t know what he was talking about.

KENNEALLY: Right. Well, how does this look, moving in towards the future? I mean, the book publishing business, as I mentioned at the beginning, is definitely facing a dynamic period. Who knows what the future is going to look like? But moving forward with the digital revolution underway, and with so much changing in the bookstore side of things, how does it look for you five years from now? Do you think you need to grow a certain amount to really survive? What are the kinds of things you’re doing to prepare for the future?

GALE: Well, in our case, we are not prepared – we have a strategic plan that we’re in the middle of, that I think we’ve got another four years of. And in our current strategic plan, we are not planning to publish more books. Although, let me say that we turn down hundreds of very good titles every year, titles that I really wish we could have published, but we don’t have a plan involving publishing more titles, because I don’t –

KENNEALLY: You mean, more than the ones you already do? So you publish about 20 a year, as I recall?

GALE: Right, exactly, 20 a year. We have no plans to increase that. And that’s because I don’t see fundraising getting any easier.

What we do have plans for is doing more and more e-books, and all of our books now are going – all of our prose titles, I should say, are available as e-books, and I see us as having an increasing market for e-books and selling more of those. I also think that we will do more anthologies, because anthologies seem to be still very interesting to people. And I see us using the Internet, viral marketing, social media to do more and more of our publicity.

So I think publicity will change, there will be more e-books, but I don’t – and I don’t see, necessarily, that there’s going to be more funding for literature that would enable us to publish more books.

KENNEALLY: Well, so being conservative at the moment sounds like a reasonable plan. You want to survive into that future, rather than sort of burn yourself out.

GALE: Yes.

KENNEALLY: Yeah. Well, obviously, you can’t plan for the big smash hit, but I was thinking about small presses, and certainly, the one that’s made the biggest bang in recent times is Aquatic with their book, which we can’t say the title of on the air, the children’s book called Go the F*** to Sleep, and I wonder whether you sort of ever dream about getting a big hit like that, that would really sort of be the – you know, the goose that laid the golden egg.

GALE: Absolutely. I would love to have the, what we call in the fundraising business, the Girl Scout cookie problem, which is essentially, you’re a non-profit with a product that’s so salable and so popular that you can barely keep up with the grant side, because your earned revenue is so high. I would love to have that problem. I would love to have a bread and butter book that we published that brought in enough revenue that we – first of all, we’re sustainable when it comes to our print budget.

I mean, the two biggest budget items for a publishing company like ours in Los Angeles are payroll and print. And I’d love to not be worrying about those on a quarterly basis. I’d love to have some cushion there, and be working toward both permanent space here in Pasadena, and working toward an endowment. Both of those, I feel, would make us function much more comfortably, and (break in audio) model, that you’re not worrying about the day to day, in terms of fundraising, quite as much, but you can start looking at the bigger picture.

KENNEALLY: Right. Well, something to dream about and to shoot for. And finally, I mean, with all of the work that you do, you are a writer, after all, yourself. As we mentioned, you’ve written a number of books of poetries, and librettos for six operas. Do you still find time to sit at the desk and do your own work?

GALE: Yes, I do, but I find that it’s much harder to do that when I’m at home. Let’s just – and the press was actually – functioned out of our actual house, for the first few years, and then there was a four year period when there was a building attached to our house that the press was in. And so, it was basically on the home grounds for – until January of 2009. And so, you know, my kids grew up having to help out with the press and so on.

And when it moved out, I thought it would be much easier to write at home, but unfortunately, my laptop, which I have at home, has all the press files on it, and I have the press in my head all the time. And so really, the time that I end up writing successfully is when I actually get away, which isn’t as often as I would like.

KENNEALLY: Right, well, we all face that problem these days with the gadgets that follow us around every hour of the day. So, we hope sometime you get a chance to turn it off and get some writing done.

Kate Gale, co-founder of Red Hen Press joined us today on the line from Pasadena, California – her office is there. And thank you so much for being on the program today.

GALE: Chris, thank you so much for having me. This has been a pleasure.

KENNEALLY: Enjoyed chatting with you. Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the world’s most sought-after materials, including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines and blogs, as well as now images, movies and television shows. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, like Beyond the Book on Face-book, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at our website, Our engineer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.