Independent publisher survives against odds

By Alex Stedman

In an industry rife with change, some publishers have struggled to maintain profits in the digital age. Random House and Penguin, two of the world’s biggest publishers, announced Oct. 29 that they are merging to stay afloat. But small presses are less vulnerable to these pressures because they cater to artists, not stockholders.

Jotham Burrello, an adjunct faculty member in the Fiction Writing Department, founded Elephant Rocks Books, a branch of the multimedia production company Elephant Rocks Productions, in fall 2010 after author Patricia Ann McNair, interim chair and an associate professor in the Fiction Writing Department, came to him with a collection of stories she wanted him to publish about a fictional small town. She had struggled with traditional publishing companies and decided the hands-on approach of an independent publisher would better suit her book. Burrello published her book, “The Temple of Air,” which was a finalist for the Society of Midland Authors Award for adult fiction.

“We’re just like Random House, without the Pulitzer Prize winners,” Burrello said. “We do the same kind of stuff—we promote and publish good literature.”

On Nov. 12, Burrello released “Briefly Knocked Unconscious by a Low-Flying Duck: Stories from 2nd Story,” an anthology of short stories and personal essays written by Chicago’s 2nd Story, a performance-based storytelling group.

Megan Stielstra, an adjunct faculty member in the Fiction Writing Department and literary director of 2nd Story, said the organization had an archive of more than 200 essays and wanted to find a way to distribute them to the public.

Stielstra said Burrello played a large role in compiling the anthology. After much editing and rewriting, the book now has 23 essays, ranging from the humorous, like the story for which the book is titled, to the emotional, such as Stielstra’s experience dealing with a suicidal student.

“Some of our storytellers had never had any training, and they had these really amazing stories,” she said. “Part of the mission of our organization is to help support them in sharing [their stories].”

Burrello said one of the advantages of being a smaller publishing company is being able to work closely with authors. Because he’s seen the storytellers perform, he knew what needed to be fixed on the page, such as endings he felt were rushed.

Stielstra said 2nd Story decided to use Elephant Rocks Books as its publisher because the group knew and trusted Burrello, and their personal relationship played a large role in the publishing process.

“[Burrello] really believed that our stories could live on the page with the same strength that they live in performance,” she said. “You always need someone like that in your corner, someone that really believes in what you’re doing.”

Despite the advantage of close relationships, Cynthia Sherry, publisher at Chicago Review Press, a local independent publisher founded in 1973, said smaller publishers face challenges, such as keeping pace with technology and raising capital.

“Generally speaking, independent publishers can’t afford to buy expensive ads in magazines and newspapers,” Sherry said. “They rely on good book reviews.”

Burrello said Elephant Rocks Books has run into financial problems and therefore is unable to give advances to writers. He can’t afford to hire anyone other than part-time staff and interns, so he does much of the work himself. The company also can’t afford to put out as many books as Burrello would like.

“Right now, we’re doing maybe [one] book a season,” he said. “We just don’t have the investment capital to put out a number of books.”

Even so, Stielstra said another reason 2nd Story went with Burrello was because of his success as an independent publisher. Burrello said he’s able to take more chances than larger publishers, which sometimes pays off. He said he has already asked his distributor for 500 more copies of the book.

Sherry said many of her company’s biggest successes have come from “quirky and odd” books that large publishers wouldn’t give a second thought to, such as “Outwitting Squirrels,” a list of 101 ways to keep squirrels out of bird feeders, which has sold more than 1 million copies.

Burrello said he feels personal satisfaction in publishing independently, and the Nov. 12 release party for “Briefly Knocked Unconscious” was a highlight for him.

“When you’re editing, you’re editing,” he said. “When you’re selling, you’re selling. To pause and celebrate is kind of the best part of the whole deal.”