Gowanus’s own Ugly Duckling Presse—producers of poetry collections, chapbooks, art books, the 6×6 poetry magazine, and “ephemera”—is currently signing up subscribers for its 2011 catalog. Managing Director James Copeland was kind enough to answer a few of our questions about the subscription model, and small-press publishing in general.
How long have you been doing the subscription plan?
We first started doing a Full Presse Subscription in 2003, and it’s been going on continuously. The number of subscribers has nearly tripled since then—we now have 200 subscribers a year, which is where we’ve capped it.�‚ The subscription has grown in other ways too: there are now several levels you can subscribe at.
With the various special editions and ephemera and other print material that UDP creates throughout the year, there are people who want to make sure they receive it all, so we’ve made that a new subscriber level this year, at $500. We also have levels at $250 and $1,000, with other benefits, and we have a new membership program at $50 where you get a discount when buying books a la carte off the website, plus a complimentary subscription to our poetry magazine, 6×6.
Most of our subscribers are at the $150 level. �‚ Probably some people can’t imagine going into three digits to buy books, but it boils down to being a pretty staggering deal. �‚ In fact, it couldn’t be better – we’ve priced it just at cost, so you’re paying exactly what we’re paying just to produce and ship these books – nothing more.
In my completely uninformed opinion, the subscription plan seems a great way for a small publisher to get cash on hand and to (sorry for the verb) grow a readership by guaranteeing and expanding an audience. So, why don’t more places do it?
More and more presses are doing it.�‚ Just off the top of my head, I know Wave, Octopus and Archipelago offer subscriptions now. It seems to be working well for those guys, and it’s become a pretty important part of UDP’s means of connecting with its community and distribution.�‚ But I can also think of reasons why they might choose not to—it’s a fair amount of administration and shipping, and you have to have enough titles planned and in process and ready, and a track record of full years in the past, to persuade people to purchase a big list of books that they haven’t seen yet, and maybe haven’t even been announced yet. And a subscription like this is really mission-based, as you say: it’s to increase readership and profile and distribution, but not really to make money. You get an infusion at the beginning of the year, but it’s all priced at cost for the year’s expenses, so there’s no net revenue for the organization from the subscriptions.
It seems as though the subscription model would be particularly suited to a press like UDP, which is curated by an editorial collective and whose conceptual-leaning poetry, art books and miscellany has a reasonably coherent ‘zine aesthetic.
Reasonably coherent, unreasonably coherent—as long as it works! Yes, you’re right, since UDP is a collective of different editors, writers, and designers, working on several different series, the subscription package creates a space (in people’s mailboxes) where these different projects can live side by side like they wouldn’t necessarily in a bookstore. Subscribers read more of our work, work they might not have otherwise picked up, and they get a full picture of what the collective is up to: readers of poetry are also getting artist books and vice versa; those with a penchant for Eastern European writers are also learning about writers from Uruguay, Sweden, France—and Brooklyn of course.