Christine Kelly owns and manages an independent bookstore in Reno, Nevada. Since 2003, she has been running Baobab Press from the attic of that store. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from Christine about the book business—first as a small press poetry author and now as Baobab Press’s Poetry Editor—and wanted to share some of her wisdom with the Entropy community. Over email, we discussed how her experience as an indie bookseller and business owner has helped her understand small press publishing.
Laura Wetherington: Sundance Books and Music has been in Reno for more than 30 years. I recently heard that the original owners named the store by mashing up their two names, Sunny and Dan. Is this true, or folklore? Can you talk a little about how you started working with Sundance and how you became the owner?
Christine Kelly: Sundance Books and Music opened in December of 1985 under the name of Sundance Bookstore. It was started by Sun Ja Cha and Daniel T. Earl, a couple who combined their first names to create the store name. I was in nursing school when I discovered Sundance and it was magic how bookstore shelves could, through diverse and thoughtfully acquired titles, give larger collective form to creativity and challenge. To me it is a forgone conclusion that these books and access to them are the necessities for the wellbeing of people and communities. And that one can walk into essentially a benign space and encounter this power of the ideas of others is transcendent in its potential for individual growth.
In 1989 I was working per diem as a nurse and finishing graduate school. I offered to work for Dan 1 day a week. I thought it would be great to be around books all day and a change from what I had been doing. After a couple months I offered to come on full time as manager. I think about this now and recognize how crazy that sounds. That he accepted has proved to be the greatest professional opportunity in my life. The store was still very young and aside from the wonder of working with all kinds of books with people who love books and ideas and the network of booksellers, bookstores, book reps, and publishers, I had the opportunity to help build this small business from the ground up. I very much liked the independence, the challenges, the people, and the diversity of tasks. One minute I was creating book displays or buying future titles from publishers (learning the editorial direction of a publishing house or its imprint), next I was repairing shelves, painting walls, or computerizing the business’s bookkeeping. In 1998, I bought in to become co-owner with Dan and then became sole owner by the late 2000’s.
Laura Wetherington: Wow, I had no idea you studied to be a nurse! It makes sense that you’re able to calmly balance so much variety. It’s funny to hear you list these different tasks because that assortment matches the way I think about Sundance’s events. There are many kinds of gatherings there (I’m thinking of a baby shower, book launches, salons, office hours for the Reno Poet Laureate, and film screenings); it sometimes feels more like a community space than a bookstore — especially during poetry month. Also, you’ve got various partnerships with the local public radio station, Nevada Humanities, the Nightingale Family Foundation, and University of Nevada Reno’s MFA Program. What should small press authors know about planning a book tour or finding venues outside their own community?
Christine Kelly: Events are a part of the bookstore mission and we budget for them. Generally speaking, book-signing events do not make money for the stores. Besides the costs of the author’s book inventory, both bringing in and returning overstock, there are marketing costs, event planning and event staffing costs, and the adjustments made in the store operations for hosting an event while open for business. Anything that an author can do to help a store break even is ideal. In making the decision to take on an author, a store must evaluate whether the commitment of these resources makes sense. Here are some tips to make that evaluation easier. First, the store has to decide if they have an audience for a book or if they want to help create audience awareness. Be willing to send a copy/advanced reader copy in either digital or physical form for review. If the books are self-published, it is very helpful and for some stores necessary that the finished books have spines with title and author information on them, ISBN’s and bar codes. Secondly, authors need to be willing to travel with a supply of their books especially self-published, small press, and/or authors with little to no profile in an area. This allows the bookstore to have books available for the event without the challenges and expense of acquiring and possibly returning unsold books. Authors are compensated for the sold copies and the unsold copies are returned to the author. The willingness on the author’s part to do this makes it much easier and cost effective for the store.
Though I am grateful to all bookstores for what they provide, I believe that the independent bookstore is best suited to host authors and help promote their work. IndieBound.org is the community of independent bookstores throughout the country. Their site has a bookstore directory as well as indie-sourced bestseller lists and an Indies Next picks list that highlights upcoming titles. University English Departments are also a great source for the local reading and lecture series.
Laura Wetherington: You mentioned trying to get as close as possible to breaking even with events in the store, and you also mentioned having been in the book business since the mid 80s. I’m wondering what you’ve learned over the years that convinced you to move into publishing and how that knowledge has influenced the editorial direction of Baobab Press?
Christine Kelly: I learned that it can be done. That the business of books—which is really the business of people’s ideas materialized—is fun as well as intellectually and creatively challenging. That what I do is fundamentally the same as it has always been and most likely will continue to be. Everyone should read Diana Athill’s Stet. I am in no way comparing myself to her, but she writes so beautifully and intelligently about the business of books in times of dire economic and social straights as well as more robust times.
I have certainly experienced the profound impact of broader economic and sociopolitical climates in our country. Bookstores are directly impacted by the availability or lack of “disposable” income. When there have been significant upward changes in the price of fuel, mortgages, unemployment or sustained drops in the financial markets we have felt them immediately. And certainly, the advents in technology of the past fifteen years have dramatically impacted some of the mechanisms of retail in general and the elements of the book business in particular. But at no time, even when staying in business has been at its hardest, did I ever not see amazing books being written and published. Starting Baobab Press was really this optimism enacted. Though my optimism often cloaks my naiveté, we have managed create a small stable press that recognizes the talent and opportunities in regional and local subjects while developing an imprint for books with a broader audience. We are not the first independent bookstore to have an associated press, take for example City Lights or Prairie Lights, and this model seems to be working well for us.
Laura Wetherington: I imagine that most folks who are reading this, if they’re involved in a press, are either working with a small press that’s entirely literary or one that’s not also associated with a bookstore. How are those two factors—the bookstore and the diversity of your list—helping contribute to the press’s success?
Christine Kelly: From the bookstore I have learned how the balance of books work. On shelves there will be titles that carry more of the sales load than others. We will sell more copies of Ann Patchett books than, on average, a first time author or William Carlos Williams. But the pleasure and the quality of the store and actually the long-term economic success of the store depend on having all three in stock. It makes sense to me that a small press would think of its list in the same way.
When we consider local and regional titles we want books that fill vacancies and that is the great opportunity. Being connected to a bookstore is an asset in this respect. We know what is and isn’t out there and we know what sells. We are also looking for books and authors that we believe in and can live with long term, as these hopefully will be long relationships.
Laura Wetherington: What is the range of your list and how did you decide on it?
Christine Kelly: The range of our list is really still developing, but we are interested in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry along with regional books and authors. The acquiring editor at Consortium told me when I was starting Baobab that most presses take ten to fifteen years to achieve stability in identity and economy. I think he is right and that we are getting there.
Laura Wetherington: Do you have advice for young book lovers interested in starting their own presses or who have a literary press and are wondering how to make it financially viable?
Christine Kelly: The best advice I can give is very practical. Keep your overhead as low as you can. You must have distribution for your titles. You have to have a passion for books that is unfaltering and know that this is a way of life. Simply defining success by large quantities of sales is not the measure for the success of a book or your experience, although large quantities of sales can allow for a successful publishing mission.
Laura Wetherington: Is there wisdom you’ve gained from wholesale book buying that has helped you in marketing your titles? What marketing or distribution advice might you give to new presses?
Christine Kelly: Book distribution is a necessity for the long-term success of a press and a storefront, for that matter. There are a number of marketing and distribution collectives specifically suited to the needs of small presses. My experience with them both as a book buyer as well as a publisher is that the people who work there are passionate book people: a must. Because a distributor is a network including physical transport, warehousing, billing/shipping, marketing tools and a sales force that markets books to most retail and wholesale touch points, distribution is a necessity. If the cost of any or all of these services is within a presses budget it could certainly increase the exposure and accessibility of your books. PGW, Consortium, IPS, SPD, NBN, IPG are examples of these collectives which themselves are curated. That is to say in ways they are very much like a house’s editorial direction, they reflect through the presses they represent, their book palate and business practices. Baobab Press is distributed by PGW. Ultimately, a press’s intended size, scope and regional/national interest will define the best distribution options.
Laura Wetherington: For writers who are reading this, are you looking for new titles now, and can you say a little about what you’re looking for?
Christine Kelly: Baobab Press and our literary imprint Red Ochre are open for submissions. We are interested in fiction, creative non-fiction, poetry, children’s picture books, comic strips, and graphic novels. In general, we are looking for writing that introduces us to new and specific landscapes, peoples and frames of mind. We seek prose and poetry that pay close attention to form and homage to the lyric, challenge experience by suggesting new angles, offer a fresh view of the world, or layer a new concept or consciousness over something familiar. We love writing that is not simply reactionary, but stayed, reserved, contemplative, and then suddenly explosive. You can find us at http://baobabpress.com/.
Christine Kelly is the founder and publisher of Baobab Press as well as the owner of Sundance Books and Music.
Laura Wetherington is a poet whose first book was selected for the National Poetry Series and published by Fence Books. She teaches in Sierra Nevada College’s low-residency MFA program and co-edits textsound.org with Hannah Ensor.