A Look at What’s Happening With Independent Publishing

I was among the thousands recently attending 2012 Book Expo America in NYC. The night before BEA officially opened, about 20 blocks north, there was a smaller, though much heralded event: the Independent Publishers Awards ceremony (IPPY). As the proud recipient of this year’s first place IPPY for adult multicultural nonfiction, I attended the ceremony.
The next morning at BEA, I was welcomed at the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) booth, where I signed and gave away copies of “Sugar Hill” to bloggers, high school and college librarians, a few HS English teachers, and several attendees who just wanted a copy of my book. Later, I attended two workshops, then walked the aisles people watching and gathering information, such as how aggregators place ebooks onto Kindles, Nooks, iPads, etc.

Because I write at some length about the simpatico between blacks and Jews during the Civil Rights era of the 1950s-’60s, I stopped at the “Jewish Review of Books.”
“Just how Jewish does the subject matter have to be for your publication?” I asked a cute guy in a yarmulke named Phil Getz. First he stared, then he smiled, finally he laughed and I had a great conversation with him and his colleague, Lori Dorr.
At the “Publishers Weekly” booth, I had a frank talk with a magazine staff member who didn’t think much of my book having been on the cover of “Publishers Weekly” because it was included in a display of books published by indie presses. I appreciated her honesty, and I didn’t bother asking how she’d feel if my book had been among new releases from Random House or Penguin.
The woman also wasn’t too impressed with IPPYs; she thought they gave too many awards. She had no quarrel with the quality of IPPY books; for her it was a numbers thing. In fact, many IPPY books have superior covers, content, design, originality and so on, compared to those from mainstream presses. Winning an IPPY is loosely parallel to winning an Oscar, but only because the film industry recognizes many areas of excellence in the film industry. IPPYs do that for books, but they go further and give approximately 200 awards. If you prefer exclusivity in book awards, this year the Pulitzer committee totally ingnored fiction, even though several highly acclaimed novels came out in 2012.
The point I’m trying to make in this essay is perhaps best stated in an IPPY press release:
“Independent publishers are growing in number, and the quality of their work is increasing,” says awards director Jim Barnes. “One element driving the high rate of excellence is participation from university presses. This year, 29 medalists came from university presses and 9 came from museums. Their elevated level of writing, editing, design and production raises the bar and inspires us all.”
University presses are known for tackling controversial topics and complex social issues. For example, Arab Detroit 9/11 (Wayne State University Press) explores how the lives of Arab Americans have changed in the “terror decade,” Sovereign Erotics (The University of Arizona Press) is an anthology of voices from the Native American GLBT community, and In This Timeless Time (University of North Carolina Press) tells the stories of Texas prison inmates on Death Row.”
The IPPYs are not about stardom but I was excited to be there among some noteworthy institutions and people, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art that published “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” by Andrew Bolton, which won for most outstanding design. Senator Alan Simpson, Republican from Wyoming was there in the flesh.
I’m not sure who first said, “So many books, so little time,” but there are also so many excellent books that get so little recognition. IPPY is one forum trying to address that problem.
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