Small Press Maestro: Jeffrey Lependorf and the Ecosystem of Independent Publishing

In Guest Contributors by Guest Contributor

• The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses has institutionalized best practices for distribution, fund-raising and moving into to digital. CLMP’s annual spelling bee to raise money will take place on October 26 at 7pm in NYC.

• “Independent literary publishing is that it is mission-driven, not dollar-driven.”

By Kate Travers

In 1967 a motley crew of magazine editors including George Plimpton (The Paris Review), Robie Macauley (The Kenyon Review) and Russell Banks (Lillabulero) created the CCLM: Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines. The original mission statement was to support individual magazines and publishing cooperative by organizing regional conferences and offering grant support. Today, that same organization is known by a different name: CLMP, the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses and its mission goes well beyond running conferences and finding sources of funding.

Jeffrey Lependorf

Jeffrey Lependorf, CLMP’s current Executive Director, has been with the organization for almost a decade. In 2001, when CLMP hired Lependorf, the organization was beginning to face the new realities of publishing. It was a time when the Internet had created new challenges and opportunities, while for independent publishers was at a perilous standstill. Many independent publishers it did not have non-profit status and therefore were not receiving any public funding. They were working in a vacuum, unaware of a larger community of support. Lependorf came in and reinvigorated the organization at one of the most critical moments in its history.

A trained composer and active professional musician, Lependorf started his literary career in development at non-profits. He has served as Development Director for The Poetry Society of America, at the Creative Capital Foundation, and many other organizations. He was introduced to CLMP after being hired to create a strategic plan for the organization. Later, he regularly participated in CLMP’s Mentorship Program for Literary Publishers, which offers independent literary publishers up to twelve hours professional consultation in areas such as marketing and fundraising.

Perhaps because he was an outsider, Lependorf immediately realized that a top priority would be to rid the organization of a malaise that left members feeling like second class citizens of the publishing world. There was the sense that being an independent press or literary magazine meant to always be “less than,” all the while taking responsibility for the important work of publishing authors and work critical to the momentum of producing great literature.

“The very definition of independent literary publishing is that it is mission-driven, not dollar-driven. It serves literature first and the bottom line last,” says Lependorf.

In order to stay vital, CLMP would need to transform the level of service to its members. Lependorf’s first order of business was to help CLMP members with fundraising and non-profit management and he began by reaching out beyond the non-profit and small press world. The “ecosystem of publishing,” must “include everything and everyone on the path between a writer and a reader, so it refers not just to publishers, but also to agents, distributors, PR & marketing folks, printers, reviewers, bookstores, online retailers and all the rest,” he says.

This meant reaching out to those beyond the known CLMP community and asking for technical — meaning real time and energy — help. Among the many initiatives CLMP has since introduced are a result of this outreach. These include the CLMP Virtual Roundtables — virtual panel discussions or presentations around subjects critical to publishing, and “Big House / Small House” events where large publishers meet with their independent counterparts and share knowledge on issues such as publicity or subsidiary rights.

Under Lependorf’s leadership the CLMP Web site has become an essential resource for literary magazine and small publishers. Transcripts of the aforementioned programs and other CLMP initiatives are available online, accessible to all CLMP members at home and abroad. There’s also Listen In!, an audio archive of selected CLMP sponsored programs, such as “Lit Mags in the Classroom: Literary Journals in Creative Writing Curricula” and “Life on the D-List: Digital Publishing.” There are media and funding databases, a Literary Journal Institute Toolkit (a guide for those running literary journals), as well an active community of listservs.

CLMP also continues to host an annual conference to help literary writers maneuver in the marketplace, several literary magazine and small press book fairs, as well as numerous public programs aimed at raising the profile of independent literary publishers.

While Lependorf has been focused on catering for pressing needs of CLMP members, he has also tried to assist with matters that seem secondary to the day-to-day, but are increasingly important, such as how to better sell foreign rights, how get the best production and printer rates, and how digitize text for universal E-reader formats.

In perhaps his most important contribution on behalf of small publishers, Lependorf helped form a partnership between CLPM and Small Press Distribution (SPD), the last remaining non-profit book distributor, in 2005. Today, SPD distributes the books of more than 400 small presses and maintains a physical warehouse stocked with more than 13,000 titles. (Lependorf serves as Executive Director for both organizations.)

Despite CLMP’s immense progress, the organization can always use more help. Next Tuesday, October 26th, CLMP will be holding its annual “WHAT THE SPELL?!” benefit, a celebrity spelling bee to raise awareness and money for CLMP. Last year’s event (covered here by Publishing Perspectives) proved to be quite the spelling battle of the year; this year looks to be no different, with contestants including Francine Prose, Sloane Crosley, James Frey and current champion Ben Greenman,

On November 12-13, CLMP will host a Literary Writers Conference in New York City with faculty including Harold Augenbraum, Jane Friedman, Jonathan Galassi and Ira Silverberg discussing topics such as “Assembling a Poetry Collection” and “Rejection, Revision & Resubmission”.

When Lependorf started at CLMP there were 230 members; today there are more then 500 and it continues to grow. Asked about the organization’s priorities going forward and it’s not a surprise that the big topic is E-books and digital marketing. He views this physical evolution as a way to increase access to small press books, literary magazines, debut authors, translated and sometimes neglected print works to more book lovers.

Perhaps more than anyone, Lependorf has helped create more new opportunities for small presses and literary magazines than have ever existed before.

One fan is Johnny Temple, Publisher of Akashic Books, who notes “Jeffrey Lependorf is so humble, and so consistently generous, that it’s not always evident how integral he is to the fragile world of independent publishing. What’s incredible to me, personally, is that he was such a significant figure in the early days of Akashic Books when we were publishing one or two books a year, and still he remains vital to our operation years later, when we are now publishing close to thirty books a year.”

Erika Goldman, Publisher and Editorial Director of Bellevue Literary Press, publisher of the surprise 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, Tinkers by Paul Harding, offers even higher praise.

“Jeffrey and the CLMP are true advocates of small independent presses,” she says. “[They’re] lifesavers, in fact.”

DISCUSS: Will E-books make or break independent publishers?

MORE INFO: Find out more about CLMP’s upcoming spelling bee fundraiser on October 26 in NYC

About the Author

Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.