Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Indie Spotlight: CCLaP

I've always been fascinated by independent publishing. What's even more fascinating to me is the story of how they each came into being. Each one is conceived differently, born out of different motivation, and performs a unique service to the literary community. But the most fascinating thing of all are the stories of their successes.

As it approaches it's 4 year anniversary, I share with you the success story of CCLaP - Chicago Center for Literature and Photography.

The Starting Point

Owner Jason Pettus shares how middle-age can be a man's best friend, too: "Plans for CCLaP started way back in 2004, when I found myself entering middle-age for the first time and becoming increasingly unhappy with pursuing a career as an artist myself, but wanting to do something next with my life that would still let me use the skills and resources I had put together in my youth.

The main motivation, frankly, was to try to start an organization that would do many of the things I desperately needed a group to do for me back when I was a writer, the things that mostly influenced my quitting writing in the first place -- help independent writers edit and hone their work, help them lick the stamps and fold the envelopes and all the other drudgery that artists themselves never want to take on, just basically act not like a traditional patron but more like an equal partner with these artists, where they do the fun half of the work and CCLaP does the boring half, and we then split whatever money is made from it all."

First Things First

Knowing what you want to do is one thing. Actually being able to DO it it quite another. Jason explains: "The first thing I did when deciding to start CCLaP was to give myself a "self-taught MBA," essentially by reading several hundred books on small business, marketing, entrepreneurialism, time management, and a bunch of other subjects along those lines, by bugging a bunch of small-business bloggers, and by signing up for a mentor with a group called SCORE, an organization of retired senior corporate executives who team up with the Small Business Administration in many cities to provide advice and guidance to beginning entrepreneurs like myself.

It was in these years as well that I wrote CCLaP's first business plan, which originally called for the center to open all at once in this really big way (including a physical space in the city, a gallery, classes and workshops, live events seven nights a week, books, merchandise, and a lot of other stuff), and that needed a business loan of $50,000 to execute; but needless to say, I wasn't able to find anyone willing to loan me that kind of money, nor even $5,000 when I severely shrank the plan in 2006."

Not one to let money stop him from achieving this new vision, Jason changed his tactic: "In 2007, tired of having endlessly discussed CCLaP in theoretical terms only for the last three years, I finally decided to open with a plan that required no upfront money at all, and to just start only with things I could do literally for free (like a podcast, book reviews, electronic publishing, live events at other people's existing venues, etc), and to slowly build from that point using whatever money these no-budget projects brought in. It's safe to say that it means a lot to me personally that CCLaP is celebrating its fourth anniversary this summer."

Reminiscing and Celebrating

Looking back, Jason shares the ever-present doubt of making it last: "There's been a pretty serious question over whether the center was going to survive at all, and even with its successes I've mostly had to wade these four years through an endless series of people wanting to tell me all the ways CCLaP was bound to fail. And that's what makes it so nice professionally as well, because the center is a literal working example, something people can literally point to, when wanting to argue, "Look, here's a person who started literally only with a donated website and $30 in business cards, and he's now published six original books that have been collectively downloaded several thousand times, and has interviewed Pulitzer nominees, and has been featured on Boing Boing twice, and once so rattled a mainstream publisher that they changed the very way they do business."

"You don't have to start with a lot of money or connections to make a big splash; that's something that I and others have been arguing for years, but it's really nice now with CCLaP to have something to literally point to and say, "And this proves it in indisputable black-and-white terms!"

From Digital to Handmade Hardbacks

As publishing company that primarily deals with eBooks, Jason discusses CCLaP's recent addition of bound books: "It's been part of the plan all along; and for those who don't know, I should explain that I'm taking a cue off how a lot of musicians do things now as well, and have decided to completely skip the trade-paperback level of small publishing altogether, and to only have either the electronic version that people can download for free, or the fancy handmade hardback edition that costs a little more than normal.

It was always my contention to use these handmade paper versions to financially offset all the free ebooks we were giving away, just so that author would have as big an audience as possible, so it's gratifying to actually have that aspect of it all up and running now, and to get several more thousands of dollars directly into artists' hands each year than I was before (although to be clear, even the free ebooks tend to generate several hundred dollars apiece in revenue themselves, because of CCLaP's "pay what you want" donation system)."

The Future's So Bright....

"As far as CCLaP's near-future, it's essentially more of what you're seeing these days, which is one of the most important lessons I learned during my self-taught MBA; that it really behooves a small business to first become an expert at everything they're currently offering their customers, before deciding to add something new.

The center's now doing something like seven or eight things on a regular basis, some of which (like the book reviews and podcast) I can do almost in my sleep by now, and some (like the paper books) I'd like to get more experience at before moving on to something else. So, another four original books will be coming from CCLaP in 2012, another two dozen podcast episodes, another 150 book reviews at the blog, and another handful of live events and other get-togethers here in Chicago, although I think it's likely that you'll see a significant increase in retail exposure for CCLaP's stuff in the next year, both in traditional bookstores and in quirky independent giftstore-type boutiques around the country, which frankly I'm more interested in than the bookstores themselves.

In general, I expect most of the growth at CCLaP in 2012 to be behind the scenes (more money, stronger local relationships, etc), so that we'll be ready to launch something brand-new and truly impressive in 2013."

It's a Release-Slash-Anniversary Party

...and everyone's invited! CCLaP is celebrating it's 4th anniversary in style with a quadruple release party on August 10th. The gathering will be held at the popular Beauty Bar in the Bucktown neighborhood in Chicago for drinks, free food, and a half-hour reading from all four featured authors - Mark R Brand, Jason Fisk, Sally Weigel, and TNBBC favorite Ben Tanzer.

The free event will take place from 7 to 9 p.m., the reading itself from 8:00 to 8:30.

All four authors' books will be for sale individually for $20 apiece; or for one night only, attendees can purchase all four in a bundle for only $50.

If you go, be sure to take pictures so I live vicariously through them! And give Ben a hug for me.....

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