Several tall piles of tied-up books, sitting idly in an industrial room.
Image credit: Artem Maltsev on Unsplash

In “an attempt to explore the sorrow and anxiety of living and parenting in a world on fire,” Jared Beloff started writing a book. Amid the raging pandemic in 2020, the writer couldn’t ignore the severe weather events happening around the world in close succession: intense wildfires in California, surging floods in Pakistan and China.

“I kept a journal for a while just chronicling these things, to bear witness,” Beloff told NPQ in an interview. “Eventually that desire to witness became the centerpiece of my poems, which I wrote over the next two years.”

Those poems became Beloff’s first book Who Will Cradle Your Head, a book which is now in jeopardy following the announcement on March 27 that Small Press Distribution (SPD), a California-based literary arts nonprofit, is immediately closing.

SPD, the distributor for Beloff’s publisher, ELJ Editions, was the only nonprofit literary distributor in the county, responsible for storing and distributing books for hundreds of independent and small publishers. SPD had been one of the last independent distributors in the United States, and its abrupt closure leaves potentially thousands of books in limbo. As Literary Hub wrote, “The small press world is about to fall apart.”

“Right now, publishers are scrambling to find alternatives, and many are questioning the viability of staying open.”

That world includes books from academic publishers and books concerning climate and the environment, from poetry collections like Beloff’s to educational textbooks to nature anthologies to cli-fi. SPD’s sudden closure also comes at a time when writers, especially marginalized voices, those who write diverse stories, and science writers sounding the alarm about climate change are increasingly under threat.

Endangering Books and Publishers

SPD was founded in 1969 in Berkeley, CA, by two independent booksellers: Peter Howard and Jack Shoemaker. Literary Hub categorized book distributors as “perhaps the most opaque and byzantine part of the publishing industry. When you buy a book on Amazon or, it’s usually the distributor—not the publisher—who ships you a copy from its warehouse.” That’s because book distributors work with publishers, helping to get copies into bookstores and gift shops, as well as into libraries and schools. That’s especially important for small, nonprofit, and independent book publishers who don’t have the budgets or staff of larger publishing houses.

Serving as the distributor for small publishers, SPD helped books reach readers who might otherwise never have gained access to them and, in turn, supported writers in finding a larger audience. As SPD wrote on their website, their work allowed “thousands of writers to bring diverse, experimental, and disruptive literature to audiences across the globe.” Those writers included the winners of multiple Pulitzer Prizes, National Book Awards, MacArthur “Genius” Grants, PEN Awards, and the Lambda Literary Award.

At its height, the nonprofit served more than 500 publishers—and at present it has more than 300,000 books waiting in its inventory. That inventory “is in safe hands,” according to SPD, which said in a statement it transferred the books to either Publishers Storage and Shipping (PSSC) or Ingram Content Group. In contrast to the nonprofit SPD, Ingram is the largest book distributor and wholesaler in the United States. As Literary Hub reported, “Publishers would have to contact Ingram or PSSC themselves to get their books back.”

That’s a concern of writer Gabriel Palacios, who told NPQ in an interview, “I’m sure there are unaccounted for books in warehouses, too.” Palacios’ debut book of poems, A Ten Peso Burial For Which Truth I Sign—which the writer described as “a meditation on place (the West)” and colonial violence—was published by the nonprofit Fonograf Editions in March 2024. Its distribution may be affected in the wake of SPD closing down.

“Because this world is so small, many in the writing community already knew, since the labor issues came to light, that things were not all good.”

For smaller and nonprofit publishers, “SPD made distribution on a large scale possible,” according to Beloff. “Right now, publishers are scrambling to find alternatives, and many are questioning the viability of staying open.…Without distribution, this puts the entire operation back on the presses, which are often run by a small staff of volunteers.”

One of the impacted publishers is the independent nonprofit Rose Metal Press, whose books include The After Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet by Nicole Walker and David Carlin. Two of Walker’s other books, Quench Your Thirst With Salt and This Noisy Egg, are both concerned with environmental themes, and both came out on presses that used SPD: Zone 3 Press and Barrow Street, respectively. Another publisher, Black Lawrence Press, has launched a GoFundMe campaign to try and recoup some of the $17,000 it says it is owed from SPD, as reported by Literary Hub. 

“Many small presses say SPD owes them money,” according to Literary Hub. It remains to be seen if those publishers will get any of that money back as SPD’s dissolution is overseen by the Superior Court of California. In 2023, SPD conducted its own fundraiser, which exceeded its goal of $100,000. Another GoFundMe was launched by the nonprofit just this year. As the Washington Post reported, “Three days before the shutdown, [the] new fundraiser for SPD was still accepting donations.”

“We’re seeing how imaginary the strength and weight of such institutions as SPD seems to be. So, we have to support each other.”

Ways to Offer Support

For years, SPD had been plagued by rumors of money issues—and allegations of workplace harassment and wage theft. Its CEO resigned in 2021, and a new CEO, Kent Watson, was appointed the following year. Because this world is so small, many in the writing community already knew, since the labor issues came to light, that things were not all good,” Palacios told NPQ.

“There had been a few signs over the past six months that suggested they weren’t running at full capacity,” Beloff said, describing “orders not being fulfilled, a refusal to respond to queries in a timely manner.” But publishers and their writers only learned of SPD’s closure via an email from Watson, one that quickly spread on social media.

In the wake of the closure, many presses have been suddenly shut out of their main source of income. “I don’t know where else these presses can go,” Meg Reid, the executive director of the Hub City Writers Project, told Literary Hub, citing the minimum sale orders that larger distributors require in order to do business, “minimums that might not be financially viable” for smaller, independent, and nonprofit publishers.

Writers like Beloff and Palacios recommend ordering directly from the publishers, if possible. Some presses, like Fonograf Editions, have subscription models where readers can offer continuing support. “We’re seeing how imaginary the strength and weight of such institutions as SPD seems to be. So, we have to support each other,” Palacios said. Beloff also recommended donating to presses: “Write reviews of books or at least amplify books and presses you enjoy.”

But both writers worry about what it means that there is no longer a nonprofit literary distributor of books in the United States, a country increasingly hostile to literature, history, and science. Beloff has started working on a new collection of climate change poems, thinking about “the efficacy of writing poetry against a burning world,” and Palacios has a new manuscript too, considering “imagined futures.”

Palacios expressed hope that SPD’s shutdown could raise awareness of and support for independent, small, and nonprofit presses, similar to the support he felt from his own publisher. “Everybody’s going to keep rolling,” he said, “and…in some way, this moment is going to lead to the next better thing.”