By Anna Pulley
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By Rachel Swan
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Anne Niven recognized the pattern. She'd been in the magazine business too long not to see it. The unanswered phone calls and e-mails. The frequent staff turnover. The promised checks that didn't arrive.
Throughout last fall, Niven fielded story after story from the tiny office in which she and her husband publish pagan magazines like SageWoman and newWitch.
It seemed to Niven that another newsstand distributor was about to go under, probably taking several magazines down with it. But this wasn't just any struggling distributor: Indy Press Newsstand Services was a unit of the Independent Press Association, a San Francisco nonprofit whose members include hundreds of indie publications nationwide, from the 240,000-circulation political magazine Mother Jones, housed in an enormous Financial District office, to the tiny car-culture magazine Garage, which publisher Dan Stoner until recently ran out of his Sunnyside kitchen. The IPA was supposed to be the champion of independent magazines large and small, and its IPNS division was designed to shield clients from just this sort of financial crisis. The distributor was simply supposed to get magazines into stores and pay publishers a portion of the revenues.
For years, Niven, who works in Point Arena on the Mendocino Coast, had coached publishers of start-up magazines through similar rough periods, and she hoped the IPA would come clean with its member-clients, unlike the for-profit distributors that had gone belly-up in the past. Yet IPA executives became even more guarded with information as the months wore on, compelling magazine owners to sign nondisclosure agreements, making secret payments to quiet down one frustrated publisher, and asking two board members who raised tough questions to resign. Not until January did IPA executives come clean about the extent of the damage: IPNS owed dozens of publishers a total of more than $500,000, a huge sum in an industry where even $10,000 in unpaid debt can put a small publication out of business. The long list of creditors includes Mother Jones and Garage, along with prominent Bay Area indie publications such as the SOMA lesbian magazine Curve, the Sunset vegetarian lifestyle magazine VegNews, and the Oakland feminist magazine Bitch.
IPA executives, directors, staffers, and members disagree about just how Indy Press Newsstand Services went from a noble idea in 2000 to a financial disaster five years later. Yet the crisis drove several independent publications close to bankruptcy, and the way IPA management handled the situation has shaken members' faith in the institution they once saw as their greatest advocate. Even now, as IPNS is offering a new contract that promises to pay off all debts, its clients aren't sure whether they trust the organization enough to sign on the dotted line.
"Here you have an organization made up of independent publishers, which turns into an organization that doesn't want to hear from members and tries to shut down dissent," Niven says. "The irony here, you could cut with a chainsaw."
Oddly enough, it was a distributor meltdown that transformed the IPA from a minor advocacy group into a powerful independent media organization.
The company grew out of a lunch meeting at the 1996 Media and Democracy Congress in San Francisco, at which left-leaning magazines decried a crisis in resources for progressive publications and formed the IPA to support each other. John Anner, then editor of Oakland's Third Force (now called ColorLines), and Beth Schulman, then associate publisher of Chicago's In These Times, became its first co-executive directors.
When the national distributor Fine Prints went bankrupt in 1997, the IPA hired a lawyer to consolidate tens of thousands of dollars in small publications' claims. Though the group failed to collect any money in a year-long court battle, it had gained dozens of members.
From the beginning, the IPA was a community-oriented advocate for small publishers, from its peer-to-peer e-mail list to its technical manuals that taught publications how to work with the post office. The charismatic Anner, executive director for seven years, was revered by the staff, and raised millions from foundations during the economic boom of the late 1990s.
Shortly after Schulman left in 1999, Ellen Sugarman, founder of BigTop Newsstand Services in San Francisco, confided to Anner that she was about to sell her company. BigTop distributed several IPA publications, and Sugarman and her staff had helped Anner understand the vagaries of distribution, a process so complex that many working in the industry don't even understand its particulars.
Here's how it works: Few publications go directly from the printer to the newsstand. Instead, everything goes through at least one distributor, a logistical way station between thousands of publishers and thousands of stores. Some distributors deal with large chains like Borders; others focus on independent bookstores. There are also national distributors (like BigTop) that negotiate with smaller distributors on behalf of individual publications.
In magazine distribution, money flows backward from the person who buys the magazine to the store to the distributor to the publisher in his garage. First, the publisher and distributor agree on how much the distributor will pay for each issue, and the distributor negotiates a price with stores. The publisher sends copies of the magazine to the distributor (along with a bill), and the distributor ships them to newsstands. Barely half will be bought; those that aren't are tossed out. Months later, the distributor tells the publisher how many copies didn't sell, chipping away at the publisher's bill. At each stage, someone takes a cut. The way the system is set up, magazines don't expect to see money from newsstand sales until long after an issue comes out.