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Given the challenges, Anner thought that if the IPA became a national distributor, it could solve two of the biggest problems its members faced getting titles into stores and collecting money from sales. He convinced the David and Lucile Packard Foundation to fund the acquisition of BigTop's assets (later renamed Indy Press Newsstand Services).
By the time Anner left the company in 2003, BigTop titles were generating more than $4 million in gross revenue, although only a small percentage went to the IPA, because publishers, distributors, and stores all took a cut. Staff member Jeremy Smith took over as interim executive director for several months, until the IPA hired Richard Landry, whose for-profit management experience at PC Worldmagazine and HyperMedia Communications seemed like an asset to the board. Two years later, Landry discovered that the IPA was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to its own members.
What happened in between is the subject of a debate that may never be resolved, but the results soon became apparent.
Some nights on the way to bed, Dan Stoner would step over boxes of magazines, worried that his quarterly publication, Garage, was about to fold. The checks from Indy Press Newsstand Services had stopped arriving months before. By his own calculation, Stoner was owed only a few thousand dollars, but that meant the difference between putting out another issue and having to shut down.
Stoner says IPNS had promised that a check would arrive in a week, then two weeks, then a month, but none showed up. "You're doing this from your kitchen table," Stoner remembers. "If that check doesn't come in, maybe [you don't] eat that week."
He called the IPA, begging for the money owed to Garage. "I'm dying here," Stoner told one IPNS staffer. "If you can't pay me this money, I'm deader than anything."
As Stoner recalls, the staffer said, "We understand," then asked Stoner when he would be shipping the next issue of Garage.
"Are you listening to me?" he responded. "I can't do anything! I held up my end of the agreement, but you're not paying me."
At the height of his frustration, Stoner posted a message about his problems to the IPA e-mail list, on which members talk shop about indie publishing. To his surprise, publisher after publisher each thinking he'd been the only one in trouble replied with similar stories. Many were owed thousands of dollars, more than a year overdue. They had trouble reading the account statements IPNS was sending them (if it was sending them at all). When they phoned to complain, account executives referred their questions to other staffers or managers, who often didn't return the calls.
"Our accounting systems were largely manual, and that meant that responding to specific requests or complaints took a lot longer than anyone would like," Landry explains. "We couldn't keep up with the volume of requests, and we were as unhappy about this as were our publishers."
The uncertainty over when and if the IPA would pay up changed the way publishers, already living on shoestring budgets, ran their businesses. Some had to publish less frequently or decrease print runs to cut costs. "We depend on newsstand revenue for things like payroll," says Frances Stevens, founder and publisher of Curve. "It's been hard not to cut staff."
Magazines struggled to pay off their own creditors, too. Bitchused a credit card to cover a $5,000 bill from the printer just to keep the presses running.
Many of the publications that came closest to going under were the small, niche magazines the IPA was founded to help. "A magazine like Punk Planethas a small circulation, but within our community we're a vital voice," says Dan Sinker, editor and publisher of the Chicago bimonthly. "That's true for every publication distributed by the IPA. In every community they represent, that publication is thepublication. All of these voices have been threatened."
Punk Planetremained in print only after Sinker appealed directly to his readers, asking them to send in donations to keep it alive, and the Chicago Reader reported on Sinker's troubles.
Amid the ruckus, in October 2005, IPNS General Manager Maggie Wells resigned "to pursue other opportunities," and the IPA brought on marketing and circulation consultant Thea Selby to replace her as interim director. Stoner called Selby often, and he says she once asked what it would take to stop the fierce missives he'd been posting to the list.
Stoner said he wanted out of his IPNS contract and for the IPA to pay what it owed him.
Selby agreed, but asked him to keep the deal confidential. "If you talk about this with other members," Stoner recalls her saying, "there's going to be a run on the bank. We can't have that." (Selby says that Garage, a car magazine, wasn't a "good fit" for the IPA's mission of fostering an "open and democratic society.")
Stoner had a choice: stick to his principles and refuse to censor himself, or keep his own magazine from collapsing. "The printer and other people I owed money to expected me to take care of myself. ... No one else would pay my bills for me. I thought I'd better make this deal with the devil." He said yes, and soon picked up a check for several thousand dollars at the IPA office.