IPA R.I.P., cont.
By Sarah Feightner

The hard way

What the IPA’s smaller distribution clients learned the hard way, according to Punk Planet’s Dan Sinker, is that they can’t rely on anyone but themselves. Many publishers, the outspoken Sinker in particular, blame Landry himself for single-handedly ruining the IPA.

Jeremy Adam Smith, the interim director of the IPA between Anner and Landry, posted a lengthy analysis on the website of Other magazine in which he took Landry to task for failing to understand the IPA’s nonprofit culture. Smith accuses Landry of creating a “cone of silence,” covering up financial difficulties, quashing dissent among members, and stacking the board of directors with sycophants. “The most important elements—the pieces that Richard eliminated at the IPA—are commitment to the mission and values of the organization, transparency in finances and decision-making, and accountability,” he wrote. “Without that, a nonprofit may as well be Enron. In the end, that’s exactly what the IPA became.”

According to Carla Costa, editor of the twelve-thousand-circulation Kitchen Sink,  IPNS’s debt to the now defunct magazine is less than $10,000, but that amounts to two issues’ worth of sales revenue, and the cost of printing its next (and last) issue. Costa admits that the constant financial difficulties took the fight out of the four-year-old magazine’s all-volunteer staff, contributing to their decision to close. “I think people are really burnt out on raising the money for this magazine,” she said. “You can continue working stretched to the max for a long time, but it’s very difficult.”

Many other magazines are still assessing their financial situations, trying to figure out whether or not they can stay in business. Bitch, the 150,000-circulation feminist pop-culture magazine, which IPNS owes $81,000, has moved its operations from the San Francisco Bay area to Portland to save money.

“It’s not just about the money owed,” said  Sinker. “It’s about everything you had to do to survive over the last year and a half.” Sinker estimates that IPNS only owes the fifteen-thousand-circulation Punk Planet a few thousand dollars, but absorbing that debt has meant defaulting on payments to vendors, delaying paychecks to writers, and scraping by on maxed-out personal credit cards. “We’re a small-budget magazine,” Sinker explained. “Small amounts of debt are dangerous.”

The consequences of the IPA’s meltdown were less devastating to larger publishers. Members like the alternative news digest Utne Reader, with a circulation of over two hundred thousand, had the resources and staff to handle their own distribution. And more established titles like the twenty-year-old religious magazine Tikkun were able to fall back on their subscribers to absorb the loss of sales revenue. “Our subscription base was phenomenal,” said Tikkun’s former managing editor, Joel Schalit. “It kept our magazine alive.” Under Schalit’s direction, the twenty-four-thousand-circulation magazine jumped ship to an alternate national distributor in early 2006 after signing a nondisclosure agreement to guarantee that IPNS would continue to pay off its $35,000 debt—which IPNS then failed to do.

“The anger most of us feel about the IPA isn’t that they took on a distribution service that they couldn’t handle,” said Jo Ellen Green Kaiser, a former senior editor at Tikkun. “It’s that they were not open with telling their members what was actually happening.”

That secretiveness kept small publishers from leaving IPNS or coming up with realistic business plans. “It’s one thing if you’re expecting a check and they tell you that it’s going to be there in a month,” said Clamor’s Jen Angel. “But you need an entirely different plan if it’s going to be six months or a year.”

Woodard claims that the IPNS staff made every effort at the time to collect the money owed to publishers. “It would have been fine if we’d had cash reserves against this kind of thing,” she said, “but if the distributor didn’t pay when it said it would, then the IPA couldn’t pay when it said it would."

All IPNS clients are currently waiting for the bankruptcy proceedings to move forward so that they’ll know when, and how much, money they will receive. “We’ve been in this situation for a few months now,” said Sinker, warning of more bad times ahead. “You won’t see publications fold the minute the IPA did. But a year and a half from now, that’s when you’ll see it happen.”

A deal made by the IPA in May 2006 left many of its former clients in the hands of the national distributor Disticor. “Fine and dandy, to the degree that theoretically the IPA would be staying on hand to make sure we didn’t get lost in the shuffle,” wrote Sinker’s co-editor Moore on the Punk Planet blog. “We’ve lost our one-and-only advocate at our national distributor.”

Independent distributors have come and gone before, taking vulnerable magazines with them. One of the IPA’s first acts in 1997 was to broker deals for member publishers when their former distributor Fine Print went under. Since then, distributors like Desert Moon and the niche-publication wing of Ingram have also folded. But if this periodic turnover of distributors is part of the life cycle of small magazines, what’s different today is that IPNS was the only indie-friendly distributor on the scene. “So if it was cyclical,” said Sinker, “the cycle is over.”

Independent publishing is dead

There are those who view the end of the IPA as the end of an era. Schalit, now a contributing editor at the Jewish magazine Zeek, stresses what he calls the cultural consequences of the IPA’s bankruptcy. “These were all publishers who had clear futures ahead of them,” he said. “They were very much at the vanguard of American independent magazine publishing.” Schalit’s blog is more damning: “Through its mismanagement, the IPA put an entire wing of the American periodical business in crisis.”

Frederick J. Hoffman, Charles Allen and Carolyn Ulrich in their history of the “little magazine” published in the late 40s, pinpointed the key to the success of independent magazines. “Though many die, many more are being born,” they wrote. But as today’s magazines close, will there be a new generation of publishers to follow them?

“Back when we first started, there were magazines at the top,” said Sinker. “And then there were all these handmade zines underneath. But blogging has cut those zines out almost completely. If anything, the internet signals a blossoming of the independent press. This isn’t going to stop anyone’s voice, including the people whose magazines have folded. But,” Sinker continued, “we’re all old print people. We like print.”

Long live independent publishing

There are others who look at the IPA debacle as just the latest hurdle in the typically precarious lives of small magazines. Shortly after announcing Clamor’s closure, publisher Jen Angel put out a call for small radical magazines to organize to fill the vacuum left by the IPA. “We come out of this DIY culture,” said Angel. “We shouldn’t be waiting around for some nonprofit to do things for us.”

As of April 2007, just four months after the IPA closed its doors, roughly forty former IPA publications have banded together to create a small organization, tentatively called the Independent Publishers Network. Jo Ellen Green Kaiser, one of the group’s organizers, stresses that this is not meant to be a new-and-improved IPA. “We’re trying to create a version of the Magazine Publishers of America for little magazines,” she said, “a trade organization that’s geared toward small mission-driven magazines.”

The IPN will avoid a number of IPA pitfalls: no social ventures, no distribution services, reliance on internal resources, and a member-elected board. “Our goal is to have a rich, resource-oriented website that will be open to anyone,” said Kaiser. “Our idea is that by not trying to do too much, we’ll be successful.”

Other publishers are reacting to a tough business situation in creative ways. “For our magazine, being off the newsstand was the best thing that could have happened,” said Josh Hooten, editor of the vegan/animal rights magazine Herbivore. Hooten estimates that IPNS owes his magazine roughly $3,500. After taking a hard look at its low print runs, high production costs, and the sudden loss of its distributor, Hooten decided to turn the six-thousand-circulation Herbivore into a monthly online publication, paired with two annual print editions. He says he’s excited about the opportunity to explore a new medium and business model. “I’m also psyched not to have to pay that $50,000 print bill anymore.”

In a recent column for Punk Planet, Hooten redirected some of the finger-pointing over the IPA fallout toward small magazine publishers themselves. “Where is the creativity that launched this whole movement?” he wrote. “Was it so awful ten years ago when we had shitty computers but unfadeable hearts? Was it so awful that doing it ourselves again, maybe in our bedrooms, is literally a fate worse than death?”


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