Last year, George Osol walked into Phoenix Books in Burlington with his new self-published book, Caveat, hoping the store would sell it. Longtime manager Tod Gross turned him away — kind of.
Osol had released Caveat through CreateSpace, the self-publishing arm of Amazon. The online behemoth is a nemesis of independent bookstores, and Phoenix doesn't stock CreateSpace publications — not even books written by local authors.
"We really felt like we needed to ask our local authors to make a decision not to use our main competitor," said Gross. "So we started thinking about what we could do to make that easier for them."
The solution: create a self-publishing division of Phoenix Books.
And that's exactly what they've done. Osol pulled his book from CreateSpace and is now the debut author for Phoenix's new Onion River Press. Gross and Phoenix bookseller Rachel Fisher lead the operation. It officially launches on May 9. Four different publication packages can accommodate everything from a collection of grandma's recipes to a fully proofread book complete with ISBN and a launch party at Phoenix. Osol opted for the latter. His book event is Tuesday, April 11, in Phoenix Books' downstairs event space.
Caveat is a thriller about Michael Boylen, a cybersecurity expert who's wrestling with his love life on a trip to Paris, where he becomes entangled in terrorism. The book will be available at all the Phoenix bookstores — Burlington, Rutland, Essex and Chester — as well as on the company's website. If Osol wants to get it on shelves in other bookstores, he'll have to shop it around himself.
Onion River Press publishes through IngramSpark, the self-publishing division of book-distribution giant Ingram, which also offers print-on-demand services. So, if a customer walks into a bookstore in San Francisco seeking a copy of Caveat, the bookseller can look up the ISBN number on Ingram and order just one. Oh, the marvels of modern technology.
The addition of self-publishing to the Phoenix lineup is far from unique; it's a growing strategy for indie bookstores around the country. Gross says that, for inspiration, he and Fisher turned to Northshire Bookstore, a seller with locations in Manchester Center, Vt., and Saratoga Springs, N.Y. That company operates a self-publishing business called ShiresPress, which offers five packages at various price points. Both ShiresPress and Onion River Press offer à la carte services such as editing and proofreading.
Authors who opt for Onion River will work primarily with Fisher, who was formerly the managing editor for Hyperion Books in New York City. She moved to Vermont in 2011 and began working at Phoenix in 2012.
Asked what Onion River can offer that online publishing operations such as CreateSpace, Lulu and Shutterfly cannot, Fisher said simply, "the personal touch." And, of course, working with the local company means an author doesn't have to navigate websites. But the model isn't for everyone. Fisher noted that of the five people they have met with so far about publishing through Onion River, only two went with the new service.
To Gross, the self-publishing expansion reflects the turnabout in the war between digital and print media. "The [print] book won the battle with the e-books," he declared. He cited as evidence the fact that the number of independent bookstores in the U.S. grew 27 percent from 2009 to 2014, according to American Booksellers Association data noted by the New York Times.
Gross attributes this in part to millennial readers. "People in their twenties love the physical book more than any other generation that I've ever seen," he said. "I give a lot of props to [Harry Potter series author] J.K. Rowling for that."
Offering a means for self-publishing is the next logical step in the evolution of brick-and-mortar bookstores. "We felt strongly [that] it was something we needed to offer our customers and the community," Gross said. "Our whole mission statement is to be a hub for literary activity. Anything we can do to have the local community be more about books is what we want to do."
The original print version of this article was headlined "With Onion River Press, Phoenix Books Embraces Self-Publishing"