Sending Out an SOS
Jackson Ellis is freaking out.
In late April, the 26-year-old publisher of the independent music and fiction magazine Verbicide got word that starting July 15, his shipping rates would increase by 30 to 40 percent. "It's not going to be the thing that kills me, but coupled with the lack of advertisements and the general slump in print publications, it could be the thing that pushes me over the edge," he explains via phone from his Vermont office. "I'm already operating at a loss, and I can't keep doing this forever. These new regulations don't give me an opportunity to grow."
It's a sentiment that Ellis shares with plenty of other independent publications, such as The Nation, The National Review, and Mother Jones, who are stupefied that they'll be paying more in periodical postage while larger publications will pay only around 10 percent more. Then again, maybe it's not all that surprising once you learn where the proposal originated: Time Warner.
Their proposal was accepted by the Postal Regulatory Commission on March 19, in lieu of a universal increase that the U.S. Postal Service suggested an unprecedented milestone that implies something even scarier: the privatization of the Postal Service that could, in effect, undo 215 years of universal postal policy.
"The bottom line is that the Postal Regulatory Commission just doesn't care," Jackson says with a sigh. "They got lobbied by these billionaire publishers and that said enough to them. They aren't concerned with free press and keeping it affordable. Whether or not the postal rates are high or low, at least they've always gone up the same amount for everyone until now, whether you're Time Warner or my company, Scissor Press."
And that's not the only problem for small publishers. In addition to the price of stamps increasing from 39 to 41 cents, the Postal Service is also discontinuing international surface mail and raising the rates for media mail, both of which were created to make the distribution of information affordable and accessible.
"The new postal policies are definitely going to affect our rates, but we're not going to stop doing what we do," says Matt Sweeting of Gainesville, Florida-based No Idea Records. "I hate to put it in these terms, but the days of the two-dollar seven-inch are over, and that's kind of frustrating. Unfortunately, if we can't send our music via media mail, we're going to have to pass on our extra costs to consumers, because that's the way a business works." Although No Idea currently sells its LPs for $7 and CDs for $7 to $9, these new rates are inevitably going to cause the label's prices to creep up and possibly force it to rethink its business model altogether.
Although many independent labels are making a shift to digital media, labels like No Idea are best-known for their highly collectible, limited-edition vinyl releases, things that can't be captured in ones and zeroes.
"I see the attraction of digital and giving up the physicalness, because it seems like everything in the economy is encouraging people to go that way," Sweeting admits when asked about bypassing the post office altogether. "I think there's something you can't get from having a file of something but the Postal Service definitely is making that harder."
Oddly, Alex Cruz, co-owner of Fort Lauderdale's Hi-Top Studios, thinks the postal increase might have a positive effect.
"Maybe it will encourage people to stop shopping online and go out to retail stores or record stores and actually buy things in person," Cruz says. "That's the funny thing about it it can totally increase foot traffic for some businesses, because people won't be able to afford shopping online if shipping costs go up."
On the other hand, local indie-record label owner Steve Castro of Botanica del Jibaro thinks there are bigger costs to deal with.
"My biggest thing is gas right now, as I drive a lot of our stuff to various record stores between [Fort Lauderdale] and Miami," Castro says. "If the postal rates increase, I'll have to adjust a few things. Maybe I won't be able to send as many promo copies of our material to college radio or to the press, but it's not going to break me."
Either way, a fallout for certain businesses is guaranteed. The paranoia surrounding the Postal Regulatory Commission's recent decision has reached such a state that Post Office officials have issued statements to try to silence critics.
"I know that periodical publishers are concerned about these new prices, and our governors are also concerned with the initial proposal the Postal Regulatory Commission had recommended," explains U.S. Postal Service spokesman Dave Partenheimer, adding that the changes won't go into effect until July 15 to let those affected have some time to prepare.
But none of this helps Verbicide's Jackson Ellis who, aside from writing a letter to his congressman and signing a petition sponsored by The Nation, can only sit back and wait for what seems like an inevitable price hike for his already-struggling magazine.
"I really don't know what my plan of attack is at this point," he explains. "All I can do is stay the course and continue to run things the way that I've been running them." Ellis adds that for him, it's a triple blow: In addition to the periodical rate increase, he often uses media mail to send CDs to his reviewers and surface mail to ship Verbicide internationally. "I don't make money on my magazine," he adds. "Someday, I would love to. But with the way things seem to be going, I don't really see that as a reality."
Last year, the last independent magazine distributor, Independent Press Association, went out of business and took many smaller magazines off the newsstands and now these latest postal hikes could make the prospect of independent publishing even more dismal. "I don't think we deserve this," Ellis says with a sigh. "I feel like I've worked really hard and I've been running a really honest business for a long time. Instead of getting some respect, the industry and the government are turning their back on me."
In fact, he's considering giving up the magazine altogether a sentiment that's likely to be echoed by many of his peers, who also lack six-digit circulation numbers or parent companies. "It's been my dream since I was a kid to run a magazine," Ellis says. "I turn 27 this year. I don't want to see my dream end just because of the cruel logistics of the dollar bill. But if these proposed policies go through, I'm not going to have any other choice. It's literally impossible."
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