It’s no secret that monopolies under capitalism run unchecked in the interest of maintaining their own power. We’ve watched this play out throughout the course of this pandemic with large corporations, such as Amazon, who have subjected their employees to shockingly dangerous working conditions that have jeopardized their health and safety in exchange for astoundingly low wages while their bosses earn billions off the sweat of their backs. Workers are dependent on jobs to make ends meet in an economy that prioritizes profit over human dignity. And consumers divorced from the unfair labor practices that enable their convenient access to material goods. Who is left to hold the giants accountable?
It’s a common misconception that the book industry operates under a different ethos—that because its work is considered noble, the industry is underscored by ethical values with a particular focus on community and care. But while Amazon initially gained prominence as a bookseller, it now sells doorbell videos to police departments. Publishing’s leaders composed careful statements in the height of this summer’s protests for racial justice. But these ring hollow in the face of an industry rife with sexism, classism, and racism. And this year we watched its lowest-paid workers lose their jobs en masse, while others were furloughed with no indication of when they might work again.
One book world monopoly is Small Press Distribution, the nation’s only nonprofit literary distributor and often the most direct line to sales for small publishers and independent presses. The nonprofit serves a vital need. Small presses, often understaffed and ill-equipped to handle the logistics of vending and distributing their merchandise to booksellers across the country, rely on SPD to fill a crucial gap in the supply chain. But despite publicly claiming core values of diversity, inclusion, and a safe-working environment, likening their principles to those of small presses themselves, Small Press Distribution intentionally glosses over the fact among their biggest clients is Amazon. While SPD gloats about their own visionary values, they continue to conduct business with a notoriously abusive workplace. This behavior implicates them directly in the persistence of the practices they purportedly stand in antagonism towards.
Small Press Distribution has deliberately cultivated a public image in which they are read as sympathetic to their workers’ livelihoods through promotional initiatives such as launching a GoFundMe with a goal of raising $100,000 to subsidize employees’ salaries affected by COVID-19 this spring, despite being awarded a PPP loan in the amount of $144,888. But their workplace culture directly undermines such displays. Management has kept their distribution warehouse open throughout the duration of COVID-19, despite the fact that SPD does not fall under the criteria of what is considered an essential business. They continue business as usual despite their own employees’ objections. Former Publicity Manager Trisha Low even compared the SPD distribution warehouse to a meat-processing factory in an interview with Skylight Books in May, which are notorious for the disproportionate rates of illness and death for workers employed within them during the pandemic relative to the general population, a fact she conveniently ignores.
On December 1, a former employee of Small Press Distribution came forward with extensive allegations of misconduct on behalf of the nonprofit’s board and leadership through a Medium article entitled “I was terrorized out of my job by Small Press Distribution.” Reporting anonymously under the alias of Damaged Book Worker, they detailed numerous instances of exploitation, retaliation, and manipulation on behalf of their employer of two years, including the company’s issuance of illegal paystubs and a system of rampant, unchecked wage theft. Damaged Book Worker was subject to racist and antisemitic microaggressions during the course of their employment and at one point was even pressured to clean Executive Director Brent Cunningham’s apartment—labor they were not hired for and for which they were not paid. At the end of their employment, having been shorted over $4,000 in wages in 2019 alone, they were pressured to sign a NDA, effectively gagging them from their right to come forward with their experience and seek future damages. They ultimately declined.
SPD’s response to these allegations of misconduct could be described as tepid at best. On December 5, the nonprofit released an initial statement to their website, indicating a willingness to be held accountable to stakeholders and to begin a process of institutional change. On December 11, an additional statement was made, indicating that the board had solicited assistance from both outside experts and staff itself. These responses were then removed from the company’s website on December 18 and replaced with a statement from Alan Bernheimer, President of the SPD Board of Directors, offering an apology on behalf of the nonprofit and acknowledging cursory steps towards reparative action, couched with a caveat that the company must make ends meet lest it disappear. On December 30, the company’s financial audits were removed from the site’s public response page, having initially been posted for accountability purposes. They are archived here.
In response to a request for comment in the context of this article, Bernheimer offered: “Allegations of serious misconduct require in-depth investigation from trained experts. We accept our limitations—as a board made up of writers, teachers and publishers—in properly reviewing the various accounts, along with frequently conflicting or absent details needed to make informed decisions. That’s why we’re bringing in independent facilitators in restorative justice for a comprehensive assessment, followed by mediation and conflict resolution.”
The specifics of this process of restorative justice have thus far been vague and inconclusive, offering little in terms of practical change or measurable result. It has now been more than a month since Damaged Book Worker first came forward with their experience of abuse, and to date, the board has not honored workers’ preemptive demand that Brent Cunningham be removed from his position as SPD’s Executive Director, a salaried job he still holds.
Conspicuously, many leaders in the small press publishing industry have remained silent in response to both Damaged Book Worker’s account and the subsequent Medium article written by current SPD employees. Small Press Distribution’s financial contract with the presses they represent includes an annual $180 service fee and an additional $25 fee for each new title listed through their catalog, implicating the publishers they work with in their cycle of abuse through their decision to remain financially complicit in it.
Since the allegations against SPD were first made public, Game Over Books has initiated the process of severing their professional ties and pulling out of their contract with the distributor, while Foundlings Press has halted shipment of new titles to the nonprofit. Other publishers that have released statements of solidarity include Aunt Lute, Sagging Meniscus, Peach Mag, Grieveland, Harry Tankoos Books, Versal, and Adjunct Press.
In conversations preceding the publication of this article, Damaged Book Worker emphasized the need for publishers and members of the literary community at large to stand in solidarity with current and former SPD employees by taking both personal and professional responsibility towards ensuring fair practices in the industry moving forward. “With how SPD has treated all of this, I think the best kind of solidarity is one which is vocal and public. Keeping things quiet is exactly how SPD has gotten away with abusing workers for so long. Workers are watching how people in the industry are treating abuse,” they say. They specify that solidarity entails divesting from unfair business practices, signing the open letter to SPD, speaking up about abuse in professional circles, and putting public pressure on figures in the industry responsible for violence, oppression, and exploitation.
They finish, “I can try to imagine what it would look like if there was enough divestment to change the industry, but right now, based on the industry-wide silence around this from those who have the platform to vocalize demands for accountability, I don’t know if anything like that will come close to fruition. But I also don’t think that making that happen is my fight, though it should be one that people who are with small presses are taking up. If they don’t, they’ve shown us who they really are. We can all see which people and organizations have refused to so much as condemn SPD. I think it is us who have power in being able to collectively witness this and know that the futures we create will be safer and better off without them.”
Lauren Stroh is a writer who lives in New Orleans.