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The next chapter may be 13

Charlie Winton and his indie publishing dream are caught in a huge bankruptcy tangle.

February 10, 2007|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

EMERYVILLE, CALIF. — Thirty years ago, Charlie Winton, a longhaired, recently graduated Stanford film major, co-founded the book distributor Publishers Group West with less than $2,000. He couldn't have known at the time that the independent publishing boom of the late '80s and '90s -- which made available to readers offbeat tomes on alternative healing, out-of-print novels by Beat writers and specialized books on rock music, among other then-out-of-the-mainstream fare -- would take his little company into the stratosphere as it moved books from small publishers to stores of all sizes.

Winton, 53, also couldn't have known just how abruptly he'd hit the other side of those golden days. In the last two months, he and the company he founded have been through a whirlwind -- his own term is less polite -- and much of the rest of the publishing world has been dragged along. The biggest bankruptcy in publishing history has shipwrecked the Berkeley-based PGW (which Winton sold five years ago but to which he retains numerous professional ties) and left more than 100 small and midsized publishers hanging fire, waiting for revenues in a business with a lean profit margin.

For readers, it could mean that a huge range of books not handled by corporate publishers will become very hard to find. Indie publishing is David to the corporate world's Goliath, and distributors the advocates of the little guys. Some now-beloved books would never have been in print at all without indies. Charles Frazier's novel "Cold Mountain," Joseph Wilson's "The Politics of Truth" and EarthWorks' "Fifty Simple Things to Save the Earth," among many others, could have fallen between the cracks at big houses.

And so the bankruptcy by Advanced Marketing Services, a high-volume San Diego corporation that bought Publishers Group West from Winton, has "sent a chill and a shudder through the industry," according to San Diego literary agent Sandy Dijkstra. She added that the pain has been felt "well beyond the indie and niche publishers directly affected."

Still, the main fear is that some of the smaller publishers that give flavor and soul to the book world will end up going under. "The big houses can absorb these massive losses to some extent, but the small houses can't," Dykstra said.

Publishers as disparate as Brooklyn-based Soft Skull, San Francisco's McSweeney's, New York's Grove/Atlantic and Santa Monica's Viggo Mortensen-owned Perceval Press depended on Publishers Group West. For many of them, the last month or so has combined confusion and a crash course in bankruptcy law. In the Bay Area alone -- rich ground for indie publishing -- PGW owes $1.7 million to New World Library, $1 million to "personal growth" publisher Amber-Allen and more than $3 million to Winton, who runs the publisher Avalon.

The timing could not have been worse, said Eli Horowitz, publisher of McSweeney's, which is still owed $600,000 for what would have been a record season, with a Nick Hornby essay collection and Dave Eggers' "What Is the What."

"For all publishers, Christmas is where people buy books," said Horowitz, who estimated that the fourth quarter typically makes up about half of his press' sales. The loss of revenue, he said, "affects everything: our ability to print books, our ability to not go crazy.... It's constant juggling: How much do we have to pay this bill? Or this bill?"

As the founder of PGW and head of Avalon, which depended on PGW for distribution, Winton is being hit from all sides. Oddly, it took place right as Winton was trying to get out of the business. In December, before the Chapter 11 reorganization was filed, he agreed to sell Avalon to Perseus, a midsized New York publisher.

Last month, Perseus offered to inherit PGW's contracts with its client publishers, paying 70 cents for every dollar owed. The deal could make Perseus the distributor of roughly 200 presses.

The details await approval in a Delaware bankruptcy court Monday, and a majority of the publishers involved must sign on. But complicating an already complicated process, distributor National Book Network has offered to take up PGW contracts with some better terms, including paying 85 cents on the dollar.

Whatever happens, "I don't think we're seeing the end of independent publishing by any stretch," said Winton in his airy office, surrounded by books and by framed posters of the Grateful Dead, the Moon travel guides Avalon publishes and a book of photographs of Patti Smith. With wavy, silver-tipped hair and a striped shirt tucked into black jeans, he resembles a thinner, less rabid Oliver Stone.

"But I think it's clear that this had the potential, and still does, of causing significant trauma to the independent publishing community. What everybody has been working around the clock on over the last four weeks is finding the best possible solution to a bad situation."

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