Sending Out an S.O.S.
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 on July 15, his shipping rates would increase by somewhere between 30 and 40 percent. "It's not going 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 says 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, including The Nation, The National Review and Mother Jones, who are stupefied that they'll be paying so much more in periodical postage while larger publications will pay only about 10 percent more. Then again, maybe it's not all that surprising when you learn where the proposal originated: Time Warner.
Its 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, which 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."
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, mail-order manager at No Idea Records. "I hate to put it in these terms, but the days of the $2 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 sells its LPs for $7 and CDs from $7 to $9, these new rates are inevitably going to cause the label's prices to creep up and quite possibly force it to rethink its business model altogether.
While many independent labels are making a shift to digital media, labels like No Idea are best known for their highly collectible and 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 says when asked about eschewing the post office altogether. "However, I think there's something you can't get from having a file of something but the Postal Service definitely is making that harder."
No one knows how much harder the Postal Service is making things than Anne Elizabeth Moore, Punk Planet's co-editor and the author of the upcoming book Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing and the Erosion Of Integrity (The New Press).
"The periodical rate hike doesn't affect Punk Planet as much because our circulation is so small, but independent media magazines like The Nation can't afford to be strained financially any more than they are," she says from her Chicago office. "There's no coincidence that this increase is going into effect at the same time that the United States Postal Service is launching a campaign to promote the Star Wars movie franchise."
Moore is referring to the Postal Service's announcement last month that 400 boxes would be painted like R2-D2, to coincide with the agency's unveiling of a line of Star Wars collectible stamps. "When you go look at a mailbox, the resemblance to R2-D2 is too good to pass up," the Postal Service's chief marketing officer, Anita Bizzotto, recently wrote in a news release about the new boxes, which are available in 300 cities (including St. Louis). Although these boxes seem harmless, the case they make toward the privatization of the Postal Service is anything but.
"The crazy thing is that, yeah, I love Star Wars, too," says Moore when asked why the decorated mailboxes are so dangerous. "But the Postal Service is not where I need to learn about the kind of media that I should be concerned with. The Postal Service is a government-regulated system designed to give me information about the wide variety of media that are available in the world and should not be involved in marketing or advertising in any way. Period."
In other words, while media giants such as Time Warner and Gannett are likely rejoicing over the Postal Regulatory Commission's decision, even the Postal Service seems uncomfortable with the new policies.
"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," says Postal Service spokesman Dave Partenheimer, adding that the changes won't go into effect until July, supposedly allowing those affected by rate increases time to prepare for them.
None of that 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 struggling magazine.
"I really don't know what my plan of attack is at this point," he says, adding 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. Now, the latest postal hikes could make the prospect of independent publishing more dismal.
At this point, Ellis is considering giving up his magazine altogether, a sentiment that's likely to be echoed by many of his peers that 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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