By Jeremy Essig
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By Nathan Smith
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 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 baffled by the fact they'll be paying more in periodical postage while larger publications will only pay around ten percent more. Then again, maybe it's not all that surprising once you learn where the proposal originated: Time Warner.
The media conglomerate's proposal was accepted by the Postal Regulatory Commission on March 19, in lieu of a universal increase that the United States Postal Service suggested an unprecedented occurrence that implies something even scarier: the privatization of the USPS 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 USPS 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 No Idea Records' mail-order manager, Matt Sweeting. "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 seven dollars and its CDs for seven to nine dollars, 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 admits, 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 USPS 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 explains via phone 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 fact that last month the USPS announced that 400 boxes would be painted like R2-D2, to coincide with the 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 USPS' chief marketing officer, Anita Bizzotto, recently wrote in a press release about the new boxes, which are currently available in 300 different cities (including St. Louis). While these boxes seem harmless, the case they make toward the privatization of the USPS is anything but.
"The crazy thing is that, yeah, I love Star Wars, too," says Moore. "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 itself 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," explains USPS spokesman Dave Partenheimer, adding that the changes won't go into effect until July 15, to allow those affected by these rate increases additional time to prepare for them.
However, 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 says. "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 admits with a sigh. "I feel like I've worked really hard and I've been running a really honest business for a long time, and instead of getting some respect, the industry and the government are turning their back on me."
In fact, at this point, 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."