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Nov. 4, 2014, 11:12 a.m.
Business Models

By the book: How Belt Publishing led to an online magazine covering the industrial Midwest

Belt says it expects three-quarters of its revenue to come from book sales by the end of the year.

Late last month, 4,000 books were delivered to Belt Publishing’s office in Cleveland from a printer one state over in Scranton.

“Me — and hopefully two, but maybe just one other person — are going to take them off of the truck and then bring them into the office, so that’s the end of the process.” Belt editor-in-chief Anne Trubek told me by phone as she drove to meet the delivery.

Belt is a small independent publishing house that tells stories of the industrial (and post-industrial) Midwest, from Pittsburgh to St. Louis. It published its first book, Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology, in 2012, and it launched an online magazine last fall that grew out of the Cleveland Anthology and a successful kickstarter campaign.

“People were like, this was really great and seemed to strike a nerve, let’s do more of it,” Trubek said. “So I thought, well, okay, let’s try to do an online magazine that would be more journalistic and would cover the Rust Belt, because there was this perceived gap” in coverage.

The book delivery Trubek was racing to meet included the first copies of Belt’s newly released Dispatches from the Rust Belt: The Best of Belt Magazine and the second printing of A Detroit Anthology, a collection of writing on the Motor City released last spring. (Full disclosure: I have a piece included in the Detroit book.)

Belt is a shoestring operation; none of its employees work for the company full-time. Trubek also teaches at Oberlin College and is writing a book.

But Belt’s publishing business is profitable, bringing in most of the revenue that lets Belt run the magazine, which produces longform pieces and first-person narratives while covering a region often underserved by its daily publications. Two-thirds of Belt’s income comes from its publishing arm, and Trubek expects that to grow to three-quarters by the end of the year as Belt releases new titles and as the holiday season approaches. All the stories on Belt’s website are free to read, but Belt offers memberships starting at $20 (about 800 people have signed up, Trubek says) and runs events to also bring in revenue. It’s also in the process of expanding the sale of sponsorships on its site.

“It’s this kind of funny reverse business model that I figured out, because we started with a book,” Trubek said. “Everybody will pay twenty dollars for a print book. They don’t think it’s weird that you ask. Whereas not everybody is going to pay twenty dollars to become a member of Belt, or to pay for a paywall had we gone that route.”

Each book project starts with the hiring of a local editor and designer to lead the production of the collections, soliciting and organizing pieces and laying out the book. “We try to make each book as locally produced as possible,” Trubek said, insisting on local proofreaders, for example.

Aside from its first Cleveland book, the Detroit anthology, and the collection of writing from the magazine, Belt has also published an anthology of writing from Cincinnati, which came out this spring. Books on Pittsburgh and Youngstown are expected next year, along with a second edition of the Cleveland anthology and a book on Cleveland sports.

Once the books are printed, Belt handles distribution, too. They’ll ship books out to individuals who ordered copies directly through Belt’s website or to the mostly independent bookstores and local interest shops that stock their books. Belt reluctantly sells through Amazon too, though Trubek said they prefer to sell books directly because they get the full retail price of $20 for each book.

“It’s a big cut to sell them on Amazon where we get less than $9 per copy,” she said. “On the other hand, Amazon does enable us to have a place nationally where anyone who is searching can find our books. They enable us to distribute beyond our online store without having another distributor.”

Belt has sold about 8,000 total books, but depending on the title, it needs to sell between 300 and 500 copies of each book to break even. The first Cleveland book, for example, cost $7,000 for Belt to produce and it made that back in preorders alone, Trubek said.

Still, while Belt has attempted to cover the industrial Midwest and forge a regional Rust Belt identity, virtually all the interest in its various publications to date has been local. A Detroit Anthology may sell well in southeast Michigan, but it’s not likely to be a huge seller in Cleveland. Though some books will cover the whole region, Trubek said Belt plans to continue publishing books that generate strong local interest. Belt will have to adjust its expectations for sales if it expands into smaller cities, but even as Belt offers more publications for larger markets like Cleveland, Trubek said she isn’t worried about interest drying up.

“There are so many people, still in Cleveland even, who have not heard of what we’re doing, and even though we have reach and have sold a lot of copies, I feel like there’s still so much more [we can do],” she said. “We’re not Random House, you know.”

“We’re niche publishing,” Trubek added. “We’re not looking to be all things to all people.”

But Trubek is hopeful that, through the reporting in the online magazine and the collection of books, Belt can bridge the various local identities in the region and provide a representation of the Rust Belt on a national level, much like The New Yorker or Texas Monthly are read nationally but provide a lens on life in New York City and Texas.

“All these cities were built up at the same time, they have similar economic issues happening right now,” she said. “If we think of ourselves as a region there’s a lot of possibility there. So the city stuff is already there. There’s these fierce identifications with each city…but also let’s think of each other and hedge against a little insularity.”

Photo of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry mural in the Detroit Institute of Arts by Martin Beek used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 4, 2014, 11:12 a.m.
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