Critical to understanding the functioning of the OS and how it functions behind the scenes are a number of factors that rely on being able to differentiate between largely obfuscated organizational structures within the arts and publishing in the US.
This page seeks to offer some clarity and transparency around questions that at times are raised by those that are unfamiliar with these systems in a variety of ways.
The OS has been an online platform and producing projects since 2013. It formally took on 501c3 nonprofit status in 2018.
Our projects have always been produced on a Creative Commons license, with explicit archive-and-access facing strategy that is not sales or market-cycle oriented. Our membership / project agreement, as well as our protocols / position on prizes, book fairs, editorial policy, etc., are regularly updated and provided to the public on our Open Resource Hub within our OS Open Project Tools.
FUNDING SOURCES and FINANCIAL PRINCIPLES:
The OS has been dedicated to shifting a publishing model away from the exploitative submission and/or contest fee model and has never charged fees since its inception.
The OS has never received institutional or governmental funding. We have been in the running for large grants, in conversation with donors, and submitted a number of large, time consuming grant applications (most recently, the CRNY AEP application, for a group of 7 artists), which would have potentially changed the landscape of our operations for a short period of time, but because of the erratic and unreliable nature of this dependent / patron relationship, the model has in fact always intended to be sustainable outside of grant funding cycles.
The OS does not have the benefit of familial or personal resources from its working-class / precarious founder and/or other directly involved community members. Its board has functioned solely on a minimal advisory level and does not contribute financially or participate in seeking financial support for the OS.
COSTS and OVERHEAD: UNDERSTANDING THE OS’s NON-SUBSIDIZED INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION MODEL
The cost of maintenance and overhead of an organization or business that is not SUBSIDIZEDis important to understand not only in the world of publishing and the arts, but across the board in being able to recognize the economic disparities legislatively enforced in the US in late capitalism. In other types of business, the lack of subsidy means that costs to the consumer usually go up — this is how someone goes to the farmer’s market and perceives the costs as being “expensive,” when what they’re actually experiencing is the actual cost of purchasing an item produced by a smaller, local producer whose risks and costs in turn are often incredibly high, and who isn’t benefitting from the massive subsidies and tax loopholes offered to giant conglomerates and agrobusiness.
While for an art book or other small edition with an increased “craft” aspect, it might be expected for a cost to go up, the equivalent of what we see in other industries isn’t standard in independent publishing. Instead, prices for books are pretty consistent across the board. You begin to see nominally lower prices for mass market paperbacks or other books produced by huge houses (with scalar production, usually in China, bringing costs way down), but otherwise there’s no precedent for raising costs to account for higher, unmitigated overhead.
The costs of running a 501c3 nonprofit publisher – at book fairs, for production, for bookkeeping and accounting – are the same regardless of the size or budget of your operation. Unfortunately, the responsibilities of legally maintaining the financial books and backend for a 501c3 are extraordinarily expensive. Our most recent quote for a new bookkeeper / accountant, on the low end, was $600 / month, before additional fees for yearly tax preparation and historical documentation. We maintain a donor management / registration system for Liminal Lab, have maintained a submittable account, a zoom account, a variety of organizational memberships, adobe and other software, our website, insurance, storage for our massive inventory — all of this before even addressing the costs of physically printing and shipping any books or other projects.
The only way the OS stays in the green is because all work has been done pro bono, including Elæ’s largely invisible, often more than full-time labor for a decade — who is usually doing the work required by multiple salaried employees at other presses, as a chronically ill person with multiple other jobs. Part of the other reason that this has been possible, especially with the size of the OS catalog, is that the model has gotten increasingly agile over the years. Leaving SPD and moving to POD, which the OS did in 2017-18, was incredibly important in moving into a more sustainable operation, as the print / warehouse / return model left most of our projects distributed by SPD in the red, with our inventory still flooded with returns they took no financial responsibility for the ordering, production, and shipping of. (It was also deemed to be ecologically bereft by our members.)
501c3 nonprofits with a budget of over 50K a year (the OS never has had this) are required to have public 990’s available for review. We invite and encourage you to review the yearly budgets and financial breakdown (including staff salaries) for other nonprofit independent publishers in our community, comparing the number of projects produced per year, and reflecting on the marvel that is the OS remaining solvent and functional on our paltry, shoestring model — but that’s the point. The point was to show that this was possible and would continue to be possible in the future — many publishers, if faced with a lack of institutional or private donor funding, or a need to be entirely volunteer run, would shut down immediately (and have no infrastructure plan for online or other archives for their projects).
PIVOTING and FINANCIAL SURVIVALISM:
Since 2020, with the shutdown of the OS’s direct sales storefront, and a steep drop in number of projects in print production, as well as with an increase in ambitious, expensive interdisciplinary projects either operating at a loss to the OS or requiring massive labor but in fact reducing income (like the OS Open Access Library and Hub), our costs have continued to rise while our income has slowed dangerously. In 2021, the OS took a nearly 4K loss — a loss not distributed to its members or shared by the collective, but which indeed impacts any calculation of “proceeds.”
Elæ is currently in the (unfortunately, also costly) process of researching and seeking legal, financial, and administrative assistance with dismantling the 501c3 nonprofit in the attempts to simplify and reduce the monthly overhead and administrative load of the OS’s current infrastructure, as well as offloading no longer used and expensive services like Submittable. After 10 years of prioritizing this project, they are not in the financial position nor able bodied enough to carry the more than full-time administration and financing of an organization with a catalog and community of this size taking a loss, and the responsibility of maintaining the OS will soon need to fall to the collective it in fact is modeled to be.