Peter Miller's Silver Print Press looks beyond the page
When Peter Miller finished writing Vermont People nearly 15 years ago, he shopped the book around to a number of publishers and everyone single one of them turned him down. So the feisty Waterbury photographer decided to self-publish -- and Silver Print Press was born. Now in its 10th printing, Vermont People has sold 20,000 copies and continues to move off bookshelves.
Those numbers would look dismal for, say, the latest John Grisham novel. But they're not too shabby for an evocative volume of black-and-white portraits and text celebrating a diminishing rural lifestyle in a tiny state. Most of the sales are in Vermont-- "to residents, summer or native; or to people who had a great vacation or honeymoon here," says Silver Print's publicity director Kristen Lewis. "It's funny that Vermont People and [follow-up book] Vermont Farm Women, even though they have higher price points, Vermonters want them because they're about the 'real' Vermont."
That attribution could be applied to Silver Print Press itself: A brand-new glossy brochure reveals that the grassroots enterprise is now extending a little help to some friends: There are videos and DVDs by Tunbridge filmmaker John O'Brien, CDs by the Burlington-based Starline Rhythm Boys and a couple of other small books featuring Vermont talent. What do artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians have in common? OK, maybe a dream of fortune and fame -- preferably lasting longer than 15 minutes. But without a good distributor, those creative types might as well hole up in their studios.
Silver Print's modest growth spurt began when the company collaborated with O'Brien early this summer. "It came about because we started talking with him about whether we had lists in common we could share," explains Lewis. "He's a one-man operation; we're a two-man operation; why re-invent the wheel? Silver Print, because we've been around longer, probably has the best list of bookstores and gift shops in the state. We actually drive around and meet them.
"So," Lewis continues, "it boiled down to: John could do it himself or we could just do it together."
The arrangement "seems to be working so far," says O'Brien. "We finally got our website [www.bellwetherfilms.com] connected to their fulfillment site. Now all those people that used to call me can go straight to Silver Print Press."
What visitors will find at http://www.silverprintpress.com  include O'Brien's new Tunbridge Trilogy, which packages together DVDs of his films Vermont Is for Lovers, Man With a Plan and Nosey Parker. "We're always late," O'Brien concedes, then suggests hopefully, "but there are always last-minute shoppers." The box set lists for $49.95; Silver Print also carries the movies individually on VHS or DVD for $19.95 each. Kristen estimates that 15 to 20 percent of the company's sales come through Web orders.
Though she refers to O'Brien as a one-man operation, that isn't quite true; Lewis is just as likely to do business with O'Brien's longtime friend and unofficial partner, Tunbridge photographer Jack Rowell. As with Miller, his best-known photographs feature local yokels, typically captured with Walker Evans-esque realism. Rowell shot all the stills for O'Brien's movies -- his most famous subject, of course, was farmer/movie star/Senate candidate Fred Tuttle.
O'Brien notes that he and Rowell will continue to tromp around Vermont distributing videos and DVDs to some of their outlets, but he welcomes the extra boost from Silver Print. And "down the road," he suggests, "we've both talked about expanding deeper into various Vermont markets we're not now in, such as the ski industry, gift baskets, etc. We'd also like to get out into New England more, to make this more of a regionalized thing."
Right now, though, Silver Print is strictly local. Lewis suggests that the company is more proactive than a fulfillment house, "but only within Vermont. John has an audience outside the state more than we do, and we can't do as good a job out of state. But here, they know us," she says. "We're on the phone pitching his products all the time."
Since July, she's been pitching homegrown honkytonk, too; O'Brien and Rowell provided the link to the Starline Rhythm Boys. Stand-up bassist Billy Bratcher wrote a song for the Man With a Plan DVD -- "A Memory of Fred" -- and "Jack Rowell brought us to them," explains rhythm guitarist/vocalist Danny Coane. "Jack said they'd be great. So I went down and met Kristen and Peter. She'd heard about us and felt it was a good mix."
Coane says they "haven't sold a ton of product yet -- we've given them 150 CDs to date and they've sold over 100." But since those full-color, glossy brochures went out last month, "the orders are coming in." Starline's two releases, Honky Tonk Livin' and Better Luck Is Just a Barroom Away, sell for $14.95 each through Silver Print. "Since we're on consignment, we're not getting full retail," Coane says, "but it's a good figure and we're happy with that."
"Distributors usually take 50 percent right off the bat," explains Lewis. "That's cost-prohibitive with numbers as low as ours. Peter and I do take a percentage of sales, but it's so much less. John and Danny get any lists we have and also more money." Also unlike traditional distributors, Silver Print does not demand exclusive representation.
Lewis estimates that the company has sold about $5000 worth of films and $900 worth of CDs in the last 30 days. "In the grand scheme of things, the sales of their products account for about 25 percent of Silver Print's total sales."
Like other bands, Starline has always sold CDs at shows, which they play only in Vermont. But for a couple years Starline's discs have been carried on the website of vintage-oriented Hep Cat Records. Recently, however, Hep Cat was absorbed into the much larger Collectors' Choice Music. And while it seems the bigger outfit would offer more marketing muscle, Coane observes that Starline's two discs now appear only as line listings. "There's no information about the band on the Collectors' Choice site, and I'm not happy with that situation," he says. "I'm not sure if down the road we're going to stay with them. We might just focus on Silver Print and other small distributors. It's another example of what's going on in this country -- companies acquired by bigger corporations. We're small players."
Small, of course, works just fine in the Green Mountains, and even here both the Bellwether Film boys and the Starline Rhythm Boys have found new retail outlets. Better Planet in St. Albans is one of them. Owner Fred Kosnitsky says he's added the two Starline discs to his modest selection of local and world music. "I bought two and sold two -- I guess I can retire now," he jokes. "I'll definitely order more; I don't expect to sell lots, but it's nice to carry local musicians."
At Burlington's Apple Mountain, assistant manager Jocelyn Churchill says she was happy to be able to order Starline's CDs through Silver Print. She's sold six in three weeks and plans to keep them in stock. Apple Mountain has already run out of O'Brien's Tunbridge Trilogy -- "and we just got it Saturday," Churchill notes. "We've still got Vermont Is for Lovers but not the others."
Silver Print's other newbies are a 5-inch-square, stocking-stuffer book called Yankee Weather Proverbs (hardback, $12.95), with text by Miller and illustrations by Huntington artist Daryl Storrs; and Stick-Season Grouse (paperback, $14.95), a collection of stories about "hunting, fishing and dogs" by Ted Ross, for which Miller wrote a foreword. "He is a really good friend of Peter's," explains Lewis. "Ted Ross is one of the founders of The Shed in Stowe; he's a real character. I've been really surprised at how well [Stick-Season Grouse] has been selling -- mostly because Ted knows so many people!"
Lewis says that the proverbs book is likely to be the first of a "Yankee" series -- the next might be about home remedies. "If we could have a whole series, that could become our niche," she suggests. "Right now our niche is high-quality photo books."
Indeed, before Tunbridge Trilogy came along, Miller's hardcover books about Vermonters were Silver Print's biggest-ticket items, at $34.95 for hardcovers. A smaller volume, The First Time I Saw Paris, features post-WWII shots of the City of Light and sells for $16. Some of Miller's photographs are also available in the form of monochrome lithograph prints (produced by Vermont's Stinehour Press), note cards and the Vermont People calendar.
The French capital aside, Silver Print's products could not be more down-home. Neither could the atmosphere at the Colbyville office -- attached to Miller's house -- where Lewis' dog greets visitors at the door. "When John or Jack call, they don't even tell me who it is, they just say, 'Hey,'" says Lewis. "To have that casualness while keeping the level of professionalism you have to have, it's really unique to Vermont. And to be friends with everybody at the end of the day," she concludes, "that's really great."