News & Politics

How Can a Small Progressive Publisher Keep Up With the Trump Administration? Via Crowdfunding. And Speed.

Ryan Grim co-founded Strong Arm Press to publish books--quickly--about the cabinet members who may leave a more lasting mark on US life than their boss.

Not long after he jumped from HuffPost to the Intercept last year, Ryan Grim also wanted to nurture an only-in-Washington pet project. Grim and Alex Lawson, the founder of the progressive broadcasting company We Act Radio looked at the emerging menu of Trumpworld-related books and decided there was an opening for short and digestible narratives about the cabinet members and policy makers who might not star in the palace intrigue coming out of the White House, but who may leave far more lasting marks on life in the United States.

So the pair founded Strong Arm Press, a small imprint devoted to publishing what Grim calls books for “smart progressives who want to know a bit more.” Strong Arm is on the verge of releasing its third title, School House Wreck, a history of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos‘s activism against public schools by ThinkProgress senior editor (and Grim’s former HuffPost colleague) Jason Linkins, who is working with HuffPost editor Phil Lewis. The exact release date is just incumbent on when Strong Arm reaches its fundraising goals.

Unlike traditional, deep-pocketed publishers, Strong Arm Press relies on crowd-funding efforts to raise the money to hire writers and pay an editor and designer to pump out its series of books, which so far range between 30 and 50 pages long. The titles, once funded, are sold as ebooks and paperbacks printed through Amazon’s on-demand publishing service for between $5 and $10. It’s a low-volume enterprise, but one that allows Grim and Lawson to turn around projects relatively quickly.

Even the newsiest mainstream publishers still often need a year or so to turn around books about current affairs. In Grim’s eyes, the speed at which the Trump Administration careens from one crisis to the next can leave books about it feeling stale by the time they land on shelves. “If we have the manuscript we turn it around in a few weeks,” Grim says.

Last June, Strong Arm Press released its first title with Out of the Ooze, is a 46-page biography about Tom Price, then the health and human services secretary. While Price was done in months later by exposés about his taste for lavish travel on the government dime, Strong Arm Press timed Out of the Ooze to line up with Republicans’ attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. People interested in preserving Obamacare gobbled it up, briefly propelling it into Amazon’s top 100 sellers. The only publicity for it came from Grim’s and Lawson’s personal—albeit quite robust—email lists.

“It hit 70 on Amazon, which is way higher than my own book”—2009’s This Is Your Country on Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America—“ever did,” Grim says.

Strong Arm Press followed up the Price book with a short biography of Gary Cohn, the head of the National Economic Council. Adapted from an Intercept article, the book, by Gary Rivlin and Michael Hudson, retraces Cohn’s career at Goldman Sachs, especially his decisions that contributed to the subprime mortgage crisis that fueled the Great Recession. After the DeVos book, Grim and Lawson plan to run titles about Trump Administration figures, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Though, Grim says, the Tillerson project may get shelved in favor of one about Senator Tom Cotton, the Arkansas Republican who’s emerged as Trump’s most anti-immigration ally on Capitol Hill.

While Strong Arm Press is debuting with its “Cabinet of Corruption” series, Grim says his imprint won’t only do books revolving around Trumpworld. Stephanie Kelton, an economist who advised Senator Bernie Sanders‘s presidential campaign, is signed to do a book about monetary policy. The goal is to build a line of long—but not super-long—reads for the kind of audiences that are drawn to the Intercept or We Act Radio, and may want to act on their progressive leanings.

“Millions of people are getting more interested in politics than they were before the election,” Grim says. “This is for people who are making calls every day. Writing their lawmakers, giving money to candidates, going door to door.”

Like any true crowd-funding effort, there are perks for donations, ranging from a print copy of the book ($9) to an acknowledgment in the book and one of Grim’s email newsletters ($50), to a limited-run T-shirt ($1,000). Credo Mobile, the activist wireless phone network, is in for $4,000, and will have its logo stamped on the back covers of Strong Arm Press’s next six books, beginning with Linkins’s DeVos volume.

While Strong Arm Press can be more nimble than legacy publishers, relying on crowdfunding and word-of-email means its books’ releases can be a bit squishy to pin down. If the current pace of its fundraising holds up, School House Wreck could be available next week. “If you go to market having broken even, you have a chance of it being a hit,” Grim says. “At worst you don’t lose anything.”

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.