From the June 2000 issue of Startups

They say there's not a lot of money to be made in publishing (print, that is). And unless you head a megaconglomerate or you're an editor of a fashion magazine with a hefty clothing allowance, maybe they're right. But take it from Los Angeles-based Really Great Books Inc. founders Nina Wiener and Mari Florence-if books are your passion, running an independent press equals fulfillment. And it could even make you popular. "Well, Nina is," says Florence, 36, a writer who used to pitch ideas to Wiener when she worked as West Coast editor for the fallen Buzz magazine's Buzz Books imprints division.

The truth behind Wiener's "popularity" is never revealed, but they admit Really Great Books' cheering section grows daily. Books like 1998 first release Take My Picture Gary Leonard ($17.95, www.reallygreatbooks.com) by Gary Leonard, nationally acclaimed L.A.-based crime novel The Jook by Gary Phillips ($12.95), and screenwriting favorite Plots and Characters ($24.95) by Millard Kaufman, which debuted on the Los Angeles Times Bestseller List, have prompted swarms of fan e-mails and submissions to the publishers' Los Angeles office.

Yes, praise is neat. But big press vs. little press is difficult. Really Great Books titles are in your standard Barnes & Noble and Waldenbooks stores. But keeping them there-"it's hard!" as Wiener, 27, puts it.

"Despite what you want to believe, almost everything in a bookstore is bought by big companies that can afford the [space] on front tables and in windows," says Florence. "Even having your books face out on the bookshelf costs money."

"Unless you go and face them out yourself," laughs Wiener. A recommended national distributor helps get Really Great Books where it needs to be, but the 120-day turnaround time it takes to receive payment after a book has been shipped makes a start-up publisher's life that much more trying. That's why Florence, who penned The Enterprising Woman (Warner Books, $14.99, www.twbookmark.com, writes on the side and Wiener freelances her copy-editing and ghostwriting skills.

Still, the $15,000 of their own money it took to publish Leonard's book was worth the risk-as was accepting the sales and marketing side of the business, which Florence says is imperative but her least favorite thing to do. "It's an uphill battle," she says, "but there's also a certain glamour about being a small press because a lot of people in the know are dissatisfied with their relationship with the publishing houses or the type of material bigger houses are putting out these days."

Look for more L.A.-centric titles like hip glove-box restaurant guide Hungry? from the aspiring Really, Really Great Books (just kidding) soon.