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Chime in You BigOther People:

A. D. Jameson & I have been conversing via comments on this post, talking about Indie v. Major House publishing. It is an old old old argument, sure, but here is something new to address(in my opinion):

“… [in the indie presses] there’s a very, very, very, very, very strong emphasis on consuming products. And there are many, many, many, many, many products to consume. It’s a real onslaught. I respect that many people want to write/publish, but surely there are other ways of sharing work other than just sell/buy…”

That’s true. I push Mud Luscious Press titles hard because I want people to read them. I want people to buy them & then talk about them. I want more people to buy them. I want more people to buy them so that I have more revenue to put out another title. Then I want people to buy that one (etc.).

This buy / sell mentality is not counter to the dominant book culture – but what can we do? Seriously, I’d love to hear your ideas – if Mud Luscious Press or any other Indie press were to attempt to subvert the dominant book culture while remaining economically viable, how would we do it?

107 thoughts on “Chime in You BigOther People:

  1. I think FC2 provides a model worth examining. From their mission statement:

    FC2 is among the few alternative presses in America devoted to publishing fiction considered by America’s largest publishers too challenging, innovative, or heterodox for the commercial milieu.


    FC2’s mission has been and remains to publish books of high quality and exceptional ambition whose style, subject matter, or form push the limits of American publishing and reshape our literary culture.


    FC2 continues the commitment of its founders to unsettle the bounds of literature and broaden the audience for America’s most adventurous writing.

    While FC2 does receive substantial support from universities (they are an imprint of University of Alabama press (something which could also be critiqued)), and also other sources, namely “contributions from its Board of Directors and Advisory Board, its contest submission fees, and The Writer’s Edge conference fees”; apparently, “[t]hese sources barely allow it to break even each year.”

    Clearly, there’s a large enough audience out there comprised of consumers and supporters who are interested in literature with the qualities outlined above to keep a press that produces such work alive.

    1. I love FC2 books, but don’t they run on the same buy / sell model as all others? They push publicity less than other indie presses, sure, but other than touting the bound-less-ness of their titles through their mission statement (which I like), I still feel like this is the same…

      1. I think they don’t run on the same model at all. As I mentioned above, most of their funding comes from universities, contest fees, etc. Also, they’re not producing work that simply panders to the lowest common denominator. This is a massive, and not to be underestimated, oppositional move.

        And well, if you think that selling a product necessarily mirrors the major publishing model, then the only other options are giving away books, bartering, and/or relying on donations. And I would guess that there are presses out there who function and thrive within that model as well. And if not, I’d say that it’s a real opportunity for a press to investigate.

        1. I completely agree that FC2 seeks aggressive lit and puts out quality books, but I don’t think that is what is at the core of this conversation. In reality, even with their alternate funding etc., they are still a buy / sell books model.

          Stemming from Ben Brooks’ monetary-loss droplifting / culture jamming publicity, Jameson (rightly I think) is calling out indie presses in a way – asking them to rethink, to band together tighter, to break habits – but I don’t know how we do it.

          I believe FC2 is in the same boat with everyone else, even though their books certainly rock.

          1. I have to agree with J. A. Disclaimer: I used to work for FC2. And I think they’re great; I love a lot of their books, and the people behind the press, past and present.

            I like that they draw support from institutions, and think that’s very smart, because Lord knows that surviving on just selling books is very, very difficult these days. But I don’t see how they’re really doing much beyond making books for people to buy.

            And FC2 cultivates a real “rock star” aesthetic. They want their authors to be young, hip, celebrities. I’m not entirely knocking this, mind you! Who doesn’t want to be a rock star? I like rock stars. But there’s a real cult of personality surrounding that press, I think. And they love to hype things.

            Along these lines, and from what I’ve seen, FC2 focuses very heavily on the younger authors on their list. They have a lot of older authors who’ve fallen by the wayside (it seems to me), and who don’t seem to get much support any more from the press/collective. Look at the last AWP reading: very young. I know a few older FC2 authors who weren’t even invited to read. Why not? (Of course I understand wanting to promote the current books, but FC2 skews relatively young.)

            (Granted, some of the older authors are no longer actively part of the collective.)

            Again, read these comments through the lens of my really loving FC2.

            …Here’s a question I’ve been wondering about, and which to some extent flies in the face of what I’ve just written: Has anyone from FC2 reached out to Noah Baumbach? (Do people even realize he’s the son of one of the founders?) I ask this more out of curiosity than anything else.

  2. The true counter-culture is the 60 year old man/woman writing things in his/her notebook, not sending them out and not getting them published.

    Once the term “economically viable” comes into play, you already stepped a million miles away.

    I agree with what A. D. Jameson said about he youth/beauty obsession of the small press world. It is certainly is just a sort of cheap replica of corporate America/world.

    Pretty young white boys and girls who think they are very smart.

    Small presses need to either come to grips that they are in fact little capitalists or completely break with the system.

    1. Truely the old man / woman writing in a notebook and never publishing is counter to the entire book industry, but small / indie presses have the same kind of financial obligations that any other business contends with – little capitalists perhaps, but how else do they continue to release new words into the world (in print form) without some attention to the monetary monster?

      1. That is sort of my point. They need to buckle down and day “The most important thing is selling books. Getting people to read them. So is what we do is use the tools the big publishers have, but do it better.”

        I also might add, that for all the small press’s advertised adventurousness, a good deal of the writing strikes me as rather square/freeze-dried experimentation.

        Sorry if I sound like a jerk about all this. I am just expressing how it all strikes me.

        1. Yes: from an editorial standpoint, that is exactly what I want – people to read the books – and I will go about that as aggressively as I can, even if it is the model of the big houses.

          And I don’t think you sound like a jerk at all, but:

          could you point the finger at presses that don’t strike you as “square / freeze-dried” in their experimentation? I would be interested to hear some names.

          1. I think it is more about the individual authors that each press publishes rather than ther press themselves. Of course editorial choice comes into play. But, if I do have to name names I’ll say Dalkey, Dedalus and Twisted Spoon. The latter two of course also publish a lot of stuff from the past.

    2. Also too I’m curious bc, which small presses do you think are putting out the work of “…pretty young white boys and girls who think they are very smart…”?

      You don’t have to point fingers per se, but I feel like quite a few indie outfits are putting out works by non-white boys and girls too, and those who are genuinely very smart as well (as opposed to those who merely “think they are very smart”).

      1. I don’t want to answer that, because it would be pointing fingers. And the “white” thing is really not the important part. It isn’t so much about race as about what one is trying to do with writing.

        Is what I am really talking about is the trend towards university learned writing. Maybe they aren’t all pretty. I don’t know.

        Growing up, my mother was editor at City Lights. A lot of folks take Ginsberg etc as models, but the craziness seems fake. And I can say with certainty in the previous generation it wasn’t.

        And, in the end, those folks got cleaned up and started doing lectures etc. But in the early days it was pretty funky. And I see clearly that that is sort of the model many small presses are working off of, but without the funk.

        1. I see that, the proposed craziness as opposed to the actual – but why are we expecting something that has come before? Can the ‘want to be crazy’ be the next generation’s thing?

          And: do you want to see more funk or just more funk before the university learned writing or just the university learned writing by itself? Clarify for me pretty pretty please.

        2. Ginsberg was very much about the business of poetry and if someone wants to emulate him as a model then they should possibly also look to that side of his activities. I once had lunch with him, he wore a suit and tie, and we did not talk poetics but reading fees.

          I was friends with John & Elaine Gill of Crossing Press in Trumansburg, NY. A press not as well known as City Lights. Their strategy was to publish a line of books that the counter-culture audience would buy, such as books about herbal medicine, vegetarian cooking, lives of hippie firemen, pottery Native American tales, etc. that supplemented their literary line of regional, feminist and gay literature at a time when these were emerging cultural trends. They did reasonably well at not only maintaining a literary press but also in making a living at it.

          With the explosion in MFA programs, and subsequent flood of young writers, combined with the low-threshold economy of e-zine publication it remains to be seen what the general outcome for literature will be 30 years from now. Mostly a lot of blathering as far as I can tell. But having been there I can look at the explosion of small presses of 30 years ago and wonder where the hell are all those brilliant writers and rising rock stars? So yes, in a manner the counter-culture is the 60 year old who is still alive and writing, mind you not the one who started 4 years ago, more like 40.

          My recommendation for an indie publisher is to build for the long haul. Publish now what you can best hope that you will want to read 30 years from now and chances are in time and with slow plodding cultivation you will eventually have a backlog of titles that will continue to be sold.

    3. Hi Brendan,

      “The true counter-culture is the 60 year old man/woman writing things in his/her notebook, not sending them out and not getting them published.”

      Well, if this is true, and I don’t think it is, then we would never know about it, and that would do wonders for our literary culture, wouldn’t it?

      “Once the term “economically viable” comes into play, you already stepped a million miles away. “

      A million miles away from what, exactly?

      “I agree with what A. D. Jameson said about he youth/beauty obsession of the small press world. It is certainly is just a sort of cheap replica of corporate America/world.

      Pretty young white boys and girls who think they are very smart. “

      Adam (A D Jameson) is not often wrong. But he is when he critiques the small press with the following:

      1.) There’s a lot of celebrity even at the small press level, which people often behave reverently toward. (And then there’s some backlash, but it’s a simple for/against binary.) This leads to situations where authors/presses/journals feel the need to create hype around a writer—to transform him or her into a celebrity, in order to sell books. This would be less of a problem if celebrity didn’t 99% of the time equal “young, pretty, and tending to say inscrutable things”—a type of celebrity that’s been in vogue for some time now (“the promise of hip, eternal youth”).

      Why are small presses so often obsessed with youth?
      Why do writers tend to “go Dylan” and say inscrutable things in interviews/bios/etc.?

      2.) There’s a very, very, very, very, very strong emphasis on consuming products. And there are many, many, many, many, many products to consume. It’s a real onslaught. I respect that many people want to write/publish, but surely there are other ways of sharing work other than just sell/buy.

      Adam does admit to “overgeneralizing” (an admission, though, that’s a major understatement). I see it differently. There are just too many presses that don’t have these aspects within their model. Adam knows this already, but here are some links to some independent presses that aren’t a “cheap replica of corporate America/world”:
      Dalkey Archive: http://www.dalkeyarchive.com/
      Chiasmus: http://www.chiasmusmedia.net/
      Mud Luscious: http://www.mudlusciouspress.com/
      Artistically Declined: http://www.artisticallydeclined.net/
      Ellipsis Press: http://www.ellipsispress.com/
      Graywolf: http://www.graywolfpress.org/
      Starcherone: http://www.starcherone.com/
      Coffee House: http://www.coffeehousepress.org/
      Les Figues: http://www.lesfigues.com/lfp/index.php
      Semiotext(e): http://www.semiotexte.com/
      FC2: http://fc2.org/
      Dzanc: http://www.dzancbooks.org/
      NY Tyrant: http://www.nytyrant.com/home.html
      Keyhole Press: http://www.keyholepress.com/
      Soft Skull: http://www.softskull.com/
      Tarpaulin Sky: http://www.tarpaulinsky.com/

      1. Oh, I’m wrong a lot, John!

        And certainly there are exceptions. Dalkey’s a great exception to everything I wrote. I often wish they did more to sell their books! (For instance, Josh Cohen will be reading tomorrow in Chicago to promote his new novel Witz, and from what I can see, Dalkey has done practically nothing to advertise the event. Their May e-newsletter, which I received three days ago, didn’t even mention it…)

        The others I’m less sure about. See my comments above re: FC2.

        How is, say, Les Figues an exception to anything I wrote? I’m not trying to say anything bad about Les Figues, mind you. Vanessa and Teresa are friends, and I know a lot of the authors there. I support Les Figues; I’ve subscribed to some of their series; I’ve reviewed some of their books.

        But Vanessa and Teresa are masters of selling their books! (I commend them for this.) They promote their stuff like crazy, in person, through emails, through their site. Hell, they ask you to buy not one book, but a series of books! That’s a lot of buying! And the books are designed as commodities; part of their interest is the way they look. (Again, I’m not entirely opposed to this. But to do this certainly isn’t kicking against any pricks.)

        And Les Figues is very much also selling a hip, rock star attitude along with their books. (Again, I commend them for this.) Vanessa is a total rock star. Les Figues is very youth-oriented, very hip. (I don’t think Vanessa and Teresa would deny this!)

        Where Les Figues stands apart, I think, is in the content that it’s offering. What its selling is opposed to a lot of dominant culture. But the way in which it sells it is very much modeled on dominant culture.

        NY Tyrant? Seriously? We live in different universes, John! That’s one of the hippest journals (and soon-to-be presses) around! (Nothing against them, mind you! I think they’re cool and very sweet.)

        Go ahead and click on their site. Here’s the first thing you’ll see:

        BABY LEG
        $35.00 ONLY 400 COPIES

        …Soft Skull????? C’mon, John—you’re not reading what I’m writing. That’s an entire press of rock stars! It’s arguably the most rock-star small press out there! Again, I’m not critiquing the content that’s on offer. I love a lot of Soft Skull books! (And I also don’t love a lot of other ones!) But you can’t seriously look me in the face and claim that’s not a youth-obsessed, hype-making, hipster press, regardless of what subversive materials they then use that model/image to put out there.

        Which is fine enough in its own time and place. I’m not opposed to those things being. It just seems to me that a lot of small presses—most small presses that I know—want to be those things: rock stars who sell books by other rock stars.

        1. Well Adam, I was addressing some things that you said, which you are now changing and qualifying and want me to respond to as if that was what you said in the first place. And you know how much I love that.

          1. Sorry, John. I’m not trying to make anyone mad. Let’s not fight. I love you.

            What I’ve been trying to do all along is to look at how small presses replicate dominant trends from the larger culture. That’s all. My explanations elsewhere in this thread are to try to point out how that happens, inasmuch as I see it happening.

            I’d argue that FC2 and Les Figues and NY Tyrant and Soft Skull (and others) are in fact doing that—they strike me as in part supporting several dominant US values. Which is fine! To some extent. But also perhaps not fine. I don’t know. That’s for them to decide! Not me!

            And I’m not trying to say that’s all they’re doing—far from it. But those are ways in which I see them as replicating the dominant culture, and not being counter-culture. For what that’s worth. Others are free to agree or disagree with me as they see fit. Or even care. Who wants to be a counter-culture? I’m trying to be as judgment-free as possible.

            I’m not trying to say that that’s all those small presses, or any small presses, are doing. I’m also not trying to pick on any one small press or journal or anyone. I never have much interest in doing those things.

            My main interest, here and elsewhere, lies in identifying dominant trends and determining my own degree of culpability in them. I’m not trying to judge anyone. I’m not a judge, man! I’m just a fellow trying to see what’s what around me, and point it out.

            Away with your weapon! I mean you no harm!

            And note that it’s J. A. who’s been talking more about business models. That’s of some interest to me, but in truth I know little about it. I’m more interested in how small presses promote particular dominant values form the larger US culture:
            . an emphasis on consumption;
            . an emphasis on youth;
            . a tendency toward hipness.

            I’ll stand by my claim that the presses I pointed out
            . emphasize consumption;
            . prize youth and hipness.

            To put it in your words, “they have those aspects within their models.” In addition to whatever else they’re doing, for good, for bad, for whatever.

            I don’t think I’m wrong about this.

          2. You asked, “Why are small presses so often obsessed with youth?” Perhaps some are. But this is hardly a defining characteristic.

            You asked, “Why do writers tend to ‘go Dylan’ and say inscrutable things in interviews/bios/etc.?” I have the same response. This is not the norm.

            You assert: “There’s a very, very, very, very, very strong emphasis on consuming products. And there are many, many, many, many, many products to consume. ”

            I don’t get the same feeling from the small press, that is, to “consume” “product” as you seem to get. For me, there’s much more of an emphasis on the quality of the material that’s being offered. Discussion is centered around language and form. It’s usually predicated on dialogue not the overwhelming monologic manipulation that we get from mass media that we must buy such and such to be like so and so, and all that.

            1. To clarify further:

              1. My training in Frankfurt School ideology critique leads me to see dominant, mostly unquestioned trends in the larger society.
              2. I look to smaller instances of the culture (as well as my own behavior) and wonder whether those trends are being replicated.

              I’m not talking about defining characteristics, norms, etc. I’m not trying to quantify any of this: “Press A values youth at 57%, while press B values it at 64%.” I have no interest in finding out which press values youth the most, or hipness the most, etc. Or in even condemning any of it! I mean, who really cares? And I like hip things! I’m going to pay like $80 to go see the Pavement reunion concert this summer at the goddamn Pitchfork Music Festival! I’m a radical socialist! (I may even wear an ironic t-shirt and short shorts and sunglasses when I go!)

              But goddammit, people shouldn’t pretend they’re opposing Big Culture when they replicate Big Culture’s values! If you have a small press that advertises all over and argues that people should buy your books, and you emphasize how young and sexy your writers are, and tries to make them rock stars, and in general tries to make people fee like they’re “missing out” on “the next big thing” if they’re not buying your books—then, no, my friend, you’re not subverting Dominant Culture. Not at that moment. Sorry.

              A lot of small presses are doing that and claiming otherwise. It’s true!

              Make of that what one will. In the meantime, I have two books coming out this fall, and all of you had damn well better buy them!!!

            2. And I agree with you that small presses value what they publish. And that there’s an emphasis on quality. And on discussion centered around language and form. I don’t disagree with any of that. I don’t think any of that is mutually exclusive with the other things I’m mentioning.

              The Hoover vacuum cleaner salesman really believes my life would be better off if I owned a Hoover vacuum. How could he not? It’s the superior vacuum! Studies prove it!

              Meanwhile, THANK GOD this NEVER HAPPENS in the small press world: a small journal accepts—or even solicits—work from a NAME AUTHOR whose work they MAY NOT EVEN CARE FOR because they know that having his work in their new issue will HELP SELL THAT ISSUE.

              And then readers see that author’s work in the issue and pick it up, and perhaps even buy it, even though THEY AREN’T BIG FANS OF THAT WRITER.

              …What’s so bad, John, about pointing out that these things happen in the small press world? Or are we too ashamed to discuss them?


            3. BTW, I’m working on a post, which I’ll post later tonight, which focuses more on alternative values, and things I think small presses could be doing in lieu of these things I’ve been pointing out. Which many presses are probably already doing!

              I really do have little interest in complaining about things, or in criticizing any particular press. There’s no real value in that.

              Rather, what I prefer doing is this:
              1. Identify a dominant trend.
              2. See if there are alternatives to said trend (that others have proposed, or that I can think of).
              3. Attempt to call attention to said alternatives.
              4. Leave it to others (and myself) as to what they’d like to be doing.
              5. Judge as little as possible.

              I freely admit that part of my motivation for doing this is that I am a natural-born contrarian.

    4. The true counter-culture is the 60 year old man/woman writing things in his/her notebook, not sending them out and not getting them published.

      I think that’s one kind of counter-culture, but there are other kinds, too. And opposing dominant culture doesn’t mean one need remain obscure.

      For example, if someone gave away all her writing for free, she’d be flying in the face of dominant culture. I used to know a semi-homeless poet, John Firefly, who would give away his poems to anyone he met. I published a few of them in a small zine/journal I used to help run, and he read at a few events I helped organize. Really interesting writer. And every writer in town knew Firefly, but he wasn’t doing anything “correctly,” in terms of trying to become successful—not successful as HarperCollins would define it. He was just writing and writing and writing and giving it away. (Last I heard, he was in the Seattle area. A friend of a friend ran into him.)

  3. Hi John,

    Why would someone writing in a notebook and not having it published not add to the literature of the world? Do you think Chuang Tzu was out looking for a publishing deal? Do you not value the letters of Van Gogh? Does something have to be bandied about to be useful?

    As for the list of presses, I won’t go through all of them, because it then turns into something personal.

    And being a cheap imitation of the corporate world is not meant as an insult. It is simply stating that they are working on a capitalist model. I understand that. I am working on that model too, as we all are.

    Even if you get public funding, it still the same model. Because getting funding one still needs to meet guidelines set up by entities who derive their money from the same system.

    1. Just out of curiousity also, how are these presses not a replica of the corporate world? The range you have given is rather broad, so it is hard to lump them all together, but there is a general trend: they are all trying to sell books. It is true that Mud Luscious is more like a woman selling vegetables at a market, but Soft Skull has a pretty large range of products. They have to sell product to survive, which means of course bringing it to market, getting interest, getting in book stores etc.

      1. A press selling something is not necessarily an indictment on their model. To call an independent press a “cheap imitation” of the major conglomerates is a massive simplification, and does nothing to show the myriad ways that these presses differ.

        1. Agreed. My apologies if you felt insulted. But corporations also differ. Trader Joe’s comes off as homey. Costco likes to emphasise that they are good employers.

          The real difference between corporations and some of the small presses you mentioned though is simply size. Which is of course important.

      2. JA:

        It’s smart if it is working and if your goal is to sell books.

        If your goal is some kind of higher art, then of course that is another matter and one that none of us can answer.

        But you are running a publishing house. So I think your goal should simply be to sell as many books as possible, no matter how many throats you have to cut.

        The vegetable woman screams at the top of her voice. She tries to sell you the old lettuce first. She claims all her products are fresh. She won’t let you leave her stand without filling up your basket. She doesn’t want to load the stuff back in her truck. She’ll even lie to you if she needs to, mess with the scales etc.

        1. Do we have to cut throats though? Adam of PGP brings up a good point below – small press success often breeds more small press success – so maybe we don’t have to bruise one another in the process?

          And god, please let me be someone else then, someone other than the vegetable woman – she is selling shitty lettuce, lying about it, harassing people, and cheating.

          Could I be an old man selling basil? He looks so nice that you just want to say hi, see how he is doing, then he gives you a free taste and you are in love and you have to walk out with a bag full, because he was so nice and the product so good and when you walk away you feel better than when you arrived.

          Can I be him?

          1. Sure, you don’t need to be a vegetable woman. Sorry, my experience is mostly vegetable markets in Italy where these ladies who run their stands are incredibly good at selling their produce.

            As for cutting throats. I don’t mean each other’s. I mean the larger publishers.

            A small press can do many things a large press can for a fraction of the cost, simply because you put in your time for free and are able to make personal contacts in a way a large press doesn’t. I am saying that you should exploit that power. That is what I mean by “cutting throats”.

            1. Ah. That makes more sense. Thanks for clarifying.

              I don’t mind selling products (it is what I do for a small portion of the editorial process) but I never want that to be at the expense of another indie press (as in: buy our book and not theirs – if anything I would like for people to buy ours and theirs, and maybe get a discount in the process…)

              1. And that is why I don’t want to single out any small press in public. Even the people who are publishing the things I don’t like I respect and want to see survive.

                1. Wait. Maybe no?

                  Do I want a small press to survive if they are publishing junk? Or is the label of ‘junk’ just my opinion and I have to keep it to myself?

                  1. Well, I don’t want to be the guy that kills them. I have publishers out there who have totally burned me. Who owe me money even. But I still don’t publicly say anything.

                    Maybe this is wrong of course. I just don’t want to be the guy that desroys a small publisher.

                    But I am a “writer” so I don’t consider this part of my function.

  4. The deeper I get into publishing, the more relevant the business aspects become, and the harder it is to focus on editorial matters. But the editorial stuff is easy. It’s much more difficult to compete with all the other small presses doing work they are equally proud of. Two things about this: 1) the competition has created a community that sustains me; 2) the competition weakens the community by publishing work that is not interesting to a broader readership.

      1. Both ways. Ben Brooks’s idea is awesome and, though I’m currently exhausted with promotion, it inspires me with its ambition and ingenuity and personal touch. Also, great book design gets me pumped.

        And at the same time, the better MLP does, the better PG does. When you bring in new readers who are excited about what you’re doing, it of course translates to sales for other presses.

        1. That is a solid point – the more people read and love small presses, the more people look for and buy from small presses.

          Plus, this community (you are right) eggs you on – asks you to be a better publisher, to do tighter layout, to make stronger covers. Good good point.

  5. I don’t know whether or not Chuang Tzu sought to have his works published. But that’s inconsequential. We wouldn’t know about his work if it weren’t commercially published. Same thing with van Gogh, and it should be noted that van Gogh made numerous complaints to his brother and others about money, about his dismal financial affairs.

    Something can only be useful to others if it is made available.

    You don’t want to identify presses to substantiate your claims. As a result, your claims come across as knee-jerk and glib. Why make those unsubstantiated claims anyway when they fall flat?

    “Cheap imitation” is always an insult. How could it not be?

    1. Chuang Tzu was not commercially published until thousands of years after his death. Homer was not even written down until hundreds of years after his.

      Are you saying that only once they were commercially published did the beauty of their work become real?

      Cheap imitation is not an insult. It is simply a rough way of speaking.

      1. “Chuang Tzu was not commercially published until thousands of years after his death. Homer was not even written down until hundreds of years after his.”

        Yes, and our culture has been enhanced because of it. Imagine if these works were published much earlier.

        1. Our culture is better because they were commercially published? How so?

          Because more people read something it somehow becomes more meaningful?

          I don’t believe this.

          1. I have to say that the development and refinement of print culture was quite profound — I think I agree with John here…

            As far as the academy — I don’t think there’s a need to bash it. For one thing, it’s the place for some serious historical study that can shed light on our current practices… I’m thinking of a book like Meredith McGill’s American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting, 1834-1853, which makes the argument that our national literature was fostered by “what we would call rampant literary piracy”:


            1. But didn’t all this also lead to the current state of the world, with its oil spills, nuclear weapons etc. More forest has been lost in the few hundred years since people started printing books than in thousands of years of previous civilization.

              I understand where you guys are coming from, but I am not sure it is true. Printing also destroyed a whole culture of verbal story telling that surely used people’s imagination.

              1. Sure, sure… the dialectic of the enlightenment, right? Progress is also regress– I do agree with that. But, to me, the printing of literature seems a bit far off from weapons of mass destruction and industries of mass contamination…

                And point taken about what Diana Taylor calls the difference between the printed archive and the performative repertoire (which includes a tradition of verbal story tellling)…

                but I’m thinking about J.A.’s point below about the exclusivity of collectives and verbal story telling is a bit like that, I think…I mean, Howl exists in print for those who weren’t at the Six Gallery in SF in ’55, right? Print is just a flat out great way to connect diverse publics…

                1. I love print. We all do otherwise we wouldn’t be here. I am just not sure I can equate dissemination with quality. It is nice to have thousands of people read something you write, but it does not make the writing better or worse.

    2. But I see too how difficult it is too – to substantiate these claims when we all (or most of us) are seeking publication with these presses and don’t want to burn bridges (right?)

      1. Sort of. I don’t mind burning a few bridges, since the water is shallow.

        But I think that if anyone were genuinely offended by what I am saying, enough so they would not publish me, then probably that is a press I’d be better off away from anyhow.

        Part of the thing here is that this discussion is theoretical, which seemed the way you originally framed it.

        But, after a certain point, though I would love to see all my work published, I don’t care all that much. The stuff that sits in my notebooks I don’t value any less than that which gets published.

        In the end, there is a certain meaninglessness to the publishing process. An ego thing that isn’t always nice and is often sort of sad.

        1. are there pieces though that sit in your notebook, that you value, that you will stop attempting to find a publisher for?

          I have pieces that are unpublished, sure, but if I value them I keep attempting to find the right press – and when I do leave them for good, box them up in a digital folder or whatever, that is when I have made the determination that they are not good enough to be published…

          1. Well, everything I write is for publication I guess.

            Maybe the things no one wants to publish are the best?

            How many editors turned down Lolita before it was published?

  6. JA: I think you are correct: The pretended craziness IS the trend. And in a way it goes with pretend counter culture. Back in the 60s in San Francisco there was a group called the Diggers who my father was involved with. They would just give everything away. They even had a “free” store. You walked in and took what you want.

    So there are other models to work from.

    What I would like to see personally regarding writing is a complete change. I think it should not be taught at universities (I realise you are a teacher of course, so sorry if this sounds rough). I am not talking about writing in general, but creative writing. Poetry. The arts.

    Because, teaching it at university automatically validates it as a possible career choice. Every year the universities churn out new idealists ready to make their mark in the world. More computers, more blogs. But a lot of this being done without the experiences that make good writing.

    Again, I am sure I sound like a jerk… But you asked.

    1. i studied writing in college and, while doing so, used that knowledge to run an after-school program for teens in inner-city Chicago. the program sought to democratize the writing process, instill a love of literature in young people who otherwise wouldn’t read a book.

      academia isn’t inherently evil. an education is just as much about what you put into it as what you get out of it.

      “But a lot of this being done without the experiences that make good writing.”

      what does that mean? life experience directly translates to good writing? i don’t buy that and i never will.

        1. i think there’s a lot of truth to this. but it also undermines the power of the imagination–which is fueled primarily through the acts of reading and writing themselves. good writing comes through discipline. a good education should always enforce the idea of discipline.

          believe me, i understand where you’re coming from. i actually left teaching behind (i was an adjunct at a private college while in grad school) because i was largely disgusted with departmental politics, the complacency of many of my colleagues.

          but there are good things happening in higher education. and yes, i believe that writing can be taught.

            1. okay, this might get rambly.

              i don’t have a problem with writing being taught as a career.

              if we were to discuss specific individuals, on a case-by-base basis, in private, of course i might argue that some people shouldn’t be defining “good writing” to eager students. but overall i think that career teaching is a viable way to make a living.

              i think the larger problem lies in college recruitment tactics. potential students, as well as active students, should be head’s up about the everyday applications of studying creative writing.

              the not-very-funny joke in my program was always that an MFA and 2 dollars could get you on the subway. so the mentality then becomes: well i should go into teaching, then. use my degree, still get summers to work on my writing.

              this raises a difficult question: when is an instructor qualified to be teaching writing to college-age students? should they have to go out into the world, be tested, come back with battle scars and a list of publications?

              i honestly don’t know the answer to this.

          1. Discipline in the physical act of writing, or in reading, studying?

            I think to be a “career” writer you are probably right. But what if one just wants to write some good poems?

            1. then you’d probably have to write some bad ones first, don’t you think? i wrote without trying to get published for years. regularly. and then, eventually, i started thinking that maybe some of my stuff was getting good enough to send out. then i got rejected for a couple more years. but there was always that drive to get better. not necessarily to publish. just to get better, to enjoy the process more.

        1. No, not YCA. I do know some people who worked with them, though. I’m not going to type out the whole program name–I’m google paranoid–but I will say that it was funded by a non-profit and partnered through the college I worked for. So there were some push/pull external pressures that made things rather difficult.

          1. I know some of the YCA folk, too. I like what they’re doing.

            I think more writers should do charity work and community outreach, in general. Although look at me: I haven’t done any in years. (Like I said in the last post, I point the finger at myself first and foremost.)

    2. Not rough at all – I teach at the high school level, so my job is just to get students interested in writing, to show them that language can do whatever they like – its why I bring small press authors like Peter Markus into the classroom, to illustrate the inventiveness and shattering qualities of language.

      1. By the way: On a middle-school, high scool level I fully advocate creative writing. I start to have a problem with it once it goes to university level.

          1. Exactly. Once you tell someone they can make a living out of it, it loses its innocence and a lot of people get hurt.

            1. The flipside can be true, though, too. I wrote all through grade school and high school, then went to college for math and biology. I didn’t think writing was anything serious. In college I took a writing course and realized it was what I really loved, and switched my major. I dedicated my life to writing. That may not have happened had I not taken that class. Or it might have taken me a lot longer.

              Since then, I’ve mostly prioritized my life around writing.

            2. I don’t really believe in writing as being anything “innocent,” although I realize others may not share that opinion…

              (Actually, one of my pet interests is tracking down how writing is and always has been part of the world, in all its aspects. I’m a materialist at heart.)

            3. (I also regret that my undergrad and grad writing teachers didn’t teach me more about how to make a career out of writing! I’ve mostly had to figure that stuff out for myself…)

  7. Just one last comment before I retire:

    I think the idea of getting money from contests is a bad one. “FC2” was mentioned doing this. The corporate/capitalist model actually seems cleaner than the one where people pay money to enter a contest/lottery.

  8. Hi J.A. —

    On first thought, “subvert[ing] the dominant book culture while remaining economically viable” seemed like an impossibility to me– as you say, you need more revenue to print the books that you want to support. When one doesn’t focus so much on money (and I think this is what John M. is doing), one realizes that indie presses do go against the grain by publishing daring, out-of-the-box work, by supporting authors who may have not solidified a reputation, etc. I suppose it depends upon how you define “subvert.”

    It seems like you’re talking more about the means of production and distribution (like the Ben Brooks approach– also Estela Lamat, the Chilean poet I translate, published her first two books with Santiago-based Contrabando
    del bando en contra, which prohibits the sale of their books)…

    I was also thinking of the Subpress model (http://www.durationpress.com/subpress/about.htm) — and we can add this to John’s fine list above:

    “Subpress is a collective that is supported by nineteen members who have agreed to donate 1% of their yearly income for three years. Each person is responsible for editing one book. A lottery determined the editing order.”

    But in all of these cases, so far, the money to make the books has to come somewhere… Sometimes it really does seem that “[f]reedom of the press is limited to those who own one.”

    You pose a really tough question — collective donations is one answer … I suppose doing the digital thing is another … also getting printers to do pro bono work (and here we’re getting into the realm of fiction…)

    1. I think it is more about production / distribution and less about content / style (plenty of presses are subverting the ‘norm’ of content in a variety of ways).

      I want to know more about Contrabando (please give us details) but isn’t a model like Subpress just a more hidden way of self-publishing?

      Collectives sometimes bother me because they are so restrictive – i.e. we want you to buy our books, read our titles, but you cannot submit and you cannot join unless we pick you and if you are picked and you do join you’ll have to pay money.

      I don’t know if this is exactly how Subpress exists (there is minimal info on the site) but most collectives I think have this same sort of inherent structure.

      1. Well, Contrabando seems to me like a self-publishing collective…books are made in limited editions and distributed by a kind of coterie circulation…some will mysteriously pop up in libraries but the books are, in general, very difficult to obtain unless you know the people who have them and know where to get them.

        Mulling over this a bit more– collectives seem to look backward to pre-printing press days of coterie manuscript circulation (except that the books are buyable), and I guess this is in service of avoiding commodified print culture…but as you say, there is an exclusivity to this, as far as having a closed submission policy. But — I don’t know — if this gets one more interesting text into the world, then I’m fine with that.

  9. I think the conversation about whether writing can or should be taught as a career should also be pulled out into a separate post. David, would like to do a guest post on it?

  10. this is a ‘problem’ i’ve been thinking of for quite awhile.

    but here’s my idea based on my hesitancy to buy small press authors. This won’t solve everything.

    We need a digital library collective.

    Mudluscious & Such/Such & Such/such & such/such submit PDF/EPUB/KINDLE/whatever other agreed upon format to some sort of database. Some sort of database charges a monthly subscription (like eMusic).

    Members have access to read titles online behind this digital paywall. PDFs could be downloaded or just read online or whatever. Links to buy the hard copies. A portion of the subscription could be used for free books, split among publisher members/I don’t know exactly.

    This may be refined, but I think it could work. I love going to the library. I love getting the books there. I read people i wouldn’t buy…if i don’t like it, i give it back. Small presses need to be in libraries & I think this could also work.

    1. this is a really good idea. i’d like to see this happen too. if there were some sort of minimal fee-based database that allowed you to access a bulk of archived and new titles with similar music-industry restrictions, then it would be akin to a library and if you found something you loved you could pay a member-reduced fee for a paperback edition or something like that. there’s a lot of books i’d like to check out but don’t have the money to spend to buy them all individually, and also i’m a huge fan of the preview-before-you-buy mentality, of which a page-long excerpt on a press’s website is hardly enough to grok a sense of the whole.

      adam, even though it’s an already prevalent model in the music industry, doesn’t this strike you as an alternative to the dominant model, a hybridization of a collective and capitalism?

      1. Yeah, these are all great ideas! People should work toward making this happen, for sure. This is a similar problem in comics: you often can’t get them in libraries, so if you want to read them, you have to buy them (or borrow them from friends). It makes it hard to read broadly, unless you have lots and lots of money. (I’ve always wanted to start a comics library…)

        And this reminds me of another thing that we can be doing: get small press books into local and university libraries! A lot of libraries will order books if patrons ask for them. University libraries, for instance, often want suggestions and feedback from students and faculty. I used to suggest titles to ISU’s Milner Library all the time.

        Related to this, publishers can offer libraries discounts on their titles. Dalkey does this, or used to: libraries can buy the entire catalog for a very low, flat rate. (This includes prison libraries, which are often shamefully overlooked.)

        People can also start their own libraries. Here’s a great one: The Chicago Underground Library. It collects Chicago-based ephemera, specializing in anything an above-ground library wouldn’t want. Its founder, Nell Taylor, has been working for years to solve related problems and help lay the theoretical groundwork for such an institution, so it can be replicated elsewhere.

        Libraries are simply marvelous.

  11. I want to clarify that I’m not opposed to anyone buying or selling anything. Or to anyone being a rock star. Hell, one of my favorite artists of all time is Morrissey, and one of the things I love about him—adore about him—is how he’s a total rock star who has crafted an untouchable rock star persona around him. When I saw him in concert last summer, I swooned along with everyone else when he came onstage, then swooned even more when he took his shirt off. I love Morrissey! And I’d be him in a heartbeat if I could!

    Life would be much poorer without rock stars.

    The problem is when certain values become dominant values, and proceed to dominate culture such that everything else becomes organized around them. There’s nothing inherently wrong with celebrity. There’s nothing inherently wrong with youth. There’s not even anything necessarily wrong with having money! (I wish I had more, much more.) But when those things become the dominant values in one’s life, and the basis of what one does, what most people do, then things go out of whack.

    The US circa 2010 is a youth-obsessed, wealth-obsessed culture, where many many people want to be famous, and spend their time thinking about famous people. That is the dominant culture. And I submit that, to the extent that any small press is pursuing these aims for itself and for its writers (especially to the exclusion of other goals), it’s not being part of a counter-culture. This is simple Frankfurt School ideology critique 101: If you’re not opposing dominant ideology, then you’re supporting it. And if you’re promoting it yourself, then you’re definitely supporting it!

    Which is fine! Who wants to be a counter-culture, anyway? Counter-cultures can be terrible things! Look at the Tea Party—let’s hope they don’t become the dominant culture.

    And, again, the problem isn’t youth, celebrity, money per se. It’s when they are the dominant values, excluding or mostly excluding other values.

    This begs the question: what other values are there? What else could presses be doing?

    I’m not opposed to writers becoming famous and making money. I wish more writers could support themselves from their writing…even—myself!

    1. I’ve been thinking about this as it relates to the awards season… someone who ought to know these things was telling me over the weekend that the awards tend to go to the hot new thing.

      So, that’s interesting. As someone who’s part of the younger writing generation, it dovetails with my interests–I’ve been impatient to see work that, for instance, appears in online markets, be acknowledged alongside work from print markets. I also resonate with the work of younger writers–sometimes more than with the work of older writers, although I certainly love a lot of that, too.

      But what does that mean, to favor the new and bold and aggressive and flawed? Over the tempered?

      I do, generally, admire fiction that takes risks, which is often fiction that I would describe as “new and bold and aggressive and flawed” rather than “tempered.” But does it lose its merit if its been around a while? If the same person has been taking new risks for 30 years, and the risks remain risky, is the fiction less interesting anyway because we’re aware that person takes risks so they’ve become passe?

      An editor told me recently he doesn’t generally expect anyone’s writing career to last longer than 10 years. Ack. Start the clock…

      1. Their is nothing wrong with being young, but most writers get better as they get older. Not more refined necessarily, but better.

        1. Also, for the “10 year” thing. That is absurd. History would say something very different. But maybe the editor you were talking about meant being in the spotlight rather than writing and being published.

          1. I expect he was talking about average careers– people who maybe publish a dozen short stories or even make a big splash and then go off and do something else–rather than memorable ones. Like, take a random sampling of names in magazines, and most of them won’t last longer than ten years.

            1. I agree with that completely. A lot of people who I know from 10 years ago aren’t around any more as far as I can see, or are doing very little.

              A lot of people get frusterated and move on to something else I think.

      2. Rachel, re: your first paragraph:

        Yes, the emphasis on the “new” is part of the fetishization of youth, and the culture of instant celebrity (and then overturning that to find the new new celebrities). Now, now, now! Ever onward, into the gleaming future.

        How many small journals publish reviews? Hands up!

        How many are willing to publish reviews of books that are more than two years old?

        How many are willing to publish reviews of books that have gone out of print?

        If not willing to publish reviews of those books, then how about articles?

        If not reviews and articles about those books, then how about actual reprints?

        If not any of these, then why not? Why replicate the large press mentality of the “ever-new” in this regard? Especially since we know that small presses don’t have the ad budgets to tell the whole world about a book the second it comes out. It takes time for our books to find their readers…

        1. Like, books of criticism? Aqueduct does that. It’s kind of specialized.

          I’m not sure what you mean; I thought we were talking about presses that put out books, which rarely contain reviews, unless the books are criticism. Books of criticsm often seem to include contemplations of older work…

          I guess you mean small press magazines? I guess it’s true that mostly the reviews are of newer things.

          1. Reviews in small press journals. But, yes, also small presses putting out works of literary criticism. Or non-fiction in general.

            People discuss books on blogs (although even there it often focuses on the new); we should explore other places where we can discuss them. I think.

  12. Maybe I am making too simple of a point, and maybe the fact that I am horribly congested and slightly feverish is leading me to post obvious or stupid things, but:

    It seems to me that the most important difference between many of the independent small presses and the big corporate ones is that small presses often and ideally get to pick the books they love and then try to sell as many copies of them as possible, whereas a bigger press is obliged to think of sales first and then, hopefully, also happens to love the work as art.

    This is why size and funding streams are so critical. if you get public funding or have very low overhead, you really don’t need to sell that many books and can take much bigger aesthetic chances. This is simple, but it seems really important and, in important ways, counter to dominant publishing culture.

    Now, as for rock stars: what we are really talking about is micro-celebrity, which is a totally weird thing, sure, but is different from celebrity proper. This is because, at least in a lot of cases, the micro-celebrities really are producing excellent work.

    This model is then very different from the dominant model, because it replaces the practice of publishing books for the purpose of making money with that of making money for the purpose of publishing books; and it replaces the fixation on (largely not that talented) mega-celebrities with fixations on (often highly talented) micro-celebrities.

    Thus the change in scale is actually a change in kind.

    1. Pretty well thought out for fevered and congested.

      But even the celbrities are often producing good work it seems to me. Is Dave Eggers a celbrity of micro celbrity?

  13. Even though as I type this I’m late sending Adam’s box of NOÖ 11s to him for speckling around Chicago, one of the things I’ve always said about giving away the paper NOÖs for free is that I hope it will get people who don’t know about this small press community to then “dive in” and further explore the people/presses mentioned in the magazine. This is how I’ve always found out about stuff: free mentioning and suggesting follow-up, (someone on a Bright Eyes messageboard mentioning Neutral Milk Hotel, etc) so that’s the model I work with.

    Which I guess is somewhat an endorsement of “alternative” models (giving away a magazine versus selling it), but not really, because I’m mostly giving it away, I guess, to cultivate attention for the traditional models: here’s your free primer / if you like it, buy stuff!

    Other projects like isReads do a similar thing, and operate also on the romantic notion of the “unknown reader” “stumbling” across the thing they didn’t even know they’d love. Which is a problematic notion and statistically nonviable, but definitely motivational in terms of having overall energy and enthusiasm.

    1. I’m happy to help distribute any journal in Chicago. Just send them to me! Contact me back channel if you’re interested. (This is for anyone.)

      I’m also happy to help distribute books. Time permitting, of course, but I like writing reviews and helping authors get into bookstores, etc.

      Of course, what’s really needed is a shared bank of information that helps writers/presses/journals know where they can go to distribute their work. No need to reinvent the wheel each time someone does something.

      Small record labels know this. They compile lists of venues where their bands can play, then provide them with it. Small press folk can compile lists of venues, bookstores, etc. DIY book tours and distribution.

      Check out Jim Munroe for more. There’s someone with the right ideas.

      1. Couldn’t agree more on this. A lot of small presses I know have very small lists of reviewers and those reviewers also tend to be places that are well known (meaning it is harder to find a slot with them).

        1. Most small journals that I see don’t run reviews, period. They run new work, and new work only.

          And no translations.

          I always wonder why.

          DISCLAIMER: I once helped run a small journal (nine issues) that published no reviews whatsoever!

          I now wonder why. That’s something I’d do differently, now.

          (We did publish a few translations, though.)

          1. Yes, the translation thing is a major issue.

            The last time a small journal printed something I translated they credited it to me, instead of the actual poet. So now I am wary about even sending zines translations.

      2. ha, i actually did one of his perpetual motion roadshows back in 2006! it was fun. i did it at the tail end of its lifespan, so i think enthusiasm/support was waning, but i had a great time

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