From the Archive: “Independent Presses and ‘Little’ Magazines in American Culture” (2001)

This article by Gayle Feldman, titled “Independent Presses and ‘Little’ Magazines in American Culture: A Forty Year Retrospective, was commissioned by the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (now the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses) and originally published on our website in 2001. It provides a look at twentieth century independent publishing and at the publishing landscape in 2001.

The book and magazine publishing landscape in America has changed enormously in recent decades, and the pace of change promises to accelerate even more dizzyingly during the first few years of this new millennium. Amid the ferment, the nation’s independent presses and smaller literary magazines have played crucial roles within the publishing macrocosm and the culture as a whole. Unfortunately this contribution has all too often gone unrecognized.

In part this is because we’ve frequently chosen to consign literature to the arena of commerce pure and simple. In that context, success and influence are measured in sales figures and very little else.

In part it’s because American society has traditionally been far more beguiled by and philanthropically supportive of the muses of dance, music, theater, film, and the visual arts than of the printed word. The performing and visual arts are public, attention-seeking, and attention-gathering by their very nature. Despite the relatively recent burgeoning of author tours, reading groups, and poetry slams, a 1999 report commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) reminds us that literature in essence is “less visible than other arts, since writing and reading are done in private.”

In part it is also because modern America seeks the unifying reassurance of bigness, mass, and the brand name, and recognizes only in bursts—often belated, often nostalgic, and always erratic—the value in that which is small.

Nevertheless, a study commissioned by the NEA in 1994 gave public voice to what has long been privately assumed within the publishing world: “Most writers of literature, including those who go on to prominence, will [first] find their way into print through small presses.” Think of Allen Ginsberg, Paul Auster, Dorothy Allison, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, Jayne Ann Phillips, Sherman Alexie, to name just a few.

Often decades elapse before the lasting value of many such writers’ work is generally recognized, yet we live in an era when the business imperatives of commercial publishing are putting good books out of print after only a few years. Therefore the fact that “by all accounts, titles from small publishing houses have long lives” is even more important today than it was when Publishers Weekly reached that conclusion in a special report on independent presses back in 1982.

A Quick History

In the history of publishing, the swinging ‘60s had more in common with the roaring ‘20s than with Y2K. Forty years ago, “large” book and magazine companies were by today’s standards quite small. Companies were national, not global. They were mainly controlled by larger-than-life individuals, partnerships, or families. Books and magazines were sold in department stores, drug stores, and individually owned bookshops. Printing was done without the benefit of computers. Television hardly figured in bookselling. And the internet only existed in the science fiction dreams of a very few.

We live and read in a world almost unrecognizable by the standards of that era. Now publishing is dominated by a few huge multinational corporations, many of whom see themselves as purveyors of information or entertainment rather than as “mere” publishers. We buy books from a handful of national chains and dotcoms who themselves are supplied by a handful of national wholesalers and distributors, and the day is hastening when we shall buy from megapublishers selling directly to us online. Although soon we’ll make purchases printed in response to our individual demands, industry market statistics concur that fewer of us are serious readers than in the past. And television’s Oprah Winfrey is the single most effective salesforce literature has.

Yet according to George Gibson, president of Walker Books, a 40-year-old family-owned mid-sized commercial house that has managed to publish several prominent literary nonfiction bestsellers in recent years, “what underpins entirely the publishing world is smaller presses. The big publishers are loath to admit it; there are thousands of these presses, most not in New York, most very small.”

Gibson has spent years straddling the two worlds, first at Godine, then as acting CEO of the small press distributor Consortium, and currently at Walker. He’s also on the board of the nonprofit Curbstone Press, and has acted as advisor to the Mellon Foundation and the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund. “The American public,” he observes, “is incredibly demanding in the diversity of books it seeks. The big publishers couldn’t possibly fulfill those wishes, so the small presses collectively fuel the industry with their breadth and passion.”

Passion and strength of purpose infuse the history of independent press and magazine publishing and permeate the conversation of those who work in the field. In the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, intellectuals, writers, and mavericks became publishers because of their particular literary passions, doing so using inherited money, like New Directions’s James Laughlin in New York, or on a shoestring, like City Lights’s Lawrence Ferlinghetti in San Francisco. Many who weren’t financed by a personal fortune began by distributing their publications “via personal networks and on hearsay,” says Paul Yamazaki, the long-time buyer at the legendary City Lights store.

In the 1960s and ‘70s it was little magazines rather than book presses that seemed almost to spring up spontaneously. Many got their start in the counterculture and antiwar movements, often “as a matter of connection between poets, friends, and lovers,” says Rodney Phillips, curator of the Berg literature collection at the New York Public Library. These groups of friends manned the mimeo machines in much the same way young ‘zine publishers proliferate on the world wide web today, although the mimeo publishers’ world was far more political and far less commercial than its ‘zine counterpart. As Phillips puts it, “there was a lot of heart and soul to it. They’d print a couple of hundred copies of each issue and invite friends over for a collating party,” thinking they could change the world.

Then, as now, thousands of magazines were born—and died—each year. Not many lasted more than six issues. If they survived a few years, their publishers occasionally ventured into the terra incognita of books. In the literary field, a magazine’s lifespan does not necessarily correlate with its cultural influence.

Thirty-five years ago magazine start-ups were especially prolific in the counterculture meccas of New York and San Francisco. Often enough their poet-publishers shuttled between the two cities. Some started up in Los Angeles and Chicago, and more recently others have been spawned in many different parts of the country. As Michael Coffey, former editor of Small Press and currently managing editor of Publishers Weekly, notes, “their geographic distribution over the years can be charted to wherever enlightened arts councils were operating.”

The New York Public Library’s Rodney Phillips points to some significant efforts from the early years: The Floating Bear, edited by LeRoi Jones (aka Amiri Baraka) in the sixties; Big Sky, published out of Bolinas, Ca. in the seventies; the “highly experimental” 0 to 9 and Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts; Grist, which dates back to 1964 and now publishes online after an eleven-year hiatus; and Hanging Loose, which began in Brooklyn in 1966 and still exists. Phillips says that cutting-edge poetry presses like Sun & Moon in Los Angeles and Burning Deck in Providence, RI, show the influence of those progenitors. So, too, do nineties start-ups like Tender Buttons Press, edited by Lee Ann Brown in New York, and Explosive, begun by Katy Lederer in Iowa City before moving to New York.

Literary magazines enabled fledgling writers “to have a voice—and one that allowed a greater freedom of expression than a mainstream publisher would,” Phillips explains. The Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines (CCLM), the forerunner of CLMP, which was founded by the National Endowment for the Arts as a regranting organization in 1967, was “very important,” Phillips says, in the lives of these magazines. Indeed, he reckons that in many cases funding through CCLM was “the only way these magazines continued to publish.”

In the late 1970s, changes in the postal rates made it more expensive for bookstores to return unsold magazines, which in turn made retailers even less inclined to carry literary journals than before. On the other hand, technological developments were making books less expensive to print than before. And through improvements in distribution channels, small press titles were finding their way into an increasing number of outlets.

The development of viable national book distribution channels during the 1980s and early 1990s was the key factor in counteracting booksellers’ skittishness about stocking literary press titles, and in turning many publishers away from pamphlets and journals to books. David Unowski, founder of Ruminator Books in St. Paul and its sister press and review (all previously known as Hungry Mind) has witnessed its development from the era of hit-or-miss counterculture idealism to the business pragmatism of today.

Unowski remembers how “in the early days, Plains Distribution got some grant money and distributed presses out of N. Dakota, sometimes even loading the books onto a bus and going to schools or bringing them to towns that had never seen such things before. Later David Wilk founded Truck Distribution.” Truck Distribution was eventually taken over and renamed it Bookslinger, and later transformed from what was technically a wholesaler into a distributor renamed Consortium Book Sales and Distribution.

On the West Coast Small Press Distribution (SPD) sprang up in 1969 and remains the only nonprofit distributor in operation. It takes on even the very smallest publishers. Other distributors popped up around the country, some of whom have come and gone—the returns crisis of the mid-1990s (discussed below) forced more than one into liquidation. Currently Consortium and Publishers Group West are arguably the two most important independent press distributors nationally.

For Paul Yamazaki, the founding of Consortium was the single most critical step to effecting a sea-change in retailers’ attitudes to independent press books. Even for a store like City Lights, long a bastion of support for literary publishing, “our sales with the original six presses distributed by Consortium jumped at least one hundred percent for each one of them the year after it was founded. In so many cases we hadn’t been aware of the books they were publishing until after the fact. Suddenly we were able to find out about them in advance and prepare for them just as we would for books from Knopf or Simon & Schuster.”

Arguably, though, it was developments within the publishers themselves, developments that also reflected changes in the commercial publishing environment around them, that brought about the greatest transformation in the 1990s. As an NEA study pointed out, most presses traditionally labored under the severe constraints of gross undercapitalization, geographic isolation, modest marketing capability, and, as already discussed, limited access to distribution.

In the 1990s, however, new programs at CLMP led many key publishers, as described by John O’Brien of Dalkey Archive Press, “to completely change my thinking. Instead of avoiding that tidal wave known as the future, I was given the opportunity to get serious about publishing, and to spectacular effect.”

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation had agreed to fund nine presses to develop their organizational long-term planning ability in the hope that if these succeeded they would serve as models for others. The institutions included Coffee House, Milkweed, Graywolf, Copper Canyon, Arte Público, Curbstone, Story Line, and Sun & Moon.

From 1991, the year following the initial Andrew W. Mellon grants, through today, publishers were able to benefit from another granting program initially administered by CLMP, this time focusing on audience development under the auspices of the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund. Others receiving grants included Coffee House, Milkweed, Arte Público, Copper Canyon, Theatre Communications Group, Boston Review, Ploughshares, Sarabande Books, and The New Press.

The combination of the two grants at once had an enormous impact on many publishers. It altered the number of readers the presses could reach as well as how sound they were financially. O’Brien adds, “Anyone who thinks they can exclusively publish serious literary books for profit is under a complete illusion, because sales alone can’t sustain the venture over the long haul. No commercial publisher has an obligation to preserve our culture or to lose money to preserve the works of fine writers for whom there is not a huge market.”

Unfortunately, rapid expansion and unrealistic ordering on the part of the chain bookstores caused mountains of unsold books to be returned to every publisher, commercial and non-commercial, which made the mid-90s a difficult period for all publishers. Small presses were often particularly hard-hit by the returns crisis.

But the lessons learned by some of the presses enabled them to weather such vicissitudes and indeed to make structural changes that have strengthened their publishing base through building critical, stable backlists that will help presses continue to publish in other areas.

Literary Vision

America’s independent literary magazines and presses have the courage, vision and tenacity to take on writers and, indeed, whole areas of literature that large publishers are either too nervous about or have abandoned in favor of shorter-term commercial interests.

The independents look to the long term and they look to diversity. They provide the new, the unproved, the experimental, or the foreign with a forcing ground and a first opportunity to connect with American readers; they publish for underserved constituencies; they consistently support poetry at a time when most commercial houses do not; they give another chance to good writers whose first or second or third books haven’t performed as commercial balance sheets mandate; and they bring back into print distinguished works that have dipped below the literary radar screen.

For example, Dalkey Archive Press concentrates on reprinting books like Aldous Huxley’s Point Counterpoint and Flann O’Brien’s At Swim Two Birds. It has also produced original fiction like David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress. Markson had been previously published by Henry Holt., who with scores of other houses had turned down the novel as being too experimental.

Similar stories abound in the annals of other presses. One of the most prominent examples comes from Milkweed. When Emilie Buchwald decided to take on novelist Larry Watson, his book had already been rejected by 17 publishers. But Montana 1948 went on to win many awards, be published in ten languages, and sell 35,000 copies in hardcover for Milkweed and more than 125,000 copies in paperback for Washington Square Press, to whom Milkweed licensed the reprint.

As one example, agent Ira Silverberg mentions the independents’ trailblazing role in promoting gay, lesbian, and feminist literature. Crossing Press began publishing in this area as early as the 1970s, and the Feminist Press did pioneering work in women’s studies. Dorothy Allison was first published by Firebrand and the poet Sapphire started at High Risk.

On another front, Allan Kornblum speaks of how increasingly, during the past five years, literary agents have approached Coffee House “to take on a published writer who’s been blackballed in New York because his or her book didn’t sell at least 10,000 copies. We’re willing to take on such writers, work with them editorially, build their careers.”

Emilie Buchwald provides another example of the independent’s role. In 1991, Milkweed took on the Pakistani writer Bapsi Sidhwa’s autobiographical novel Cracking India (on which the recent film Earth was based ) after it was turned down by a slew of commercial houses. It has kept the book in print—“one of the most important services we perform,” Buchwald emphasizes—and has sold 16,000 copies to date, experiencing a “wonderful resurgence” in this and two other books by Sidhwa when Earth was released.

Curbstone has been very active on behalf of Vietnamese and Hispanic authors, part of their mission to publish socially relevant literature. Kaya, one of the newer independents, has come into being expressly to publish fresh voices in Asian American literature. Coffee House, relatively speaking an “old-timer”, has managed to sell 10,000 copies of individual titles by Hispanic and Asian American writers like Karen Yamashita, Lawson Fusao Inada, Sandra Benitez and Frank Chin—whose novel Donald Duk is their bestseller, having sold 45,000 copies, many through college course adoptions.The innovative role that Arte Público has played in nurturing Hispanic literature for schools, colleges, and a general audience long before any commercial house discovered its money-making potential has been recognized by support from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation.

Some of the new presses that have entered the field in the last few years have done so on a for-profit basis, often as sole proprietorships. Presses like Incommunicado, Manic D, and Soft Skull come to mind, who owe their origins to the music or club scenes of the twenty-or-thirty-somethings and who sustain themselves by publishing literature for certain niches not currently being reached by the large houses.

With the consolidation of the book publishing industry, Publishers Weekly’s Michael Coffey reckons that an “even greater responsibility” falls on the independents “to ensure this kind of diversity.” “Although Sonny Mehta at Knopf or Jonathan Galassi at Farrar, Straus or a couple of other prominent executives in the big houses can still champion an experimental voice, there’s much less of it now than even ten years ago given the bottom-line demands of the corporate parents.” Cliff Becker, Director of Literature at the National Endowment for the Arts, concludes: “With more and more merging in New York, it becomes more and more important to American culture that there are these alternatives for literature, that there is a structure to combat the potential short-term myopia of the marketplace.”

Despite the cultural imperatives for keeping independent literary magazines and presses alive and flourishing—and despite the lessons learned by some of the more established among them—the situation going forward is fraught with challenges. If these are to be opportunities for growth rather than engines of decline, they’ll need to be addressed individually by each press with intelligence, commitment—and pragmatism.

But these challenges will also need to be addressed jointly as a community under the auspices of organizations like CLMP. Knowledge gained by one press is half-wasted if not shared with others. How else will they develop the financial capacity and publishing capability that will allow them to continue to publish authors whose books they launch successfully, rather than lose them inevitably to larger publishers with larger pocketbooks in a Darwinian feeding chain? How else will they be able to help expand the readership base for literature?

The NEA’s Cliff Becker poses what he calls “the big question: Will there be resources to support the field when literature is still not perceived as a subsidized cultural activity like opera or dance, where it is understood that a lot more money is needed to sustain it than that paid to fill the seat?”

For in a publishing and bookselling world that promises to be transformed by electronic publishing, printing on demand, and Internet selling, technology and funding both embody the biggest question mark for opportunities and threats to literary magazines and presses. How adept will they be in this fast-changing environment? How can their traditionally strong editorial work best connect with both committed and emerging readers?

“In the past,” the Wallace Fund’s Sheila Murphy reminds us, “CLMP provided the information, the rallying point, and the advocacy that got the independent literary voices a seat at the table in the culture wars.” Going forward in a brave new world that will be dominated by technology and, as Murphy puts it, “multinational megaliths,” there is, if anything, even greater need for the freestanding voices to stand together and speak with one cohesive voice for the cultural good of us all.