What Is So Bright About the Sun? Working Toward a Definition of Small Press
Initially, we started in order to publish work that we admired that we didn’t think would get written to begin with. We were convinced that some of the best writing from writers we knew happened outside of their normal writing forms and practices, e.g., in conversation, in emails, in rants while driving, etc. From there we began to think of all sorts of projects and have asked writers to write experimental greeting cards, innovative prose chapbooks, and more. We are also involved in a variety of literary endeavors that do not actually include physical publishing, but instead things like performances, conversations, and stealthy literary interventions.
Traditionally, publishing is not a business one can hope to make millions in. But it is possible to make it work, particularly on a small scale. You need to be careful with spending, canny with editorial decisions, and work as hard as possible to make your house and your list known.
The literary publishing industry and scene is really thriving right now. It’s an exciting community to be a part of. There are tons of terrific small presses and literary journals and a great sense of community and cooperation rather than competition.
I really dig the spirit of the whole thing. I like the community. I like that people seem to be into what other people are doing. I like the variety. It feels like now you can find someone with similar tastes to you, and follow their press and never be upset. What’s amazing is the sheer number of people who are able to do this, and the sheer number of work that gets published, now.
Small press is for the passionate. It is a chance to build up the aesthetics you value, to elevate innovative language, to be at the center of the continuing evolution of form, and to have a say in what those things are. The most exciting thing about small press is still having a voice that is heard and that counts when it comes to publication.
So what is exciting to me is how our community is growing, working on being heard. The indie community is expanding and evolving and continually looking to enforce itself. It proves that there are readers, writers, and critics invested in what we’re talking about. We aren’t just a message board or group of voices. We are a community looking to make the most of our skillset.
It is like asking what is so bright about the sun. Small press is pretty alive right now, and for the same reasons, I think, that eating locally is becoming more and more important to people. It is in balance with what isn’t being offered by corporate/funded/businessy presses. It’s important, and vital, reactionary and symptomatic.
Indie presses in this country are the primary force pushing our literary culture forward right now. Which is how it should be, I suppose. We have corporations to thank for this, and their expansion and operating procedures in the ’80s to the present. It created a rich environment for us and other indie presses to step up and make an impact.
Indie press publishing has been exciting since the invention of the Xerox machine made zines possible. The main thing we have now that we didn’t have before is (1) the tools to make books that look great with much lower financial risk, and (2) the tools to promote our books to likeminded people for cheap or free.
The decentralization of media and changing models of publicity and distribution have put everything in flux, but these conditions are favorable to small press publishing, which in our estimation is having a rich moment. Exploration is being built into the everyday.
We’re excited to see how alternate publishing strategies might support certain redistributions of agency and authorship and make possible different sorts of interactions around books.
Independent publishers and even some academic presses are taking incredible risks to bring work that matters into the world—work that doesn’t necessarily turn a profit or even pay for its own production. Literature, historically, would not exist were it not for these kinds of risks. That the independent market continues to thrive, particularly throughout the last fifteen years, is a very healthy sign.
So much creativity and new growth develops as a result of these encounters. The human-to-human contact, the touching of actual books and exchange of ideas in real time seems obvious, but is so vital to a strong publishing culture because so much of what we do isolates us or happens online. And these informal movements are blurring the lines between public festival and intimate exchange—exactly the impetus that lies at the heart of artist publishing as cultural critique and intervention.
In fact, that’s one of the things that really energizes me about running a press: working to creatively solve the real-world “business” problems that develop, finding ways to sustain what you do. So we will fail, if we fail, because people stop buying our books or stop trusting us to publish their work. Until then, we keep on.
Because it’s not who publishes what that matters, but just that it gets published. It doesn’t even matter who writes the book or not. Just as long as it gets written.
Independent publishing offers, in theory, a place for work that lies outside of the dominant hegemony (whether in form, content, politik, tone, etc.) to find publication—not just a place for second-tier work that could find placement on a major/larger press if it were better written. Whether or not anybody buys or reads this work after it’s published is, of course, a different story.
My whole life in publishing has been overshadowed by the aggressive strategies and dominance of Barnes & Noble and Amazon (I never thought I’d see the day when B&N would come up against its own Goliath), so the recent recovery in the independent arena is heartening to see, and reflective of a sort of community-building that seems essential to any movement forward in the publishing world. We are particularly dependent on the hand selling and support that we’ve been lucky enough to find among independent bookstores: no online algorithm can do what a number of book buyers and booksellers have been doing for our list these last few years.
Conventional publishing has always argued that its job is to serve the writer. We don’t see that. We see our job as serving the reader. And that’s an important shift I think. Publishers are going to have to move toward to that approach, because it’s the readers who pay the wages. So it’s kind of perverse, really, that most publishers see the people they pay, the writers, as being their primary responsibility rather than the people who pay them.
Well, we learned that a long time ago. Whoever has direct contact with the customer is in the driving seat. They (Amazon) will never give an email address of one of your readers to you. And there’s something outrageous about that really. I mean if you think of us doing our books on politics, or our edgy fiction, we’re in direct contact with a group of authors and a group of reviewers and a group of readers—we’re all part of that process and the only point at which Amazon enters that chain if you’re publishing conventionally is to take most of the money and take the email address of the customer and the book. There’s something appalling about that. They don’t stand for any of those values, so how come they get to take the customer address and the sale?
Poetry used to be published by big publishing houses who could afford to publish it because their other books made enough profit to permit it. Now those publishing houses are owned by conglomerates, etc.—you know this story. So poetry is largely published by small presses in small runs that make the books a little more expensive.
Everyone knows that the stakes are not monetary in poetry. There may be some side bullshit but mostly small presses are gifting the world work that moves them and that makes me feel warm and fuzzy in a world that often seems perpetually terrible.
We haven’t had much luck with advertising, so we’ve had to move away from more traditional modes of promotion. Poetry isn’t as easy a sell as fiction, which led us to try out the pay-what-you-want model for poetry.
We wanted to find out what people actually want to pay for a book of poems. If it’s a book by their favorite author, maybe they would pay $15-$20 for a paperback, plus shipping. If it’s a poet they’ve never heard of, we have a free PDF excerpt of the book they can download from the website. Maybe they like the poems from the sample and pay $10 for the book. Maybe they don’t have $10 to throw down, so they spend $5. Maybe they spend a penny and we lose a few bucks on that copy, but there it goes out into the world, sitting on someone’s coffee table. To me, that’s fine, I chalk it up as a marketing expense. If everyone paid a penny we’d lose a lot of money, sure, but not everyone is. Actually, we’re finding people pay along a wide spectrum. The average price being paid right now is about $13 a book, including shipping. Some people have paid $25 for the book, which is surprising and wonderful, and a great number have paid $18, which will be the cost once the promotion ends.
We decided to try the campaign after realizing that our poetry sales were plateauing. It seemed that no matter how much money we put behind the books, we just weren’t seeing the sales to validate that kind of spending. So we had to make a change and take a risk. This type of campaign is not new to the marketing world, as we’ve seen the likes of Radiohead and Louis C.K. give the power to the consumer, and so we thought, Why not poetry? It became clear that the price point varies. For each reader, you have to factor in the popularity of the poet, the type of reader (casual, academic, etc), and also the size of the book, among other things. It became clear that if we allowed people to pay what they thought was fair, that we might see more sales (a reader who would balk at $18 might be willing to spend $5). It’s a win-win; we reach more people and the reader can participate in the community and receive a great book without breaking the bank.
The fundamental thing I believe about literature, and this is just from my own experience so I’ll just speak for myself, is that it opens me up to other people. It makes me more compassionate…the act of reading, that openness to the ideas expressed by other people, the energy required to sympathize with those ideas, that’s what drives me to keep publishing books. But this is complicated. To me this doesn’t mean that books have to be focused on directly communicating their humanity or whatever. I just want them to be complicated and rewarding enough to demand that investment and garner that payoff.