Thoughts on Readings and Small Press Publishing
Resistance, Connection, and Readings
Last week, I went to an excellent reading hosted by Scott Daughtridge, who runs the series LostInTheLetters and The Letters Festival. Scott brought in four great writers: Sabrina Orah Mark, Sarah Rose Etter, Ashley Jones, and Gina Myers. Sabrina read at a series that Jamie Iredell, Blake Butler, and I used to help run, Solar Anus, in 2009, and while you can’t yet read the wonderful pieces she read last week, you can read this piece from her 2008 book Tsim Tsum. And then you’ll want to read the whole book.
Ashley Jones has a book coming out in November, and, like me, you’ll want to read that when it comes out. The first poem she read was “viewing a kkk uniform at the civil rights institute.” What struck me as so remarkable about this piece was the way she insisted on this uniform’s impact as a material that someone real wore, that someone’s wife/mother/sister ironed. A KKK uniform is so much more often treated as a symbol. But it is not a symbol, or it is not only a symbol. It is fabric and stitches and starch.
All of these writers publish their books with small presses. This is not incidental: it is foundational to Scott’s mission as a curator to connect Atlanta readers with writers who don’t have publicists and marketing teams helping to promote their books. Carrie Lorig, who runs Literature Is Alive at Emory, does similar work, and this was our business at Solar Anus, too.
I believe it is important work, and especially now that I’m not hosting readings very often, I’m very happy that others continue to do this work in Atlanta. Collectively, we still have major major work to do around inclusion and representation and consciousness, as Kory Oliver and I were discussing last week. As it is, the indie lit scene in Atlanta poorly represents the range and depth of this city and the people living and writing and reading in it. Until it does better, I’m hesitant to call it a community rather than a scene (meaning a specific sub-culture, or non-representative slice of the greater community), even though there’s a lot of love and fellowship here that scene doesn’t capture. On one hand, it’s a joyful thing to know and love almost all the attendees of a reading, as I did last weekend. On the other hand, it’s disconcerting. Out of the love must come work.
I believe we will find ways to do that work. It is natural to become exhausted and to think of readings as just another event that Facebook reminds you about, but I believe in people getting together to hear poems and stories. I believe readings can offer a powerful alternative to the derangements of mass media. They can be a site of resistance and connection if we do it right.
That’s what art is, I think. There may be a simple level of commerce to book tours and small press publishing, but it mostly functions to sustain the work.
Dreams, Stewardship, and Small Press Publishing
This brings me to the work I’m doing more now, which is running a small press of my own. Awhile back, I founded 421 Atlanta, and on Tuesday I released Oosh Boosh by Shannon Burns, which is the second of four books in the Spring 2016 catalog.
Four books in six weeks. What? That doesn’t sound like me. As I told Sarah Rose Etter after the reading, I’m not a very hard worker, and I don’t really understand how I’ve managed this, especially right now, when I’m in my first year teaching high school and now also coaching tennis alongside. It doesn’t make sense.
But sense-making is not my business, nor is it art’s business. What got me here is faith. I have faith in these books and their writers. I have faith in art as a site of resistance and connection, like I said before. As a radical alternative. Mass media makes so much sense, and sense equals money, I think. The narratives of movies and television and huge publishing conglomerates are so smooth and digestible and so available and frictionless that we don’t perceive their costs, and we don’t realize what we are slipping down into. These narratives are crafted, but they are not art.
The other day, Ken Baumann, who runs Sator Press, shared a link to an article on Medium that one of his authors, Eric Raymond, wrote about publishing, in response to a blog post by the novelist Robert Kloss. Both pieces are serious and thoughtful in their consideration of purpose and art-making and book-making. Kloss ends with an important series of questions:
So I suppose, then, the question is, do writers need publishers? Are they necessary? Why? Maybe you like your publisher–why is that? What do they give you that you could not give yourself? What is the function of a publisher? Publishers, what do you dream and what are you trying to accomplish? Why should you exist?
This is a lot to think about. And while Eric Raymond had an interesting take that also gave me a lot to think about, his answers to these questions are not my own, whether I’m thinking about this as a writer or as a publisher. His answer is for writers to publish their books themselves as a means of taking charge, not just of their manuscripts, but of their books, which, Raymond believes, should be art themselves.
I started 421 Atlanta by publishing my own chapbook, Collected Adult Lessons. This worked well for me for specific and boring reasons, so I am not here to argue against making one’s own manuscript into a book or chapbook. I will argue that it’s not the only worthy alternative to commercial publishing. The premise of Kloss’s question, “Are they necessary?” seems to assume that something is only worthy if it is necessary, and Raymond’s answer, that people can make their own books, evades that question.
I believe small press publishing is a necessary and worthy alternative to commercial publishing and self-publishing. If something is necessary, does it have to be necessary for every writer? I don’t think so. That’s the alternative part. I believe it’s necessary to have alternatives.
I disagree that a book, in its design, should necessarily be art in itself. It can be; there are books artists like Real Pants favorite Aaron Cohick who make books that are art. But in most cases, while the cover may feature a piece of art, just as an album cover may, and the design may be very finely crafted, a book as a whole design package is not art. This is not to diminish the work of the designer (who, in the case of 421 Atlanta, I live with). Art and craft are, I think, different things, but that doesn’t mean one has a higher value, especially since the concept of value is a kind of sense-making that I don’t honor when it comes to art.
Book design should serve the art. It should reflect the art, and it should help the reader access the art, but it should not be the art, any more than mailing off copies to potential reviewers should be the art. It may be true that a manuscript is not a book, but it is also true that making the book is not the only work of the publisher.
In small press publishing, editing, design, publicity, sales, and distribution should all be in service to art. In commercial publishing, everything serves commerce, so the art that may be found there is incidental.
So, in my role as publisher of a small press, I believe that I serve the writer and what’s written. The process feels, often, like collaboration, but that collaboration is at the level of all those craft things. We talk together about possible edits, the design of the cover and interior, and how to promote the book. But I do not collaborate as an artist.
My work as a publisher is to connect the art to readers. Readers are more likely to connect with a book that isn’t ugly or hard to read because the print is too small. They are more likely to connect with a book that they read about on a website, or one that has a lot of Goodreads reviews.
Art is not about access, but publishing is. I provide access of different kinds. What happens once the reader is in there, confronting the art, is the business of the reader and the writer. Selling more books just helps me serve the art and the artists better by putting more resources into access (design, promotion, distribution). I don’t believe that I serve the reader. Sure, I care about so-called customer service, and I’m thankful to buyers, but this still comes back to serving the art and the artist; it still comes back to providing access to art that deserves to be accessed.
I don’t believe that the writer serves the reader, either, because I don’t believe art is a service rendered.
Certainly, if a writer wants to serve their own art in all these ways, as a publisher, I believe they should. We edit ourselves and promote ourselves no matter whether our publisher is ourself or not. But not everyone is comfortable serving their own art in all those ways, or asserting that their art is worthy.
What do you dream? As a publisher, I dream small. I dream of stewardship. I dream of doing right by the writers who agree to entrust their dreams to my very small press.
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