Life After Publishing
Life After Publishing: Reading The New American Small Press.
The consolidation of corporate publishing and the resultant monolithic press industry is often read as a monopolising force excluding marginal voices and delimiting the potentialities of new, fresh writers entering and negotiating the field. However in recent years, contemporaneous with a burgeoning communication technology that allows a fluid dissemination of both knowledge and resource, the United States has experienced a flourish in the establishment of vibrant, adversarial small presses. These businesses, many of which self-consciously align themselves with the continuities of a tradition stretching back to American iconoclasts such as City Lights and Grove Press, operate along a productive axis of social and political instigation, matching their contrarian’s ambition with a commitment to grassroots autonomy. Exploiting a network of co-dependent active internet groups, independent bookstores, and original journals these small presses support and nurture communities of writers, entrepreneurs and crucially, a developing readership.
Economics and literature, rather than existing as antagonistic but necessary poles of publishing and art are instead emphasized and subverted by these presses’ practices in an attempt to undercut, in both a financial and ideological manner, the reification of the major consolidated publishing ranks. Outfits like Clear Cut Press, Soft Skull, Akashic Books, Void, Second Storey and Turtle Point, to name but a few, have fostered a viable alternative identity in American publishing, challenging not only mainstream cultural assumptions of authorial hegemony but also radically restructuring academic notions of the canon, in their rigorous selection of new talent and reviving of lost or neglected texts. As Mary Burger, founder of Second Storey Books points out, one root of the word ‘publish’ is ‘public’ and the American Renaissance in small press publishing, with its often intimate attention to not only content but actual material production, has as a consequence a wholly new and unexpected readership base.
This paper explores the resultant dynamic, detailing the realities of small press book production, the intersection of money, media and imagination and the enabling of a uniquely 21st century ideal of readership, its values situated in global action, advancing technology and transformations in the concept of the book.
(Much of this paper will be drawn from new, original interviews and engagements with the main participants in the respective movements, conducted by myself.)