Small Press Month NOT Run By Small Presses? WHAT?
This March, the Poetry Center of Chicago will defy public opinion and recognize National Small Press Month by holding an event that is described on the SPM website as featuring the "best in independent literary publishing from the Chicagoland area."
Any time an organization uses the word "best" to describe their own program, they put themselves up for scrutiny. The word "best" is usually reserved for the critics or at least for an objective eye. When you use the word "best" to promote an event like this, you are implying that those who are not participating in your program are not "the best." You are also implying that you have the authority to make that judgment, which becomes questionable when you are including the publisher as well as the distributor of your own book among who you deem to be the best.
Now that National Small Press month is being officially recognized by a well-known Chicago literary institution, I think that it is important that Chicago's literary community know that National Small Press Month was not established by "small" presses nor are "small" presses running it.
HERE ARE SOME FACTS ABOUT THE NATIONAL SMALL PRESS MONTH COMMITTEE
The Association of American Publishers, which has offices in New York and Washington, has a budget of over $9,000,000, most of which is collected through "dues". It's Board of Directors includes representatives from The Houghton Mifflin Company, Random House, Simon and Schuster, Harlequin, Harper Collins, McGraw-Hill, Disney Publishing and many other "large" publishing houses. They do not represent "small" imprints such as Dancing Girl Press or Featherproof Books. If you are a small publisher, you have a better chance of getting sued by the AAP than you do of them helping you. In the late 1970s, Roger Straus, president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, resigned from the AAP because he felt that it sided with corporations over the independents. Over the years, AAP has tried to dictate what information colleges and universities can make available to their students, has tried to impose fair usage restrictions on the internet, has been involved in various price fixing schemes in order to keep books at retail prices, and has set up a lobbying group in order to oppose the open access movement that would allow public access to tax funded research. They are currently involved in a lawsuit against Google to stop them from publishing literature online.
The New York based Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, which is underwritten by Harper Collins and the J.P. Morgan Chase Foundation, only accepts memberships from publishers who have a minimum print run of 500 titles per issue, meaning many who will be featured during the Poetry Center's elite Small Press Month gathering would NOT qualify for membership. They don't recognize you if you print on demand or sell e-books or if your project is funded through collaborative efforts, such as in the case of Scars Publications, Outrider Press Publications or the American Open Mike project. They don't recognize you if you print up the standard 200 to 400 copies of a poetry book either. Recently they attempted to dictate rules regarding how literary contests should be run. Their dues range from $75 to $750 a year.
The California based PMA, otherwise known as The Independent Book Publishers Association, has a membership base of more than 4,000 publishers, and charges these members anywhere from $119 to $630 per year in dues, meaning they collect over $1,000,000 in dues from "small" presses.
It costs $375 to join the American Booksellers Association (another committee member), and after that the annual dues range from $350 to $1,300.
Barnes and Noble is also a committee member of "Small Press Month". I challenge any of those who get suckered into participating in the Poetry Center's "Small Press Month" to find a copy of their publication in the local Barnes and Noble. If Barnes and Noble actually supported "small" presses, they would set aside a portion of each store for local zines and chapbooks instead of sponsoring a meaningless month.
Small Press Month is also sponsored by a consulting firm called Diamond and Company.
Small Press Month is also sponsored by SelfPublishing.com, a Lulu.com type of vanity press. Full disclosure: I have used Lulu to print my books on demand; I have never let them sponsor one of my poetry readings, however.
Publishers Group West, another sponsor of National Small Press Month, is "the largest book sales and distribution company in the United States, representing over 100 client publishers." According to their own website, "PGW defines the standard for high-end, full-service distribution, and is a top ten vendor for leading retailers throughout the industry." Does that sound "small" or "independent" to you? It would be great if a representative of Publishers Group West makes herself available during the Poetry Center's Small Press Month event, to hook up with all the small presses and offer them distribution services, but somehow that seems unlikely. Even if that proves to be true, after everyone gets their piece of the pie, what would be left for the "small" press?.
And finally, it can't be ignored: The Poetry Center of Chicago itself is funded in part by Boeing (that big company that makes the jets that are bombing Iraq), Target (that store where you get your jumbo size detergent), Bank One (the one with all the ATMs), LaSalle Bank (the one with not so many ATMs), Polk Brothers, as well as all the traditional "foundation" grants. They receive all of this money yet only produce about ten literary events a year. Figure that one out. Perhaps the Poetry Center of Chicago is admitting the hypocrisy of it all by not making mention of their ties to Small Press Month in their own listing of their "Small Press Showcase" on their website.
On the official Small Press Month website, the "recommended small press titles" only include one single title from the Midwest, nothing from Switchback Books, nothing from Cracked Slab Books; however, a clear 30% of the titles Small Press Month recommends are published by Grove / Atlantic, a large, New York based publishing house. Nor are you likely to find many poetry titles on the Small Press Month recommended list.
So, as you can see, you would have to pay over $1,000 a year to belong to the organizations that are sponsoring National Small Press Month, and most of them probably wouldn't want you as a member anyway. By supporting National Small Press Month you are not supporting "independent" publishing, but instead you are supporting a huge "medium to large" press industry that has established a system in which you can't get anywhere without paying them dues. This is the same racist system that KEEPS presses like March Abrazo or Tia Chucha small.
Thank you for your continued support,
The Relationship Between Poetry And Capital
by Matthias Regan
Rubba Ducky Press
I urge everyone, as much as possible, to prevent turning this into individualized attacks on this person or that person. The issues that CJ initially raised are very important ones, but from my perspective they are even larger than this conversation suggests.
The larger issue involves what we collectively imagine our poetry to be, who we imagine it to be for, what we imagine we are doing as writers and publishers.
The anxiety at the heart of this controversy does not, ultimately, have to do with personalities, or even with regional identities (New York v Chicago, etc); it has to do with the relationship between poetry and capital.
The outstanding feature of poetry in the twentieth-century has been its very ambivalent relation to the mass-market commodity. A few poets, such as Chicago’s own Vachel Lindsay, sold a huge number of books (over a million copies of his Collected Poems in the 1920s) through major New York publishers, but the vast majority of great American poets had a much more difficult, even hostile, relation to the mainstream publishing industry.
In fact, most of the great American poets published their own work or got it published by friends, or eventually found a home for it in start-up presses that were part of the “local scene.” This is true, for example, of Dickinson, Whitman, Williams, Stein, Pound, Ginsberg (and the Beats), Creeley (and the Black Mountain poets), Baraka (and the Black Arts writers), O’Hara (and the NY school), and more recently the “language” writers, who originally published each other using mimeograph machines and those new-fangled photocopiers. In short, most of the best poetry of the last hundred years emerged from local scenes and was originally published by very small presses or poets on their own dime.
Coincidence? Of course not. Great poetry resists the dumbing down and cleaning up demanded by the marketplace. Indeed, much of this poetry explicitly reminds us that there are values that remain unmarketable, uncapitalized.
But in recent years, this resistance that poetry offers is ever more eroded by efforts of major presses to generate cultural capital for themselves by branding their work as “alternative.” No one really wants to buy their shit, so they have to convince us that they are us. How do they go about doing this? They find greedy young writers who are more interested in “getting published’ than in writing, reading, and distributing work that sings the truth. (I’m not implying that anyone in particular fits this bill; as I said before, pointing fingers at individuals is entirely pointless as far as I’m concerned.)
Our beef must be with the corporations, like Barnes & Nobles, that spend a few bucks on a “small press specialist” in the hopes that the appearance of a very few (tame & non-threatening to the family) “alternative” books by “new authors” will coax the public back into their super crappy bookstores.
For me this is at the heart of CJ’s complaint; and while I don’t agree with everything he’s written, I thank him for raising some of these issues. As far as I’m concerned, the point is that “Small Press Month” is an advertising event sponsored & mostly organized by a consortium of not very small publishing houses. That’s not to say that its uniformly created or organized by some cabal. Woodland Pattern is an awesome bookstore, probably the best poetry bookstore in the country right now. & I certainly don’t blame them for getting involved if it helps to boost sales at an independent store that’s doing good work.
But that money is coming from the top down, and with it comes determinations about who gets to count as small preses and who doesn’t. In this case, its a number of very large organizations that are deciding what the landscape of “small presses” looks like. And OF COURSE they are being defended in that decision by a global franchise, Time Out, which has recently arrived in town to colonize the cultural scene. It’s not at all surprising to hear such condescending phrases as “It’s wholly embarrassing. Chicago artists need to see themselves as an integral part of a larger culture, so it’s important to promote Chicago authors and publishers beyond the city’s borders.” coming from this beacon of culture. And my objection has nothing to do with hometown pride; I mean, you can hear the snide condescension drip off these phrases. “Oh grow up,” the author seems to be saying, “welcome to a world where what counts as your local culture will always be determined from outside.” Unfortunately, this is the attitude that many poets, everywhere in the country, have adopted of late. Rather than get together in schools, cliques, workshops and factions of writers who share their visions with each other, each person scrambles to improve his or her resume, sending their manuscripts off to mostly faceless editors, jockeying for the next slot in the publishing queue, praying alone in their rooms for a review, and hating their neighbors as competitors. Poetry ends up driving us apart, rather than bringing us together.
No thank you. & it doesn’t have to be this way. We, meaning the publishers of small presses in Chicago, or in New York or L.A. or anywhere else, can decide to celebrate our own small press month or day or year or hour or whatever anytime we want. We could publish each other openly and for free. We could decide, once and for all, to never, ever enter a Barnes & Nobles again. We could boycott all new “months” of any kind and collectively resist the efforts of big-name publishers and boring institutions to improve their sales by feeding off of our culture.
When Poetry magazine was founded back in 1912 or so, it was a countercultural magazine. It was not the mouthpiece of a consortium of industries hoping to capitalize on the work of young writers, but the effort of a small group of young writers who wanted to give voice to a new way of being in the world. We might decide to try that approach instead.
Rubba Ducky Press
This commentary first appeared at the Time Out Chicago Blog and is reprinted here with permission from the author.
Note: Matthias Regan of Rubba Ducky Press adds his two cents to the Small Press Month debate.