WAYS AND MEANS: NOTES ON ALTERNATIVE PUBLISHING ONE YEAR INTO THE 90'S
by Karl Young
Alternative presses in America seem to have diminished considerably during the last decade. I haven't counted them, and don't know if their number has decreased. Perhaps what has diminished is a quality of diversity and inventiveness characteristic of presses of the past. If this is so, my opening remarks are highly personal and may warp their subject in reflection. But as I'd like to do in most of my essays, I'd like to preface this with a quote from Montaigne: "I would not make so bold as to say such things if it were my due to be believed."
Many surviving presses have become more cliquish and less willing to consider new ideas and the work of unconsecrated writers. Many presses are now little more than pale imitations of main stream publishers: staid, cautious, and, in their own way, ultraconservative. Some reasons for this are self-evident, others difficult to trace. Money works its way through most of them, taking on many disguises. Most apparent at present is the problem of funding through organizations like the N.E.A., along with its attendant spies, allegiancy oaths, legal entanglements like the tentacles of a Portuguese man-of-war, and the insecurity and distrust all this pulls along with it. Other monetary problems range from the quantum leaps in postage rates begun in the early 70's to the simple fact that American alternative presses have been a product of the middle class (often in radical or bohemian garb), and the middle class has been severely eroded during the 80's. Increased costs of printing and the move away from cottage industry production have exacted their toll. Creative writing programs that perpetuate their funding by convincing students that they have a shot at immortality don't seem to encourage students to start presses. To me, the most alarming tendency in alternative publishing during the 80's was the lack of a new generation of alternative literary publishers.
Some of the chief functions of money in any context include the conferring of status and credibility. You can catch glimpses of these functions in several trends in American alternative publishing during the last decade. I say glimpses because it's difficult or impossible to know what's going on in any single editor's mind, and many symptoms of demoralization can also characterize strength. For instance: there has been a trend toward gigantism in both book and magazine publishing in the last decade. The prolificity of some writers is the result of new possibilities that need to be worked out in detail and extravagance. But, at the same time, producing large books and magazines can be a means of seeking validation through quantity. When you see tables of contents with rearrangements of the same names as half a dozen other magazine, you may be looking at the work of an editor who is truly enthusiastic about these people, or an editor who is seeking validation through the publication of what he or she thinks are proven winners. In such instances the editors are using these "winners" to validate, and hence extend, their funding. In some ways this can lead to a form of censorship more oppressive than anything moral majority goon squads have yet conjured up.
Bids for validation often include an attempt for approval from at least one of the wings of academia, accompanied by vehement denials of academic contamination.
The small presses of 1965-1975 also seem to be a discouraging factor: Now they are perceived as amateurish, unbecoming to the stature of serious writers. A lot of the mimicking of mainstream presses during the last decade has been a bid for greater credibility through standardized format, something that the previous milieu didn't confer on writers, particularly those who longed for it most.
This year I curated a mail art show that served as a memorial to those who died as a result of the bombing of Hiroshima and as a protest against the further use of nuclear weapons. I was particularly impressed by the work of contributors from the fascist dictatorships of Latin America and the totalitarian countries of Eastern Europe. They included work by people who had been tortured and imprisoned for related activities, and many were taking similar risks now. (Don't fool yourself about Eastern Europe: though many were feeling a rush of liberation, they still knew their bubble could burst at any minute.) Their work was no better than that of people from other places, but it tended to be more resourceful, the artists put more effort into getting into shows like this, and the shows seemed to matter more to them. This suggests that market censorship is more effective than police censorship. Police censorship generates anger and the need for rebellion; it defines itself as a tangible enemy; and it confers value and prestige on the work (it must be important or it wouldn't need stifling; those who produce it must be heroic -- by virtue of their courage and commitment, if nothing else). Police censorship will probably increase in this country riding the coattails of market censorship.
Changes in the economic structure of alternative publishing need more discussion than I've provided in this sketch, particularly in the areas where money has psychological, social, or symbolic significance. I hope to be able to expand on these remarks as time and circumstances permit, and I hope others will extend the discussion beyond the limited framework in which it has been confined. For the moment, I'll suggests a few small scale remedies.
Perhaps the most important remedy is self-publication. This is now the most unpopular alternative to economic censorship. Many writers don't have the money for it, but many _DO_. The thing they find onerous is not the cost but the lack of prestige associated with what has been stigmatized as vanity publishing. The ground for aversion is a deeply ingrained form of self censorship. In this case, publication -- the spending of money by a second party -- validates the work. Someone other than the author has put money into the work, and that saves it from being -- what? : hopelessly eccentric? self-proclaimed? something in which only the author believes? something that can't stand on its own merits? This undercuts a lot of the rhetoric of independence and individualism of the last half century, and is something to be carefully and clearly thought out. It is particularly interesting to note that this attitude toward self publication has not always been the case. In Shakespeare's day, only a hack had his book underwritten by a commercial publisher. If the author weren't wealthy, he could be supported by a patron, and hence avoid the stigma of commercial financing, but it was most prestigious to publish your work yourself, having complete control over it, and taking all the praise for it. When Thoreau self-published _A WEEK ON THE CONCORD AND MERIMAC RIVERS_ and Whitman _LEAVES OF GRASS_ they were still, in part, heirs to this tradition of self publication. The ideal of the 17th Century, however, would be best represented by someone like John Donne who avoided publication altogether and simply circulated his work in manuscript to fellow cognoscenti, eschewing the marketplace completely. We certainly don't need the aristocratic underpinnings of such a publishing scene, but we would be much better off if we could see self publication in terms of commitment, courage, and individualism, and stop seeing it as the last resource of the terminally incompetent. The Latin American guerrilla poets and the samizdat artists of eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R. don't let lack of an official publisher get in their way. Perhaps the Helms gestapo will play a left-handed role in returning self-publication to a less onerous status: I've already heard people joking about keeping themselves "untainted by N.E.A. money," and a recent article in _ROLLING STONE_ goes so far as to say that current fashions in censorship have saved rock music.
Scaling down on production may also be important. A number of low-tech, small distribution magazines reminiscent of the late 60's - early 70's, and the less literary-genre-specific zines of the 70's and 80's, have appeared in the last few years. John Martone's _TEL LET_, Mark Andrew Nowak's _FURNITURES_, and John Perlman's _ROOM_ are good examples. The small formats of these magazines have necessitated a high degree of selectivity on the part of their editors. This implies a status that the giant magazines can't confer, while assuring maximum readership for each poem in each copy distributed. These magazines are excellent examples of what can be done on a minimal budget.
With the advent of small computers, the possibilities for low cost publishing have increased enormously. Unfortunately, beyond laser typesetting, most of these possibilities are not being used. Options available include printing complete publications on laser printers, printing multiples on dot matrix machines (and using the screenfolds in binding), distributing work on disk or via modem. An advantage to most of these possibilities is that publishers can produce precisely the number of copies needed, as demand makes itself clear. That means small initial cash outlay, and it eliminates problems of storage, with such attendant miseries as taxes and mildew. It's too bad that writers haven't tapped the romance of computers -- it could do wonders for the psychological underpinnings of such ventures. *
Cooperative efforts should also be explored. This year I'll publish the first book from my press with a four color process cover. Such a cover would ordinarily be prohibitively expensive. The author, however, arranged financing with the cover artist's gallery. Since books aren't confined to galleries or private collections, this is a definite advantage for the artist since it gets a reproduction of his painting around to many people who wouldn't see it in a gallery. It benefits the gallery, too, as a form of promotion. The author and I benefit by getting a good cover for the book. And I get to see if four
color covers increase sales. I don't know how far cooperation of this sort among artists can go, or how many different types of cooperation can be successful, but this does seem to be a good time to find out.
Multiple publications under single covers should also be pursued further. If you bind two or more books in the same covers, you can reduce the cost of text printing a bit, and cut the costs of binding and cover printing drastically. In addition, it can increase distribution considerably: many people who get the book to read the work of one writer will at least check out the other. There's no
reason why magazine publishers couldn't do the same thing. Even magazine publishers who wanted to keep their own wraps could offer multiple subscriptions at reduced rates, thus decreasing postage costs and increasing circulation.
Distribution constitutes the largest problem in alternative publication now, as it has for decades. In Latin America and Eastern Europe, a large underground political network facilitates distribution of alternative publications. Such networks are frail in the U.S. at present, and many writers would probably not want to go through them for political or aesthetic reasons even if they were strong. However, the international mail art network, a network that interfaces with underground cabals throughout the world, is open and accessible to anyone who wishes to participate. The economy of this network is based largely on barter instead of cash. Alternative publishers do a lot of book swapping, and this could certainly be increased and extended. Some would view this with suspicion and distaste, but the mail art network offers the potential of reaching a larger and more varied audience than publication through most alternative presses. It would also yield interesting exchanges, including exchanges that might help break up the cliquishness of the current scene a bit.
Another possibility is cooperative distribution systems, with catalogs, mailing lists, and the benefit of association with other writers. For many years, Segue Distribution didn't keep books in warehouses but simply forwarded orders to participating presses after taking a small fee for the service. I don't know why Segue has discontinued this in favor of the warehouse system -- I liked the earlier version, and Segue hasn't sold any more of my press's books since the transition. It remains, however, a method that should be pursued further. A number of organizations set up to distribute work through a single address or imprint have been tried in the last fifteen years. Those that have failed have usually done so because participants have been unclear as to the purposes and responsibilities of the organization. Such problems can be overcome with a bit of patience and commitment.
The distribution schemes mentioned above are all tentative. There's a good chance none of them would be viable. But this seems to be a good time to test them further. Perhaps the most important note to make now is that this is not the time to try to figure out how to finance what's been happening for the last ten years -- the 80's are over and were a dead end: now it's time to move on.
*1994 Note: I hope, with Spunk, Grist, RPoetik, and other archives and
lists becoming more active, that this is changing.
First published in _O.ARS_ # 8, 1991. Don Wellman, editor.