I can’t remember the first time I heard someone say that the conglomerates (giant U.S. corporations like Xerox) were buying out the big New York publishing houses, the ones that 20 or so years ago were a fairly reliable place to publish a first novel, a well-written book, something that might someday be known as a great book, as “literature.”
Probably it was at the first Cosmep conference (Committee of Small Magazine Editors and Publishers) I attended in New Orleans in 1973. I didn’t know much then about the larger picture, or the proliferation, in the 60’s, of small magazines, mostly publishing poetry, and in the 70’s, of more and more small presses, which were beginning to tackle the logistics of doing a novel or a play or a serious philosophical work.
In the summer of 1973, at the North Carolina Writers’ Conference, at Southern Pines, I heard Simon Michael Bessie, president of Atheneum Press in New York, say that there were only seven New York publishers left whom he considered “independent” — i.e., which were not owned by conglomerate interests. Bessie was, at that time, the chairman of the National Endowment Literature advisory panel, and there were several other New York publishing houses represented on it. When I attended a meeting of that panel in February 1976, the only New York publishing house represented was Harper and Row.
A year later, summer of 1974, in Chapel Hill, again at the N.C. Writers’ conference (the core of that group also undergoing a change, from a group of writers with ties to New York houses to a group of writers, primarily poets, known and published primarily in N.C.) one of the invited speakers was a woman from Westminster Press, which almost exclusively does children’s books. She told me that within one year after a conglomerate buys out a publishing house, they begin to dictate editorial choices; and the move is definitely away from what is good and valuable (and potentially important to preserve) toward what will sell.
At the San Francisco convention of the American Library Association, which brought together at once some 20,000 librarians, and at which, for the first time, small presses had been allowed to set up tables (the cost of the booths which the large publishers had being prohibitive), I walked around in the basement where the publishers were out to capture the minds and hearts of these librarians. The big sell! Some booths even had computers in them. No wonder some of the librarians, when they came up to the second floor, where some 50 or so small presses had laid out their books, walked down the aisle between the tables, clutching their shopping bags fiercely, their defenses as high as their ears. But they needn’t have worried, and some of them didn’t. Those that came close discovered we were mostly open and friendly human beings — our whole fate not resting on them and their buying power. We wanted their attention, but left it to our individually designed and produced books and posters to persuade them. And those that let themselves approach were not, I think, sorry.
Since I had a friend who was, at that time, considering trying Atheneum as a publisher for his novel, I stopped to talk with the women minding their booth. I asked what it was like to be one of their authors. They were both wives of men in the sales department. They said that, due to the competitive pressures Atheneum was under, they were going to have to start putting their authors on talk shows.
Two years later, the summer of 1976, I heard, during a short talk the director of the National Endowment Literature Program, Len Randolph, was giving at the Cosmep conference in Austin, the real nightmare story. To me it is symbolic of where I think the big publishers are these days in regard to their responsibility to literature, much less to the human beings their authors are.
Apparently, some young man was to have his book come out on, say, June 1st. On May 1st, his editor called him to say the book, which had been printed, but not yet published (i.e., it was not yet in the stores), was going to be shredded. The computer had dutifully given the information that it would cost too much to warehouse, because of how slowly it was expected to sell.
Meantime, and fortunately, the small presses and magazines have taken on their shoulders in an increasingly reliable way the burden of contemporary literature, which for most of us is not categorizable as “poetry, fiction, drama, and essays written about them,” though that is still the definition of literature most English professors, and the two major literary funding sources as well, will probably give you.
For most of us who are up to our ears in it, the literature we are struggling to get into print and into the hands of people who will read it and be affected by it is simply the words which are important for us now. Some of it may last, whatever form it’s in. But the main thing is the words that tell us what we need to know now to live in this too-rapidly changing world.
I don’t think words have ever been potentially more important as weapons. They aren’t always the most beautiful or the most permanent. By and large, though, they are springing from bows held in the arms of those who are not deeply cynical and who believe, honestly, in what they are doing. They are aiming, over and over, to hit the target which one of our great pioneer spirits of this century called “the heart of our truth.” He called us, some 40 years ago, looking back from his own exile in Europe
Clear speakers naked in the sun untrammeled . . .
And one of the poets who has been published in THE SUN, Mike Rigsby, sensed his permanent importance with
Pound on pound on pound on Ezra
The best writing of the next five to ten years is going to be published by the small and independent presses. I think it is now. I would love to sit and look at it all. With probably 5,000 separate operations, it is impossible — and it’s one of the new problems. How are we going to make sure that the really good writing is found and read and preserved, and does not perish because it came out in an edition of 500 and the publisher was not able to sell very many, and got discouraged, and those who did read it didn’t realize its possible permanent value for other human beings?
With any great proliferation there is an accompanying task, a painful one, of selecting and sorting and choosing. The access to print, with the Insta-Copy place downtown or the possibility of borrowing or buying a used offset press for $1,000, is open. If you can’t find a small press which will do your book, you can publish it yourself. And there are books to help you do it. But there remains the dilemma of new ways of choosing and keeping track of the words that said it the best — the poems we need now and will still need in 50 years; the essays that laid a finger on the nation’s sickness; the insights that were capable of pulling the brick that would cause the whole superstructure to collapse so that we might get down to the work of building some better and more human structures in earnest.
When your right to exist as fully independent (as one to whom your own perceptions and integrity — like your skin or hair — belong) is threatened by computers, you get nervous about whose judgment on your poem or your thought or your magazine you can trust. You feel backed into a corner even if you aren’t. And, simply put, what you lack and what you need, if you can admit it to yourself, is an arbiter of what is good, of what is important about what you are doing, that is outside yourself, and yet is not part of the generally corrupt system you still live in. What you need still has to be built. And I think it has to be built by us, because we’re the only ones who are trustworthy.
What I feel is happening now is that there is a subtle power shift occurring. I think we are about to have a major impact on the culture. We are at the edge of getting major attention. I think our books are going to begin to sell in spite of us, and we are going to have the problem of not having the books in print fast enough to fill the orders.
For even this year the New York houses have dramatically reduced the number of new novels and books of poetry they are putting out, during an amazingly, even uncannily, prolific period of good writing. Those who once sneered at the small presses are beginning to think, “Aha, maybe if nobody else will publish my book, she will!”
There has been a huge defense system in operation. No small press books, for instance, ever made it into the New York Times because cynics said, they never bought ads. Well, in 1976, on a spring Sunday, there was a co-op ad run by six or so West Coast presses. It read across the top: “These are books you will never see reviewed in the pages of the New York Times.”
The Wall Street Journal, in February, 1976, ran a front-page article on small presses. Aren’t you curious what they thought was news? I was. The news was that we don’t do it for money. The news is that we do it for inner reasons. We aren’t in it for “commercial success.” The news is that we sacrifice for it, that we lose money and keep on. We get angry and hostile and bitter about the commercial world’s tactics; too much so — it inhibits our own ability to persuade. We’re so afraid we’ll sound like a TV commercial. But we keep on. We take hope where we can find it (and money — worrying, too, that it will corrupt us). We do it for love — and because we have responded to the need. The writers need us; their audiences need us. And the need is real. And no one else is doing it.
But it’s like my conclusions in my mid-20’s when my poems kept sprouting spring after spring, and I went finally to an older poet to ask for help: “If I’m going to do it anyway,” I told him, “I want to do it as well as possible.” And he helped me prune.
We need to prune. We need to give our authors and our fellow publishers good, searching, responsible criticism. We need to take reviewing in our own media (Small Press Review, Margins, Northeast Rising Sun, etc.) as well as opportunities to write for daily newspapers and other journals very seriously.
And we need to build those bonds of trust with each other which make it possible for us to keep healthy and remain what we are: a whole new and better way of getting literature — by the widest possible definition — into print.
With any shift in power, there are dangers. We could be thrown by various seductions. The best defense against the lies and bribery and false leads that we will no doubt have to contend with is strengthening the ritual we already have of sharing perceptions and knowledge with each other, of an open hand and a skeptical eyebrow.
I wish us well. I believe we’re important. I even believe we can survive our own success.