Home | Contact Us | Articles | Downloads | Publisher Resources | Publishing Forum | Printable Version | Email this Article

The Surviving Small Press: What Is Small Press?

by Tom Person
Reprinted from Laughing Bear Newsletter #137, Copyright © 2003 by Laughing Bear Press

Over the past few months I have been corresponding with Li Xiangzhou of the Chinese Institute of Publishing in Beijing. Li has been assigned to find out about small press publishing in the United States and has been asking people in the small press community to explain what American small press is and how it works.

Every time I think I have come up with a reasonable answer, Li comes back with another question. And each time I find an answer, the definition becomes a little more clear to me as well.

Small press today has a very different definition than the small press of BC (Before personal Computers). Prior to 1980, what would come to mind when describing small press would be a kitchen-table business publishing chapbooks or little magazines. They would most likely be literary, political, or some sort of self-reliance how-to.

Obviously other types of material were published under much better conditions by what could still be considered small publishers, but for the most part small press from the 1950's through the 1970's was an offshoot of the bohemian counterculture. This tradition was revived for a short time in the late 1980's and early 1990's with the Zine movement (personal magazines), but that pretty much slowed to a trickle with the introduction of the world wide web in 1995.

Zines are personal magazines or newsletters that grew out of the Punk movement in music dating from the mid- or late-1970's. A zine was a medium for self-expression. They were (and still are, to a lesser extent) more often than not circulated for free as exchanges with other zine editors.

The height of zine activity can be dated from the launch of Factsheet 5 (1982), the ultimate zine, and its demise which went in fits and starts from 1991 to 1995 (1996, if you count the electronic version, which can still be seen at www.factsheet5.com).

(As a postscript to Factsheet 5, the factsheet5.com web site has a notice that if a new publisher for the magazine was not found by January 1, 2001, the magazine, web site and P.O. box would be shut down for good. Apparently someone bought it because on www.factsheet5.org there is one page only, and it says a new issue was to be on the newsstands in April 2002. As far as I know that issue was never published, but Factsheet 5 did make it into the 21st Century, sort of.)

The style of small and self-publishing prior to 1980 came from the examples of writers like Thomas Paine, Virginia Woolf, Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, who all at one time or another published their own work. It also came from the "pushcart" tradition of publishers in the 19th century who would publish inexpensive broadsides or chapbooks and sell them directly to the public on the street from pushcarts. Another model was the samizdat underground publications of Russia.

In the BC period, you could sell your book at the many book fairs and festivals that were held around the country, you could deal with bookstores directly on consignment and build relationships with booksellers, and it was relatively easy to arrange events in bookstores, libraries and coffeehouses.

Publishers often worked together to sponsor readings or convince arts councils that they should be considered for grants and included in arts festivals and other events. They'd swap mailing lists. The atmosphere was non-competitive. A publisher often made their living teaching writing or English at a college or university and use the school's resources to promote other publishers and the small press movement itself.

Co-ops were formed to bring down the cost of typesetting, printing, binding and distribution. Publishers' organizations were formed to promote small press publications to booksellers, librarians, and the public. They would sponsor or support projects like programs where books were donated to prisons or schools.

One program obtained grant money to subsidize the purchase of small press magazines for small public libraries.

Publisher groups worked with arts councils to make sure publishers were represented at festivals and other events, and to try to encourage the arts councils to make grants available to publishers on the basis of literary quality, or artistry in book-related fields, such as papermaking, binding, and fine printing.

Because of those programs and cultural conditions, small press was a more social activity than now. To sell your books you had to reach out and personally interact with the people who bought and sold your books.

Small press was considered more a part of the arts community than a business; consequently the priorities then were considerably different than they are for the majority of small publishers today.

If someone were to ask me prior to 1980 what small press was, being of that generation, I would have to look at it as more a lifestyle than a means of making a living.

There was little chance of someone's little mimeograph-printed chapbook becoming a national bestseller, but that was made up for by the opportunities to travel, mingle with other small press people, and then perhaps build a career from the sidelines of small press – teaching, performing, opening a bookstore, working for a non-profit organization, or becoming a graphic designer or printer.

Identifying a small press publication back then was much easier than now. A small press book today is identical in look, feel and quality to a book from a big publisher.

In 1976, small press books came in a great variety of shapes and sizes. They could be little stapled chapbooks, books the size of tabloids, handmade and handbound books, unbound books, books in boxes, in other words anything the publisher could imagine.

Small press books were designed, either by necessity or on purpose, to not look like mainstream books from the "publishing establishment".

Aside from the physical characteristics of small press books, you could tell them by the content. The purpose of small press, from the beginning of publishing to the end of the BC period, was almost exclusively to put into print works that would otherwise not be published. That could have been because their content was controversial, politically defiant, or just misunderstood.

If you picked up a book in 1976, you would be able to tell it came from a small press because what it contained would be significantly different from what you would find in, say, a Random House book.

Today most small press books are identical to those from big publishers, from the design and execution to the nature of the content. That is because instead of operating on an entirely different plane than the big publishers, and so co-existing with them instead of competing, the modern small press goes toe to toe with the big publisher for the same market.

As the distinctions between small and large publishers have blurred, the definition of small press today is much more pragmatic. Discussing this with Li Xiangzhou and Steve O'Keefe (of Patron Saint Productions, Inc. and the editor of A Beautiful Plan), it is apparent that small press is now better described by it's other, more modern label of independent publishing.

An independent press is a company that does not belong to another company or corporation. Virtually all of what we would consider big publishers, and many medium-sized ones, are owned by one of the megacorporations, like AOL Time Warner. That is, a corporation that is so diversified you can no longer tell what its primary business is. It probably has holdings in communications, entertainment, transportation and, way down the food chain, publishing. If the publisher is not owned directly by the megacorporation, then they are owned by a company that is owned by the corporation.

The way publishing works in the 21st Century is this: If publisher A has a popular line of books or an impressive stable of writers or a more effective distribution system, instead of attempting to compete with them, Publisher B buys Publisher A.

Publisher B is then upgraded to a higher rung on the corporate ladder and merges with Publisher C. Eventually corporation D, which produces fruit juice, military equipment, pharmaceuticals, panty hose and cigarettes, and which owns a television network, airline, fast food chain and an Argentine beef empire, absorbs Publisher C.

While publisher A may appear to be an independent company, it is actually just a speck on a vast organizational chart somewhere.

A small press is also independent because it is not issue publicly traded stock. There is no board of directors representing nervous stockholders to answer to. There is no grand plan of corporate powers to guide decisions and determine what will be published.

The small press publisher bears all the risk in the company, but also reaps all the rewards. They have the freedom to publish any book they see fit without having to get permission from a board, committee, or stockholders.

Small press is no less creative and adventurous than it was before the personal computer and desktop publishing. If fact, competing with the big boys in the current climate, where it is so hard to get attention for a book or even a contract with a decent distributor, the small publisher has to be more creative and daring than ever before. But the focus has shifted from the artistic to the business sensibility.

And there is the further matter of: What is a publication? When we put together statistics about the number of small press publishers, do we include the writer who has a publish-on-demand book on file with one of the online POD publishers? Or is the POD publisher the actual publisher of the book?

If the writer is the publisher, they could conceivably be considered a self-publisher. But if the POD company is considered publisher, they're probably owned by a larger company and so cannot be considered an independent press.

In most cases, the POD company retains the sole right to sell and distribute copies, which means for all intents and purposes the POD owns the book.

Is an eBook to be counted as a book, and if so, can a word processing file containing a formatted, camera-ready manuscript be counted as well?

Before 1980, the gray areas of publishing involved the physical makeup of the book. Was it art or publishing? These areas included unbound books, handwritten one-of-a-kind books, books consisting primarily of inserted or pasted in non-print items, and other artsy experiments.

Now the question is: Can a book be virtual, a computer file that is not necessarily ever printed on paper, and still be considered a published book?

So what is a researcher in China to make of the American small press?

In a capitalist country, we have a publishing subgroup that has little chance of showing a profit, yet the number of small publishers seems to grow every year. In a free country, it is the smallest publishers with the softest voices who have the most freedom.