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Life After COSMEP

by Tom Person
Reprinted with permission from Small Press magazine, Copyright © 1996 by Small Press, Inc.

In February [1996], the COSMEP board met in a teleconference and decided to put the organization into receivership. It wasn't decided at that time exactly what type of filing to use to resolve COSMEP's financial and legal commitments, except that there would be no attempt to bring the organization back to life through reorganization. What this means for the small press community is we no longer have a national organization for both literary and non-literary publishers, run by an elected board, that serves as a cooperative for information and services.

We have also lost a piece of living publishing history. For almost three decades, small publishers have gotten together through COSMEP's newsletter and conferences, if only to complain about it. COSMEP reminded us just how far small press publishing has come. Unfortunately, the organization was unable or unwilling to rise above its inside squabbling to take us any farther.

The needs of publishers in the 1990s are very different from those of the '60s. While it is important to be in touch with tradition, the technologies of publishing and marketing move too fast for publishers to invest in an association that can't or won't keep up. At the time it went under, COSMEP had no database of members other than the mailing list, which was updated by hand. In a field as reliant on computers as publishing, COSMEP was definitely not leading edge.

COSMEP was originally established as a cooperative of literary publishers working together to find avenues for marketing their books. To that end, it sponsored library and prison projects, published a series of booklets to help new publishers and published a newsletter that allowed for lively discussion of issues facing publishers.

Over the years, the function of the COSMEP board degenerated into bureaucracy. Factions fought for control of the board. Projects became secondary to politics. Survival of the organization became more important than service to the members. Decay and obsolescence became inevitable as members got fed up and left.

One new organization that would like to fill the gap left by COSMEP is Small Publishers Association of North America (SPAN), founded by Tom and Marilyn Ross. Tom was a member of the COSMEP board when it went under. I have to be impressed by the organizational skills of the Rosses, who, just three weeks after trying to save COSMEP, could turn around so fast to come up with their own organization nearly identical to COSMEP. There would also seem to be a conflict of interest for a press specializing in publisher how-to information and consulting to start up an association for publishers.

What is needed is something new, and that is not going to be a prefabricated COSMEP clone. To have any validity, it needs to be an organization created by publishers to be a clearing house for information, provide cooperative means of marketing members' publications and to help new publishers. It needs to maintain a database of members, publish a directory and enable members to contact and help each other. And it needs to promote small press publishing to the public, to create awareness of the variety of publications available and thereby reach a wider market.

Over the years, new groups have tried but failed because of COSMEP's dominance. Now the field is wide open for new organizations with innovative ideas and enthusiasm. It may well be that we won't have another effective national organization for a few years, but already regional organizations like MidAmerica Publishers Association, Marin Small Publishers Association and the Colorado Independent Publishers Association (CIPA) are reaching out to displaced COSMEP members, often offering to honor COSMEP memberships at no cost.

If a new kind of publishers organization is going to come along, it will most likely come from the largest segment of publishers in operation today, one that has managed to remain universally ignored by small publisher groups: the 'zines. The small press community has done its best to pretend that the young publishers of scruffy little personal newsletters and fanzines are inconsequential. But more and more of those young people are taking what they've learned about guerrilla marketing and distribution and translating that experience into magazine and book operations that display a level of professionalism and scope the traditional small publisher couldn't imagine.

COSMEP served its purpose for a long time. It helped define small press and provided a link between publishers. Understandably, when it died, there was a feeling of loss. It was one of the few remaining touchstones with the early small press movement.

The remaining publishers' organizations would do well to learn from COSMEP's demise. Some are already exploring new territories. CIPA, for instance, has a site on the World Wide Web promoting its members books. That isn't a far reach to having other resources available online, from downloadable resources (software and monographs, mailing lists, and access to distributors) to real time conferences and workshops.

The end of COSMEP marks the end of an era of small press, but also a beginning. We're on the verge of a period of tremendous opportunities. Now more than ever, we need forums, organizations, where we can work together and share our knowledge and experience.