Very Literary: A community blog

Small press book reviews and local author interviews

Small Publishing Today

Written by Kari Larsen, Community blogger | May 1, 2012 2:53 PM

As stated, my intention here at Very Literary is to bring you news of small and regional publishers and writers. What distinguishes a small from a big publisher might elude the casual patron of Barnes & Noble. You might be under the impression that the only way small publishers can get a book into a gigantic national chain is by sneaking in and wedging copies away in the literary anthology section, where they are sure to never be seen by employees.

When I say small publishers, I am referring to anyone who is not the Big Six:

  • HarperCollins
  • Hachette
  • Random House
  • Penguin
  • Simon & Schuster
  • Macmillan

 That said, each of these groups has, over time, absorbed smaller houses as imprints. Penguin has Riverhead, Viking, Dutton, and Plume. HarperCollins has, Avon, Ecco, and William Morrow. Hachette has Little, Brown. Random House has Knopf, Vintage, and Anchor. Simon & Schuster has Scribner and the Free Press. Macmillan has Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Henry Holt, Picador, and the St. Martin's Press.

Each of these groups has tremendous publicity muscle and significantly greater financial and human resources than many small presses. They can afford their authors tidy advances and launch them on funded book tours. They also deal exclusively with agented writers. Although it is possible for a piece of writing to be submitted successfully to an agent who submits it successfully to a big house, such lucky strikes are the exception, not the norm.

And what Very Literary is out to do is to champion the fact that that is no statistic to feel grim about, because beyond the Big Six, a lot of people are engaging in a lot of innovative, exciting moves in publishing, and they're doing it for love, connecting directly with writers to connect directly with readers in ways that invigorate old practices and make exemplary use of the new.

Some small presses have prestigious legacies. Dalkey Archive, initially unaffiliated but based lately out of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne, is dedicated to keeping all titles it takes on in print and are one of the greatest champions of translated literature. City Lights, borne of the beat poets, maintains the production of seminal poetry titles by its founding inspirations as well as new authors. Grove Press, which has since merged with the Atlantic Monthly Press, endured obscenity trials as it dared to put out some of the most challenging literature that remains, thanks to its effort, readily available and recognized for its greatness today. And New Directions, whose chic stark black and white covers are slowly being turned into color with the punch and grandeur of hybrid roses, styled but beguiling as nature. For their catalog and panache, they are my fantasy.

Notable Authors: Rikki Ducornet and Ann Quinn (Dalkey Archive), Allen Ginsberg (City Lights), Dennis Cooper and William S. Burroughs (Grove), Clarice Lispector and Anne Carson (New Directions)

Many university presses are dedicated to purely academic fare, but some are fiercely dedicated to important, trailblazing work at the intersection of literature and criticism. CUNY's the Feminist Press is a total revelation - every title of theirs is sharp and the voices are brilliantly varied. The University of Minnesota Press doesn't have a swank name, but they don't have to tell you they are great, they will show you. The University of Alabama's FC2 - Fiction Collective 2 - hosts two contests annually to spotlight emerging and mid-career writers and have therefore enabled some of the greatest contemporary talents to flourish. MIT's Semiotext(e), concieved to bring "French Theory" to the US has persisted, with their Native and Active Agents series, to bring some of the most game-changing work avaliable today to print.

Notable Authors: Virginie Despentes and Lesley Kinzel (the Feminist Press), Christopher Isherwood and Philip K. Dick (U Minnesota Press), Lidia Yuknavitch and Lucy Corin (FC2), Kate Zambreno and Masha Tupitsyn (Semiotext[e]).

Heavy-hitting editorial power, towering alumni, and impeccable design sense define strongly branded presses deeply rooted in artistic denizens - Melville House and Akashic in New York, Counterpoint and McSweeney's in California. Melville House was inspired to action by 9/11 and with its bold solid colors and sans-serif fonts, it follows the example set by the French New Wave and American Apparal: unfettered and urgent. Akashic comes off at once raw and swaggering, and with titles programmed by the likes of Dennis Cooper and Chris Abani, their production schedule pushes literature forward at a rate unmatched by focusing on newer talent. Counterpoint was created when Publisher's Group West folded and its holdings were assumed by the Perseus book group. Right now Counterpoint is home to its own coterie of titanic publications, but it is close to my heart for pumping blood into the heart of Soft Skull, a New York institution now located in Berkeley. McSweeney's has become titanic since its scrappy beginnings in the late nineties - it is distinguished from the other publishing houses in this and the tiers above because periodicals are central to its structure: many authors are introduced to the attention of editors via McSweeney's Internet Tendency, an oft-updated online magazine, and Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, a print publication that has appeared as a full-color newspaper, a set of three hardback books, and many other guises of radiant design. This is to say nothing of the nonprofit 826 empire or the Believer, McSweeney's more conventional (even that estimation is incorrect) illustration-heavy magazine of interviews and essays. McSweeney's straddles the line between big and small presses, but for its dynamicism, there is nothing else out there that resembles it.

Notable Authors: Tao Lin (Melville House), Kate Durbin and Lonely Christopher (Akashic), Carole Maso and J. Eric Miller (Counterpoint/Soft Skull), Lydia Davis and Robert Coover (McSweeney's)

Newer and with no less lofty ambitions, there are a fleet of presses using contemporary technology and keen discernment to hook the best new writers up with the soundest means of getting their books to potential readers. Dzanc, Caketrain, Keyhole, Aqueous, Ellipsis, Tarpaulin Sky - these are where the focus of Very Literary will lie most centrally. A distinguishing characteristic of these presses is lack of affiliation with a particular institution as well as their periodical incarnations. These let them remain aware of new writers while production schedules for books enable them to forge a more intimate working relationship with writers they deem very significant and in keeping with their vision. Presses like Jaded Ibis and Featherproof stick primarily to putting out books, but their authors and editors are active within a vibrant community of small publishing where there is no shortage of opportunities to make one's self visible to these passionate publishers

Notable Authors: Jac Jemc (Dzanc), Roxanne Carter (Jaded Ibis), Sarah Rose Etter (Caketrain), Carrie Murphy (Keyhole), Amelia Gray (Featherproof), Meghan Lamb (Aqueous), Joanna Ruocco (Ellipses), Joyelle McSweeney (Tarpaulin Sky)

Small publishing vitally involves literary periodicals such as the ones put out by houses - Dzanc's monthly Collagist, Caketrain's annual, the irregularly epic Tarpaulin Sky journal - but there are journals that have remained strictly focused on being just that, and for it they have flourished. Some enduring giants still represent the best of what's out there today, and the cheapest, fastest means by which to gain exposure to it. Between Poetry Magazine, the Paris Review, and Ploughshares, the smallness of these efforts is continuously called into question. Their force in the shaping of literature is tremendous.

Other literary periodicals endeavor to give writers a considerate platform for their work without investing in print and experiencing the hurdle of how to get the work in front of readers. Some journals have embraced the internet exclusively and thrive beyond its trappings - there is nothing of lesser quality on sites like La Petite Zine, Two Serious Ladies, and Dear Navigator, versus anything in ink today. Snappy, clean, and luscious - each experiment with formatting work for the screen and deliver intimidatingly accomplished work with modern immediacy.

Also thriving wildly in the realm of small presses is the art of the handmade book. Chapbooks - tiny, crafted books, smaller in scale than full-length novels and collections - are the province of presses like Greying Ghost, Horse Less Press, and Unthinkable Creatures. On an intimate scale, the quality of the writing is reflected in not only the beauty of the design, but the care of the editors who use paper ephemera, stamps, and hand-stitching to reinforce the fact that what we're dealing with is art. They are also inexpensive and stylish!

All this, and how it is represented in the capital area, will be focused on minutely in the posts to come.

Published in Very Literary: A community blog

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Comments: 2

  • Ann Elia Stewart img 2012-09-20 08:19

    For a local small publisher, check out Sunbury Press.com. My literary novel, 'twice a child', was published in June under this house. Impressive array of genres and authors!

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