15 May 2006

"The Golden Age of the Small Press"

This blog’s two weeks old, but I’m still musing on Lance’s first post. Proclamations from the NYT (or anywhere else) about “bests” just provoke me to dig deep enough below the foundations to threaten the structure that makes such proclamations look interesting & credible to so many people. To be honest, I don’t think I’d care which book or author they proclaimed “best.” Art can’t be judged by arithmetical methods. So instead of commenting on the NYT’s arithmetical approach to literature, I’ll explore some of the thoughts I’ve had on reading Lance’s first post.

Now What. Among other things, we could add a question mark to these words and take them as a wide-open question. The discipline of History laid down the tracks for my synaptic connections at an impressionable age, so I’m wired to think that asking such a question implies the demand to see through the murk of what’s going on now and as well as some kind of sense of what’s already been. It could be that it isn’t necessary to attain a vision of either the present or the past in order to move somewhere else, but my entire mental apparatus would short-circuit if someone actually managed to convince me of that.

So, I grope about in the murk. This is especially hard to do since I’ve lately become disoriented by the discovery that a political form that once looked so hard & definite to my na├»ve eyes—I’m speaking of dictatorship—doesn’t necessarily come with an on/off switch. Those of us living the United States are living in the murk. And a fearful, denial-filled mess it is. I’m sure it all looks clear from the outside. But inside, there’s the babble of nonsense night and day. Here the very word “reality” is under contestation, if you know what I mean.

Just consider: The US stood at the brink of a constitutional crisis in late 2000, but Congress collaborated with the Supreme Court, & the moment passed. The United States could have had a constitutional crisis any number of times since then as the executive branch has made a practice of defying the constitution its officials have sworn to protect.

I think my most bewildered moment came when I returned home from the Delany Conference in Buffalo at the end of March and saw the Washington Post article reporting that a bill that had been signed by the POTUS had become law even though it hadn’t been passed by both houses of Congress. Even then, I expected a cry out of outrage. My partner said testily, “It’s not a law,” as if the issue were a matter of semantics & my fear that the executive could get away with doing such a thing was absurd. But the truth is, if the Supreme Court, which has been packed by the executive, rules that the bill is nevertheless a law, the two hundred year old definition of legislation will carry as much weight as any of the many “facts” the executive scorns as irrelevant, & the executive branch will know that the process by which a bill becomes law, which children used to have to learn in middle-school civics class, has become merely an option rather than a requirement for binding legislation. The moment passed, however, as of no interest to the political class, with the result that few people are even aware that a law exists that bypassed the required process.

And finally, if any hope for democracy in the US were left, it should be having one at this moment, as the massive scope of the executive’s usurpation of Congress’s legislative functions has been exposed for all to see, viz., the so-called “signing statements” that have rendered the presidential veto obsolete. It never occurred to me that the lack of such a crisis would signal the arrival of what we all know is not democracy but can’t otherwise name. I grew up thinking that violent coups d’etat were the only vehicles capable of bringing authoritarian governments into power. But although the POTUS now polls a disapproval rating of 71%, only half of those polled think that his administration has gone too far in extending executive power, including his NSA’s clandestinely appropriating and warehousing trillions of phone records of two hundred million US citizens, and 71% of Republicans polled actually approve of the NSA’s Orwellian program.

About a week ago, Republican Senator Arlen Specter warned that there “soon might not be a Congress,” because “'we're undergoing a tsunami here with the flood coming from the executive branch on one side and the judicial branch on the other.”

Paul Craig Roberts, an economist who served as an assistant secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan Administration, uses the expression “soft dictatorship” to characterize the current state of government in the US. I’m resisting the term, but even as I do, I have to wonder what a historian a hundred years hence would call the current political configuration of the United States.

The political landscape of the US is not the only area of confusion. The function and role of small, independent presses (including micropresses like my own Aqueduct Press) are changing today in swift & unpredictable ways that don’t neatly fit into the discourse we’ve developed for talking about both mainstream and alternative publishing. It makes sense, then, that in his first post to this blog Lance asks what constitutes alternative publishing and writing. It strikes me that answering such a question in other than simplistic terms would make a worthy—& on-going—ambition for this blog.

The technology of printing, from its orgins in fifteenth-century Europe, developed alongside and necessarily in relation to capitalism. For centuries, as Andre Schiffrin points out in The Business of Books, publishing was a business yielding low profits, a business in which firms balanced economic exigency against other interests—aesthetic, civic, religious, political, ethical… In the traditional model, best-selling books supported the work that publishers and editors loved, regardless of whether they could be marketed profitably. Though publishing was a hard-nosed, unromantic business, it was nevertheless a business undertaken for love.

As just about everyone living on this planet has by now discovered, postmodern capitalism does not believe in sacrificing profit to love (much less to public good, moral imperative, or even life itself). Business, in the postmodern era, exists to make as much profit as possible. For publishers conglomerated within the three remaining mammoth multinational media corporations, the math is stark: every book is expected to be a source of profit. Obviously this has been bad news for the “alternative” writing that was once associated with certain imprints of major New York publishers. Less obviously, this has also been bad news for “mid-list” writers—the authors publishers traditionally supported throughout their careers, even when one or two of their books flopped. Most people reading this post will know of examples of writers who have chosen to adopt a pseudonym in order to escape the taint of poor sales and began writing more aggressively for the market. But the shake-out of major publishers’ lists did not stop with mere flops, for it now includes authors whose books aren’t profitable enough—or whose books the publishers’ marketing departments merely predict won’t be profitable enough. This has resulted in floods of authors (and their agents) looking for alternatives to the major publishers. Recently when I was on a panel at the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle, one of the other panelists noted that the very mainstream Peter Beagle had a very mainstream, wide-appeal novel coming out from Tachyon Publications, a small press that publishes science fiction. I’ve heard of many other cases of equally well-known wide-appeal authors resorting to the small press. Indeed, I’ve had submissions for Aqueduct from some of them.

“We’re living in the Golden Age of the small press.” I’ve heard several editors from big New York houses assert this often over the last couple of years. The first couple of times I heard it, it sounded good, especially in light of my just having started my own small press; & I took it as a reference to the sophistication & variety we’ve seen proliferate in genre short fiction over the last decade as small-press anthologies, collections, and magazines have bloomed. But then I began to wonder, what does that mean? Why should editors who aren’t themselves associated with the small press be proclaiming such a Golden Age? & then I thought about how an editor of a mainstream house had said to me after I published Gwyneth Jones’s novel, Life (which subsequently won the Philip K. Dick Award), that he was glad that I had done so, that he (& another editor he named) had liked it a lot but that his house couldn’t publish it. Night Shade Books, a larger small press (that has published fiction by M. John Harrison and Michael Moorcock and Jeff VanderMeer and Mark Roberts’ celebrated The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide To Eccentric and Discredited Diseases), has just begun bringing out Gwyneth’s near-future rock-stars-in-politics series, Bold As Love, which Gollancz has been publishing in the U.K. The editors who talk about the Golden Age of the Small Press cite the proliferation of small presses with high editorial and production values and what is to some people the astonishing quality of their lists. The small presses, the editors say, are taking up the slack—they’re keeping the authors in print whom they would once have been publishing themselves.

So is this a Golden Age for the small press? Not from the authors’ point of view, since small presses usually are able to offer only smaller advances and print-runs and its book promotion must be done on the cheap, mostly through the initiative of the author. What about from the small-press publishers’ point of view, though? Granted, some very fine writing—like Gwyneth Jones’s—is now finding its way to the desks of small press editors. But consider what can happen when a small press published an author heretofore associated with mainstream publishers. From the first, the question of print-run size will be an issue, for the publisher can never be certain what a reasonable size for such authors might be. Next, a review in the New York Times (or some other market leader) of a name author will bring in a flood of orders from the big distributors, threatening to exhaust the print-run almost at once. What does the publisher do? Sit tight and wait for the returns to pour in on the assumption that the first print-run will be enough? Or go out on a financial limb, hoping to ride the wave to its peak? Baker & Taylor can take forever to pay, & small presses have sometimes been broken by such success. & yet an optimist might think that although extraordinary success is risky, the overall effect could well be to see some of the larger small presses emerge into a formation resembling that of the many independent established publishers of pre-conglomerate eras, subsidizing less financially-remunerative books with the profits of blockbusters. I myself see this as unlikely, simply because the structural conditions of the industry have changed. But I’ll admit it’s possible.

As they negotiate these shifting circumstances, small presses need to be clear about their own identities. Lance remarks in one of his posts “I know chances are I can trust a book from, say, Coffee House, Chiasmus, or Wordcraft,” and that’s the point. Yes, the small press represents an alternative to mainstream publishing. But as mainstream publishing narrows its focus, excluding many of the books it would in the past have published without question, the range of what is “alternative” necessarily expands. Aqueduct has been in existence for about two years now, and we’ve published five full-sized trade paperbacks and thirteen small trade paperbacks. Although the fiction we’ve published ranges all over the map stylistically, I have a clear sense of what it is that I want to be publishing (even if I seem only able to say what it is that I do not want to publish).When writing our mission statement I chose to use “challenging” to characterize the kind of fiction we intended to publish, I knew that such an adjective would put off some readers. But how, I reminded myself at the time, if one is offering an alternative to the blockbuster, if one is aiming to serve a small rather than least-common-denominator audience, can one not put off some readers? Last month at Andrea Hairston’s reading here in Seattle, one of the people attending the reading said she loved my openly using the word. This stood, she felt, for the character of Aqueduct’s alternative-ness to the mainstream.

If it is not exactly a golden age for the small press, it is a time in the US when the small press it not a luxury but is desperately needed, not least for preserving a diversity of voices and kinds & styles of writing. As for alternative writing: if we’re lucky, Now What will be a site for exploring what it is and why it matters.