Friday, June 1, 2007

Small Presses Can't Take Heat

By Charles Dodd White

Crappy news this week. Soft Skull Press, a beacon of independent publishing for several years, is being bought out and folded into an imprint. There’s a reason for this. They can’t take the heat of competition. They get squeamish when it comes to profit margins. They are slave to their own anxiety about satisfying the needs of the book-buying public.

Now, there’s a big problem with this. Publishers who merely consider the bottom line are flouting their obligation to provide the public with literary art. Most people have already given up on the big conglomerate houses. We have the healthy skepticism of corporate entities. But the small houses, they were supposed to be there for us, even if it meant meeting operating costs through government grants. Profit was nice but never expected in this niche.

But somewhere along the way small presses have forgotten this. They began thinking like Putnam and Penguin, the only difference being that editorial meetings were conducted in flannel, not Armani. They tried to grow their lists—they tried to pick slick, appealing books. The truly unique book was marginalized. Increasingly the literary “genre” became the favored pick. And whenever a book can be classified in any genre, it has lost its aesthetic value. Truly challenging books disappear from the lists. Instead, we get bad pornography that reads like Maggie: A Girl of the Streets gone to hell.

But interesting books are still being published, though not by small presses. It’s getting even smaller. Micro publishers -- often only one or two people -- are the new hope. Often, these houses sell their books primarily through the Internet, relying on word of mouth. Many use digital print-on-demand printing so they don’t incur large overhead costs. They publish books because they are dedicated to literary art. Many barely make enough money to cover their costs, but they still keep up the good fight.

Because of the instability of the reading market today, many of these micro houses fold after a year or two of operation. However, new houses spring up like hydra heads. It’s an affordable venture, and those with the passion for putting out decent books can get going with almost no capital. This is the democratic press in action. This is Ben Franklin on anabolic steroids.

So, Soft Skull might be dead, but I challenge each of you who care about independent media to research the Internet and find another struggling micro house and buy one of their books. Kill your dependence on mediocre reading.

No comments: