It is a higher degree of freedom when thoughtful and independent individuals have the opportunity of addressing each other. If they have no vehicles by which they can express opinion, then for them the freedom of the press does not exist.
—T. S. Eliot, “A Commentary” (1938)
The young need the young more than they need the old and honored; great writers take care of themselves and don’t need monuments and schools since their influence is always present; but the brilliant kid writer can be crushed or turned into a foolish acrobat unless he gets an enthusiastic response from his own contemporaries, not elders whom he has sensible mixed feelings about, no matter how concerned they are.
—Seymour Krim, “What’s This Cat’s Story?” (1961)
There were now also quite a few young publishers and young publications devoting their energies, whether practical or spiritual or both, to the competent housing and exploitation of the men and women and movements expressive of the time—and in rare instances, beyond the time. Visionary fellows like Huebsch, Liveright, Knopf, Selzer, Harcourt, Brace, and Howe, with excellent sense in their veins, were performing an artistic and comparatively lucrative service in bringing writers and their public together.
—Alfred Kreymborg, Troubadour (1925)
As the large North American publishers are less and less able to issue the manuscripts essential to the survival of intelligent writing, the need for new and independent book-making enterprise becomes greater and more urgent; yet the natural cycle of decay and rebirth has not progressed with enough deliberate speed. Though many new firms were founded in the past decade, not all of them were particularly interested in young writers or radically different books; and none, in the end, served emerging writers as nobly as, say, Bennett Cerf (1898-1971) and Alfred A. Knopf (b. 1891) supported some of their respective contemporaries. Not only did alarmingly few of the new houses risk that kind of eclectic literary publishing, but few of the affluent or entrepreneurial young founded new publishing firms; and given the growing expenses and hazards of the business, those that were successfully launched subsequently encountered considerable difficulty staying alive. Truly alternative publishers must be distinguished from both sectarian houses and the carbon copies of commercial publishing (as well as those specializing in pornography). Sectarian publishers were founded to print books by, for, and about a certain faith, ethnic culture, esoteric enthusiasm, or political persuasion, such as Catholicism, Armenians, astrology, and Communism, respectively; and none of these publishers are, by definition, at all interested in anything outside their initially circumscribed orbit. Other new imprints grew out of successful periodicals, such as Playboy and Psychology Today, largely to provide books of material similar to that featured in the magazine (and probably destined for precisely the same audience).
Other new imprints were started by experienced commercial publishers, some of whom had resigned from (or had been fired by) the larger corporations to which they had previously sold their stock. Victor Weybright, for instance, built up the New American Library before selling it to the Times-Mirror, Inc.; and their mismanagement of the paperback firm, as he tells it, led to his resignation (and the subsequent decline of NAL). In1966, he joined his son-in-law, Truman Talley, in founding Weybright & Talley, which floundered aimlessly before they sold it to David McKay, Inc. Richard Baron sold 60 percent of the Dial Press, which he once solely owned, to Dell before departing to found an imprint under his own name in 1968. Seymour Lawrence, a new publisher (est. 1965) affiliated with Dell, was a long-time senior editor at Little, Brown; the proprietors of Gambit (est. 1968) in Boston had long labored for Houghton Mifflin; Richard Kluger, the founder of Charterhouse (est. 1971), had previously been a top editor at Simon & Schuster and then at Atheneum; and Peter Weyden had been executive editor at Ladies Home Journal before founding a press under his own name. All of these new firms were replicas of the larger outfits with offices in midtown Manhattan or mainline Boston; the books they published plainly revealed their founders’ devotion to the myths and aspirations of the literary-industrial complex.
The mark of truly alternative publishing, by contrast, is books that long-established houses would not do; and all of the new publishers discussed in the following pages exhibit, at least in part, the kinds of commitment conducive to the future of intelligent writing. They tend to favor not only classes of writers, but kinds of writing ignored by the literary-industrial behemoths. One or another of these new presses has been particularly open to black writers, women writers, post-Black Mountain poets, Canadian writers, young writers, and experimental writers. Had the manuscripts published by these alternative presses actually been submitted to the commercial houses, they would surely have been declined as “too incoherent,” “too religious,” “too esoteric,” “too provincial,” “too peculiar-looking,” “too personal,” “too idiosyncratic.” Given conditions elsewhere, it is not surprising that most of the decade’s most consequential books of poetry came from small presses.
Most alternative presses have been founded by writers who realized the larger meaning of their own predicament; and these alternative writer-publishers draw upon income gained from outside sources—usually a teaching job, though few would regard either themselves or their work as “academic.” Most remain one-man operations where the “publisher” functions as editor, designer, secretary, and delivery boy, if not the printer as well. As loans for this kind of venture are not easy to come by, most alternative publishers are self-financed, their founders scarcely compensating themselves for their working time. Only a scant few, unlike little magazines, are currently subsidized by universities or other cultural institutions. If only for the quality of their intentions, nearly all alternative pressmen are as personally laudable as other literary servants; the best of them print serious writing that would otherwise be lost.
Lower operating costs also enable them to do first editions in smaller numbers than commercial firms would find feasible—less than 5000 copies—and to keep the book “in print” until all of the available copies are sold. Some publish strictly limited editions, customarily done by the publisher himself on a handpress and signed by the author (along with any collaborating artists), all of which hopefully give the book the aura of a treasured “art” possession—an aura comparable to that of a graphics portfolio. Others use the cheapest available offset processes to print more copies than they can possibly sell. Some alternative-press books have spines with the title and the author’s name, while others are simply stapled down the middle and folded over. Most issue only paperback editions, in sharp contrast to the commercial replicas, not only because the small press’s likely customers rarely buy hardbacks, but also because “subsidiary rights” are not a primary part of their business.
Books issued by alternative publishers are not necessarily better or worse than those of commercial houses; in practice, each is editorially selective in different ways. However, just as certain kinds of badness are more typical of one kind of publishing, so certain kinds of excellence are available in the best small-press books, such as realized formal invention which scarcely turns up in literary-industrial produce. One by-product of alternative publishing is the possibility of alternative reading.
The biggest problem that these publishers have in common, after the acquisition of operating capital (politely called “seed money”), is distribution. Most place their books in those nearby bookstores already sympathetic to literary ventures. Some use national distributors to reach outlets beyond their immediate milieu, while others mail copies to selected retailers across the country. Some new presses have tried to develop a list of regular subscribers who, much like magazine subscribers, pay in advance for whatever is published. As most small presses fail to turn an immediate profit, and their proprietors find that their venture consumes increasing amounts of time and money, only a few survive more than a decade. However, if they pick good writers who are subsequently acclaimed, the unsold copies will fetch surprisingly high prices on the rare-book market. Kenneth Rexroth quotes a book dealer who noted, “Any book of poetry which isn’t complete vanity publication trash will double in price three years after it goes off the market.”
Some small presses bring out as many as twenty new books a year while others print only one book, such as X-Communications for Liam O’Gallagher’s The Blue Planet Notebooks (1972), or only one author, such as the Turtle Island Foundation for the works in various genres by the late Jaime de Angulo, or Emil Antonucci’s Journeyman Press for the otherwise neglected minimalist poetry of Robert Lax. Writers whose books are ignored completely by the big houses can gain a certain celebrity entirely from small press publications—for example, the poet Doug Blazek, who placed the first 17 of his books with a dozen different publishers, and the man-of-letters Hugh Fox, whose 18 books were done under nine imprints. Some of the new book publishers grew out of literary magazines, the editor deciding that a single writer could fill an entire issue. Quixote, The Sixties, The Smith, Tri-Quarterly, Intrepid, Elizabeth, Abraxas, Assembling, Lillabulero, Genesis:Grasp, Mulch, Caterpillar, Radical America, Ann Arbor Review, Cotyledon, White Pelican, among other periodicals, have also published books. Approximately one-fourth of the Committee of Small Magazine Editors and Publishers, according to a 1972 survey, published both books and magazines. George Chambers’ The Bonnyclabber (1972), a first-rate experimental fiction, was issued by two little magazines, Panache and December, collaborating for a single shot. (Each had previously published another book wholly on its own.) One new imprint, Douglas Books, evolved from a New York record company of the same name; another, Links, grew out of a successful pop music songbook publisher. Small presses in all sizes are so numerous by now that the following survey, though superficially compendious, is certainly incomplete; yet for all kinds of obvious reasons, there are fewer new small presses than literary magazines.
Several of the larger new firms were full-time ventures founded independently of magazines by young editors who had previously worked for the larger houses. The first and most obvious advantage of having one’s own firm is editorial autonomy. The same editor who previously had to convince his firm’s president, sales manager, and others could now make crucial editorial decisions on his own. The author could have the comparable pleasure of dealing directly with the chief, instead of an underling (who invariably must “ask someone else”). One experienced writer I know was so surprised and pleased to hear an editor say, immediately after examining the manuscript, “We’d like to do it now,” that he never got around to asking for any advance money.
If any companies get too big and become too commercial, there will always be newcomers ready to snatch the good manuscripts that they turn down.
—Bennett Cerf, in a lecture (1960)
The oldest genuinely alternative publisher in New York, if not in all North America, is James Laughlin’s New Directions, founded nearly forty years ago and (unlike Grove Press) still issuing many books that no one else would even consider—Jesse Reichek’s totally visual fiction, etcetera (1965), Jean-François Bory’s post-concrete pastiche, Once Again (1968), and Marvin Cohen’s The Self-Devoted Friend (1968), among others. It has also displayed an exemplary loyalty to its best American authors—Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov, most of whom had previously been ignored by New York publishers. However, even though its founder scarcely qualifies as a pensioner, the firm has lost its earlier initiative, never, in recent years, publishing books by an American writer currently under forty. Its most prominent successor, particularly in poetry publishing, was City Lights, the first San Francisco literary firm ever to win a national audience. (Precursors failing to survive include the Colt Press and Circle Editions, both of which did several good books in the forties.) Since there were no local publishers predisposed to literature, even Rexroth, the putative dean of the San Francisco poets, had, like Robinson Jeffers before him, published most of his books in New York. Younger West Coast poets like William Everson (a.k.a. Brother Antonius) and Robert Duncan also published their own earliest books.
Founded in 1955 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a New York poet (b. 1919), City Lights took its name from a short-lived San Francisco critical magazine (1953-54) edited by Peter Martin, who was also Ferlinghetti’s partner in founding the popular City Lights bookstore. This imprint published a pioneering series of inexpensively produced poetry pamphlets. As the first was Ferlinghetti’s own Pictures of the Gone World (1955) and the fourth was Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems (1956), the imprint thrived on the “beats’” notoriety and subsequent popularity. City Lights also published other anti-academic poets who were then ignored by the eastern houses—Patchen, Bob Kaufman, and Gregory Corso (all of whom later passed on to New Directions). Other new San Francisco poetry presses such as White Rabbit and Auerhahn, no doubt impressed by City Lights’ example, emerged from nowhere; and publicists spoke of a “Renaissance.”
However, as the sixties brought a new literary culture, City Lights appeared tied to an earlier position, along with its kind of poetry, all but completely neglecting the newer writers. Itpublished fewer new books in the seventies, and nearly all of these were prose. Though City Lights had functioned as a distributor for other West Coast poetry publishers, that service was terminated by the late sixties; and until new channels of distribution emerged, Oyez and other California imprints were scarcely seen in eastern bookstores. The unfortunate truth is that a small publisher’s success, rare though it is, can have the negative effect of undermining the purposeful energy necessary for continuing editorial adventure; so that, in its literary politics at least, City Lights became the first conservative establishment ever ensconced in California. Small-mindedness, in one form or another, tends to be a recurring fault of alternative publishing.
The past decade’s most prominent avant-garde publisher has been the Something Else Press, founded in 1964 by Dick Higgins (b. 1938), himself a sometime poet, composer, printer, film-maker, mixed-means theatrician, and scholar with both diverse avant-garde interests and an energized sense of historical necessity. All these other activities notwithstanding, book publishing has been the most substantial of his achievements. The press’s first venture was, like City Lights’ opening book, a collection of the proprietor’s own work, Postface/Jefferson’s Birthday (1964), his personal predicament as an experimental writer and critic inspiring the creation of a necessary enterprise. The firm’s founding manifesto included this appropriate declaration:
When asked what one is doing, one can only explain it as “something else.” Now one does something big, now one does something small, now another big thing, now another little thing. Always it is something else.
The firm’s opening lists revealed, nonetheless, more particular commitments to the international musical-artistic avant-garde that Higgins had discovered in the early sixties; and among the Press’s most important publications are books by an older generation of influential non-literary artists: Ray Johnson’s The Paper Snake (1965), Claes Oldenburg’s Store Days (1967), John Cage’s elegant anthology of Notations (1968), Merce Cunningham and Frances Starr’s Changes: Notes on Choreography (1969), all of which are extremely imaginative—quite “something else”—in conception, content, and design.
These titles defined a kind of publishing previously rare in America—different in experimental seriousness from the glossy picture books of the art publishers, and different as well from both the extravagant hand-printed poetry books and the more Spartan productions of City Lights and New Directions. Perhaps the closest American precursor to Something Else was Wittenborn, Schultz, Inc., a New York art-book retailer who issued an impressive series of “Documents of Modern Art” in the late forties and early fifties, or Paul Theobald, a Chicago art-book store that published Moholy-Nagy’s Vision in Motion (1947), among other similarly post-Bauhaus titles, in the same post-World War II decade. One auspicious successor in this tradition was George Maciunas’ Fluxus, essentially a graphics firm that issued printed packets along with other “multiples”; a more recent semblance is the Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design which opened in 1973 with The Architecture of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Art galleries and museums that occasionally publish books also fall into this tradition. It was the Whitney Museum of American Art, rather than a commercial firm, that produced Samaras Album (1971), an awesome visual-verbal essay on narcissism by the sculptor Lucas Samaras.
In addition to its books by artists, the Something Else Press brought out a series of invaluable, and otherwise unavailable, pamphlets by allied and precursor figures, many of them European. It reprinted the most eccentric books of Gertrude Stein (for examples, the full-length The Making of Americans and Geography and Plays) and Henry Cowell (New Musical Resources). Responsive as well to neglected older experimentalists, Higgins published unprecedentedly large collections of poetry by Bern Porter and Jackson Mac Low—respectively Found Poems (1972) and Stanzas for Iris Lezak (1972). The Something Else edition of Emmett Williams’ An Anthology of Concrete Poetry (1967) became the firm’s best-seller (over 15,000 copies), if not its most influential book; and Williams’ own novel, Sweethearts (1967), was also far beyond the bounds of conventional publishing, as well as the best of its author’s several works. Something Else also published one of my own books, Breakthrough Fictioneers (1973)—an anthology that was declined as “something else” by the larger publisher who initially contracted it. At least half of its nearly hundred titles are distinctive and individually memorable. “A good newspaper,” in A.J. Liebling’s aphorism, “is as truly an educational institution as a good college.” So is a substantial avant-garde publisher.
In spite of such intentions and achievements, Something Else’s books suffered from insufficient notice even from those media commonly regarded as “crazy about the New”; and those critics who tried to review its titles for the established media invariably encountered resistances and rebuffs. It is indicative that neither The New York Times Book Review nor The New York Review of Books has ever singled out a Something Else title for individual review. However, since the press’s prominence in avant-garde circles was undisputed, Higgins received and rejected many manuscripts that could (and should) have been published as “something else,” but, since the gap between Something Else and everyone else was so great, these works would probably not appear at all. By superintending the most propitious channel for a certain kind of book-writing, Higgins assumed a power whose form was not unlike Jason Epstein’s over radical criticism, though different, of course, in quality and operation, for Higgins himself recognized the dangers implicit in such a concentration of editorial authority due to the absence of substantial competitors. Partly because the New York reviewing media were so unresponsive, Higgins moved the business first to California and then to northern Vermont.
The default of New Directions and then Grove, as well as City Lights, created large gaps in the publication of counter-academic poetry; and one of the first to fill this vacuum was Corinth Books in New York. Founded in the late fifties by Ted Wilentz, then a prominent Greenwich Village bookstore proprietor in close touch with its literate community, Corinth issued a volume of Allen Ginsberg’s pre-Howl poetry, Empty Mirror: Early Poems (1961), and Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems (1960), as well as reprinting, in 1959, Bob Brown’s pioneering collection of visual poetry, 1450-1950 (1959), which was originally published thirty years before. Pursuing the kinds of previously neglected work gathered together in Donald Allen’s counter-establishment anthology, The New American Poetry (1960), Corinth published “San Francisco” poets, such as Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen; “Black Mountain” poets, such as Olson and Robert Creeley; “New York” poets like Barbara Guest and Frank O’Hara; black poets, such as LeRoi Jones, Clarence Major, Tom Weatherly, and Jay Wright; and then, unlike City Lights, an even younger generation of poets, mostly associated with the “New York School”—Lewis Warsh, Anne Waldman, Peter Schjedahl, and Ted Berrigan—in addition to Brenda Herold, a talented teenager from New Orleans. Sustaining the press through personal adversity while he moved through a succession of other jobs, Wilentz has kept everything in print (unless the author wanted to incorporate his Corinth book into a larger subsequent work), and the press slowly but surely became one of America’s most substantial poetry publishers whose success was based not upon capital or celebrity-chasing but tasteful perseverance.
By incorporating counter-conventional work into more general aims, a few other recently founded New York publishers have put alternative work into print. Grossman Publishers, set up in 1962 (and now a division of the Viking Press), has mixed much undistinguished fiction by alumni of creative writing schools with such truly alternative titles as Madeline Gins’ Word Rain (1969) and M.D. Elevitch’s Grips (1972), as well as importing books of American poetry—mostly post-Black Mountain, varying greatly in quality—originally published by Cape Goliard in England. Grossman’s Orion Press subsidiary under separate editorship did one of the best novels of the late sixties, Kenneth Gangemi’s scrupulously uninflected Olt (1969). Another New York firm, Outerbridge & Dienstfrey, established in 1969, issued such unusual titles as Edmund Carpenter and Ken Heyman’s They Became What They Beheld (1970), a profound verbal-visual essay that many other publishers had rejected, plus G.S. Gravenson’s The Sweetmeat Saga (1971), a novel so typographically eccentric that its manuscript had to be photo-offset (rather than typeset). Once Dienstfrey departed, however, the firm’s lists lost their literary edge.
Among the other smaller New York publishers doing important alternative literature are Lita Hornick’s Kulchur Foundation whose two books a year have included Charles Henri Ford’s Silver Flower Coo (1968) and David Antin’s Talking (1972); Ralph Gibson’s Lustrum Press is revolutionizing the publication of book-length photographic essays; 1st Casualty Press in Brooklyn opened with a much-rejected anthology of war poems by Vietnam veterans, Winning Hearts & Minds (1972), which, after it won acclaim, was reprinted by McGraw-Hill; Lawrence Dent’s Winter House, whose most unusual book has been Frederick Barthelme’s indescribable Rangoon (1970), has also issued collections of young dramatists’ plays; Harold Witt’s Croton Press did Michael Disend’s unforgettable novel, Stomping the Goyim (1969), and collected Donald Phelps’ much-admired essays into Covering Ground (1969); C. W. Truesdale’s New Rivers Press specializes in handsome editions of poets not collected before; John Bernard Meyers’ Tibor de Nagy Editions has selected the best of the early “New York School”; Vito Acconci’s 0 to 9 did its founder’s early books; Larry Fagin’s Adventures in Poetry has mimeographed lots of second-generation “New York School” trivia, along with inarguably innovative texts by Clark Coolidge and Jennifer Bartlett; the Vanishing Rotating Triangle, founded by Leandro Katz and Ted Castle, is devoted to the confluence of Latin-American literature and avant-garde art; George Wittenborn, the art-book dealer mentioned before, though no longer publishing art books, has continued to issue the rigorously difficult fictions of Arlene Zekowski and Stanley Berne; Johnny Stanton’s Siamese Banana put out Keith Cohen’s Madness in Literature (1970); Ray Freed’s Doctor Generosity Press was founded in a New York bar that also presents poetry readings; Barlenmir House does collections of otherwise unfavored poets; the Eakins Press, Johanna Gunderson’s Red Dust, and George Koppelman’s Seven Woods are still other alternative publishers issuing important work. Perhaps because writers living in New York are more immediately aware of the failings of big publishers, they are less likely than provincials to bang their heads forever against literary-industrial walls.
The other part must be the small publisher devoted to bringing out works of quality which do not have a chance to make their ways in commercial publishing. My feeling was that book publishing needed the “little publisher” the same way that the world of magazines needed the “little magazine.”
—Alan Swallow, “American Publishing and the American Writer” (1960)
Distance from New York, or at least from midtown Manhattan, may be prerequisite for truly alternative publishing so that independent editorial taste can remain less awed by both transient fashions and exclusively New York pressures. Editors in the provinces might also avoid the European influences that afflict not only a fairly serious midtown publisher like George Braziller, say, but even the Something Else Press (during its Manhattan period). However, unless the provincial firm is wealthy enough like Houghton Mifflin or the University of California Press to establish a “New York office,” the primary peril of publishing outside New York is even less proximity to the most powerful media of review and publicity. This ineluctable lack of media interest, even if expected, inevitably puts a damper on aspirations, in addition to causing needless neglect in their immediate milieus. “We do better in N. Y. and L.A. than we do at home,” one San Francisco editor complained in a letter to me, “where a mixture of paranoia and provincialism make people deathly scared to admire anything that doesn’t come out of New York.” As provincial writers are a severely neglected literary class, small presses outside New York are eminently necessary; but they never get the benefits and attention that, for the sake of literature’s future, they deserve. As a result, not only do they rarely develop a larger, unparochial vision of literary necessity, but so much of their very best intentions go to waste. (A lesser disadvantage is a distance, both physical and psychological, from the new intelligence continually generated by New York’s artistic change and exchange.)
The historical epitome here was Alan Swallow (1915-66) who operated a one-man firm out of his own house in Denver, Colorado, publishing small editions, cheaply printed, of largely forgotten poets (and some better-known, commercially abandoned, older, mostly western writers) to a negligible amount of sales and even less reviewing response. A former football player, he worked around the clock and for a while also taught at the local university. “For many of us in publishing,” he wrote in a classic statement, “the chief concern is less that of seeing important work of the past continue to be available than it is the situation for the talented new writer. We are concerned with the poetry, the fiction, the literary criticism of inherent significance.” Nonetheless, rare is the small publishing enterprise outside New York that lasts as long as Swallow’s press did—twenty-five years, until his premature death. “He never published a book he didn’t like,” the novelist Mark Harris explained. “Thus, he never fell into self-contempt.”
Another exemplar of sorts has been Bern Porter (b. 1911), a peripatetic poet and physicist, who issued numerous books that were then otherwise unpublishable: Philip Lamantia’s Erotic Poems (Berkeley, 1946), Kenneth Patchen’s Panels for the Walls of Heaven (San Francisco, 1947), several volumes of Henry Miller’s essays, and even Dick Higgins’ What Are Legends? (Calais, Maine, 1960). In 1939, August Derleth, better known as a prolific novelist, founded Arkham House in his native Sauk City, Wisconsin, to publish both regional material and literary fantasy (especially the otherwise abandoned fiction of H.P. Lovecraft); for nearly as long, Harry Duncan’s Cummington Press has published a steady stream of exceptionally well-printed books of excellent poetry, including Robert Lowell’s first book, Land of Unlikeness (1944), and the first edition of Armand Schwerner’s The Tablets 1- VIII (1969). In the forties, James A. Decker, also operating in the Midwest, issued numerous collections of otherwise unavailable poets such as the first book of David Ignatow. City Lights, of course, represents yet another historical step in the necessary decentralization of American publishing.
Capitalizing upon its decline, other California firms have filled the breach in poetry publishing. The most prolific has been Black Sparrow Press which John Martin started in Los Angeles in 1968, initially printing limited editions of younger American poets, many of whom had not previously appeared in book form—David Antin, Kenneth Gangemi, George Economou—in addition to older, mostly West Coast poets descending from Black Mountain traditions. Currently doing about twenty books a year plus a modest monthly magazine, Martin generally prints around 1500 copies, nearly all of which are bound in cardboard and sold for four to six dollars. The remaining two hundred or so are bound in harder covers, signed by the author and sold for a higher price. Unlike small publishers who depend upon grants or private beneficence, Martin survives on sales alone. “I’m doing well (enough),” he recently wrote me, “making expenses and a kind of living (I have no other income except what the press gives me); but to accomplish all this, I have to do everything myself: editing, mailing, ad copy, shipping, bookkeeping, correspondence, etc. It means a 70-hour week. And my wife designs the books, which saves a big expense. I’ll continue as long as I can, publishing what I want the way I want to do it.” Martin reports that, like other serious small publishers, he cannot do all the titles he would like, estimating that “each year I must send back 20 books I’d love to publish, but I can’t.”
Another West Coast publisher, Donald Allen’s Four Seasons Foundation, favors poets he has previously anthologized—Creeley, Olson, Philip Whalen, and Michael McClure; it scored a commercial coup by publishing the original editions of Richard Brautigan’s much-rejected Trout Fishing in America (1967), In Watermelon Sugar (1968), and The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster (1968). Robert Hawley’s Oyez Press did Philip Lamantia’s Touch of the Marvelous (1966), the best book by a poet who, though famous for nearly 30 years, has never been published in the East. Dave Haselwood issued Allen Ginsberg’s Indian Journals (1969), while Grey Fox in Bolinas published the first edition of Ginsberg’s long-lost rhymed poems, The Gates of Wrath (1972). Glide Publications, the book-making arm of a San Francisco activist church, did Mark in Time (1971), an opulently produced anthology of local poets (and their photographs); and clearly in response, Paul Foreman’s The Throp Spring Press, across the bay in Berkeley, issued the San Francisco Bark (1972), a more modestly produced selection of totally different poets, many of whom teach at the local university.
Among the other West Coast alternative publishers are Doug Blazek’s Open Skull whose stellar production was Lyn Lifshin’s first collection, Why Is This House Dissolving? (1968); Unicorn Press, founded in Santa Barbara by Teo Savory and Alan Brilliant, which offers a large and eclectic poetry list; Noel Young’s Capricorn Press, a Santa Barbara fine-book printer, who did the original edition of L. Clark Stevens’ EST: The Steersman’s Handbook (1971); George Hitchcock’s Kayak Books which moved from San Francisco to Santa Cruz; Ramparts Press, a spin-off from the magazine, which issued Dave Meggyesy’s consciousness-changing Out of Their League (1970) and Murray Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism (1971); Jan Herman’s Nova Broadcast Press, established literally within City Lights offices, which issued Liam O’Gallagher’s one-man collection of visual poetry, Planet Noise (1969); The Futharc Press in Chico; John Oliver Simon’s Galactic Approximations Press in Berkeley; Doug Palmer’s Peace & Gladness; Don Gray’s Two Windows, Dennis H. Koran’s Panjandrum, Stephen Levine’s Unity Press, Coyote, Beach Books, Cranium, Klonk, Black Dragon, Cloud Marauder, Kingdom Kum, Grape, Stolen Paper, all of which have also resided in San Francisco.
Up in Bolinas, California, is David Meltzer’s Tree Books, while down in Santa Barbara is Graham Mackintosh’s Capra and Melissa Albers’ Christopher Books; Great Balls of Fire in Santa Monica does photography books. Out in Sacramento was D. r. Wagner’s Runcible Spoon; in Oakland is Oneiric Press; in Paradise, California, is Len Fulton’s Dustbooks which issued Wally Depew’s totally abstract short fiction, Once (1971), along with the annual, indispensable Directory of Little Magazines, Small Press & Underground Newspapers (1965 to the present). Up in Oregon is Bill Thomas’ Toad Press which did a book of Ruth Krauss’ striking poetry, and Don Cauble’s Dead Angel which does some of the handsomest hand-press book-making in America. David Kherdian’s Giligia Press (in Fresno before it moved to New Hampshire) issued Down at the Depot (1970), an anthology of Fresno poets that is the first in a series of comparable collections from other American cities. In Fairfax, the Red Hill Press did An Anthology of L.A. Poets (1972), and Ben L. Hiatt recently moved his Grand Ronde Press along with the Grand Ronde Review (est. 1964) from Sacramento to Folsom. Many of these smaller California presses are distributed by Serendipity Bookshop in Berkeley which, in addition to issuing its own titles, has also assumed the distributorship of certain books that were abandoned by their original (commercial) publishers.
Not all of the new West Coast publishers, however, are primarily literary. Straight Arrow, founded by Rolling Stone magazine and headed by a literary-industrial refugee, has specialized in pop publishing—books designed to exploit faddish enthusiasms and personalities—and that orientation informs their few forays into literary publishing, for example, Richard Meltzer’s Gulchur (1972) and Ann Charters’ Kerouac (1973). The most famous of the new Bay Area publishers, the Portola Institute, scored on a self-help book intended for practical usage—The Whole Earth Catalog (1969-72). Its other publications, such as the educational periodical Big Rock Candy Mountain, continue in this vein. Other new California publishers favor spiritual self-help (Shambala), nature books (Sierra Club), photo books (Scrimshaw), cookbooks (Nitty Gritty), psychological self-help (Real People), and comix. It is books of these kinds, rather than poetry and fiction, that New York publishers hope to find when they “scout” in California.
After Alan Swallow’s death, his press acquired new owners who moved it to Chicago. It has since issued several major alternative books such as Raymond Federman’s typographical novel, Double or Nothing (1971), and Eugene Wildman’s Nuclear Love (1972), as well as the latter’s path-breaking anthologies of Concrete Poetry (1968) and Experiments in Prose (1969). The poet Paul Carroll persuaded Follett, a Chicago text-juvenile house, to sponsor a literary list called Big Table Books after the magazine he had edited a decade before. It began auspiciously with his anthology, The Young American Poets (1968), and subsequently issued, among other titles, two volumes of Bill Knott’s extraordinary poetry and prose; but a dispute with Follett’s senior management led to Carroll’s bitter departure and the disintegration of the list. Another Follett executive, J. Philip O’Hara, recently started an imprint under his own name, while a fourth Chicago firm, Traumwald Press, was founded to publish only one author, Dorothy Langley; but it is odd that America’s third largest city, with all of its cultural resources, should have so few literary publishers.
As New York has its small presses, so does U.S. publishing’s second city, Boston; and among the more prominent are Gerard Dombrowski’s Abyss in neighboring Somerville which did Bern Porter’s The Wastemaker (1972) and Hugh Fox’s pioneering Charles Bukowski: A Critical and Bibliographical Study (1970); James Randall’s Pym-Randall in Cambridge whose most auspicious effort has been CPGraham’s book of related poems, ime (1969); Joseph Wilmott’s Barn Dream, also in Cambridge; and Ottone Riccio’s Hellric Press in suburban Belmont. Milwaukee, of all places, has produced a spate of alternative publishers, including James Sorcic’s Gunrunner, Karl Young’s Ziggurat/ Membrane, David Burge’s Harpoon Press, Morgan Gibson’s Morgan Press, Tom Montag’s Monday Morning, Martin J. Rosenblum’s Albatross, among others. Not only does the most persistent small-press reviewer, Rich Mangelsdorff (b. 1943), live there, but Montag and Burge have combined to publish Margins (est. 1972), a monthly review of alternative publications. A Milwaukee refugee living in New York, the Reverend Frederic A. Brussat (b. 1942), started Cultural Information Service (est. 1970) which, though supported by the Lutheran Church of America, is responsive to the intelligence of the counter-culture.
Perhaps the oldest major rural literary press is Jonathan Williams’ Jargon Society which follows its founder-poet in commuting between North Carolina and Lancashire, England. Its distinctions include the first edition of Buckminster Fuller’s long-unpublished Untitled Epic Poem on the History of Industrialization (1962) and a pioneering collection of Russell Edson’s much-admired fables, What a Man Can See (1969). Sumac Press, which emerged from a defunct northern Michigan magazine, has published a series of fine poetry books that includes Michael Heller’s especially impressive Accidental Center (1972), and Ithaca House has put out a conceptually comparable series of handsome paperbacks of previously uncollected poets. In Ann Arbor, Carl R. and Ellendea Proffer’s Ardis Publishers has produced impressive books of Russian literature and criticism in both the original language and English translation, in addition to an awesomely hefty periodical, Russian Literature TriQuarterly (est. 1971).
Among the other notable U.S. small presses are Stone Marrow, also in Ithaca; Times Change in Washington, New Jersey, which has an ecumenically radical outlook; Artists’ Workshop in Detroit which was run by John Sinclair before his unjust imprisonment; John Gill’s Crossing Press in Trumansburg, New York; Gregory Smith’s Atom Mind in Syracuse; the Institute of Further Studies in Canton, New York; Robert Bly’s The Sixties Press which has concentrated upon translations; Harvey Brown’s Frontier Press in West Newbury, Massachusetts; Burning Deck in Providence, R.I. whose key work is Rosmarie Waldrop and Nelson Howe’s Body Image (1970); Alan Sondheim’s Press, also in Providence; Stephen Goode’s Whitson in Troy, N.Y. which did Hugh Fox’s critical book on The Living Underground (1970); Charioteer and Some of Us, both in Washington, D. C,; Ernest and Agnes Tedlock’s San Marcos Press in Cerrillos, New Mexico; Albert Drake’s Stone Press, in Oskemos, Michigan; Jonathan Greene’s Gnonom in Lexington, Kentucky; the Ashland Poetry Press in Ashland, Ohio; Richard McConnell’s Atlantis and Andrew Wylie’s Telegraph Books, both in Philadelphia; Georgakas’ Smyrna Press in Glen Gardner, N.J.; Zeitgeist in Saugatuck, Michigan; Jerry Patz’s Despa Press in Northampton, Massachusetts; John Jacob’s Two Bags Press at various midwest addresses; and Eric Grienke’s exceptionally prolific Pilot Press in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Among the foreign publishers issuing American work, mostly avant-garde, are Beau Geste Press in Devon, England, which is run by graduate students in American studies; various European art galleries which have a book-publishing tradition scarcely imitated in America; and Centro de arte y communicacion in Buenos Aires.
Also in the cultural hinterlands are university presses which, recognizing both the opportunity and the need, have published poetry and sometimes fiction. Wesleyan University Press has been the pioneer here, building up one of America’s most substantial poetry programs in less than fifteen years; and this success has perhaps persuaded the book editors at the universities of Massachusetts and Pittsburgh to field more modest poetry lines. The University of Illinois Press has issued new fiction as well as poetry, including Paul Friedman’s first-rate collection of stories, And If Defeated Allege Fraud (1971). The University of California scored a commercial coup not only by reviving all of Kenneth Burke’s books into a uniform paperback series, but also by publishing the initial edition of Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan (1968) which its author, then a graduate student, reportedly felt would be too esoteric for a commercial house and too unscholarly for a standard university press.
Since university presses have tax-exempt status, they are a public trust whose cultural responsibilities ought to include the decentralization of book publishing and, thus, the issuance of regional, if not local, writers whose works are ignored by the metropolitan firms. For one thing, regional publishing—books written by and for members of a non-cosmopolitan community—remains one of the biggest gaps in the spectrum of literary-intellectual communication. Indeed, since the network of American universities rather than New York or Boston is paradoxically the closest semblance of “an intellectual center” that this country has, book publishing ought to emulate American cultural reality rather than the reverse. Nonetheless, as Charles Newman has observed:
The university press, as a countervailing institution, has failed utterly to provide a genuine alternative press or distribution system. It has favored exegesis over art, and generally ignored the culture of its time. It has not created a single innovation in production or distribution technology, despite massive subsidy and proximity to all the research facilities necessary. It has been timid editorially, conservative politically and esthetically. It has failed to serve even the day-to-day educational needs of its own community (except to certify certain academic hiring and promotion policies) and ignored any audience beyond its narrowest constituency. It has passed its costs, in the form of outrageous cover prices, on to its basic consumer, the library, which in turn has passed them on to the government. And when the economic crunch comes, ... the first things to go are the poetry series, the literary reviews, the search for the unexpected imagination, all these “luxuries” whose constituency is never represented on policy-making boards.
So it seems, alas. If commercial publishers are most interested in making money, while editorial decisions at small presses reflect love (which can be esthetic, political, spiritual, or personal), so publishing at university presses reflects people with various levels of power within a hierarchy, apportioning spoils within a budget.
I’ve declined partnerships, mergers, and incorporations, as I want freedom and flexibility of action; want to devote the press to poetry .... Income from the press goes into publishing new books in an attractive and inexpensive format. I pay royalties to other poets, but royalties on my own books go back into the press.
—Dudley Randall, “The Poets of Broadside Press: A Personal Chronicle” (1970)
Many alternative publishers, like little magazines, gather the work of minorities that have found the larger houses unresponsive to their work. In this sense, the avant-garde constitute one literary minority; the young, as noted before, comprise another neglected class. Black writers, a third, have founded several literary presses, including Joseph Okpaku’s Third Press in New York; the Third World Press in Chicago which issued the especially perspicacious essays of the scholar-critic George L. Kent, Blackness and the Adventure of Western Culture (1972); Alfred E. Prettyman’s Emerson Hall in New York; Jihad Productions which Imamu Amiri Baraka (ne LeRoi Jones) founded in Newark, N.J.; and Yardbird Publishing Co. which opened with The Yardbird Reader (1972), an exceptionally fine anthology compiled by Ishmael Reed. Perhaps the best-known of the black literary publishers has been Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press in Detroit which has put out Gwendolyn Brooks’ most recent large collection, as well as pamphlets by Don L. Lee, Etheridge Knight, and Sonia Sanchez. Enterprising in other dimensions as well, Broadside has issued both poster poems (at fifty cents apiece) and a series of poets’ tapes, along with distributing the booklets of American black poets that Paul Breman publishes in England. A sometime librarian and factory worker, Randall was a literary late bloomer, starting Broadside at the age of fifty in 1964, and he continues to run it out of his own house. Johnson Publishing Co., with its base in Ebony and related magazines, has published more popular books which are, like its magazines, destined for a large black audience; but in its avoidance of literary publishing, Johnson’s book division, again like its magazines, imitates the white literary-industrial complex.
Chicano writers have founded their own publishing houses such as Quinto Sol in Berkeley which did Nick C. Vaca’s particularly literate book of fiction, El Espejo (1969), and Mictla and Barrio, both of which are in El Paso, Texas. Activist women have founded several companies: The Feminist Press at S.U.N.Y.-Old Westbury, Long Island; Know, Inc., in Pittsburgh; Shameless Hussy, run by a woman known only as Alta in San Lorenzo, California; and Adele Aldridge’s Magic Circle in Riverside, Connecticut. The success of the Jewish-American movement suggests that a once-excluded group can be only as strong as its literary organizations.
Canadians constitute another minority suffering discrimination in the North American literary scene because their writings have always suffered neglect. Since nearly all major Toronto publishers are subsidiaries of American firms, they operate largely as extensions of the U.S. literary-industrial complex, importing books from south of the border rather than initiating their own. As J. Michael Yates observed:
It is virtually impossible to find a Canadian paperback on a Canadian newsstand [because] newsstand distribution in Canada is exclusively American-owned and controlled. The only way a Canadian book can discover itself on a Canadian newsstand is via New York, where it would have to come out as a newsprint paperback from one of the big paperback houses.
Even in commissioning Canadians to do books for themselves, the editorial-industrial subsidiaries betray their immediate culture. David Godfrey and James Lorimer noted that,
The main impact of foreign ownership upon a Canadian subsidiary seems to be that all the Canadian employees become fixated, nervously guessing at what it is that head office would like to see them doing, and then nervously trying to do it. Their main reference point becomes the big-time U.S. head-office people.... Occasionally, of course, the control with ownership is not so gently exercised.
For several reasons, then, those Canadian writers who did not expatriate to the south or to England have long been founding their own firms; and that probably explains why Canada has more small presses per capita than the United States. According to Wynne Francis, the earliest notable Canadian small press was First Statement, established in the forties by John Sutherland in Montreal; and its successor there in the fifties was Louis Dudek’s Contact Press which was far more prolific and ambitious, surviving well into the sixties. The Fiddlehead Press, also established in the fifties in New Brunswick, set a precedent for subsequent regional publishing; it remains a prolific publisher of English-speaking poets residing in the Maritime provinces. The consequential Canadian small presses of the early sixties included John Robert Colombo’s Hawkshead, James Reaney’s Alphabet, Nelson Ball’s Weed/Flower (which continues to publish Americans as well), Seymour Mayne and Patrick Lane’s Very Stone House in Vancouver, William McConnell’s Klanak, also in Vancouver, Ganglia and Gronk in Toronto, and Upbank in Quebec. “Most of the books privately printed or published by the little or private press,” Francis testifies, “are not reviewed in [Canadian] newspapers and magazines.” And that, of course, is scandalous.
Nonetheless, younger Canadians, recognizing that necessity is more inspiring than practicality, have recently established several important book-publishing ventures, all of which are open to young writers, some of which are hospitable to experimental works as well, most of which also belong to the recently founded Independent Publishers Association. The most striking books have come from The Coach House Press, now run by a cooperative (which had assumed Stan Bevington’s Coach House print shop). Known as a “printer’s press,” Coach House publishes books in an incomparable variety of formats, in sum suggesting that each text was individually designed rather than fit into a pre-determined mold. Back in 1967, it broke new terrain with bpNichol’s bp, whose three parts are a forty-eight page booklet with a long poem, a phonograph record of Nichol declaiming two extended sound poems, and fifteen “visual concrete poems and objects.” Coach House has since done Bill Hutton’s A History of America (1968) which Leslie A. Fiedler singled out as his favorite work by a young American; M. Vaughn-James’s book-length surreal fiction, The Projector (1971); and Nichol’s Two Novels (1969). It also prints Image Nation, an especially elegant photographic periodical.
The House of Anansi in Toronto was set up by David Godfrey and Dennis Lee, respectively a novelist and poet, and its earliest titles included their own books. It has since issued several anthologies of new writing each selected by a different editor (a wise policy); a series of inexpensively produced first novels; fine book-length poems by George Jonas and Margaret Atwood; the first large collection of Bill Bissett’s experimental poetry; critical books on Canadian writing by both Atwood and Northrop Frye; and a long, awesomely complex first novel by Chris Scott, Bartleby (1971), that I regard as one of the very best fictions of recent years. Also in Toronto are The New Press, which published Vaughn-James’s earlier visual fiction, Elephant (1970); Peter Martin Associates; Griffin House, which did an especially brilliant record of Canadian sound poetry, the Four Horsemen’s Canadada (1972); James Lewis & Samuel, which issued Read Canadian (1972), a polemical bibliographical guide; Neewin, which publishes “on Indians by Indians”; and the Playwrights Co-op, founded early in 1972, whose cheaply printed scripts cope with the fact that shockingly few new Canadian plays have previously been available in print. David Godfrey, having sold his share of the House of Anansi, recently founded Press Porcepic in rural Erin, Ontario; and Oberon Press, established in Ottawa, filled a need by issuing bpNichol’s The Concrete Chief (1970), an intelligent anthology of Canadian experimental poetry.
Delta Canada, founded in Montreal in 1965 also by Louis Dudek, has since moved to La Salle, Quebec, where Glen Siebrasse currently directs it; and the best books of Ladysmith Press, also in Quebec, are those of its proprietor, Sean Haldane. Disposable Paper Press, also in LaSalle, Quebec, recently founded a mimeographed periodical devoted to Little Magazines/Small Presses (est. 1973). M.G. Hurtig Ltd., an Edmonton bookseller, did Al Purdy’s The New Romans (1968), an influential anthology of anti-U.S. diatribes (which, it seems, Toronto publishers avoided like the plague); Talonbooks in Vancouver is a cooperative society specializing in experimental Canadian west coast authors. Sono Nis, founded by an American expatriate who has since become a Canadian citizen, J. Michael Yates (b. 1938), grew out of the writing programs at the University of British Columbia. Initially favoring local writers, it has published anthologies of British Columbian writing, along with several of Yates’s own works, including his best fiction, Man in the Glass Octopus (1968), and books of poetry and fiction by several other recent immigrants to Canada. The most striking of its recent anthologies has been VOL VOX: Poetry from the Unofficial Languages of Canada (1972), which is to say languages other than French and English. (Similar collections of literature in America’s “unofficial languages” could also be compiled, but U.S. publishing has so far neglected this opportunity.) Recently retiring from academia, Yates moved his press to the Queen Charlotte Islands off the coast of northwestern Canada. It is unfortunate that neither Sono Nis books nor those by other new Canadian publishers are ever reviewed south of the border because most of these authors, like those in the States, write for all of North America.
Poverty is a lack of power to command events .... Any serious attack on poverty, then, is an attack on the discrepancies among men in their power to command events, and, principally, one another.
—John R. Seeley, “Progress from Poverty?” (1966)
Another kind of book publishing necessary now is an authors’ collaborative where risks and costs are spread among the participants who then constitute its board of directors. Though much discussed, usually with reference to the success of the Magnum group in photography or certain European cooperatives, this has never been tried in any substantial way in America. One explanation is that U.S. writers, unlike European, are unaccustomed to collaborating with each other, partially because each regards himself as being in continual competition with all of his peers. A more modest analogy in this vein is the anthology that makes a book out of the best work done by artist-writers of similar commitments, or with comparable problems, or by a circle of friends, or by members of a long-term class in creative writing.
Particularly to cope with the pervasive neglect of experimental writing, I co-founded (along with the writer Henry James Korn, later joined by the designer Michael Metz) an annual Assembling, as we call it, which we designed as an open format for “otherwise unpublishable” creative work. We realized that since the principle of editorial authority per se has been the primary obstacle of expressive freedom, our first radically purposeful move was the elimination of our own discriminatory prerogatives. Where other editors seem to have trouble relinquishing authority, we found it easy; instead of soliciting manuscripts for editorial decision, we have asked writers and artists known to be doing unusual or otherwise unpublishable work to contribute 1000 copies, 81/2” by 11”, of no more than four different pages of whatever they wanted to include. In this instance, “publication” consists of binding all the submitted sheets into a thousand finished books.
Since innovative writers in particular will, under current circumstance, need to learn publishing from the beginning, it seemed a good idea to ask each Assembling contributor to be responsible for the printing of his own work—to become his own self-publisher, so to speak. This has been easier than it seems, for not only do academics have access to xerox machines, but certain offset and Itek processes can commercially print one side of a thousand sheets for less than ten dollars and both sides for less than fifteen. In return for their contributions, Assembling agrees to give three copies to each collaborator (forty-two in the first issue, ninety in the third), and we sell the rest to reimburse our expenses. Simply by its compositional process, Assembling realized a commitment to unhindered communication, creative possibility, and artistic seriousness similar to that instilled by other comparably composed volumes, such as Dana Atchley’s Notebooks, done in 1970 and 1971 in Vancouver, and Jerry Bowles’ one-shot Art Work, No Commercial Value (1972), both of which, unlike Assembling, tend to print more graphics than literature. Not only do such easily imitated enterprises implicitly render editorial authority obsolete, but the whole book represents what artists and writers can realize if granted genuine expressive freedom.
The existence of so many new publishers is just one reason why we need new reviewing media; but not until the late sixties did they appear. The Book Review, founded by Jay Bail in San Francisco, started auspiciously, expanding steadily for two years, refusing advertisements, ignoring the hyped-up trash, reviewing small-press publications, attacking the cultural establishments. However, by the following year, both it and its editor disappeared as mysteriously as they arrived, and the review did not reemerge for another year, a ghost of its former self. University Review, founded in New York by Steve Roday, was designed to be a monthly supplement inserted free in university newspapers. However, since the magazine drew its income not from sales but from publishers’ advertisements, its editors felt obliged to riddle its issues with hyper-fashionable names in order to impress not potential readers but literary-industrial advertising managers; unfortunately, the superstars’ slick words provided a peculiar contrast to the predominantly undergraduate reviewers. With editorial offices in the shadow of Columbia University, University Review was also responsive to the winds of classroom fashion, as well as pressures from an older generation, represented more immediately by local professors. In spite of all this Podhoretzian ambition, the review declined until 1972 when it disappeared for a six-month vacation. Reemerging the following fall as a tabloid that sold on newsstands, UR, as it was now called, discovered Radical Chic several years too late, at the price of ignoring books several years too soon.
University Review, like The Book Review, was a good idea unfortunately mismanaged. The losers are not only their editors, but those readers likely to be interested in alternative books. Until better critical media emerge, the best way to learn about small press books is through the annotated catalogs regularly issued by their distributors—the Book People and Serendipity, both of which operate out of Berkeley, and the Book Organization in Millerton, New York.
There will surely be more alternative publishers in North America as more and more literary people realize the exigencies of necessity. This survey scarcely mentions all the new imprints that currently exist. Some are omitted because of my ignorance; others because their output strikes me as sub-literate or thoroughly coterie—small editions issued less out of any pressure of quality or esthetic principle than narcissism strong fellow-feeling. One outlet of this sort, the Tyndall Creek Press of Allston, Massachusetts, told the Fulton-May Directory that, “Our editions to date have been poems by members of our own editorial circle.” Coterie presses rarely have more impact than coterie magazines, unless they publish a writer whose work transcends their mass; but rare in practice is the coterie press that has any impact at all.
Substantial books—those that present good writing; those that would change a reader’s intelligence—are more commendable than those that do nothing either for their publisher or their readers. It was the great English poet-designer Eric Gill who distinguished private presses, those that print what their editors choose, from public presses, which by definition publish what their audiences seem to demand. However, between these two criteria stands a third measure—what the literary situation requires. In my judgment, even a publisher as superficially narrow as Something Else becomes, by virtue of what it does, a sharper cutting edge for the future of intelligent writing. One trouble common to many other new publishers is that the kind of anti-establishment courage that must have informed their initial purposes does not govern their current editorial decision-making that tends to be safe and circumscribed.
All this activity is good and necessary; and if only because the habits and economics of this literary-industrial “closed enterprise system” are so cruelly contrary to their heroic efforts, all new publishers deserve a hero’s support from everyone concerned with the future of writing and reading. Serious young authors would naturally prefer a similarly new publisher sharing the risk and whatever profits with a true extension (and equal) of themselves; and more than one I know gladly took no advance for a new book, try as they otherwise might to fleece a conglomerate. Many poets published by large houses also allow small-press editions of their new work, in part because certain care and freedoms are available in smaller editions, but also because their presence on a new firm’s list bestows a sense of solidity. As every small publisher is offered more good books than he can afford to do, the success of his current production brings a further loosening of the bulging dam, and perhaps enough favorable precedent to inspire yet another imprint. The survival of more avant-garde publishers would insure that the public fate of writers working in experimental ways will not depend upon one firm (or only one man). In this example, as in others, small publishers bring diversity, regionalism, and decentralization to the channels of literary communication; and these principles demand, in turn, a succession of modest, though interlocking initiatives. Now is the time, let it be commonly understood, for alternative publishing.
Even though small presses have carved a distinguished tradition, their achievements are scandalously omitted from the standard, institution-minded (rather than book-minded) histories of American publishing whose authors overlook as well the reasons why small presses might ever exist. (Indeed, it seems odd that several histories of little magazines have appeared while the small presses are still disregarded.) The first volumes of most of this country’s major poets were issued by small firms which continue to bring out more consequential poetry (and experimental writing) than all the larger firms combined; and unless the literary-industrial complex changes its present policies on fiction publishing, the impetus on this genre will probably also shift to smaller firms. Now is the time, to repeat, for alternative book-making.
Not only do the achievements of alternative publishers deserve more scholarly-critical recognition, but their publications must be bought and read. Unless certain cultural enterprises get sustained support, they simply cannot survive; and the changes implied by their existence surely will not happen. When one of them dies, we cannot forget, some of the circumstances prerequisite not only for the articulation of minority consciousness, but also for the survival of literature, pass away too.
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