Art and the Business of Publishing
On Letting a Thousand Flowers Bloom
Early Stages Press was a small Arts-in-Education publisher that I ran at the start of the 80s. In 1982 we decided to have an adjunct writers' cooperative under the imprint of Contemporary Literature Series. All the writers involved had come out of the political and cultural movements of the late 60s and early 70s, much of which was centred in the San Francisco area. The series which was published in 82 and 83, included Gordon DeMarco's October Heat, Harriet Ziskin's Blind Eagle, Stories from the Courtroom, Celeste McLeod's Horatio Alger Farewell and Ed Buryn's, Vagabonding through America along with a Vietnam era novel I had written called Letters to Nanette. The Contemporary Literature Series lasted several years and was, in many ways, quite a successful venture. We were able to break into the mainstream media and our books were widely reviewed nationally. Letters to Nanette, for example, was given more serious attention by newspapers, magazines and radio than any of my subsequent titles that came out from large publishing houses. Sales of our books were in the thousands, but without grants and subsidies, we were soon overcome by the enormous capital expenditures necessary to keep even a miniscule publishing group going back then.
In 1983, I was invited to address the California Writers Congress on the subject of cooperative publishing and the fiction market. Rummaging through my files, I found a copy of what I said. I excerpted a few paragraphs that seem as relevant today as it was back then:
Over the past year, we at Early Stages Press have been struggling to break new ground as an authors' cooperative. This is not to say we haven't had our precedents. For example, Writers and Readers in England began as an experiment in bringing authors in closer touch with the production and distribution process of the book business.
We didn't go into publishing naively. Most of us had experience in book production and distribution. But, even so, breaking new ground always means confronting the unexpected. As much as we had thought ourselves liberated from the vestiges of the feudal American publishing industry, we still found that we were trapped in the quagmire of the greatest imponderable of all: the fiction market.
There are many views of fiction, what it is and what it isn't, but I'm concerned with two. There is the romantic notion of the Proustian artist, striving for eternal glory in a cork-lined room. In this image, we visualize greatness, truth, beauty, fortune, fame, celestial grandeur. But it's another notion of fiction, far more mundane perhaps, that interests me. This is the notion of fiction as social history. In this vision, we see the writer more as an articulator and interpreter of shared experiences. In this view each individual work becomes part of a whole, a stitch in the combined tapestry of our culture. In this vision, writers might not see eternal glory, but, with luck and perseverance, they could shed some light on the evolving human condition.
I mention these two views of fiction because I believe they help exemplify the myth and the reality of the publishing world today. The myth of fiction is that there are a few true artists who, like fresh new cakes of Ivory soap, will inevitably rise to the top of the grubby bath. The myth assumes there are a series of benevolent and omnipotent individuals whose sole purpose on earth is to recognize and establish greatness, and, once recognized, to sponsor and support said greatness till death do they part. The reality is that there are many fictions, all highly subjective, all very personal, and all with different potential audiences.
In fact, commercial publishing decisions have usually been made by people other than artists, who might possibly have interests other than the quest for truth and beauty. There aren't a hell of a lot of people left, especially working writers, who would disagree with that. Yet, even so, we still hear, from time to time, the idea that there is a hierarchy of writers, the good published in New York, the mediocre published in San Francisco. We even, believe it or not, have reviewers who would rather review a book because it was published in New York rather than in San Francisco, and, amazingly, libraries which would rather buy books that were published in New York; and even bookstores which would rather stock books published in New York.
I wonder how many of you have ever heard the term 'vanity painter,' or 'vanity film maker,' or 'vanity sculptor,' or vanity singer?' I wonder how many of you have ever heard the term 'vanity press?' Well, I would like to re-define the term 'vanity press' for you. A vanity press is a large publishing house usually located east of the Mississippi which is vain enough to print 2,000 copies of a book, give it no advertising or promotion to speak of, remainder or shred it within two months of publication, and then keep the publishing rights for another ten years. A vanity press is one that is vain enough to have its publishing decisions made by its marketing department.
Vanity presses have their cohorts. I call them vanity reviewers and vanity distributors. Vanity reviewers usually have incredibly large egos and truly believe they have the power in their little pens to save the world from bad writers. Bad writers, in their frame of reference, are those who either annoy them with unwarranted phone calls or have been ungracious enough to send them a softbound version of their book. Good writers, on the other hand, are those who have press agents that know good restaurants, or alternatively can make good conversation at dinner parties. Vanity distributors are usually not interested in fiction because it 'doesn't sell.' But when they are, it often is because the book in question has a nice four-colour cover with a hint of sex.
Anyway, we at Early Stages decided to get together and form a legitimate press. One that would question some preconceived notions in the publishing industry. These notions include the following: that all fiction will reach its intended audience through a one-time ad in the New York Review of Books; that a book lives or dies in the first month of publication; that an audience for a book lines up at bookstores waiting for it to arrive; that most reviewers can possibly determine a book's worth and transmit that worth to the proper audience; that an author and reader must, by nature, be separated by an impossible chasm; and that gross profit is the primary measure of success.
Fiction is, by nature, a delicate medium. Most fiction writers have made themselves incredibly vulnerable just by choosing to publish. On the other hand there are new seeds being sown, new technologies that are making it possible for books to be developed without enormous capital outlays. We happen to live in a marvellously fertile area for book production. Thanks to Reaganomics there are hundreds of gifted editors, book designers, typesetters, graphic artists, and book promoters floating around, looking for work.
Why not let a thousand literary flowers bloom? What hove we got to fear? Certainly nothing worse than what we have. I mean we can continue dashing from genre to genre, from doom and gloom to self-immolation, from blazing infernos to sadistic spies, from demons to space creatures, all written by talented authors who feel they couldn't otherwise get into print.
Why not let a thousand literary flowers bloom? So what if some of them turn out to be weeds? What have we got to lose? What are we trying to protect? Sure some of it will be dreck. But the audience for fiction has been so sated in dreck that a little more won't hurt them. And who defines dreck, anyway? How can we say for sure what work will strike a spark, what work will create a new vision, what work will develop a following?
In those days there was quite a bit of discussion about how genre writing could be adapted so that serious writers could better connect with the mainstream. Back then mysteries and thrillers were still mainly a conservative, middle of the road genre, despite the fact that the two best known American mystery writers, Hammett and Chandler, used their stories quite effectively as a way of exploring contradictions in American societal values. Gordon DeMarco's Riley Kovaks character was modelled in the Hammett and Chandler fashion, but Kovaks was very much a lefty detective exploring themes rooted in the struggles of militant labour. I was more interested in writing what I considered more serious novels, but the idea of trying to investigate issues that, especially then, were very important to us, through a popular literary device, seemed quite interesting.
It was about that time Pluto Press in London was looking for a kind of fiction that would have a broader appeal than what they had been doing up till then. Pete Ayrton, who later ran Serpent's Tail, had read Gordon's mysteries and was anxious to build a list around books of that sort. I had been playing around with an idea myself back then based on a very interesting WWII story about the first American merchant ship to be captained by a black man that metaphorically flew the red flag during the North African campaign because all the volunteers on board had been old Commies. I had written it up as a straight novel entitled, Black Ship Liberty, was getting nowhere with it and decided to do it over as a mystery re-titled as Strange Inheritance. I had a young newspaper reporter working for an investigative magazine, finding some old letters of his father's which laid a trail for a story that had to do with a pot of money the destitute father had somehow left as an inheritance, money that was very suspect, and the merchant seamen who had sailed on that commie ship whose lives were subsequently broken during the McCarthy era. Pete liked the idea and wanted me to continue the Joseph Radkin investigative reporter character.
I had, however, written another sort-of mystery back then entitled Koba which was a rather wry look back at the characters of the 80s who were still stuck in a 68 time warp. Koba was shortlisted for the Pluto Prize which was supposed to re-launch their series but before it was published, Pluto went under – as a rather early warning message of the times. However, Gollancz picked it up, along with a new Joseph Radkin title, Genesis Files, for the relaunch of their yellow jacket mystery series and followed it up with two other Radkn investigations – Judgement of Death and Paper Cuts, over the next several years.
Then, in 89, Gollancz was sold in the first of a series of subsequent sales that gutted the original rather fuddy-duddy operation and made it part of a sleek multinational enterprise. Prior to leaving my editor told me that there was no room for mid-list titles in contemporary publishing. She was right, but the implications for writers of all shades and descriptions was devastating. The assumption was that you either set out to write a best-seller - which meant something that the marketing department could visualise as a best-seller and therefore promote as a potential best-seller - or pack up your typewriter and give it to the Salvation Army.
By that time I was actively engaged in the Writer's Union of Great Britain and was quite aware how the corporatisation of publishing and of bookselling, the demise of the net book agreement, and the commercialisation of public broadcasting had affected my fellow writers all across the board. Writing and publishing had become a big money game and either you were in it to win, and did what it would take to create a product that would be glossy enough to survive the brutalities of the marketplace, or pack up your marbles and go home. At least that was the message being fed to all those foolish enough to think that writing was an endeavour of the heart and that maybe small voices should also be heard.
I was living in Cambridge then and had connected with David Kelley, a marvellous character from Trinity College who had long wanted to engage in some small publishing venture. I had set up Café Magazine as sort of an homage to the penny university of old – a sort of literary coffee house miscellany. David Kelley had written a few articles for me and one day we got to talking about the idea of setting up a left bank on the Cam. He had translated some plays of Jean Tardeau which I very much liked and we decided to start with that. We called the press Black Apollo as that was the imprint I had set up for Café (it was an allegorical term used for 'coffee' in the 18th century.) Later we did a wonderful little book of David's drawings and poetry which came out just a year or so before his untimely death.
Through David Kelley I had met Jean Khalfa, who at the time was the French cultural attaché for Cambridge. Jean had organised an exhibition of 19th Century French Livres d'Artistes at the Fitzwilliams and had asked if Black Apollo wanted to do the catalogue. He had commissioned a series of short essays to be written apropos the various artist/poet collaborations on exhibit and the resultant book became an immediate classic since very little had been written in English that had such a broad and authoritative scope.
By now it seemed we had the makings of a small press enterprise and I teamed up with another David, David Cutting – a Cambridge designer who had been working with me on several of the Black Apollo projects – to form a more organised publishing venture. Together we set up Germinal Productions, a limited corporation, with Black Apollo as its primary imprint.
Germinal has taken Black Apollo in another direction. Four years ago, we began exploring the idea of doing a series of reprints of forgotten Victorian novels. In the course of some research I had been doing for a novel of my own, I had come across a group of late Victorian writers who were just beginning to emerge as part of a revised look at that period. This series which included Margaret Harkness, Israel Zangwill and Amy Levy, was produced using new print on demand technology. The books wee marketed to university courses and sold directly over the Internet as well as through the established trade wholesalers. That list was followed by a series of individual titles from contemporary authors that came to us in various ways. After several years of working in this manner, we started to understand what we could do – what it was possible to accomplish.
Some of these books have become successful in a small way; others have not. But we've become convinced that the potential is there, now more than any time in recent history, to have small publishing ventures that can be initiated with very little money and have a possibility of gaining an international audience.
There are many pieces to the puzzle of effective small press publishing. The most important piece, of course, is the book itself. But along with that is the requirement of a strategy based on experience and cooperation. There is something very rewarding about seeing a germ of an idea blossom into a full-fledged work. The limitation of opportunities in the mainstream of publishing has seen, at the same time, the opening of opportunities from below. Not everyone is either able or willing – or should – take advantage of these opportunities. It requires commitment, a brave heart, and confidence. But it can be done now without a great deal of financial risk. And for some writers who feel the time has come, great possibilities beckon.