Publishing

The mark of truly alternative publishing, by contrast, is books that long-established houses would not do.... 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 End of Intelligent Writing (1974)

It also became clear, at the onset of U.S. publishing’s most severe recent depression, that commercial houses were less and less inclined to take risks with any kind of counter-conventional work and/or unestablished authors. Among the principal reasons are not only editorial ignorance and opacity but a gross rise in the costs of book production and the increasing profit-hunger of even the more “enlightened” publishing firms. The best seller has become their all-engrossing ideal, while interest in commercially more modest work, such as anything avant-garde or unknown, had declined dangerously.

I suppose that my own anthological experience also gave me a compiler’s passion for making available a goodly amount of avant-garde literary material that might otherwise be lost.

—“Why Assembling” (1973)

In brief, Assembling invites writers and artists whom we know to be doing unusual work, which we broadly characterize as “otherwise unpublishab1e,” to contribute a thousand copies of up to four 8.5- by 11-inch pages of whatever they want to include. Since each contributor is responsible for arranging, by whatever means and funds available, for the production of his own work, he becomes his own sub-self-publisher, so to speak. There is no doubt that writers should usually be paid for what they do; but just as serious poets often give much of their work away gratis, so there are times when every artist feels it worth a few dollars and/or a little effort to put into public print a work that he likes but could not otherwise place. (Indeed, self-publication at such modest cost could stand as an ultimate test of creative seriousness—not just in Russia but in the United States too.)

As a result, each entry ideally represents the best that each contributor can do untouched (or unretouched) by grubby editorial hands. As “compilers” rather than true publishers, we also avoided the editorial pains (or pleasures) of rejecting anything, along with the anxiety of needing to fulfill a predetermined concept; and given the elasticity of our production methods, we never faced the predicament of accepting more material than could be “accommodated by our precious space.”

—“Why Assembling” (1973)

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.

The End of Intelligent Writing (1974)

Ahead of us, especially if the censorship presently implicit in the editorial/industrial complex becomes complete is a writing situation comparable to that current in Soviet Russia, where nearly everything consequential is Samizdat, which means ‘self-published,’ and circulated from hand to hand. The practice of experimental writing in America is thus coming to resemble private research, like that in science, where new discoveries are first announced on stapled photocopies mailed to one’s professional friends rather than trying to generate a demand for his product.

Second Assembling (1971)

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.

The End of Intelligent Writing (1974)

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.

The End of Intelligent Writing (1974)

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.

The End of Intelligent Writing (1974)

As more and more of my anthologies were being published by small presses, rather than large, the differences were becoming apparent. While large presses may have dumb hierarchies, where each level panders to the stupidities and inadequacies of those above it, small presses have only a few people, if not one person; and the state of that person’s being can decisively affect the publication of one’s book. Tom Montag commissioned Younger Critics in North America because he was successfully editing and publishing (and typesetting) Margins, then the best of the small-press reviews; and he wanted to establish a book list. Since we were both passionately concerned about the survival of serious literary criticism in America, it seemed appropriate for me to do for his new imprint an anthology of the best work of emerging practitioners. However, by the time I delivered the book, Montag collapsed, perhaps of exhaustion, and moved from Milwaukee to the Wisconsin countryside, abandoning his magazine and, incidentally, his promises to his contributors. The book appeared belatedly, and it was never widely distributed.

—“On Anthologies” (1999)

Since I have done so many anthologies by now, the reader might get the false impression that publishers are begging for my proposals; quite the contrary is true. The problem is, simply, that nearly all of my anthologies have no precedent; they are not imitations of commercially successful formulas. Nor are they designed to fit snugly into the reading lists of popular college courses. Indicatively, many of them have taken several years to get into print.

—“On Anthologies” (1999)