Roundtable: Transglobal Edition

Welcome one and all to the inaugural Roundtable, where we the Gloom Cupboard Editorial Team chew over various pressing matters. On the panel today we have Dorla Moorehouse (DM), Greg Oguss (GO), Jude Dillon (JD), Lena Vanelslander (LV), Richard Wink (RW) and Stuart Sharp (SS).

Let’s Get Down to Business: What are your opinions on the Current State of the Small Press?

(GO): I don’t know enough about small presses to comment on their health. But their inherent obstacles to making an impact have probably never been greater. Two years ago, I was telling a friend that a risqué short story I considered my “best stuff” had never been published. She answered, “The best stuff never is.” Whether or not my story was any good, I think this suggests the role that the small presses and little magazines used to play: as a ‘publisher of last resort.’ They often printed odd things overlooked by bigger presses, giving the material some small chance of rising (or falling) on its merits. Now, blogs have usurped this function, making certain that nearly everything gets some sort of public airing via personal websites, which frequently have a larger readership than many small presses. If small presses are to stick around, which I’m not sure they will, I think tough questions have to be answered that are confounding all “content providers” these days.

(LV): One can add, or should add the question what small presses do and represent for the writers (and readers). In that light one can accentuate the uniqueness of the phenomenon, and raise awareness for the problems they face. See where they still contribute to culture in general and where not. Blogging may be at a peak but it is temporal, most blogs are not in eternity on internet, a book however keeps existing. People still need that niche in the market. Often small presses have only one way to face possible financial difficulty, namely asking their readers, and their writers, to donate. But the obstacles they are up against are often huge. Virtualisation of the world is one of them. Though one must say there is with most people who love to read still a distinct eagerness to read books, instead of e-books and the most interesting writers, it must be said, can often be found with small presses. Also writers still look explicitly to small presses, and not because it is the last resort. Most people don’t know of the existence of these books and that is a possible action small presses can take, and some are already taking: address the people. How? By using their own worst enemy: internet. Find Small Press Distribution (on facebook, their link escapes me but the name says it all) and use it. There is slowly a public of readers growing focussed on the small presses, to support them and to have interesting literature beyond the classics. I would say use these factors to benefit from. (it is clear I’m pro small presses).

(DM): Greg, I think it’s interesting that there’s this sort of attitude that small presses are a ‘last resort.’ I’m currently shopping my novel, and looking exclusively at small presses. Of course, it’s nearly impossible for me to get looked at by a large press because I don’t have an agent and don’t intend to get one. A small press isn’t a last resort for me – it’s the first stop. The way I see it, the small press is right up my alley. I don’t have to know the right people to submit there; I can send them my work that I know wouldn’t have a place at a mainstream press and know it will get a fair shake even if they don’t take it. Okay, I think I’m romanticizing the small press a bit here – I know there’s still nepotism and such involved, and it’s not entirely democratic. But still – querying my novel at a big publishing house has never crossed my mind. It was never a case of “I can’t do it,” but more like “this is something that belongs with a small press.”

I wonder not just how blog, but self-publishing (especially through sites like has the potential to undermine the small press. Self-publishing is getting easier and easier, and I’m sure there are a lot of writers who might just attempt to bypass the small press in favor of DIY. After all, that also may not get them a big readership, but neither will a small press. I admit that eventually, I might self-publish this novel if it gets rejected enough. Interestingly, for me, self-publishing is the “last resort,” not the small press.

(GO): While I didn’t mean the ‘last resort’ phrase pejoratively, if we’re speaking generally, most of us would agree that the order of preference for publishing something creative typically has been: 1) Mainstream publishing houses; 2) Small presses and micro-presses; 3) Self-publishing (vanity presses, subsidy publishers, homemade books).

What’s interesting to me is something Dorla’s response hints at, which is that this hierarchy is beginning to shift in the digital age. Most of us would still prefer getting something on Knopf rather than Black Butterfly Smoky Mountain micro-press or a vanity label. But the stigma of self-publishing (whether it’s an e-book, a blog, or perfect-bound) has vanished. Many authors who have had success on the increasingly significant Amazon best-seller list have been self-published. A recent BusinessWeek article on the ‘secrets’ of this list detailed how entrepreneurial-minded authors, especially self-published ones, are ‘gaming’ the system to achieve even greater success.

I think Dorla and I are in agreement that more than ever, the DIY approach (self-published blogs, e-books, and printed works) is a culturally acceptable and economically sensible move, which still begs the question of what is the role of the small press in an age when everyone can be a ‘publisher.’

(RW): My only problem with Lulu and various other self publishing outlets is that they potentially sacrifice on quality; especially if the person putting together the manuscript is unable to adequately self-edit. I know speaking from experience that dealing with a competent editor really does help both in terms of constructive criticism and spotting unnoticed mistakes. It is quite possible that a young poet desperate to put together their first collection might burn themselves by producing a sub par, error strewn book if they self publish.

On the marketing side of things – blogs, social networking sites and market places such as Amazon are bridging the gap, meaning that creating hype and worldwide promotion is possible even without the backing of a big publishing house and nationwide high street distribution.

I see some parallels between the music industry and the publishing industry in that just as nowadays anyone can publish a book, anyone can make a record. Technology and the internet have made that possible. However there still needs to be some moderation, a good small press or an astute indie record label at least offers some aspect of quality control.

(GO): The parallel between the music industry and publishing is a good one. Both are struggling to justify their existence in an age of free content and easy-to-use DIY technology. If the main argument for their respective survival is that executives and editors are essential in nurturing young artists, that seems an iffy proposition. Certainly, record execs/producers and book editors have played this role in this past. But neither publishers or record companies seem to have much of a desire to nurture anymore, instead searching for ‘pre-sold’ properties. I suspect there are few editors left who can perform the ‘Max Perkins’ role, doing a lot of work to get a manuscript in shape. And none are expected to, instead seeking writers who have fully prepared manuscripts, marketing plans, etc.

While these comments are more applicable to bigger publishers, I think the situation creates a mindset among younger and more tech-savvy artists that all editors and execs are superfluous, regardless of an institution’s size. That’s just a general suspicion; I don’t have any hard evidence. This leads back to my first point about not knowing enough about the subject to make much of a comment, ironically ending with my gloom-and-doom predictions of the ‘Death of the Small Press,’ a tendency of mine.

(DM): I’ve also really noticed that editors/publishers are looking for a ready-to-sell book rather than nurturing writers. This is something that really came to attention last week in a discussion with my memoir-writing group. This group has a number of middle-aged women who have been publishing for a long time, and they’re noticing a change in the publishing industry. They used to get works accepted even if the product wasn’t quite finished/perfect yet, and now they’re getting rejections over things that 20 years ago would have been considered frivolous, because publishers no longer want to take the time to collaborate with a writer to get the manuscript perfect.

It’s also interesting to me that a few of the small presses I have queried to (or at least considered) are asking for marketing plans in the submission guidelines. Now, I know that small presses don’t necessarily have huge marketing departments but – I’m not in marketing! There’s a reason I’m not in marketing! I do the best I can when publishers ask for my ideas, but I know that isn’t the strongest part of my submission package.

(SS): Smaller presses are probably greater in number than ever before, at least if you include e-publishing, POD etc. At the same time, their chances of growing much beyond that are no better, because it isn’t the ability to print the things that is the issue, but rather the marketing and distribution. Most do seem to want a fairly finished product, though editing does still take place, fairly thoroughly with those projects I’ve been involved in. I suspect that a lot of smaller presses ask for details of what you plan on the marketing front because there is a temptation with some authors to do nothing. That said, I suspect that the ability to do the marketing side of the business on a decent scale (not advertising, necessarily, but things like getting the books into booksellers, sending them to opinion forming reviewers, etc.) is what marks the dividing line between the smaller and bigger publishers.

(LV): What hasn’t come through yet is the difference between agents and editors of small presses. My last profiled writer used to submit with agents, never got accepted (while very talented) and received nothing but impersonal rejection letters. All of us who have approached small presses do have to admit their approach was not impersonal … They ask for marketing because marketing is for them their week point opposite large publication houses. The threat of self-publishing is much smaller: if people can get accepted with smaller presses, most will accept the opportunity.

(RW): Dorla raises an interesting point about the marketing side of things. Should small press writers resort to viral promotion schemes, or quirky attention grabbing gimmicks? I’ve always been fascinated by Tao Lin’s approach, and wonder if small press writers have got to be media savvy to succeed?

(GO): The Warholian notion that “Celebrity is the art form of the 20th century” should probably be updated to “Micro-celebrity is the art form of the 21st century.” I think blog-driven internet fame like Lin’s has to be the digital age equivalent of hanging out at Regine’s with Drella in the 70s, not essential to an artist’s success, but it sure doesn’t hurt.

That’s also my answer to Richard’s query about what art forms are “exciting” us currently. I’m fascinated by the influence of (mostly) second-rate artists who’ve succeeded by intentionally courting Internet notoriety, whether we’re talking Tila Tequila or Emily Gould. Even ‘respected’ artists like Chuck Palahniuk and M.I.A. have profited by their manipulation of digital culture (an online fan community and crafty use of file-sharing P2P sites, respectively). While Palahniuk and M.I.A. are undoubtedly tops at what they do, my interest in all those second-rate Internet icons probably speaks to the fact that I find even the best new music, movies and literature curiously unengrossing.

(LV): I have actually too little knowledge about the small presses inside-out to give a coherent background-opinion but would like to comment on a few tendencies raised here that are indeed part of the 21st century. To achieve a full understanding of the phenomenon I do think we need the big picture, where the opinion of a representative from a large publishing versus the arguments of smaller publishing houses should be considered. Nonetheless there are three fundamental remarks in here:

1) the parallel between music and publishing industry can’t be overlooked. the big labels, the way artists and writers tend to get treated, … the parallels are too numerous and tend to follow the general economy- and marketing revolutions.

2) the contribution of smaller presses to the diversity in writing and writing styles. This is I think an essential aspect that can’t be overlooked. The big-publishing houses address the biggest audiences and to be honest what we find in the stores isn’t always the best material, hardly ever … Even classics from before often have to be ordered in smaller bookstores. The remark remains with marketing to which 3) can give an answer. But there are as many small presses who do their marketing themselves as small presses who rely on their author to do it for them.

3) the phenomenon of self-publishing, blogs, etc. which we could also paraphrase under the notion of internet marketing or e-marketing. Two aspects remain striking here

*getting known: where a blog posting ‘author-in-being’ gets remarked, makes connections and finishes up publishing with a publishing house, which does tend to happen more and more as I see it from close by.

*being known and maintain also contact on internet, which seems to raise more and more for most artists. Where personal contact with the reader is possible and giving them the opportunity for a day-to-day update on the activity (and writing) of renowned authors. Maybe to feed the easier raising problem of the speed of loss of interest nowadays, internet users tend to turn towards regularly appearing faces and names.


The comments section is open for further debate. Please add to the discussion.

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