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Monday, November 21, 2011

Tweeted Questions: What's the Role of Small Press?

This summer, we got a question on Twitter about the role of small press. (Really, what's the point of them, anyway? Kidding.) And while we've taken our sweet time answering this question, we also invoked the help of several editors from various literary magazines and had a thorough discussion about the role, place, and function of small presses and literary magazines. So grab yourself a mug of something hot, and settle in. Many thanks to butnsr12, who prompted this discussion by asking:

What role does the small press fill other than as a stepping-stone to the 'big times'?

Specter, Mensah Demary   Small presses are, in my mind, independent of "the big time." They publish the books the large houses no longer want, if they wanted them at all. They're more daring in what they publish (as well as who), and because of their size, they're swifter to adapt to changes in technology. They may be more open for experimentation, for working closely with the author to bring about his/her vision. Maybe small presses fill that gap, that space where the publisher and the writer work together on a project.

Still, I can't discount the large houses because they still publish worthwhile books. I like to think that some are still trying to "fight the good fight," which is the continued growth and promotion of the literary arts. That said, I try to stay away from the idea that small presses are "altruistic" and large houses are "malevolent." The goal is to publish the writer, to feed the ever-hungry (and perhaps fickle) reader.

Ninth Letter, Jodee Stanley   Small presses and literary journals are where contemporary literature grows and evolves. Let's be honest, the "big times" (NY book publishers, slick magazines) are by their very nature forced to consider the market and the bottom line. That's why so many magazines stopped publishing fiction—they (and/or their advertisers) felt that it wasn't attracting enough readers to make it worth the pages it took up. Big houses may want to keep literary authors on their lists, but in the face of budget cuts, the authors whose books sell the least will be the first dropped, regardless of how important the writing they do may be to the literary conversation. Small presses and literary journals don't have these issues—this community's main concern is keeping literature alive. New trends are born here, new schools of poetry, new ways of writing narrative and expressing truths. Writers who want to be part of this dialogue, and readers who want to follow it will always look to independent publishers and journals for the really exciting stuff.

Black Fox, Racquel Henry   I have to agree with Jodee on this one. Small presses are mainly concerned with keeping literature alive. Small presses are not afraid to publish a piece that takes risks. The larger houses are more concerned with publishing work that sells. It's just that priorities are different. The book that goes against the grain is more of a priority for a small press.

Joyland Fiction, Brian Joseph Davis   That dynamic might have had some traction in the '90s—and the small presses hate being considered "the farm teams" by the way—but it's just not true now. If you want to write a certain kind of writing, maybe something really bold, or writing for other writers, then the small press is a destination, not a consolation prize or stepping stone. The small—and large—publishers that are still doing well are the ones that have always acted as community hubs for specific kinds of writing and books. If they can continue to do that, especially with all the tools that make it really easy now, then they'll continue to do fine.

CutBank, Josh Fomon   Small presses aren't the big time? Kidding. But I'm going to defer to Kate Rutledge Jaffe, our former Editor in Chief, on this question: "I think small presses are incredible avenues for new writers looking to gain an audience, a place for readers to find inspiration, a fun way to discover new work and to watch as established writers take big, rewarding risks. Small presses and literary magazines also serve as a paper (and increasingly an online) community of bold writers determined to reach an audience with their work. And the curatorial aspect cannot be glossed over; each small press has a unique vision and eye for work, and publishes works that complement each other and the overall identity of the press. Find a small press whose aesthetic aligns with your own and you'll have found a friend, someone to introduce you to incredible, surprising work you might have otherwise missed."

Colorado Review, Stephanie G’Schwind   I often think of each issue of Colorado Review as a snapshot of a conversation—a conversation about what's happening right now in poetry, short fiction, and creative nonfiction. This is what people are working on and trying out, what they're thinking about, what they're obsessed with. And I hope that it sparks further conversation—for the both the readers and the writers. And while it’s been true for us that agents pay attention to what we publish and often contact us about writers we’ve featured (presumably to invite them to the “big time”), we’ll always be a place for writers to get started, and come home to.

Black Fox, Racquel Henry   We think small presses play a very important role in the deliverance of good literature. There are so many talented writers out there; we simply offer enough places for those writers to be heard. Small presses sometimes enlighten people on what they're missing—they break the rules. In a way, small presses keep the literary world on its toes. They sometimes shock, invoke happiness, sadness, anger, etc. Also, no matter the size of the contribution, small presses are responsible for continuing the tradition of reading for pleasure. Because of small presses, people still DO read literary magazines.

Barge Press, Shawn Maddey   Not sure what "big times" is, but I would guess that if "big time" is your goal, you should probably just shoot for that and skip all of this nonsense. You can get published in a hundred lit mags, put out a billion chapbooks, and it might earn you some cred, or it might not. I'm gonna go out on a limb here and just say that there probably aren't too many mags out there thinking they've got the next Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates on their hands. There's simply way too many writers and way too much going on in the small press world for that to really hold much water anymore, not to mention, where the mainstream is concerned, a declining interest in the literary forms and styles small presses tend to present... that's why none of us can afford to pay. Besides, my idea of the function of the small press is dramatically cooler than all that.

By submitting to and publishing in small presses, as an author, you're becoming part of a community. But that community isn't necessarily about stepping-stones and self-promotion—though if you can use it that way, all the more power to you! That community is all about discussion and interrelation. If writing is simply writing and you're looking for legitimation to get an agent or major book deal, then the actual market of journals would be very small and limited to a few highly established guys with high print numbers who would be making profits off of the fantastic collections of literature they've put together, people clamoring to see the next big thing. Maybe, to some degree, this was the case in the past, like pre-2000s, and even more dramatically pre-1970s. Any other endeavor would just be futile, the whole thing would just be a big minor league system for the top dogs to pick from; the little guys wouldn't even have a chance, or a purpose.

So why, oh, why do we publish? Just like why, oh, why do we write. Like any writer (and most of us who are editing and publishing are also writers), we have something to say, and, increasingly, the ability and outlets to say it. The only other option is that all content is created equal—that the "best work" is the best work, without room for debate. In that case, why bother? I can't decide what, objectively, the best work is any better than the next person can, and certainly couldn't afford a print run of 10,000 the way others can. Pointless. The truth is, there is no such thing as any kind of concrete and objective truth to any aesthetic. The truth is, this world is made up of many voices, very few of them trying to strike it rich, most of them just doing it for the love of the game. That's what really makes it special and fun—you really just gotta fucking love it.

Hayden's Ferry Review, Beth Staples   This question is a tough one because I find the general sentiment behind it problematic. I recently heard the author Reif Larsen speak, and he said (I wrote it down, so this is verbatim), "I think writers forget why they write: to keep writing." I think too often people focus on some kind of outcome: I'll write a story to get it published in a journal, I'll get published in a journal so I can get an agent, I'll get an agent so I can be famous... I think literary journals exist, in part, to support writers. Is that not an end in itself? The continuation of the art, the support of the artist? And then to find an audience of dedicated readers and bring them to exciting work. We're part of an exciting and vibrant community, and we contribute to that community in all sorts of ways: by creating conversation, by getting excited about literature, by letting writers know that people "out there" care that they're writing. Whether they get a six-figure book deal is, to me, beside the point.

Barge Press, Shawn Maddey   Everyone seems to be pretty much in lock-step with each other, right down to the laughable notion of comparing us to the big-time... not that the comparison itself is idiotic or laughable, just that we're all in so deep in this that it's humbling—we've all had to confront that we are not the “big time” and won't and can't be. But I don't find it insulting so much, as if we're the minor leagues, but still, I just see it as a thought that probably rings true for a lot of people, and one that ought to be dispelled. The clearer the line is between the concept of major publishing houses and the small presses, the better off the small presses are (especially in an era where people are craving the off-beat, the local, the organic, non-industrial products that are carefully crafted rather than merely produced, assembly-line style.)

Community is a definite recurring theme here, and seems something we've all latched on to as one of the defining factors, philosophically, that separates us from the large houses. It is important, for sure, to be part of the community of writers, but, given what we are, I think it's even more important to promote literature as part of the community of artists in general and, more than anything else, the individual communities we live in. Merely appealing to the community of writers is narrow-minded and begs for stagnation and irrelevance—two things which don't do a very good job of promoting our art.

This didn't up, but I don't think we should ever shy away from intellectual confrontation and debate. I recently had a run-in with an editor who was not so chill, from a mag I won't name. To him, print was the only legitimate form of literature, and he seemed almost scornful that his mag was going half-digital. I tried to argue the benefit of digital publishing, but I think he wrote me off as either an idiot or a drunk, because he was not very amenable to my salient logical gymnastics. Where there was an opportunity to have a legitimate philosophical debate, he simply turned his nose at me, rather than defending his point of view. This guy is, thank fucking god, an exception to the rule—everyone else I've interacted with has been the salt of the earth: warm, welcoming, and fun. The moral is: Don't be a stuck-up prude. Stand by your beliefs, yes, but embrace the opportunity to defend them, or at least discuss them. Literature always has to be something people can relate to, and nobody relates to self-absorbed wieners. Not to mention, being a self-absorbed wiener does absolutely nothing to advance the art form.

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