TUCoPS :: Truly Miscellaneous :: sp000352.txt

Ways and Means: Notes on Alternative Publishing one year into the 90's


                        by Karl Young

Alternative presses in America seem to have diminished considerably 
during the last decade. I haven't counted them, and don't know if 
their number has decreased. Perhaps what has diminished is a quality 
of diversity and inventiveness characteristic of presses of the past. 
If this is so, my opening remarks are highly personal and may warp 
their subject in reflection. But as I'd like to do in most of my 
essays, I'd like to preface this with a quote from Montaigne: "I would 
not make so bold as to say such things if it were my due to be 

Many surviving presses have become more cliquish and less willing to 
consider new ideas and the work of unconsecrated writers. Many presses 
are now little more than pale imitations of main stream publishers: 
staid, cautious, and, in their own way, ultraconservative. Some 
reasons for this are self-evident, others difficult to trace. Money 
works its way through most of them, taking on many disguises. Most 
apparent at present is the problem of funding through organizations 
like the N.E.A., along with its attendant spies, allegiancy oaths, 
legal entanglements like the tentacles of a Portuguese man-of-war, and 
the insecurity and distrust all this pulls along with it. Other 
monetary problems range from the quantum leaps in postage rates begun 
in the early 70's to the simple fact that American alternative presses 
have been a product of the middle class (often in radical or bohemian 
garb), and the middle class has been severely eroded during the 80's. 
Increased costs of printing and the move away from cottage industry 
production have exacted their toll. Creative writing programs that 
perpetuate their funding by convincing students that they have a shot 
at immortality don't seem to encourage students to start presses. To 
me, the most alarming tendency in alternative publishing during the 
80's was the lack of a new generation of alternative literary 

Some of the chief functions of money in any context include the 
conferring of status and credibility. You can catch glimpses of these 
functions in several trends in American alternative publishing during 
the last decade. I say glimpses because it's difficult or impossible 
to know what's going on in any single editor's mind, and many symptoms 
of demoralization can also characterize strength. For instance: there 
has been a trend toward gigantism in both book and magazine publishing 
in the last decade. The prolificity of some writers is the result of 
new possibilities that need to be worked out in detail and 
extravagance. But, at the same time, producing large books and 
magazines can be a means of seeking validation through quantity. 

When you see tables of contents with rearrangements of the same names 
as half a dozen other magazine, you may be looking at the work of an 
editor who is truly enthusiastic about these people, or an editor who 
is seeking validation through the publication of what he or she thinks 
are proven winners. In such instances the editors are using these 
"winners" to validate, and hence extend, their funding. In some ways 
this can lead to a form of censorship more oppressive than anything 
moral majority goon squads have yet conjured up. 

Bids for validation often include an attempt for approval from at 
least one of the wings of academia, accompanied by vehement denials of 
academic contamination.

The small presses of 1965-1975 also seem to be a discouraging factor: 
Now they are perceived as amateurish, unbecoming to the stature of 
serious writers. A lot of the mimicking of mainstream presses during 
the last decade has been a bid for greater credibility through 
standardized format, something that the previous milieu didn't confer 
on writers, particularly those who longed for it most. 

This year I curated a mail art show that served as a memorial to those 
who died as a result of the bombing of Hiroshima and as a protest 
against the further use of nuclear weapons. I was particularly 
impressed by the work of contributors from the fascist dictatorships 
of Latin America and the totalitarian countries of Eastern Europe. 
They included work by people who had been tortured and imprisoned for 
related activities, and many were taking similar risks now. (Don't 
fool yourself about Eastern Europe: though many were feeling a rush of 
liberation, they still knew their bubble could burst at any minute.) 
Their work was no better than that of people from other places, but it 
tended to be more resourceful, the artists put more effort into 
getting into shows like this, and the shows seemed to matter more to 
them. This suggests that market censorship is more effective than 
police censorship. Police censorship generates anger and the need for 
rebellion; it defines itself as a tangible enemy; and it confers value 
and prestige on the work (it must be important or it wouldn't need 
stifling; those who produce it must be heroic -- by virtue of their 
courage and commitment, if nothing else). Police censorship will 
probably increase in this country riding the coattails of market 

Changes in the economic structure of alternative publishing need more 
discussion than I've provided in this sketch, particularly in the 
areas where money has psychological, social, or symbolic significance. 
I hope to be able to expand on these remarks as time and circumstances 
permit, and I hope others will extend the discussion beyond the 
limited framework in which it has been confined. For the moment, I'll 
suggests a few small scale remedies.

Perhaps the most important remedy is self-publication. This is now the 
most unpopular alternative to economic censorship. Many writers don't 
have the money for it, but many _DO_. The thing they find onerous is 
not the cost but the lack of prestige associated with what has been 
stigmatized as vanity publishing. The ground for aversion is a deeply 
ingrained form of self censorship. In this case, publication -- the 
spending of money by a second party -- validates the work. Someone 
other than the author has put money into the work, and that saves it 
from being -- what? : hopelessly eccentric? self-proclaimed? something 
in which only the author believes? something that can't stand on its 
own merits? This undercuts a lot of the rhetoric of independence and 
individualism of the last half century, and is something to be 
carefully and clearly thought out. It is particularly interesting to 
note that this attitude toward self publication has not always been 
the case. In Shakespeare's day, only a hack had his book underwritten 
by a commercial publisher. If the author weren't wealthy, he could be 
supported by a patron, and hence avoid the stigma of commercial 
financing, but it was most prestigious to publish your work yourself, 
having complete control over it, and taking all the praise for it. 
When Thoreau self-published _A WEEK ON THE CONCORD AND MERIMAC RIVERS_ 
and Whitman _LEAVES OF GRASS_ they were still, in part, heirs to this 
tradition of self publication. The ideal of the 17th Century, however, 
would be best represented by someone like John Donne who avoided 
publication altogether and simply circulated his work in manuscript to 
fellow cognoscenti, eschewing the marketplace completely. We certainly 
don't need the aristocratic underpinnings of such a publishing scene, 
but we would be much better off if we could see self publication in 
terms of commitment, courage, and individualism, and stop seeing it as 
the last resource of the terminally incompetent. The Latin American 
guerrilla poets and the samizdat artists of eastern Europe and the 
U.S.S.R. don't let lack of an official publisher get in their way. 
Perhaps the Helms gestapo will play a left-handed role in returning 
self-publication to a less onerous status: I've already heard people 
joking about keeping themselves "untainted by N.E.A. money," and a 
recent article in _ROLLING STONE_ goes so far as to say that current 
fashions in censorship have saved rock music. 

Scaling down on production may also be important. A number of low-
tech, small distribution magazines reminiscent of the late 60's - 
early 70's, and the less literary-genre-specific zines of the 70's and 
80's, have appeared in the last few years. John Martone's _TEL LET_, 
Mark Andrew Nowak's _FURNITURES_, and John Perlman's _ROOM_ are good 
examples. The small formats of these magazines have necessitated a 
high degree of selectivity on the part of their editors. This implies 
a status that the giant magazines can't confer, while assuring maximum 
readership for each poem in each copy distributed. These magazines are 
excellent examples of what can be done on a minimal budget.

With the advent of small computers, the possibilities for low cost 
publishing have increased enormously. Unfortunately, beyond laser 
typesetting, most of these possibilities are not being used. Options 
available include printing complete publications on laser printers, 
printing multiples on dot matrix machines (and using the screenfolds 
in binding), distributing work on disk or via modem. An advantage to 
most of these possibilities is that publishers can produce precisely 
the number of copies needed, as demand makes itself clear. That means 
small initial cash outlay, and it eliminates problems of storage, with 
such attendant miseries as taxes and mildew. It's too bad that writers 
haven't tapped the romance of computers -- it could do wonders for the 
psychological underpinnings of such ventures. *

Cooperative efforts should also be explored. This year I'll publish 
the first book from my press with a four color process cover. Such a 
cover would ordinarily be prohibitively expensive. The author, 
however, arranged financing with the cover artist's gallery. Since 
books aren't confined to galleries or private collections, this is a 
definite advantage for the artist since it gets a reproduction of his 
painting around to many people who wouldn't see it in a gallery. It 
benefits the gallery, too, as a form of promotion. The author and I 
benefit by getting a good cover for the book. And I get to see if four 
color covers increase sales. I don't know how far cooperation of this 
sort among artists can go, or how many different types of cooperation 
can be successful, but this does seem to be a good time to find out. 

Multiple publications under single covers should also be pursued 
further. If you bind two or more books in the same covers, you can 
reduce the cost of text printing a bit, and cut the costs of binding 
and cover printing drastically. In addition, it can increase 
distribution considerably: many people who get the book to read the 
work of one writer will at least check out the other. There's no 
reason why magazine publishers couldn't do the same thing. Even 
magazine publishers who wanted to keep their own wraps could offer 
multiple subscriptions at reduced rates, thus decreasing postage costs 
and increasing circulation. 

Distribution constitutes the largest problem in alternative 
publication now, as it has for decades. In Latin America and Eastern 
Europe, a large underground political network facilitates distribution 
of alternative publications. Such networks are frail in the U.S. at 
present, and many writers would probably not want to go through them 
for political or aesthetic reasons even if they were strong. However, 
the international mail art network, a network that interfaces with 
underground cabals throughout the world, is open and accessible to 
anyone who wishes to participate. The economy of this network is based 
largely on barter instead of cash. Alternative publishers do a lot of 
book swapping, and this could certainly be increased and extended. 
Some would view this with suspicion and distaste, but the mail art 
network offers the potential of reaching a larger and more varied 
audience than publication through most alternative presses. It would 
also yield interesting exchanges, including exchanges that might help 
break up the cliquishness of the current scene a bit. 

Another possibility is cooperative distribution systems, with 
catalogs, mailing lists, and the benefit of association with other 
writers. For many years, Segue Distribution didn't keep books in 
warehouses but simply forwarded orders to participating presses after 
taking a small fee for the service. I don't know why Segue has 
discontinued this in favor of the warehouse system -- I liked the 
earlier version, and Segue hasn't sold any more of my press's books 
since the transition. It remains, however, a method that should be 
pursued further. A number of organizations set up to distribute work 
through a single address or imprint have been tried in the last 
fifteen years. Those that have failed have usually done so because 
participants have been unclear as to the purposes and responsibilities 
of the organization. Such problems can be overcome with a bit of 
patience and commitment.

The distribution schemes mentioned above are all tentative. There's a 
good chance none of them would be viable. But this seems to be a good 
time to test them further. Perhaps the most important note to make now 
is that this is not the time to try to figure out how to finance 
what's been happening for the last ten years -- the 80's are over and 
were a dead end: now it's time to move on. 


*1994 Note: I hope, with Spunk, Grist, RPoetik, and other archives and
lists becoming more active, that this is changing.


First published in _O.ARS_ # 8, 1991. Don Wellman, editor.

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