Evidently, this article dates back to the time when my hair was blue, black and purple and I resembled Philip Oakey. Ah, those were the days! Bread was less than a dollar (LESS THAN A DOLLAR!). We had to walk a mile to school in the snow, frozen bread in hand, but we were happy. Those were the halcyon days of fanzines, chapbooks and Factsheet Five. Self-publishing meant serious commitment – hours and days spent photocopying, binding, mailing review copies and distributing chapbooks to local independent book stores. None of this push-of-the-button digital stuff! Anyway, as I prepare to push the button on this post, here’s an essay I wrote about my passion for independent publishing. Two key small press publishers are mentioned – C.F. Kennedy and John MacNeil. Alas, they are no longer with us, but I am including their essays so that they may continue to inspire as they inspired me back in the day.
Small Press, Big Plans: My Views on the Small Press Experience
It is highly ironic that I should end up self-publishing my own work, because I used to frown upon that sort of thing. Having been a regular participant in several poetry readings and having witnessed people flogging their chapbooks, I thought that sort of thing was reserved for work not fit for “mainstream presses” – unreadable and uninteresting to everyone except the author. But I’ve come to realise how wrong I was, something I wish the general public would come to realise. And now I can admit to thoroughly enjoying publishing my own work.
Probably the aspect I enjoy the most about self-publishing – running my own small press – is the control. Having just purchased a new computer, I was anxious to design and layout my own work. The main benefit of self-publishing is that no one knows your interests and intentions like you do, so you can probably best represent yourself with the best possible design. I also enjoy the marketing aspect. I took great care to produce a professional product that would catch the eye of potential readers. I also took the time to send out review copies and accumulate the capsule reviews on the back cover of the chapbook to help it sell – just like a mainstream press release. My next steps will include obtaining a ISBN number and CIP information, official copyrighting, and maybe even a bar code for future chapbooks.
All of this has been an extremely beneficial learning experience. It has prepared me for my next endeavour: publishing an actual book. In fact, I would recommend this entire process of self-publishing to any aspiring writer, because only then do you get an idea of what the publishing world is like – the time, effort, and commitment that goes into releasing something. With this knowledge, your marketing skills will sharpen, aiding you with finding “legitimate” or “mainstream” publication, if you choose to pursue that route. Another aspect of self-publishing I enjoy is the feedback from fellow writers and publishers. It’s exciting to flip through Broken Pencil, for example, and see people struggling to be heard, just like yourself. The idea that you are not alone is both reassuring and inspiring. This brings us to another distinct advantage to self-publishing: the closeness you can maintain with your audience. I for one make my complete address, phone number, and email available should someone want to contact me with advice, comments, criticism, or perhaps to discuss working together. Of course, something like this is unheard of in the mainstream presses. Working together becomes the key here. Since the small press world is so open – not closed off by the formalities of query letters and literary agents – you can get help and advice from a wide variety of sources.
In this manner, I have come to know C.F. Kennedy and his long-time accomplice John MacNeil. Having much more experience in the world of small presses, C.F. Kennedy, in particular, has given me valuable support and advice – not to mention all the exposure I gained from having my stories published in his various fanzines! By working together to distribute each other’s publications, the three of us have effectively created a west coast/east coast connection. Specifically, we are exchanging and promoting our publications from Vancouver to Toronto to Sydney (NS). Hopefully, other independent publishers will catch on and join in, filling up the gaps, giving us a network extending through the prairie provinces and into the north as well – maybe even international! This can be a highly successful partnership, considering the wide variety of opportunities for promoting and distributing small press publications.
For example, small press fairs are constantly springing up. They provide fantastic opportunities to network and have your work read and reviewed in other small press publications. Within our partnership, C.F. Kennedy has displayed our work at Toronto and Ottawa fairs. In return, I intend to display our work at the next Vancouver Independent Press Fair. This simple arrangement provides us with a lot of exposure. Aside from fairs, there are also zine-friendly bookstores to distribute to. Two main ones exist in Vancouver, and I have already supplied them with publications from some Ontario Small Presses. In this situation, even if your work doesn’t make money (following the consignment deal) you still reach an audience with similar interests. By networking between cities, we can also promote our collective work by placing advertisements in local cafes, libraries, and anywhere writers frequent. These advertisements may be calls for submissions or notices of a newly available publication and how to order it. In effect, we have created a distribution and promotion network not unlike that of the major publishing houses – and at minimal expense!
This brings me back to the validity of the small presses and the main thing standing in their way: negative public opinion. As I mentioned earlier, I once thought any form of self-publishing was mediocre or third rate – not worth any serious consideration. But now that I’m quite involved in the small press scene, I’ve come to see things differently. Now I’m defending the scene! I’m confident about its significance and I’m optimistic about the future. The small press scene has inspired and encouraged me to keep plugging away, setting new goals for myself and my writing. The goal I have set for my own small press, for example, (and I’m sure it’s shared by others) is to create smart-looking, affordable products that will attract readers to work deemed too “uncommercial”, “unconventional”, or maybe too controversial for the mainstream presses. What the general public has to understand (and it’s up to us to show them) is that this sort of work is in many cases highly readable, well-written, and entertaining. The voices of independent writers deserve to be heard.
This strategy is really nothing new. Similar tactics have been employed in the film and music industry. There are countless stories of small, independently produced films and CDs that get the attention of the general public and then go on to major success – on their own terms. Why can’t the same happen for independently produced poetry and fiction ? It’s not too far-fetched to think that a well-packaged, properly promoted publication could give a struggling writer a breakthrough. Of course, breakthrough could take on many different meanings, but nevertheless, it can not be denied that an independently produced chapbook will bring a writer closer to an audience than a series of rejection letters from mainstream publishers or, worst still, sitting back and doing nothing.
Copyright © 1997 by Cameron A. Straughan
This essay originally appeared in Drift #90
All the Lonely Presses: Where Do They All Come From … And What Do They Want?
Well, where do they come from? Just up or down the road from your house, most likely; or over there, two-thirds of the way up in that great big apartment building; or maybe from that tent hidden in the bushes, out behind the factories.
Small presses come from everywhere – from the megacities to the small towns and middle-sized burgs, boroughs and boom towns (except there aren’t many of them around these days, are there?); and small presses are started by all sorts of people, with lots of different ideas, philosophies, beliefs, ideologies, creeds and cultural backgrounds; and they all want the same thing: to be heard. To be listened to, to be read, to be respected.
I first ran across this sort of thing back in the sixties, and again in the seventies when the field was small and well-cultivated – which means it was mainly funded by grants from various places. At least it seemed so to me. As an aspiring young author in those days (now I’m simply an editor-gone-slightly-mad, a fine and quite natural evolution, I think), I tried like every other person with literary aspirations, to step into that field in as noisy and legendary a way as the imagination might permit. Of course, the field was well fenced off as it still is in many of its upper circles, and so none of us got very far.
There’s something to be said for perseverance, though, and for taking these things in stride. Maybe, too, enough rejection slips can cause a person to realize he or is trying to enter an inappropriate field, and might have better luck, if luck is a factor, doing something else. Maybe, after all, one should have listened to one’s grade seven teacher, and become a chemical engineer or whatever. The money, I’m told, is much better, not to mention the fact you might be able to live a relatively normal (although certainly not carefree; I’m also told even engineers are finding themselves out of work these days) – life.
All that aside, after years of not being listened to, authors who have remained unpublished through no apparent fault of their own, might get the idea one day that no-one is ever going to publish them; and if they persist in their silly notions and keep on writing anyway, well, chances are it wouldn’t really be the best course of action to take and so – new thoughts are likely to begin bubbling up: quiet, what if types of thoughts at first, and then, after a while, thoughts of a why not variety… and a small (very, usually) independent press is born.
Finding a typewriter and some letraset (or today, maybe a computer) and a cheap photocopying service, this new small publisher soon discovers there really are people out there who want to read whatever it is they’ve decided to publish – whether their own material or someone else’s – usually a combination of both. And so it happened to me, in a roundabout way; and so, I suspect, it happened to a great many others whose voices, through trial, error, frustration and I imagine a dash of boredom, are now becoming much more visible to the public eye and ear (if one can become visible to an ear, that is). At any rate, small publishing today is a growing presence, if you know where to look (small press fairs, the internet, out-of-the-way bookstores, bus seats, public washrooms, and other places the general public might never think to look, but may find new and sometimes strange publications in anyway).
It’s a start. I believe not many are in it for the money. Small publishing, it seems to me, has a lot to do with finding a way to be heard in the midst of the noise & haste (though not everyone is doing it placidly, it’s true). And while “Trodden Earth Times” may never have the bucks behind it to replace, say, Macleans Magazine, well… would you really want to? And, if you did, how many new voices would be excluded by that? Because the basic elements here are desires not to alienate and to separate, but to enable, to gather together and to share… then we must say that the way we had been searching for has indeed been found, and it occurred, somehow, while we were busy at the post office, spending our last three dollars on stamps, to send a package marked PRINTED MATTER off to Brazil, or Honolulu or somewhere only ten miles away.
One of the ideas behind Drift and Necessary Press is to provide an outlet for writers who otherwise might not have one. As the world’s population increases, the need for such outlets increases. Ironically, the more people there are, the more the individual is isolated, because everything seems impersonal. Small presses can be, and sometimes are, therapeutic for both writers and readers, while the act of tapping into them can be an education in itself. It’s self-expression at its freest, if not always its best. You’ll discover some real literature out there, too – material you may never have been able to find elsewhere. So, that’s why I’m still doing it. Today, the bottom line is (and always should have been) communication.
Copyright © 1997 by C.F. Kennedy
Success(?) of Small Presses … The East Coast Experience
Six years ago I got a hundred International Serial BookNumbers (ISBNs) from the National Library of Canada. I’m just putting the finishing touches on my twenty-eighth book, a chap book, heir to a “pamphlet usually consisting of 70 folded pages, first appearing in the 17th Century, that were peddled door to door throughout England, and contained versions of popular literature ranging from nursery rhymes to medieval romances,”) according to my Funk & Wagnall.
Ironically, it was the computer that allowed me to revive this ancient literary form. I set out to publish every poem ever written in Cape Breton. I ended up with the chap book format because it can be done best using my laser printer.
One benefit of producing books in this manner is that I can maintain a virtual inventory: a million books stored in bit heaven, ready to be printed on demand. A StatsCan survey says that the average book of poetry in Canada will sell 398 copies at most, yet large presses have to print at least a thousand books per run in order to keep the price per book within the market range. If my market for a book is fifty copies, then I’ll only print fifty books.
Another benefit to producing books on demand is that the writer, who pays me to wholesale his/her book to him/her (he/she can then sell the books and double his/her investment) need only buy in small lots: multiple small runs, ten or fifteen per month, often paid for out of the welfare or pogey cheque.
I had a lot of help reviving the chap book. Cliff Kennedy did it with The Bibliofantasiac that went from a one page ad for his si-fi collection to The Blotter, a true chap book. I witnessed the birthing process, and adapted it to my own needs. I had a hand in the creation of each Blotter, with a poem in every issue. I remember the day we discussed a shaded background for the pages, now so evident in his Drift numbers. His sidewalk poetry became my centerfold poems.
I’ve learned a lot from Cliff, and I think the most important thing I’ve learned is that I should share my discoveries. I’ve added a few touches that make my chap books unique: I spray paint each cover so that the book itself becomes a piece of art.
Therefore, I’m sharing my cover technique: use Cornwall-coated cardstock cover, have them professionally printed, block out the graphics, spray with an acrylic paint used sparingly, remove the blocking and spray the cover again while still wet with a clear plastic coating. No two covers are ever the same, and sometimes, the colors recreate themselves.
Am I a success? Well, let me recount an incident my niece told to me: her junior high class was visiting a large high school in our area, a visit all grade nines take before choosing their next schools. The English teacher just finished telling them about their writing program when she said: “and if you’re very good, you may be published in Capers Aweigh.”
Two of my annual Coolit! Laureates were from her school. I choose a graduating student from the many who contribute to Coolit! Magazine, my student litzine, and make him/her my Coolit! Laureate. The winner gets a chap book of his/her own work. Last year Necessary Press and Capers Aweigh Small Press merged. We’re a publishing company formerly known as Capers Aweigh and Necessary Press. A little later in the year we merged with Mukila’qati Books, a native publisher, and this year we’re joining forces with Cameron Straughan, so I suspect we’ll be adding additional sound bytes so that a new name will emerge.
The object of all these merges is to acquire a hard-wired immortality for the material that we’ve collected. Once Cameron and Cliff (and anybody else) is able to reproduce a Capers Aweigh Chap Book, and I’m able to reproduce a Drift or a Neurotica on demand, then we will have truly merged.
Perhaps we merge, not for we smug Canadians with all our toys and literic pursuits, but for those less fortunate. I got a letter from Africa, from a writer who told me that poetry isn’t popular in her country. Perhaps we merge for her.
I’m really excited about the future. Tapping into the internet and using emerging CD technologies will enable our writers to express themselves beyond the printed page. We’ll save a few trees and offer everyone on the planet (and off!) a chance to experience the Renaissance in letters the small presses are generating.
I’m sure that if Marshall MacLuhan were alive today he’d label the internet a very hot medium indeed! He suggested that the easily reproduced printed page revolutionized the world. What would he say about this Desktop/Internet phase that we are so joyously entering?
Copyright © 1997 by John MacNeil