**Over the next few weeks, I’ll be featuring a series of interviews and articles highlighting bay area small presses. Hit my Follow, Twitter, or Facebook buttons and you’ll get an email each time a new article appears.
Unless you are a writer or the owner of an independent bookstore, chances are that your familiarity with book publishing extends only as far as the well known imprints of large houses like HarperCollins, Penguin (Viking), Random House (Knopf), Simon & Shuster, or St. Martin’s Press. These big publishers are generally national conglomerates focused on the work of established authors or what will appeal to the widest market, and account for about 70% of the overall American publishing market. These are the books you find on the shelves of every Barnes & Noble and Borders in the nation: great work of course, but available anywhere and not particularly risky. Like the staple items one finds shopping in a large supermarket chain, books from the large publishing houses are dependable… but to find anything off the beaten track: the fresh, the unique, the risky, the ephemeral, the unconventional, the daring, the local… the small press is where to go.
The publishing industry itself defines a small press as one that publishes less than ten titles or generates sales of less than $50 million per year: those are still pretty large numbers when you’re talking about small and local. By industry definitions, the type of small presses this series of articles will focus on would be defined by that industry as micro-presses, or hobby presses: those that don’t generate enough profit to support, let alone pay their editors. It is important to think about the connotation of the word “hobby” here, which implies that the worthiness of a pursuit is measured by monetary profit, i.e. if it doesn’t make you money, it’s secondary, it’s a hobby. But if you ask any bay-area small press editor, they will universally turn the money-driven motivation model on its head. For these independent publishers, usually artists or writers themselves, the fulfillment comes from getting the work of worthy writers out there to be read and enjoyed, and money is simply the limiting factor in accomplishing that goal.
If a big publishing house is the voice of a large cross-section of human culture, the “main stream,” then a small press is the local oasis. In speaking with many founders and editors of small presses in the bay area, it has become clear that the common notion of writers as competitive, backstabbing sociopaths who all hope to step on one another’s backs to become the next Tom Clancy or Dan Brown or Stephen King or Danielle Steele is a false one. Writers and artists thrive on participating in an interactive community that supports one another’s efforts. At the end of the day, the act of writing necessarily requires isolation and solitude: yet the goal of the writing is to reach out, to communicate. How better to reconcile these two opposing forces than to form a press whose goal is not guided by the pressures of what is going to sell, but what can be shared. There are a lot more writers (and good ones) than can ever win the profit-making trophy, or dance naked on the head of a ballpoint pen. Contrary to the dog-eat-dog idea that there is only enough public attention span for a couple of literary darlings at a time, small publishers feel that there is enough love to go around, especially for the amazing writing that is being generated by unknowns everywhere.
So the next time you find yourself as a reader trolling the bookshelves, sighing in an Edward Gorey-ish sort of way and wondering… okay… yes, these are good but I hanker for something new, something different, something I haven’t seen before, think of the editors of the small presses who are going over book layouts on someone’s coffee table, holding meetings in noisy cafes, and hosting readings in local bars. These editors have no plans for quitting their “day” jobs, but are literally, literally-driven, working together to bring you what they love: the raw, unfurling edge of new writing.