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Thoughts on the Consolidation of the Independent Press, and My Place within This Madness

"Assimilate My Purse," Maximumrocknroll, August 2007

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There's been a lot of turmoil recently in the world of independent publishing.  In January, the Independent Press Association (IPA), advocate and distributor of hundreds of independent magazines (including MRR), went bankrupt while owing thousands of dollars to individual titles ($81,000 to Bitch, for example).  Immediately following this announcement, Clamor, one of the most wide-ranging and inclusive of independent magazines, and Kitchen Sink ("for people who think too much"), one of the most lavishly produced, went under (LiP, perhaps the most politically sophisticated and intersectionally-engaged of new lefty magazines, had recently collapsed as well).  In These Times, an earlier-generation lefty stalwart, immediately went from biweekly to monthly, and many other magazines shuffled production schedules due to cash flow issues.

Immediately following the demise of IPA came the bankruptcy of Advanced Marketing Services, owner of Publishers Group West (PGW), distributor of over 150 publishers (Grove, Avalon, Soft Skull, McSweeney's, and Cleis, just to name a few).  PGW was perhaps the largest distributor of independent publishers (the other distributor of comparable size is Consortium, purchased by Perseus Book Group in 2006 -- Perseus is a medium-sized publisher that consists of a number of imprints that were originally separate publishers). 

kay, let me state here that I'm not exactly a publishing industry insider, so if I get some details wrong then just give me a six-figure check and call me boss (I mean, feel free to correct me).  And  before I get lost in all of these specifics, let me explain why I’m talking about any of this: distributors are crucial to the success of independent publishers and publications -- you can put out something amazing, but if it doesn't get into stores then no one will see it.  Of course, there are tons of incredibly valuable, innovative and dynamic publications that have no interest in large-scale distribution, but for those that do, the distributor can make or break the publisher or publication.

I imagine that it goes without saying that I'm interested in the survival of the independent press because it's one of the few places where I can find any inspiration, knowledge, challenge or critical engagement that might give me the tiniest shred of hope.  Of course, I've also been following all of this bankruptcy, corruption and consolidation because I write for independent magazines and newspapers, not just Maximumrocknroll, but also Bitch, Clamor, Punk Planet, Tikkun, Lambda Book Report, Gay and Lesbian Review, Heeb, LiP, Slingshot, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian (many of which were distributed at one point by the Independent Press Association -- or Big Top, it's predecessor).  And, of course, I write books and edit anthologies that are brought out into the world by independent publishers: Seal, Soft Skull, Suspect Thoughts, and Haworth (and soon City Lights).

My last two publishers, Seal and Soft Skull, were distributed by Publishers Group West, and both have gone through dramatic changes since the PGW bankruptcy.  Seal is an imprint of Avalon Publishing, and after the PGW bankruptcy, Avalon was immediately snapped up by Perseus, a publisher similar to Avalon (purchaser of several smaller presses that became imprints of a larger company).  This announcement happened within a week of the PGW bankruptcy, so obviously it was an insider deal arranged ahead of time. 

But all appeared to be fine for Seal, publisher of my most recent anthology, Nobody Passes.  But get this wacky switcheroo -- Charlie Winton, Chairman of Avalon (and original founder of PGW!) -- leaves Avalon, and joins forces with Jack Shoemaker, founder of Counterpoint (an imprint of Perseus) and Shoemaker & Hoard (an imprint of Avalon) -- together, they acquire Counterpoint and Shoemaker & Hoard from Perseus/Avalon, and then... they purchase Soft Skull (publisher of That's Revolting!).

But what does all this mean?  Seal has already been gutted, their staff reduced from seven to three, and they will be publishing 15 books per year instead of 40.  While I have been quite critical of Seal for their narrow, niche-marketed "books by women for women" politics and all the editorial battles we had over Nobody Passes (which I summarize in the introduction to the book, as well as in my October 2006 MRR column), Seal is still perhaps the most visible and consistent publisher of a wide range of feminist titles, and a loss of 25 books per year is indeed steep.  Of course, if a niche-market catastrophe like Cat Women: Female Writers on Their Feline Friendsdisappears in favor of the forthcoming Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System or Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, that might not be a terrible thing, but Seal’s recent list includes many innovative, boundary-pushing titles, and it will be chilling indeed when the more daring forthcoming projects will surely be subject to even stricter market analysis.  Already, my experience with Nobody Passes was that Seal wanted to define it for niche-market salability before I'd even circulated the call for submissions, so I can only imagine that such pressures will grow more pronounced.

As for Soft Skull, things are a bit more complicated.  Publisher Richard Nash will become Executive Editor at the newly-formed Counterpoint (where Nash will be editorial director of the Soft Skull imprint, but without any of the previous Soft Skull staff). What this means in terms of editorial direction is unclear. I can say without hesitation that Soft Skull’s editorial vision over the past several years has been unparalleled, from the maximalist, erudite pranksterism of Wayne Koestenbaum to the fiery and practical politics of Dam Nation: Dispatches from the Water Underground and the humor, experimentation and renegade vision of The Amputee’s Guide to Sex (a book of poems).  Editorially, working with Soft Skull was a pleasure because they trusted my vision and supported my choices, but the more practical side of things was a mess. In short, I think Soft Skull grew way too fast (going from publishing 10 books a year to 10 books a season in a relatively short time), and they didn't have the ability to support their authors.  So my first response to the purchase of Soft Skull, after the surprise wore off, was to think oh, now hopefully the second edition of That’s Revolting! will actually come out
(let’s just say that it’s a bit behind).

But then I thought about the editorial implications of Soft Skull becoming an imprint on a larger publisher.  I began to wonder if they would be able to publish such crazy and intoxicating diversity, from Classified: How to Stop Hiding Your Privilege and Use It for Social Change to Ronald Palmer's flaming formalist poetry (published as an eight-by-eight square!) to Josh MacPhee’s Stencil Pirates (a history and guide to stenciling as public redecoration).

I became aware of perhaps the most shocking details of the consolidation while reading Soft Skull publisher Richard Nash’s blog, where I learned that after Perseus purchased Avalon, they decided to close two of the larger and most extensive imprints, Thunder's Mouth and Caroll & Graf.  Thunder's Mouth was a current affairs, popular culture and science publisher that sometimes took on innovative work like The Apocalypse Reader or the collected writings of performance artist Karen Finley.  But what floored me was the closure of Caroll & Graf, a publisher that has come to publish more queer work than probably any other.  Over the course of four years, editor Don Weise (previously an editor at Cleis) has acquired an incredibly wide range of queer work at a time when this is considered impossible or impractical on most presses the size of Caroll & Graf (and certainly on any larger press) -- from novels by luminaries like Sarah Schulman and Leslie Feinberg to emerging writers like Ali Liebegott, Keith Boykin's Beyond the Down Low, an anthology edited by Michelle Tea, an anthology of vintage porn edited by Simon Sheppard, and even titles by establishment figures like Edmund White and Dale Peck (as well as republishing out-of-print work and plans for a series of AIDS writing).  In short, Weise/Caroll & Graf bucked the corporate industry standard that gay/queer work was no longer marketable, and the demise of Caroll & Graf is a big blow to queer publishing.

Of course, there is still brilliant work -- queer, feminist, experimental, politically challenging -- done by a wide range of small publishers (Suspect Thoughts, Semiotexte, Akashic, Seven Stories, South End and New Press come immediately to mind).  And I can't resist plugging City Lights, who will be publishing my new novel!  But I think there's no question that all of this consolidation will narrow the options for many boundary-pushing writers.

As for independent publications, I'm inspired by something Jessica Hoffmann, one of the founders and editors of the new feminist magazine Make/shift (where I’m now the books editor), said at the New York launch: "Capitalism tells us that we're crazy to start a magazine right now, but we're not particularly interested in what capitalism has to say."

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