Notebook: Meet the Small Presses

From Ann Kjellberg, Book Post Editor

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A reader mentioned a few days ago that she would like to hear more about small publishers, and we didn’t need any more encouragement! In the years we have been watching the world of books, small publishers have assumed a bigger and bigger place, in part because, as the major publishers have been consolidating into what sometimes seems like one huge conglomerate, there is more and more room to find readers and ideas at the edges,

Many of the great small publishers who now show up regularly in bookshop windows and on the prize lists began in the sixties and seventies as funky fine printing-press operations founded by book-making enthusiasts. Coffee House Press in Minnesota, for instance, which now publishes a lot of really inventive fiction, literary prose, and poetry, began as a mimeographed literary magazine called Toothpaste, which became a letterpress house, Toothpaste Press. Graywolf Press, another small-to-medium-sized house with a big presence (also in Minnesota!), whose books now regularly get national attention, began as a letterpress operation in Port Townsend, Washington, making hand-sewn books.

Another common origin story is the charismatic founder whose circle of brilliant friends becomes a bookshelf. The mightiest of these is the great James Laughlin, founder of New Directions, whose biography itself encompasses wave after wave of American writing and a life of energetic literary socializing. Founded in 1934, when his friend Ezra Pound told Laughlin to stop writing poems and do “something useful,” New Directions straight out of the gate was publishing the likes of Dylan Thomas, Marianne Moore, and Thomas Merton. New Directions still occupies its cluttered warren of offices overlooking downtown Manhattan, and it’s still often the first to publish writers who will soon be embraced as modern titans, like W. G. Sebald and Roberto Bolaño. New Directions tends to emphasize international and experimental writing; Coffee House and Graywolf publish work in translation also but have a more American focus.

On the other side of the continent, another legendary publisher, Jack Shoemaker, founded North Point Press in 1979 after working in a series of bookstores and bookstore-publishing ventures in Santa Barbara and Berkeley, and was soon publishing his friends, second-generation beats like Gary Snyder and Guy Davenport, and the writers and subjects that interested their circle, like literature of the far east, Buddhism, and the natural world. North Point morphed into Counterpoint, one of several historic small publishers clustering under the umbrella of the newer venture, Catapult.  Catapult, which has ties to the online site Literary Hub, aspires to some of the nurturing, venturesome qualities of the small press while also experimenting with building other forms of literary community-building, like writing classes and an online writers’ platform. 

Catapult’s inventiveness reminds us of another newish experiment, the Dorothy Project, which publishes two carefully selected books of fiction by women every fall. Their books are available in bookstores but they encourage their readers to follow the series on their web site, subscription-style.

There’s one other legendary bookstore-to-publisher transformation not to be missed: City Lights in San Francisco. City Lights was founded in 1953 by the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and is still going strong as a bookstore and a monument to literary bohemia. Ferlinghetti started the publishing operation with his Pocket Poets Series in 1955 (including #4: Alan Ginsberg’s Howl—see our review by Michael Robbins—and #14: Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems) and never looked back. City Lights still favors the funky and nonfiction with a social conscience.  Akashic Books, whose motto is “reverse gentrification of the literary world” and whose existence owes to the underground success of one book, Arthur Nersesian’s The Fuckup, also embraces a counter-cultural vector.

The burst of readerly attention to poetry (see this September study by the NEA, e. g.) has given a stream of nourishment to a bunch of small publishers who publish poetry exclusively.  Three of the most venerable, also springing out of letterpress shops, are Copper Canyon, founded by poets and quietly publishing generations of major American writers, and the more recent Ugly Duckling (more international, with some prose) and Wave (more experimental).

Another contemporary phenomenon is the growth of presses devoted to translation.  Open Letter, at the University of Rochester, places book publishing at the center of a hive of advocacy for translation, including a lively blog and podcast called Three Percent (the share of books published each year in the US that are in translation) and an annual Best Translated Book Award. Archipelago publishes books so gorgeous many of us have been known to walk off with them without cracking them open. We reviewed their new translation of the Polish national novel, Pan Tadeusz, a couple of weeks ago. Relative newcomer Deep Vellum is giving them all a run for their money through strength of taste and intrepid detective work, hunting up new books in new languages far and wide.

One thing one can’t help noticing about small publishers is that they are all over the country of their homes, and they soak up the local language and culture and feed them into the larger literary conversation.

Of course there are lots more, and new ones springing up every day, and I will probably regret the moment I post this having left someone out. But these are some of the standouts in the field, publishers whose books I will read into on the strength of seeing their name on the spine. Although here at Book Post we encourage readers to patronize independent booksellers, you can also give these guys a boost, in some cases, by ordering directly from them, and lots of them have beautiful and informative web sites. 

Speaking of independent booksellers, we are gleeful to announce that our October bookstore partnership is with the thriving little Florida empire, Books and Books.  Books and Books was founded in a little closet in Coral Gables thirty-five years ago by Michell Kaplan, a guy who couldn’t shake his wish to run a bookstore and finally went for it. Books and Books has grown to nine shops and cafes (including one in the Cayman Islands!) but they all still bear the stamp of the founder’s love and enthusiasm. One of the many cool things about Books and Books is how it serves readers in both English and Spanish.  We look forward to brining you news of their goings on in the month of October.

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Alvin Lustig joined New Directions as a designer in 1941 and produced a series of immortal book covers that embodied the modernist vibe of the New Directions list. New Directions has packed them up as a nifty set of postcards you can order here.