A History of Independent Publishing

Most studies of literature examine: who wrote what; where the work was written and what notable accolades it did or did not receive; where the writer lived, worked, and vacationed; what does it mean. This project is to consider the discourse beyond the Foucauldian conception of the “Author,” and explore “the space left empty by the author’s disappearance, follow the distribution of gaps and breaches, and watch for the openings this disappearance uncovers.” One of the openings that emerges with the disappearance of the author is an examination of the other information that appears on the spine of books such as the marketing strategies that frequently appear in the form of the signifier used to represent a specific publisher.

Publishers act as arbiters and gatekeepers for these very works that are the subject of other studies. The process of selection is routinely ignored by scholars, as well as press capacity, distribution, and availability. Tracing these works as they circulate through the world is crucial, because it allows us to ask, as Foucault challenges us to, alternative questions about literature: “What are the modes of existence of this discourse? Where has it been used, how can it circulate, and who can appropriate it for himself? What are the places in it where there is room for possible subjects? Who can assume these various subject functions? And behind all these questions, we would hear hardly anything but the stirring of an indifference: what difference does it make who is speaking?”

When considering the publishers as sites of expression, one is confronted with mission-based claims that presses often make, especially with regard to experimental literatures, which are typically small presses. Such claims can be the product of one person, a collective, from a nonprofit organization, or from the position of a small business with several employees, and often work at intersections of these structures. From these site of organization, presses make claims about aesthetics and politics that are attempts to define the ideological force that drives the press and affects the branding of the press. In this sense, to “author” (transforming and repurposing Foucault’s ideas) as an organization is to express the publisher’s ideological, political and aesthetic mission. Thus, their publishing slates are legible and discursive; by assuming a critical role in the author-function, the presses establish and then enter particular discourses.

It is often remarked in the publishing world that small presses can publish books that the major presses cannot because the structure of the major publishing houses encourages the selection and publication of books with predictable, regular qualities: large popular audiences for easy national and international distribution, adaptability for film, merchandising, and possibilities for sequels and spin-offs. Small presses typically do not have available resources, even in coalitions, to produce these kinds of texts in sufficient quantities to satisfy distribution demands. And it can be said that literary experimentalism in some ways rejects these very qualities. What small presses enjoy, and what enables them to be sites of fascinating publishing activity, is the precise lack of this infrastructure; without having to worry about large distribution networks, they can publish what they want, independent of the strictures imposed by market censorships, though this freedom comes with intense restrictions on access to capital. They can publish first time writers as well as outcasts and unknowns, whose works often challenge traditional aesthetic fields. Unlike the large publishing distribution networks with their big box store alliances, small press publishers, through their selection and circulation of relatively unknown or highly experimental works, participate in the construction of the aesthetics and politics of experimental literature, and then what constitutes the literary more broadly.