Saturday, January 18

The price of independence: the pros, cons of being the “˜little guy’


The survival of independent publishing in a corporate mass media
climate is a classic David and Goliath story, except in this case,
the underdog may not succeed against all odds, and must instead
learn how to coexist with his giant opponent.

The question of how independent publishers can thrive will be
the main topic of two panel discussions taking place at this
weekend’s Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. To some, the
inclusion of these two panels in the festival is somewhat ironic,
considering it is sponsored by the likes of Target, Barnes &
Nobles, Ticketmaster and Starbucks.

“The book expo is about the big guys flexing their
muscles, saying, “˜What a big stand we have
here,'” said Douglas Messerli, moderator of the panel
“Can Independent Publishing Survive?”

As the founder of independent publishing house Green Integer,
Messerli has little faith in the festival’s ability to
highlight independently published books like his. “(The
festival organizers) care about commercial publishing. They care
about giving their readers what they want.”

Cynical views aside, Messerli, who is also a visiting professor
in comparative literature at UCLA, commends The Los Angeles Times
for providing a sizable, albeit flawed, forum for books.

“(The festival) is actually very successful with
children’s books, and that’s really important because
it’s nice to get children to read,” said Messerli.
“The festival is about family and gatherings, which is fine
and a way to attract people to books. But it’s not about
serious literature.”

According to panelist and Akashic Books founder Johnny Temple,
serious literature is not high on major book publishing
companies’ list of priorities. A musician-turned-independent
publisher, Temple puts out quality literature but hardly makes a
large profit.

“A lot of the major book publishing companies are so
bottom line-driven that they are only interested in books that have
huge commercial potential,” Temple said. “As soon as I
got into (the publishing world), I found that there were some
really great books that were not getting published.”

Nancy Peters, co-owner of the famous San Francisco beatnik
haven, City Lights publishing house and bookstore, where Allen
Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac were once regulars, notes new writers
relying heavily on mainstream distribution often get the corporate
cold shoulder.

“Sometimes we’ll hear from our distributors that the
whole Borders chain has decided not to order any fiction from
independent publishers this year,” said Peters. “They
eventually changed their minds about that, but we have to prepare
for that kind of attitude. “˜Well, we have a lot of books out
there. Why do we have to bother with independent and new voices?
We’ve had enough Chicano writers, so now let’s forget
them this season.’

“So you have to keep on your toes. … It’s a kind
of corporate attitude that’s difficult to handle
sometimes.”

With the chain bookstores largely dictating what literature is
accessible to the public ““ books published by big companies
like Random House ““ the diversity of voices tends to
decrease; the publishers taking risks on new authors lose out.
Temple also sees a lack of diversity in major publishing
companies’ target audience.

“Book publishing in general is very much catered to a
well-educated, Ivy League-type audience. Huge segments of the
population often get ignored by big publishing companies, such as
working class African Americans,” said Temple. “I want
to sell these books to my neighbor. I’m interested in taking
an area of literature and trying to popularize it among those that
don’t necessarily have advanced degrees.”

An absolute enjoyment of the art of writing seems to be a
requisite to be a successful independent publisher. According to
these publishers, vigor, good taste for literature and an adaptable
business sense are what keeps independent publishers chugging
on.

“All my publishing is done because I love the books, and I
couldn’t care less how many books I sell,”Â said
Messerli.

“I absolutely think that there is a future for independent
book publishing,” said Temple. “I almost think
that’s a silly question. It’s obvious that it’s
going to survive. It’s thriving, not on strictly economic
terms, but on an aesthetic level and on a political level.
Independent book publishing is kicking butt right now.”

Independent magazines are faced with similar hardships, which
will be explored in the panel “From Granta to
McSweeney’s: Can Independent Magazines Survive?”

Panelist Lawrence Weschler, a former writer for The New Yorker
and director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at New
York University, published a prototype issue of the art and
literary journal “Omnivore.”

He writes to the reader, “Every time we broached the
conventional way-stations (worked up a statement of intent and
accompanying business plan, nailed down our legal footing, lobbied
potential sponsors and advertisers, secured the requisite
distribution channels) we were being advised not to even bother:
The whole thing was hopeless. The economy. The general media
environment. Yada yada yada.”

Weschler, imbued with a fearlessness required in this brutal
business, then offers, “If you want something, don’t
keep planning and theorizing and testing and strategizing ““
just start doing it.”

When independent publishers and editors put this emotional
investment into their work, it shows in the quality of the
magazine. One such example is “Zoetrope All-Story,”
founded by Francis Ford Coppola and running for seven years, which
has its dedicated, sprightly editors to thank for its National
Magazine Award for Fiction.

A reputation such as Zoetrope’s is difficult to establish,
but when it’s forged, an independent magazine will find
survival less daunting.

Outnumbered by Condé Nast- and Time/Warner-published
magazines, independently owned magazines compete for the attention
of the consumer on the newsstands.

“It is difficult getting a quarterly literary publication
on newsstands. But there are ways to overcome the problems: …
publishing startling covers that draw the eye (and) publishing, in
each issue, at least one fairly known writer,” said panelist
and “Zoetrope All-Story” editor Tamara Straus.

“Zoetrope All-Story” invites a guest artist to
illustrate and design each issue partly in hopes the consumer will
indeed judge a book by its cover. Respected artists Julian
Schnabel, David Byrne and Laurie Anderson have contributed their
expertise as guest artists.

“McSweeney’s,” a quarterly headed by novelist
and panelist Dave Eggers, knows the value of good design, as it
consistently produces compelling voices in a high-quality bound
book that stimulates the eyes with its thinking-outside-the-box
graphics and innovative touch with its form.

Aided in part by his success as an author and experience with
founding the now defunct “Might” magazine, Eggers has
gained a loyal following of young adults and uses his resources to
fund a pirate store and tutoring workshop for youth called 826
Valencia.

Kit Rachlis, editor in chief of Los Angeles Magazine and
moderator of the independent magazines panel, notes, “Dave
Eggers, with his publications, has proven quite brilliant at
(getting people’s attention).”

The independent publishers’ stamina in sifting through
literature for the gems of quality writing surprises the corporate
publishers, much to Messerli’s amusement.

“The big publishers in the book expo would say,
“˜Where did you find these writers?’ There are a lot of
writers out there, and it wasn’t some secret. The big
commercial houses simply weren’t reading anymore,” said
Messerli.

A common misconception is that all the small presses make small
dollar amounts. “It’s not like the small independent
presses are isolated. Our books are in all the (chain) stores.
Independent presses (generally) don’t have the same kind of
huge sales or huge money. Some of them, however, are in fact
million-dollar business,” said Messerli.

Nevertheless, Messerli is disappointed by how the market has
become homogenized. “Commercial publishing doesn’t even
know I exist anymore. They did in the early days, because I was
something different and odd, and now I’m just kind of under
the radar.”

In some ways, the independently and corporately owned magazines
are not so different. A former editor of L.A. Weekly and The
Village Voice in New York, Rachlis has never contributed to an
independent magazine. Although he enjoys financial cushioning from
corporate owners, the editorial content published in Los Angeles
Magazine is held at a high journalistic standard.

“The first thing is to be really good and follow your own
intellectual, cultural and literary vision, and not to let that
vision be chopped and channeled by marketing studies and research
studies … because then there’s no point in (publishing a
magazine),” said Rachlis.

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