I remember reading a comment on an HTMLGiant post a few months ago (I have no idea which post) where the commenter was talking about how anyone can set up a small press or journal and declare themselves an editor, despite any actual qualifications and/or experience they may or may not have. And I think that’s an accurate observation—when I started NewLights I had no idea what it meant to be an editor, how to be an editor, what an editor actually did, etc. I still don’t, really, which is one of the reasons why I am interested in this conversation.
What is it that we actually do?
For a person to set up as a publisher and declare themselves an editor without any socioeconomic vetting by an acknowledged institution of authority (one with money & power) is a subversive act. It is a usurpation, a move against power bestowed, a move for power built up from the ground. Built up from the ground in the sense that the self-appointed small press editor openly acknowledges their lack of institutional approval, but declares, through their actions, that “I/we will learn this, figure this out, build this up.”
I started the NewLights Press in May of 2000. All I had was access to a print studio (I was in school), a copy of A Secret Location on the Lower East Side, and a need to make books. I certainly did not have a clue. I didn’t know of any other small presses operating in Baltimore at that time (there were some). Websites for such operations were becoming more and more common, but for a 20 year-old still seemed very exotic. This is not a “let me tell you how hard it was back in my day” passage—it’s an attempt to establish the fact that the social/cultural context in which small presses begin and operate now is radically different than what is was just 11 years ago. The closeness of the community and the long reach of small presses now is a consequence of electronic communication and the ever-accessible “storefronts” of our websites. And this context continues to change—we will see how digital books and e-readers play out. Almost every day we read about how big publishers are struggling. Almost every day we read about another small press that has started up.
Publishing/running a press is, like just about anything, a process. And it’s not a straight climb towards ‘better” work or more sales and more secure financial foundations. It fluctuates, sometimes with astonishing rapidity. If small presses gave up because they could not figure out a way to make a profit or at least break even, then almost all of them would close down after a year or two, or five or seven years down the road when things got rough. And no matter how promising a start, things will get rough.
The higher the profile of a press, the more “anonymous” its operations become—it begins to attract an audience and potential authors outside of an immediate, local community. And thus the press needs to become more “professional”—more like a large publisher. With that comes accountability and transparency.
NewLights, despite being the same age as BlazeVOX, has remained a much smaller operation, with a different (but overlapping) set of goals and interests. And because of that I really don’t think too many people would give a damn if I started asking authors for money. Some people wouldn’t like it, for sure, but there would be no big outcry. And any discussion/argument that might ensue about it would happen under very different terms, because NewLights operates under very different terms.
There is a fine line to walk between asking small presses to operate under certain community-approved standards and hollowing out their identities and practices. One of the things that make small presses great is the fact that their practices are person to person. When they begin to detach from that local, personal interaction without being able to predict and account for the consequences, nasty messes can ensue.