Colby, Georgina, Kaja Marczewska, and Leigh Wilson, eds. The Contemporary Small Press: Making Publishing Visible. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020. 978-3030487836. $140.
Publishing industry news has been rife recently with announcements of mergers and acquisitions instigated by The Big Five publishing companies. As such, industry and arts news outlets are giving attention to the legalities surrounding some of these deals, including articles in Quill and Quire and Publishers Weekly. With multinational conglomerates continuing to increase the gap between themselves and independent publishers—both small and mid-size—it is important to pay tribute to and appreciate the work that smaller independent publishers do for their communities of authors and readers. This multi-authored collection about small presses does just that.
This collection of eleven chapters edited by Georgina Colby, Kaja Marczewska, and Leigh Wilson celebrates the agency that small presses have in regards to their production models, their reach and connection with their audience, and their commitment to social and political issues, while still analyzing how small publishers operate within the larger ecosystem of the anglophone publishing industry. The chapters in this collection cover a wide variety of types of small-press publishing, including poetry, pamphlets, children’s books, and novels; the collection also covers topics specific to modes of production, finances, and the differences between self-publishing and small and mid-size independents.
The authors in this collection use a variety of topics and case studies, but there are three major themes that emerge throughout: authorial agency, financial restriction, and fluid labour practices. More specifically, the authors in this collection note that 1) Small publishers place more emphasis on and allow for greater authorial agency in the design and production stages of publishing, giving greater importance to the beauty of books as material objects; 2) Independent publishers can often struggle with the financial side of the business, preferring to publish high quality books and take risks on books that meet their mission statement instead of just publishing books that guarantee commercial success; and 3) Staff working for small publishers tend to have fluid job descriptions and work in more than one role, which allows for more transparency and fewer walls placed between “departments” within the company.
In his excellent essay, “From Poet to Publisher: Reading Gwendolyn Brooks by Design”, Kinohi Nishikawa provides a critical analysis of the differences between an author publishing with a large press, with a small press, and self-publishing with a case study of Gwendolyn Brooks. As Brooks transitioned through those modes of publishing, she found herself gaining more control over the design and production of her work, which allowed her to reach the audience she wanted to reach and create community around her poetry. This unique case study allowed Nishikawa to make suitable comparisons between these modes of publishing because Brooks herself experienced each type of publishing.
Leading off from the financial and distribution difficulties mentioned at the end of Nishikawa’s chapter, Nick Thoburn and Kaplan Harris discuss various financial aspects of small-press publishing in their chapters “The Matter of the ‘Small’ in Small-Press Publishing” and “The Gentrification of the Small Press: CLMP and the DIY Tradition”, respectively. Harris specifically brings in discussion of the financial resources and benefits of large publishers compared to small publishers, the benefits of small presses being a member of an organization such as Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP), and the fluidity of job roles in small-press publishing due to limited numbers of staff members.
Claire Squires’ chapter, “The Passion and Pragmatism of the Small Publisher”, describes the ways in which publishers are classified as small, mid-size or independent using specific criteria and uses that classification to discuss the differences between small and large publishers. Through interviews with acquiring editors—by job role, not necessarily title—at nineteen independent small and mid-size publishers throughout the UK, Squires discusses how these presses differ from the multinational conglomerates and larger publishers by examining the editors’ feelings and positions on the market, acquiring new titles and authors, and the passion for publishing.
Also vital to the small-press publishing industry—and the emergent themes in this collection—are publishers who take on social and political issues through the books they publish and their business practices. Rosamund Davies’ chapter, “Small Presses and Their Reader Communities”, Melanie Ramdarshan Bold’s chapter, “Leading the Way: Women-Led Small Presses of Inclusive Youth Literature”, and Georgina Colby’s chapter, “The Small Press, Avant-Garde Aesthetics and the Politics of Disidentification”, all tackle this theme through case studies of specific activist small presses.
Each chapter in this volume adds important context to the study of contemporary anglophone small-press publishing, but it is important to note that all of the case studies included in the volume come from the UK, the US, and Australia with no mention of other anglophone markets. This gap is noticeable mainly in those chapters that discuss the finances and granting opportunities for small publishers, as grants and market share vary widely between countries.
Overall, this collection provides much-needed context surrounding contemporary small-press publishing—from the late nineteenth century to the present day—and would be valuable to anybody working on contemporary publishing studies. Further, certain chapters within this volume would be considered useful to those working in other disciplines, such as artificial intelligence and AI-generated writing (Chapter 7), poetry from a literary studies perspective (Chapter 3), and political activism through business practices (Chapters 9 and 12). The Contemporary Small Press embraces the affordances and limitations of small-press publishing while orienting the small press in a position of cultural power against the conglomerates through examination of author and reader communities and the social and political activism possible when publishers prioritize the work they publish and the authors they work with.