In 2009, Barry Scott, Transit Lounge publisher, received a CAL grant to investigate the American independent publishing scene. In his Overland essay, Barry shares his research – from Chin Music Press to McSweeney’s – and reflects on what that independent spirit could mean for Australian publishing:
During 2009 I was the fortunate recipient of a Copyright Agency Limited grant to meet with small independent publishers in the US to discuss the state of the industry. As a small press publisher from Melbourne, I was looking for something to indicate that people were tired of the mall-like sameness of the publishing industry, the stranglehold of large retails chains and the domination of media conglomerates. What I saw didn’t dispel my fears regarding the economic viability of independent presses: consumers are ultimately going to want what they have heard about repeatedly, something that comes more easily with a large marketing budget. Yet I was reassured by the initiatives of small publishers to nurture a vibrant culture of writing and reading.
The small literary publishers I met were invariably reacting to the uniformity that dominates the publishing world. As Brian Obernaut from family-run press Two Dollar Radio asserts, small publishers want to ‘claw back some of the artistic integrity that the publishing industry has forfeited.’ With small presses, mission is critical and indicative of an infectious idealism. Bruce Rutledge from Chin Music Press, a publisher that promotes itself as ‘Seattle’s antidote to Kindle’, explained that ‘I was burnt out on all these media jobs and wanted to do something where I had more editorial control. I watched enviously some of the things going on in small press culture in the US and finally decided to take the plunge and form my own press.’ Chin Music Press has decided to tell the stories of a modern Asia, but has also been compelled to tell American stories. ‘When the levees broke in New Orleans, we felt compelled to turn our attention there, knowing that eloquence would emerge. We still have a lot of faith in Americans as readers and writers.’ Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans? is their bestselling book to date, having sold 8000 copies over two print runs.
Johnny Temple’s predominantly fiction-orientated Akashic Books pursues a ‘reverse gentrification of the literary world’. It is a mission that allows for his strong interest in Caribbean literature, ‘noir’ writing and the championing of adventurous fiction writers that mainstream publishers are less inclined to touch. Joe Meno’s first two novels, published by St. Martin’s Press and ReganBooks respectively, had sold fewer than 3000 copies each and his third novel was passed on. His next one, Hairstyles of the Dammed, was published by Akashic in 2004. Supported by Barnes and Noble’s Discover Great New Writers program, a book tour and great word of mouth, it eventually sold 80 000 paperback copies in the US. Joe Meno went on to publish a number of books with Akashic.