canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Not Small Apples: New York Independent and Small Press Book Fair 2006

by Janine Armin

100 000 small presses currently operate in the U.S. And this yearís New York Independent and Small Press Book Fair (December 2-3, did the numbers justice. 100 presses represented, and a veritable buffet of insightful panels and readings featured such literary and political luminaries as Greg Plast, Katha Pollitt, and Amiri Baraka.

Irrepressibly hip publishers were jammed into the beautiful General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen building located on 44th Street, the same street as the New Yorkerís former digs. When not packed with books and the 3000 fans who attended this year, according to fair consultant Mark Kohut, the building offers free draftsmen courses.

In an inlet just off the entryway The New York Review of Books, Pen America and The Nation established ranks. On the outskirts of the elite clique, a table littered with copies of BOMB showed off the magazineís surprisingly healthy literary bent. In the central corridor Seven Stories faced Akashic; the two leading indie presses were magnets for traffic.

Behind a sound curtain provided by a coat rack, Akashic publisher Johnny Temple was kind enough to comment on the virtues of the fair which he said, has "really helped us elevate our profile." He loves the "distinctly non-commercial" aspect, that these are "a bunch of businesses that are not driven by the bottom-line imperative." Judging by the calibre of his books, and those of many other publishers there, phenomenal authors are also attracted to the nurturing objective.

For small presses, as Temple says, "thriving" means "staying afloat." Success must be measured differently. And money must be spent wisely. The key is in "a low overhead," says Temple, and "finding amazing writers."

That spirit for books translates into spirited sales manoeuvres. Small presses must combine regular sales tactics with ingenuity. AK emphasized the importance of old school practicing like hand-selling books. Seven Stories concurred, and suggested the importance of publisher-involvement.

Spanning three floors, on the mezzanine publishers like Melville House and IG displayed their wares. Melville is known for its bite-sized classics, smaller format and condensed, they make perfect gifts and light-weight heavy reading. IGís authors are getting attention from major publishers too, particularly for Grant Bailieís Cloud 8, an imaginary romp through a free but boring afterlife.

Melville publisher Dennis Loy Johnson sat down for a talk with me in the cafť. I was stunned by his fame, as he confessed to being the original book blogger, Mobylives. To my surprise, he said blogs didnít generally lead to increased sales. But that isnít the most difficult part faced by his press, itís "getting mainstream media to pay any attention to us," he said. Oddly enough, they have "no problem distributing."

That contradicts a lot of the mystique that surrounds the small presses. Many say distribution is a problem, including Publisherís Weekly editor-in-chief Sara Nelson. She stresses that publishers should make sure "to pick the right distributor."

Festival facilitator Mark Kohut, a veteran in sales and marketing for corporate publishers, now provides services to small presses. At the Publisherís Breakfast, Kohut and fellow sales bigwig Mark Levine divulged the tricks of the trade to an enrapt audience of muffin-munching publishers.

I spoke with Kohut in the cramped small press office, where I assisted in retrieving a plastic fork for one of the festival organizers. Small presses face different problems, Kohut says, the "major difference has to be resources and time and attention to which the major publishers the focus they can offer to the books they wish to market in a big way."

Technology helps. "Itís easier for small presses than it used to be," he says, "the greatest expense . . . is the set-up." And with new technologies, set-up is significantly easier. "You can set them [books] up for less than two hundred dollars," Kohut continued, adding "on demand books donít need to be printed until theyíre bought."

Authors are also instrumental in selling their books. Small presses tend to welcome their unique knowledge about their market. Temple says "we look for people that inspire us but that our style of work inspires them." Speaking on a panel, Akashic author T Cooper supported her publisherís ideal, "once I learned that they trusted me," she said, "I felt that I trusted them implicitly." With recent successes like Joe Menoís Boy Detective Fails, the reciprocal relationship that allows Akashic to sometimes "accomplish more than the giant budgets," seems to be working.

Key conferences included a panel on literature of colour with Pen America authors Monique Truong, Martha Southgate and Jaime Manrique and an interview with Michael Cunningham.

The ever-eloquent Ed Park, an editor for The Believer and former editor of the Village Voice Literary Supplement, moderated a panel on writing good fiction under the corporate gun. T Cooper, Peter Plate, and John Cotrona proffered animated commentary. Cooper, whose first book was published by Akashic, spoke about the money corporate publishers waste on touring. Self-published author John Cotrona, who "purposely hadnít smoked pot since noon," was lucid enough to mention the importance of good book design in grabbing the attention of potential readers. Peter Plate charged the atmosphere with revolutionary statements on "what writing is when it comes from the bottom of society," and the necessity for writers to be historically informed and to understand their "impetus" for writing. And T Cooper countered with sober advice on the practicalities of getting books published.

The Roe Vs. Wade panel also proved fascinating. Nation columnist Katha Pollitt, Third Wave feminist crusader/author Jennifer Baumgardner and journalist Eyal Press heatedly discussed the insane American struggle to protect womenís rights, which religion has made into a catastrophic issue. As a Canadian, it was mind-boggling to watch. The argument spilled out onto the street where a virulent Katha Pollitt and animated Jennifer Baumgardner continued the discussion of abortion rights. I interrupted them, and contributed my inwardly heated and uniformed comments.

After she moderated the Roe panel, editor-in-chief of Publisherís Weekly Sara Nelson commented on the state of small presses while she braved cold gusts by an open window. "I think itís very hard for the small presses to do well," she said. However, she sees light in the small press future with an exciting concept: "as bigger houses get bigger they create a place for the smaller presses," she said, and like Hollywood blockbusters, the big houses create a market for the small houses.

From fisheries publishers to politicians, save the repeated misplacing of my water bottle, the festival went off without a hitch. Next year I hope to stay into the week and sign up for a drafting course.

Janine Armin has written about books for the Village Voice, the Globe and Mail, and Bookslut.







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