My small press ethos

A young poet in Quebec


So many authors and poets seem baffled and antagonised by my ideas relating to small press publishing, that I thought it would be best to set them down clearly and very briefly. I cannot claim they are mine, or that they are the only way to see the world. They arise from the work of Louis Dudek, in Canada, who created small press publishing for poetry, from the 1940s onwards, and mentored Leonard Cohen. Dudek himself was mentored by Ezra Pound, who encouraged him to create a small press – the result was Delta Canada, which eventually became owned and operated by a group of young British and American academics and poets from Concordia University; writers who were themselves chiefly anti-war, left-wing and in some cases draft dodgers from the US. I was eventually published by this later version of DC Books, in 1999. It remains the most important publication of my personal life. And it reminds me always why publishing is so important - bringing a book into the world changes the world; one hopes for the better.

There are (at least) two ways to see a publishing company – and I see the less-looked at way.

The most common way is for the press to be the helpmate, even the servant of, the author’s needs and demands – the publisher exists to edit and publish the author’s books. The author is the hero of the story (because the creator of the original work) – and this is the view obviously defended by writer’s advocacy groups. It can be summed up in one sentence I saw online last year: ‘why should I give money to my publisher to help them?’ – it is the Ayn Rand vision of creative genius as ultimately alone, individualistic, and centred on its own goals and needs. It is the view that allows otherwise ethical and moral writers to hire ruthless and aggressive agents to make deals with the sort of Capone swagger that edges close to breaking the law. More than one gentle writer has innocently told me they love their ‘rottweiler’ agent. He is vicious, they say – he will practically kill to get the best deal for me. In this vision of things, very capitalist and dog-eat-dog, the writer is the sole trader, the businessperson out to get the best deal for their wares – and the publisher is seen as the enemy, the menacing other, seeking to rip-off the writer. It is a depressing picture.

This world picture of author vs. publisher tends to be the one sold to most authors, because larger publishing companies do have a history of seeking to enrich themselves at the expense of the writer – but it has never been the picture that best represents small press literary publishing.

And this is the confusing disconnect that younger writers, and debut writers, tend to face – they come to a micro-press like Eyewear and apply the terms and worldview ascribed to a very ruthless capitalist system of zero-sum gain.

My view is the opposite. In my world view, the author should ask, like Kennedy advised – not what the press can do for them, but what they can do for the press.

As insane as it sounds to writers self-focused on their needs (which are of course genuine and important) this is the view with which I have operated Eyewear from day one.

It is basically the topsy-turvy idea that nothing is more important than the development, sustaining, and preservation, of viable small presses, for the long-term health of literary writing, and hence, writers and poets of serious literature. In this communist view, which I hold, the State (that is the press) takes precedence over the private needs of the writers the press publishes. The press requires support, commitment, and dedication, from its authors, to grow and survive, in a very vicious capitalist system – like a newly-founded revolutionary nation, a small press struggles to compete against larger, more aggressive, and violently-capitalist States (the publishing world’s super-companies).

Far from being a capitalist view, my ethos is communist - to the degree described below. No one should be alarmed by these terms, as they are, of course, being used metaphorically here, as tools to help us understood various world pictures. We can dispense with them when they no longer help us see more clearly. What they do is super-charge the contrast, instantly, between the kinds of interests to be pursued in any enterprise. And we should remember that Pound was no communist, but a fascist. Fascism itself proposes a state-based model for business, but the goals aimed for are far less beneficent than that which a small press ever aims for; and here we come up against the limits of the metaphor.

Still, it challenges writers to step back from their focus on royalties, and what they get from a publishing deal, to consider the longer-term goals of developing a world where small presses will endure, and weather the coming storms of Amazon-domination.

Because many poets do not understand the brutality of the market forces at play, they see even a micro-press as a large player and lose empathy or sympathy with it. They tend to see presses as interchangeable, as football players may see clubs – you move to the club with the highest offer. Therefore, in 2003, I publicly questioned Simon Armitage’s decision to leave Bloodaxe to go to Faber when he got a deal from them.

In front of a large audience in New York, he looked at me as if I was insane. He said, well, I went to Faber because it was the better offer. I replied, and in the process, you abandoned a very good small press, Bloodaxe, that needed you, and could have benefited from you staying.

So, this then is my horrifying ethos – asking or expecting authors to put their own capitalist self-interest behind the interests of the bigger picture – being loyal to smaller presses.

Please notice, not my press – ANY small press. So long as writers view presses as interchangeable, and mere instrumental tools to help them achieve their own goals – or rather, their more ego-driven goals – small presses will struggle to survive.

This is because, if you consider a small press asking for financial support a kind of imposition, you don’t understand the history of a small press, or its aims. Small presses are never about making a profit – they lose money, to further the production and dissemination of important publications.

Any small press making a large profit is suspect, and clearly does not have its heart in the right place. This does not mean seeking any profits is bad, because a business needs some money with which to pay its bills. I am proud to say Eyewear has tended to spend much more on its less-commercial books and prizes than it ever makes back. Not a very good business model if one is seeking profits. You judge a press’s integrity on the ratio of the profit it puts back into publishing and prize-giving. I myself have taken no salary for 7 years – a donation of over 250,000 pounds to the company, or more. Plus, I have also loaned or given family money to the tune of over 200,000. My overall donation to the press is therefore about half a million pounds – money not spent on clothes, meals, vacations, gifts or other more needed things, like supporting family members who are ill or need support - sacrifices have been made, debts accrued.

Of course, it goes without saying, that even small presses must have honest and fair contracts, and they must protect copyright, and pay agreed royalties. Eyewear has paid out over 50,000 pounds in royalties since 2012, I would estimate.

But since small presses do no operate solely or primarily as profit-making machines, authors who reproach these small presses as if they were capitalist structures, are potentially acting in bad faith.

A writer’s union will see itself as the most socialist actor in any dealings with a publisher, since they tend to ignore the ethos I espouse, the ethos of radical communist publishing – or rather, communal publishing. But what is happening when a writer clashes with a small press is that two equally fragile and challenged creatures are, unfortunately, in struggle, when the struggle should rather be against greater forces and powers at work.

I hope this explains why I seek to prioritise the survival of my small press – because, in a very violent capitalist business world – we are a threatened species. Most small presses survive either with funding or patronage – it is a false market analysis to see most literature as selling well enough to make large profits.

Finally, whenever an author asks for royalties, they are requesting money gained from sales, from commercial practice and are therefore upholding the desire to have their work sold in a capitalist market system - not wrong, but they need to see the contradictions the system forces humans into.

I often see authors ask that their books be sold at the highest rate possible – so they often seek money over wider accessibility. I would argue that small press authors should never focus on royalties as their main aim and prioritise distribution and accessibility instead – and the more books are given away, or made almost free, the better. Yet usually if I put our books on sale to get more books out into more hands, authors complain. This is because we are all conflicted when operating a cultural practice in a capitalist system.

Of course, authors need money. Ask Brecht. Or Arthur Miller - but is the money always good? The question I pose to them is – is it best to expect money derive from sales, or from becoming better-known, and doing more events or tutorials where you can make money? This is the tensions we must all debate and consider, in a new world, where acquisition of objects is perhaps rightly dying out, in favour of free experiences. To discuss and consider these trade-offs, and these challenges, is legitimate. I have been a member or rep of several writer’s unions and support them fully.

I do not think the sales-royalties structure is the best for small press poets – and some authors have donated their royalties, prize monies, and other awards to their small press, because they see a bigger picture (and can afford to do so).

No one should ever expect money from someone who needs it to survive, and that is not what I am saying here. I am saying that when you know your publisher loses money on almost all the books it creates, you may want to consider ways to help, rather than hinder, the publisher’s aims, if that is something you can afford to do.

In short, see a small press as a charity, even if it is not one legally, because usually, it is a charity in all but name. Be charitable and avoid the suspicion it may be sucking profits from your creativity; publishing companies are not leeching when their main aim is to support literary production by lesser-known writers. A small press is often a Mitzvah. Yes, a duty, to be upheld, for its own good.

Almost all poetry books lose money when published – and the best-sellers clearly need to have author compensation. But for books struggling to find an audience, I sometimes feel we might all be better off giving them away at cost or for free, with subventions from elsewhere.

This is because I have always seen money as a tool to be used to create more books, and more creative projects. My ethos is radical, but it is not based on greed or self-interest. It is based on the communitarian ideal of establishing presses whose main objective is to thrive so more writers may get a chance to have their books in print, in libraries, and in the hands of potential readers.

I am therefore unashamed of my ethos. I have stood by it for over 30 years (and thought about it often, tweaking it along the way). If your main aim is to make a profit from publishing your literary writing, go elsewhere – my press and its views won’t make sense to you.

Note: Since originally posting this brief essay, some eyebrows have been raised - rightly so, since ideas that may appear new or strange tend to get short shrift or hoots of derision. I do not pretend my ideas are entirely ordinary. Also, since I am foremost a poet, not an economist or political scientist, my use of political terms is metaphorical, at best. No business enterprise not actually state-owned or owned by a collective can be formally designated as communist - but a guiding principle can be. At any rate... 

I should have added, the use of the word communist is not meant to literally evoke a kind of Soviet union, or utopia, but to gesture towards the idea of a shared common goal, taking precedence over the individual’s private goals – in brief, a commonality is defined and pursued as the priority.

Of course, this can only work as a small press model where the directors and runners of the press are themselves authors or committed to literary creation. And, also, no author should join the press by coercion. So long as the authors joining the press support the common goal, the conflicts inherent in balancing personal and shared aims are minimised. This is, in practice, probably difficult to bring into the world, which is never a reason not to try.

The main startling point was to challenge the idea that the author is always necessarily above being equal to a publisher in terms of the cultural and creative good of their interests; and to introduce the idea that the author-publisher relationship can be one of shared values that may not always even be about sales, profits, or royalties at all. One can easily imagine a system or society in which books were free, and therefore, no royalties could be paid. This society might reward authors (and publishers) in other ways. In the current UK system, a mixed economy occurs, because, though the bookshop world is basically capitalist in nature, government funding acts as a break on the worst aspects of the marketplace, allowing less-commercial art works to be supported, at least in theory. Though, unless all creatives receive equal funding, an unequal playing field arises, thereby in some senses reifying the dog-eat-dog inequalities of the competitive capitalist model.

I am neither a capitalist or a Marxist, but someone seeking to locate a workable 21st century fusion of the two main theories of economic distribution - because without commonly-shared goals, and personal enterprise, in creative balance, many of the current and future tasks facing the world seem harder to surmount.


Janet Vickers said…
Yes the press is part of my community. Thank you.
Good morning, Todd--

I have been following your battle with your detractors. You did not ask for my unsolicited advice so I will give it freely.

Your recent posts are elegant, lucid and on-point. They also remind me of Lenny Bruce's diatribes.

I have no dog in this fight, obviously. But it seems to me, now that you have expressed your views, that you get back to doing what you do best: publishing poetry.

The people who know you know you are honest, true and 100 percent committed to promoting the works of known, relatively known and completely unknown writers.

Leave the jackals to pick over the remains of rumor and innuendo. Your good works speak for themselves.

Your cuz in the States,