WE ARE GREATER THAN THE SUM OF OUR PARTS.
When I talk about “The OS” as if it was a thing unto itself, I always feel like that’s an absurdist gesture — because, ultimately, this “press” is not a thing, it is people. And, a lot of the time, it is… person.
This linguistic smoke and mirrors is useful societally, because there is a process of legitimization that happens when we create a “thing” beyond ourselves to which we can refer(here in the literary world it feels gross to say “a brand,” but in essence it functions the same way): it generates comfort and a sense of established order in the user. “Oh, a press, I know what that is” — a place, an organization, that does certain things. A place to which you might submit a manuscript.
But in reality, we’re just creative people — sometimes individual people — who have decided to spend our “free” time (when we’re not doing our own creative work, our actually paying jobs, etc) carving out space and possibility for other people, because we saw that we could. More often than not we have begun in basements and living rooms, in bars and coffee shops, with no start up cash.
However, the smoke and mirrors thing can also hurt us — because in the process of legitimizing our projects (a performance which is somewhat necessary for survival, vis-a-vis grant funding and so on), we also run the risk of replicating exactly the elitist patterns of negative reinforcement that, perhaps, inspired us in the first place to build an alternative.
When we build our models, and we figure out how to support ourselves, and we realize how expensive this process is, we look around and learn from the landscape. How do others survive? And how, if ever, will we and/or our authors earn? Even if this wasn’t our intention, many of us land on the model of charging to read submissions, and then again on contest fees.
But ultimately, this is a failing system before we’ve even begun: because to publish a single book, if we’re supporting it on this basis, every other submission that comes in has to be rejected. Even if those books are equally worthy. And, while we might intend to write long and personal responses alongside each rejection, is everyone able to do that? Rarely.
As a result, we have financially created a system built on the majority of the work coming in being necessarily rejected. If every single manuscript was absolutely beloved of a publisher, what would they do? This sounds like the best possible problem to have, but ultimately the system isn’t set up for it. Which means that folks that are actively seeking homes for their manuscripts, unless they are extremely lucky, are spending an enormous amount of time, energy, and money hoping for approval and permission — something akin to winning the literary lottery.
It’s emotionally destructive, and unnecessarily so. That time and money and effort would be much better spent pooling our resources — peer editing, designing, and publishing each other’s books. We’d have money left TO SPARE, and it’s on that model that I started The Operating System, which is an infrastructure built for you to come and make it your own, an open invitation I’ve had for years. No one has taken me up on it as of yet, but more and more cooperative projects have been made — with similarly minded individuals and organizations.
However, we have to be ready for a change of heart and mind, too. We, as presses, need to get over ourselves: we do not mete out legitimacy or worth. And we, as writers and artists, as poets, need to have a conversation with ourselves about how much we are seeking that legitimacy as part of our publishing process — and where that comes from, and why…and how to destroy that perceived “need” so that we can start working together, proactively.
About five years ago, as The OS was forming, I set about trying to get other presses to join me in a plan for a cooperative organization and eventually bookstore, “The Heroes and Hobos Poetry and Publishing Cooperative,” which I envisioned as “a Coalition of Individual Poets and Writers, Independent Presses and Small Magazines/Journals”. It may have not been the right time, and I was relatively new on the scene, and perhaps I was putting the cart before the horse. But I’ve never let go of the dream.
In the last five years, so many things have changed — but something that’s certainly stayed the same is that it is a difficult, time consuming, and increasingly expensive endeavor to run an independent press.
There are many incremental, systemic changes that we can make as a collective that will increase our efficiency both as individual organizations and as a community at large, leaving us with more money and time — and also leaving us less exhausted, emotionally and psychologically depleted.
In 2017, coming back from AWP in DC, happy about sales and the folks I’d got to meet and friends I’d gotten to see — but miserable about the expenditure that had been required, frustrated by the bloated, elitist, ableist conditions of its operation, and looking ahead at other conferences and bookfairs (Queens, Brooklyn, New Orleans, etc) which are prohibitively costly to so many of us, I decided there was no more time to waste — it was time to move on my collective visions, those that truly have always been at the heart of The OS’s mission.
I arrived home, happily, to find that colleagues were sharing my disgust, publicly, and that sentiment was already circulating — as was a desire to be proactively political, together, organizing with intention how we might address the social and cultural minefields of this time. And these two things must happen simultaneously — we need all the energy, all the finances, all the time we can muster to dedicate ourselves fully to resistance organizing, and to survive the loss of public funds. We must evolve if we will survive.
Matvei Yankelevich made and distributed this Open Source tract, “Might as Well Give Away All The Books,” which should be required reading — transparent figures about our costs that not only all presses, but all writers, need to be made aware of.
The Small Press Union made our first official appearance at Artists and Fleas in the Summer of 2017, and at the 2017 Brooklyn Book Fest, and will appear in even greater numbers at BKBF 2018! More events and programming to come.
The Small Press Union includes comrades from:
Argos Books, No, Dear, Tender Buttons, DoubleCross Press, Projective Industries, Augury Books, EOAGH, Resolving Host, Kayrock Screenprinting, Bloof Books, Harlequin Creature, Thread Makes Blanket, Organism for Poetic Research, Knife | Fork | Book, Belladonna*, Litmus Press, Black Sun Lit, The Distance Plan, and Quimby’s Bookstore NYC.
In the meanwhile, look out for announcements: we’ll have a planning meeting and be sending information about how to join for future events!
I am currently scouting for market opportunities outside the traditional Bookfair circuit.
Please email firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions, ideas, or to have your name/press put on the list!
We are greater than the sum of our parts.