Small Press Publishing in the Nineties

Kathleen Norris

What is the role of the small magazine or press in today’s literary marketplace? Publishing has rapidly become big business in a way unimagined just thirty years ago, and both the writers and readers of serious fiction and poetry often feel shut out. Where do they go when the market is god, when the bottom line and not the luminous quality of the writing determines whether or not a book gets published?

Jim Sitter, executive director of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) hasn’t lost hope; in fact he tends to think of the ‘90s in terms of opportunity for small presses and literary magazines. He believes that lovers of fiction and poetry will increasingly turn to small publishers to fill the gaps left by large, multinational conglomerates interested mainly in mass-market books with a high profit margin.

Sitter feels that we can best understand the current literary publishing scene by putting it into historical perspective. “Beginning in the mid-1950s” he says, “in part for estate tax purposes, individuals like Alfred Knopf took their privately held publishing houses public on the stock market, and this allowed publicly held corporations in other businesses—Gulf & Western, for example—to buy shares of stock.”

In the 1960s, he says, this trend continued, fueled by large profits in textbook publishing generated by the baby boom. “Outsiders entered the publishing business with a profit motive,” Sitter says, “and the days of genteel trade publishing, when a publisher could live quietly in Boston or New York off a small profit margin, came to an end.”

According to Sitter, the push towards creating publishing conglomerates slowed down, along with the stock market, in the early 1970s, but by 1975 it was back with a twist when, as he says, “publishing houses began buying out other publishing houses. You can see it in the statistics. In 1972 there were dozens of strong trade publishers and now there are fewer than a dozen. Bantam, Dell and Doubleday are now all the same company.

Beginning in the late 1970s another wave of conglomeration hit the publishing scene, this time with an international element. Viking was sold to a British conglomerate. The process gathered steam in the 1980s when Addison-Wesley was purchased by the same firm that had bought Viking, Bantam-Doubleday-Dell was sold to a German publisher, and a Japanese company acquired Putnam.

There was some unease about this trend within the industry,” Sitter says, “but not much public awareness of it until the late 1970s when the New Yorker ran a series of articles by Thomas Whiteside that criticized the phenomenon.” (The articles were later published as a book, The Blockbuster Complex: Conglomerates Show Business, and Book Publishing.) “Now,” Sitter adds, “gigantic corporations dominate the book industry and its relationship with authors, bookstores, the whole literary market; the trends that make it more effective for publishers to be larger and go for the mass audience will continue through the ‘90s.