Small Press Publishing in the Nineties

Kathleen Norris

One frustration for Sitter is that most of the grants made available in the 1980s and early ‘90s have gone to small presses rather than literary magazines. He hopes that foundations will eventually be able to treat presses and magazines equally, but notes that magazines have special problems, primarily sensitivity to postal rate increases and a distribution system inferior to that of presses, that have made it difficult for them to use development grants. He also notes that for literary magazines, “access to funding did not improve as much through the 1980s as it did for the presses.” For example, none of the Advancement grants initiated by the National Endowment for the Arts in the 1980s has gone to magazines.

Karen Leies, program assistant for Advancement grants at the NEA, expects that this will change in the 1990s as literary applications for Advancement grants continue to increase, and the NEA complete an overview of the program aimed at producing new guidelines for 1994. “So far,” she says, “while literary magazines have been eligible for Advancement grants, they haven’t been as competitive as small presses in applying.” She characterizes the application process as “rigorous” and the grant itself as “intensive,” requiring a staff that can devote one week a month for a year to the program. “We provide a consultant for thirteen months,” Leies says, “during which time a long-range business plan is developed.”

Sitter sees the NEA Advancement grants as having had a major impact on literary publishers. “The five presses that got the first Advancement grants—Arte Publico, Coffee House, Graywolf, Milkweed Editions, and Sun and Moon—all expanded considerably during the 1980s.” It was no accident that three of these five presses were located in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul, where the 1980s saw what Sitter terms “outstanding fundraising for literature and a great response among local philanthropists,” many of whom had never before supported literary projects. Two of the presses, Coffee House and Graywolf, relocated to the Twin Cities in part because of these new opportunities for funding.

Sitter himself was involved in this process, as founder of Bookslinger distribution service and, later, the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, an institution that began in his apartment and is now a museum in downtown Minneapolis. “An amazing range of government and corporate leadership, along with individuals in the literary world, came together to change philanthropy in Minnesota to include small presses and the book arts,” he says.

Sitter sees his current job at CLMP as “doing nationally what was done in Minnesota. Changing the entire relationship of literature to philanthropy is the most important challenge facing American literature in the 1990s.” Defending the NEA comes second—“if we lose that,” he says, “the whole game goes.” The $6 million-plus that Sitter has helped raise in the last few years is a major step in what he hopes is a new direction for philanthropy in literature. “If the presses and magazines use these funds well,” he says, “then we can go back to the foundations, and also attract other American philanthropic organizations that have not previously funded literature.”

Sitter believes that the lack of other support has left literary publishing overly dependent on the National Endowment for the Arts, “and we have all become increasingly aware of the censorship problems there. But if you look at theater and dance, you see that even groups that are radical and idiosyncratic have been able to achieve a high level of support from other sources.”

Sitter hopes that CLMP will eventually “help create within the field of literature the kind of support that independent, nonprofit theater groups developed in the 1960s, and dance groups tapped into in the 1970s. “It’s our fault that literary publishers haven’t approached fundraising professionally.” This created what he terms “a sad situation” in which “small presses haven’t known how to raise funds, and philanthropists don’t understand the needs of small presses and literary magazines.”