Small Press Publishing in the Nineties

Kathleen Norris

Sitter seems optimistic that new funding sources will develop through the 1990s allowing small magazines and presses to better serve both serious writers and their audience. “Small presses like Graywolf are national in scope now, and they have a tremendous potential. It’s not possible for them to continue to exist on a shoestring. They need working capital, and they need reserves to copy with the flux of the publishing business, to be able to afford to reprint a book that sells well, for example.” For a press that is under capitalized, such success is a mixed blessing; issuing a second or third edition of a surprise bestseller ties up funds that would otherwise be used in printing new books.

An influx of more than $6 million into the literary publishing business over the next few years can’t help but strengthen the field. Rachel Newton Bellow of the Andrew M. Mellon Foundation believes that the Lila Wallace funds complement those of the Mellon Foundation in that “we’re strengthening institutions directly, and they are aimed at helping build an audience” through better marketing and distribution. “I just wish more foundations would jump in.” As the impact of these grants is felt in the literary marketplace of the 1990s, there’s a good chance that other philanthropic organizations will do just that.

Jim Sitter hopes that better financing will serve to strengthen the entire American publishing scene. “There always will be, and should be, independent unincorporated small presses, and transient, here-today-gone-tomorrow literary magazines,” he says. “Diversity is healthy. What I’d like to see in the 1990s is a better balance between commercial publishing and nonprofit literary publishing. Literature may be in a transitional period, mirroring the process that Broadway and nonprofit theaters went through in the 1960s. Both parties had to make changes, but it was the public that benefited. I believe that the vitality of literature is dependent on a strong mix of commercial and literary publishing. It’s crucial for writers and readers to have choices.”

Kathleen Norris is the author of seven books of poetry, as well as several books of nonfiction, including, most recently, Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life, published by Riverhead in 2008.