Thursday, March 24, 2011

Small-Minded Press

Last weekend, I attended the Buffalo Small Press Book Fair. While I took an interest in a handful of the vendors that were present, for the most part I came away with quite negative thoughts about the driving forces behind most of the projects represented.

First and foremost, after about five minutes of looking, I had the distinct feeling that, more than anything else, affluence drives all of this. I don't have a great deal of respect for those sorts of small presses, which are clearly not struggling to stay financially afloat, but are led by people who can pour money into them without ever needing to break even. They may love what they're doing, but I think the event was advertised to the public as a showcase for industry professionals. Instead, it was comprised almost entirely of people who are able to maintain their presses and publications purely as hobbies, because they have neither the need nor the ambition to be demonstrably successful with it.

Obviously, my class-consciousness bears upon my perspective on the event. It would be one thing had I observed collective ventures supported by many individuals each with modest means, spurred on by an earnest belief in the literary alternative they're providing. But in fact, the vast majority of tables were manned by individuals with professionally bound copies of their own books and magazines, and I must say that it just doesn't seem fair that they be able to disseminate their works on account of their affluence, while seriously committed artists elsewhere struggle to make ends meet.

And I find that impulse among the small press owners frustrating for this other reason: Why wouldn't you, if you don't actually have to sell your work in order to make a living, devote yourself to developing a presence in large presses, so that you can be more visible as an artist? I can't avoid coming to the same conclusion about this that I've come to about other artists and groups in the past. In particular, it reminds me of criticisms I've made of the large but stubbornly amateur audio drama community on the internet. It seems to me that there are a great many artists who insist on remain amateur, and won't entertain the ideas of either profit or editorial oversight, precisely because being professional opens them up to a great deal of criticism.

There was one table at the book fair that encapsulated the problem of small presses better than any other. I was there with a friend, and as we were taking a second pass of the exhibition space, we both paused in front of a table displaying a pile of chapbooks and a large white board with a network of multicolored scrawls, seemingly designed by a schizophrenic, under the heading "The 21st Century Dude." I'm happy to ignore things that I don't think are worth trying to understand, but my friend was practically transfixed by the bizarreness of this thing, and quietly commented to me that she wanted to ask the person behind the table what it meant, but was concerned about offending her. I said that the woman was there to talk about what she was selling, and that my friend should just ask her to explain her project. Somewhat crudely rendering my advice, she timidly walked up to the table and, pointing squarely at the white board, asked a more direct question. "Hi, um, could you tell me... What is this?"

I don't think the vendor's answer could be considered an answer, and it certainly didn't seem to register the obvious confusion. "Well, this is a chart of all the categories that we think make up the twenty-first century dude. And it looks at their different combinations, and how they interact. And, I mean, they've all existed before, but..."

I came up alongside my friend and picked up a chapbook to peruse the table of contents. "Okay," I said to the vendor, a tall bespectacled woman of about thirty, "So could you tell me, what is the focus of your publication?"

"What is the focus of the publication," she repeated flatly, as if not comprehending the words, and then picked up one of the books herself, as if ready to search for the answer. "Well, it's about the twenty-first century dude - trying to define it, what it is, what he believes, what it means."

"Okay," I said as I set down the book. The most forgiving thought that I could entertain was that maybe this was some kind of hipster irony that I was simply not cool enough to understand. I gave a look to my friend, and walked away with her, thoroughly convinced that this was just not going to make any sense to me. When we got a safe distance away, we laughed our asses off.

What really struck me about that table was how off-guard the woman was when I just asked her to explain what she was publishing. Honestly, she reacted as if she had never been asked that question before, and never even anticipated that it might come up. And that's almost understandable. These small presses, and other creative ventures like them, are used to dealing with their friends, or repeat customers, or with people who already think the way they do. Most of them, thus, are unprepared for the culture shock of thrusting themselves into a public event where they need to reach out to people not already in their niche. Consequently, virtually none of the vendors at this event had any marketing sense.

Apart from general curiosity, I had gone to the event in the hopes of doing some networking for both my creative and business writing. I really should have passed my card out to everyone I found interesting, but I had the same problem as my friend did in asking the vendor to explain her white board. How do I approach people who need help marketing without insulting them? "Hey, your table sucks because I have no idea what you're selling. You look like you could use my help." Besides, is it worth offering my services in the fields of marketing and advertising to people who are specifically not interested in professional success anyway?

It's really a shame. There were a few publications, presses, and artisans represented there who seemed to have terrific talent and focus, and those ones I would love to help move in a more professional direction. But I don't think they'd be interested. I've seen it before, and it always makes me feel sad and, as a person with earnest creative aspirations, lonely. I want the people around me to take themselves as seriously as I take myself, and hell, as serious as I take them. I've known many people whose multi-faceted talents fill me with jealousy, but who just aren't committed to utilizing them. Can our own skills and overly delicate aspirations drive us to a breaking point?

I'd love to start seeing that. I want the people I respect to start looking around at the overwhelming volumes of people all trying to express themselves creatively, and decided it's time to snap themselves away from the crowd. It's worth it to be professional, because that's how you'll have an influence outside of your own circle. It's worth it to open yourself up to criticism, because that's how you'll learn what works and what doesn't, and that's how you'll learn to be better. As a writer myself, that's what I want. Am I alone in that?

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