Sunday, April 15, 2012

Hey Small Press on "Being Indie"

On "Being Indie" is a monthly feature hosted here on TNBBC. We will meet a wide variety of independent authors, publishers, and booksellers as they discuss what being indie means to them. 

Meet Don Antenen. He is one of two founding editors of Hey Small Press!, a non-profit project promoting independent publishers to public libraries all over the United States, which exists to encourage libraries to acquire small and independent press books. He lives in PhiladelphiaPennsylvania. His fiction has appeared in the Used Furniture Review, and he cheers for his beloved Cincinnati Bengals every Sunday.  Sometimes he writes very short reviews on Goodreads

Hey Small Press! reviews some amazing indie fiction and if I were you, I'd add their website to your blog roll asap... Here's Don with his thoughts on what being indie means....

What is Indie?

I am the editor of a website that promotes indie press books to public libraries (, but I have never formulated a strict definition of what "indie" means.  The definitions of artistic labels are inevitably vague or nebulous, and "indie" is no exception.  But so it is not totally meaningless: being indie is a confluence of aesthetic inventiveness, financial independence, and artistic control.

Comparing the catalogues of indie publishers like NYRB Classics or Coffee House Press to corporate publishers like Random House or Penguin, there is a clear aesthetic divide.  This divide is clear even with the "good guys" of corporate publishing like FSG or Harper Perennial, who publish great, difficult books by inventive writers (see: 2666, There is No Year, Parallel Stories, etc etc), but only after these writers have succeeded in the indie press world, won a big award, or there is potential for a movie adaptation.  For example, Roberto Bolaño was first published in English by indie press New Directions.  Curiously, this works in reverse as well.  When big publishers do publish great writers, they don't stick with them.
Vintage published the first and third book of Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertész's trilogy, but the second book, FIASCO, wasn't published in English until indie press Melville House published it last year.
(FIASCO was undoubtedly the best book published in 2011).

Financial independence is a thornier question.  In some cases, it is clear when a publisher ceases to be indie: Schocken press was purchased by Random House in 1987.  Schocken still publishes interesting books now and then, but it is no longer the indie press that brought Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin, and Hannah Arendt (not to mention more obscure writers like Bernard Lazare!) to the Anglophone world.  But what of indie presses like Dalkey Archive Press, which receives funding from government cultural agencies to publish translated fiction?  Or Starcherone and Black Lawrence Press becoming imprints of Dzanc Books?  And if the books are amazing, does it matter where the money comes from?

The last bit is artistic control.  Imprints of multimedia corporations publish lots of books the editors and promoters do not actually like (in unguarded moments they'll admit this).  For indie presses this is not the case, as they publish fewer books and do not have a company above them making decisions.  The end result is that I can comfortably walk into a bookstore and buy any book from NYRB Classics, Archipelago Press, or Fiction Collective 2 (to name just three) without knowing anything about it other than the publisher.  This is not the case for any big publisher, nor could it be.

I started Hey Small Press! because my experience working in public libraries showed me how underrepresented indie press literature is on library shelves and how little (some) librarians know about the incredible books being published by the indies.  Jessica Smith wrote a great short article for the Library Journal website attacking the "Blockbuster model" used by many libraries.

Her article sums up well my ideas about developing library collections with small press books, but I would add that it's important for readers of small press literature to speak up at their library and request books a lot.  At Hey Small Press! we send out a monthly newsletter to librarians and readers, so anyone can print it out and take it to their library and do just that.  The overload of best-sellers on library shelves, at the expense of developing diverse catalogues, leaves a lot of indie press enthusiasts alienated, but I think there is room for change if people who up to their library branch and start a conversation... then check the books out!

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