John McCarthy is the author of Ghost County (MG Press, 2016). His poetry has appeared in Best New Poets 2015, December, Fifth Wednesday, Jabberwock Review, The Minnesota Review, Oyez Review, The Pinch, Redivider, RHINO, and Salamander. He edited the anthology [Ex]tinguished and [Ex]tinct (Twelve Winters Press, 2014). John is the managing editor of Quiddity International Literary Journal and Public-Radio Program and is currently an MFA candidate at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
Independent First Books
I think a large part of why I chose to publish my first book with a small press is due to my Midwestern heritage—some idea of flyover country—some kind of persistent Americana-type ideal of doing things independently when no one else is watching. These roots branched out in a rather synchronistic way when Midwestern Gothic Press asked to look at my manuscript, which of course, is very much influenced by affective happenings within the Midwest.
Since readership is valued more than royalties and paychecks when you choose to publish with an independent press, I figured the niche of readers that MG press had cultivated as a following would be the perfect audience for the book. Marketing would take care of itself. On social media, I have, in a way, marketed myself as a Midwestern writer, someone who is strongly influenced by the characteristics of the landscape. Between the presses’ following and my own, I felt strongly about the people who would purchase the book and look for a connection within it.
Connection is one human desire present in all of us, the desire to connect with others or, at least, in some way, with ourselves. Ghost County is, in some ways, about wanting to connect, the failure of connecting, but the perennial, possible hope of finding connection. It was this desire that led to the easy choice of publishing my first book with an independent press. There was a more intimate chance at connection with my publisher and with my potential readers.
When you choose to publish with an independent press, the responsibility is on you, the writer, to take up half of the marketing and promotion, which means you, the writer, are on the ground creating a shared, mutual energy with a reader. I once drove six hours, spending over $100.00 of my own money to give an unpaid reading to ten people, but I was able to connect personally with them. I was able to share my work with them, and they, too, felt comfortable showing me or telling me about their own work. It was a personal connection that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
Building community on this level, within this microcosm of the literary world is one of the premier parts about publishing with an independent press. The connection seems more intimate, more real. To me, it expounds the characteristics of what it means to be from, and of, the Midwest.
When I find myself in discussions about independent presses, I think of an essay by Seth Abramson, originally published in Spoon River Poetry Review, in which he said something along the lines of “the problem with the current literary world and MFA world isn’t that there is too much bad writing, it’s that there is too much good writing.” I like to think of this quote in terms of all art. Think of movies, music, and visual art, some of the best works from the past twenty years have come from small, independent film companies or recording studios, and I see the same thing happening with writing. Most of my favorite writers either first published with independent presses or are still publishing with them. The desire for connection was present within these artists and writers, and the particular resources provided by independent presses allowed them the freedom and individual setup to connect with their audience. It allowed them the malleability to create the life and aesthetic they, as the artist and writer, wanted.
To think that the quality of art depends upon the revenue generated or the marketing package of a big publishing house, suggests, to me, a limited understanding of what it means to be a creative. This way of thinking is detrimental to our roles within the literary community. This way of thinking suggests the kind of privilege that calls itself prestige. Most, not all, prestige is just that—privilege that is afforded the elite comfort of separating itself from a wider community and not having to work or adapt to change.
This way of thinking is why I chose to publish my first book with MG Press. They are allowing me the freedom to build my own aesthetic. They are allowing me the opportunity to build community and camaraderie with an audience that will appreciate the Midwestern sentiments within Ghost County. Independent presses are indispensible to all of the good writing that exists. Independent presses are necessary and are irreplaceable when it comes to giving voices to those outside of the mainstream, without disavowing the mainstream but rather complimenting it.