Reports from the Front: The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, Small Press Distribution

Jeffrey Lependorf

Placing the cause and calling of literature ahead of the bottom line, independent literary publishers serve as a primary link between writers — particularly those representing emerging voices, culturally specific communities, and literary art forms not fostered by mainstream publishers — and readers. Independent literary publications create an enduring record of cultural activity and provide an essential alternative to the voices heard through large-scale, commercial publishing. Thousands of nonprofit literary magazines, presses, and online publishers across the country serve hundreds of unique audiences. Ultimately, they connect diverse communities of readers who otherwise would remain isolated from their living literary heritage.

Currently, the fruits of independent literary publishing often remain unknown to the larger public — the community of readers. Nonprofit literary publishers as a whole have been neglected by most private foundations and positioned as marginal within the arts in general. Most independent literary publishers lack the marketing muscle of their commercial counterparts and often struggle to compete within the larger publishing arena. Nonprofit literary publishers require support to fulfill their missions: to put exceptional literature into the hands of caring readers.

A growing list of foundations that have historically supported the literary publishing community, often through major funding initiatives (such as Mellon, Wallace, Bush and others), no longer provide this assistance (or will soon conclude their programs in this area). The Lannan Foundation currently represents the only foundation providing dedicated funding for literature on a national level. The Jerome Foundation needs to be commended for its dedication to funding literature, but its funding can only be directed toward emerging writers living in Minneapolis-St. Paul or New York City. State arts council support for literature, where it still exists at all, continues to dwindle (the New York State Council on the Arts, which has provided dedicated funding for literary publishing for more than twenty-five years, is a notable exception and a model to emulate). Without the consistent funding provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, a number of well-established literary organizations could not exist today, and the NEA can only provide partial funding of selected projects.

The growing reach of the Cultural Data Project, while successfully demonstrating the overall economic vitality and importance of the arts in general, may also lead to diminished funding to independent literary publishing. Now mandatory in several states (by government funders and some foundations), and soon to be so in many others, the CDP appears at first to be a valuable data-collection tool. Unfortunately, following the logic that the kinds of questions one asks provide the kinds of answers one gets, there is a real danger that the CDP, despite its best intentions, could be detrimental to the future of literary funding. For example, while the CDP asks how many “productions” an organization presented (defined as “theatrical, dance, or musical pieces produced”), nowhere does it provide space to indicate the number of publications a magazine or press has produced. Small presses and literary magazines may appear to have expenses, yet perplexingly, no activities. The inconsistency of the data collection for literary organizations also means that fieldwide data comparison yields inaccurate trends. The CDP will likely result in decreased funding for organizations that through this data appear either odd or inactive.

Despite the challenges of foundation support enumerated here, independent literary publishers do continue to accomplish their shared goal of connecting writers to readers. Commercial publishing has been particularly hard hit by the economic downturn, and many small publishers find themselves in a newfound position of strength as smaller, mission-focused publishers. Many have used advances in technology, including online social networking and other such tools, to significantly deepen their reach, and many have been successful in building communities of individual support. The field continues to grow and encourage vibrant, electric literary work to enter the canon.

Individual participation in reading cannot be quantified as easily as counting ticket sales, yet the effects of reading — a group activity accomplished one person at a time over a long period — can be extremely far-reaching and profound. The challenges of participating in the current sea change of how people choose to read — increasingly through digital devices — requires support well beyond what most small publishers can raise without the help of the foundation community. Within the support available, the literary arts must be included as an essential segment of our cultural heritage.