You Don’t Fund Publications? Hey, Why Not?

Malcolm Margolin

As a nonprofit publisher, I sometimes scan databases for foundations who might support what we do. Often, I’ll find myself reading about a foundation whose values and scale seem totally compatible with our programs. Ah, an ally against the forces of ignorance! My heart warms, my hopes rise. Then, under “restrictions,” the red light flashes: “We do not fund publications.”

Elsewhere, while publications are not proscribed outright, they are often discouraged. Just last week – and this is what prompted my article – a program officer called to say she was presenting our application to her board and wanted advice on how to handle a question she was sure was coming: why should we fund a book?

So, why should anyone fund a book or other publication? It’s an important question – important not just to us and thousands of other nonprofit publishers, university presses, and organizations with publishing programs, but also to the art community as a whole and indeed to the broader culture. Please give me a few minutes to present a case.

If It Looks Like a Duck, Walks Like Duck…

Books and similar publications that deal with the arts – whether outright literature or books about painting, music, and theater, or even books about ethnicity, history, environment, etc. – are generally cultural rather than commercial enterprises. They educate, broaden, inspire, inform, and energize. But they rarely take in enough to cover their expenses. They are exactly like other cultural productions: museum shows, plays, ballets, or musical performances. Earned income may be a component, but not enough to keep the enterprise afloat.

Further, nonprofit publishing is generally marked by a huge volunteer effort (otherwise known as interns) and by a substantial hidden subsidy, namely unpaid and underpaid labor. Royalties, often token, almost never compensate an author for the time and skill put into a book. And virtually everyone else in the world of publishing, bookselling, and book reviewing gets substandard salaries. What motivates people is not economic gain; very few authors ever get to nibble, let along chomp, at the carrot of best-sellerdom. Every person working for me could earn more in law, insurance, television, or almost any other field; and every one of them has the skills to succeed in anything they put their mind to. What draws people to publishing are the things that inspire artists and art administrators everywhere: namely, a desire to be part of an artistic community; a strong wish to partake in something that allows for self-expression; and the mysterious, blessed urge to make the world a better place. Nonprofit publishing, in short, functions not as a business but as an arts organization.

The Stone of Stone Soup

As a publisher I produce physical objects, books. We have a warehouse full of such objects. Yet, let me make an odd confession. When, sometimes after years of work, a book first arrives from the printer and I get my first look at the object of so much work and hope, my interest is usually minimal. I examine the cover, spine, and back cover; I hold the book and calculate its heft; I riffle the pages and make a quick judgment as to whether all the individual decisions about editing, design, paper stock, and presentation were harmonious; then – usually in less than five minutes – I put the book aside and seldom look at it again. To be sure, I’m fiercely proud of the books we do; I send copies to reviewers and friends with gusto, and I promote our books with belief and energy. Yet the physical book is of amazingly little consequence to me. I wonder how other publishers feel? I’ve never asked.

For me the physical book is the stone of stone soup. What _I find remarkable about a book is not the object, but all that goes into the making of the object and the often surprising outcomes once it’s published.

Doing a book is an intensely social process. This may come as a surprise. Most people, when they envision a book, picture an author at one end of the process working alone (in a garret, of course) to create the book, while at the other end is a reader, equally alone, engrossed in it. As opposed to other art forms, the book seems private, even hermetic; and many cherish it for just these qualities. Other art forms attr¬act visible crowds and seem more “public” by comparison.

As a publisher, though, I see the book world as anything but hermetic. Authors often reach out to friends, family, critics, librarians, and researchers. Getting a manuscript into physical form involves substance editors, copyeditors, proofreaders, graphic artists, interns, designers, project managers, printers, and binders, not to mention the bookkeepers and other office staff that hold a publishing operation together. To push a book out into the world takes a small army of commissioned sales reps, publicity managers, sales and marketing personnel, distributors, wholesalers, reviewers, bookstore owners, clerks, warehouse workers, UPS drivers, and others. For me it is the whole social process by which the germ of an idea in the mind of the author evolves into a fully realized manuscript, then into a book, and finally makes its way into the minds of other readers that is so compelling and culturally significant.

In contrast to such immense effort there often stands an ongoing reprimand to every publisher; low sales for serious books. We have published books whose sales were rotten – sometimes as few as one or two thousand copies. Yet the number of books sold – even the number of books actually read cover-to-cover – is not the sole indicator of the value of a particular title. Slow-selling books have, in some cases, been widely reviewed in newspapers and magazines. We have set up bookstore readings, panels at conferences, and interviews on the radio. For every person who reads a particular book, hundreds more may have got¬ten the sense of its message, its passion, or its beauty second¬hand. A book as a saleable item may have bombed; but as a platform from which to launch an _educational or cultural campaign, it may have succeeded beyond expectations.

There are other benefits, too. Chunks of a book often find their way into class readers or anthologies. Ideas, images, or expressions get picked up and gain currency, sometimes after their source is forgotten. An author may have been furthered in skill and reputation and may go on to greater work later on. And then there are the cumulative effects of a publishing program. We have, for example, published forty books on California Indian art, culture, literature, and history. Sales aside, the overall effect of this has been to put before book reviewers, the media, and the general reading public – year after year for twenty-five years now – irrefutable evidence that California Indian culture is alive, vibrant, and has something of importance to say to the society at large, with far-reaching and often unexpected consequences and benefits. I’m proud of the individual books, but feel also that this is a clear case where the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.

Less visible, but to me hugely important, is the effect of a book on the people who have worked on it. I love to see what happens when an idea of integrity, complexity, and depth moves its way through an author – a great idea shapes an author just as much as an author shapes an idea – and how this idea, more fully formed, affects the editors, designers, printers, sales and publicity people, reviewers, booksellers, and others who work on it; the way it infuses this loose and shifting accumulation of people with a sense of mission and beauty; the way it creates a community of people and nourishes their taste for doing more projects of value and beauty. And while these people may not all know each other, together they constitute an “estate” as important to our culture as our universities, museums, and libraries, an estate without which, in fact, our universities, museums, and libraries would be impoverished. When I sum up our accomplishments for the year, I count not only the books we have produced but the people we have furthered and expanded in the creation of these books.

The More the Merrier

Books can be done in a solitary way, but certain books involve intense and creative collaboration between institutions. As I am writing this article, we just received delivery of a book on the history of California’s labor art. To do this book, and an exhibition on which it is based, we worked with a consortium that included San Francisco State University’s Art Gallery, its Labor Archives, and its Poetry Center; the California Historical Society; Mills College; the California Labor Federation; Yerba Buena Gardens, which will host a large outdoor Labor Day music and poetry festival; and California Exhibition Resources Alliance which will be creating a traveling show for rural museums around the state. We will have receptions, readings, slide shows in dozens of venues. When we are finished, perhaps twenty other institutions will have been strengthened by their involvement with this book and the exhibition – institutions that otherwise would have had nothing to do with each other, but who may very well collaborate in the future.

Life after Death

Finally, books often have a long life, even after they have gone out of print. They still circulate in libraries, reside in individual collections, pop up in used bookstores, and they appear in bibliographies for years. We continually get requests to use material in books we did twenty years ago in course packets or for anthologies. A few months back, a book we published in 1978 got translated into Japanese. With an increase in the use of electronic media, many of our older books are being put on the Web – usually by others – so that their contents may be available. Sometimes it seems as if a book is like an old joke. It pulls in its share of laughs while it is young and fresh, after a while gets a bit stale, disappears and goes underground while it changes form, and then reappears in another rendition, disguised just enough that it looks new and fresh and ready to get laughs yet again.
On a daily basis a publisher works on specific books. Overall, however, we work as custodians of a flow of ideas, images, insights, and beauty, always shifting shape, always nourishing the culture of which it is a part.


These are a few of the points I hope will be considered by those who wish to question their foundation’s refusal or reluctance to support publications. As a consequence of writing this piece, I would of course love to see a thousand delete buttons pressed and a thousand “we do not fund publications” statements instantly erased. If you can’t do that, perhaps you can modify the statement to something like, “We rarely fund publications.” Or, “We fund publications only under unusual circumstances.” Leave the door open a crack: what comes in may surprise and delight you with its value, importance, and potential.