To celebrate Independence Day, here are 15 small presses that exemplify the best qualities of this publishing tradition--so characteristic of America, where the upstarts and rebels and truly ornery literary entrepreneurs flourish side by side with the bloated conglomerate publishing houses. At their best, the independent presses represent democracy, flattening of hierarchy, and dynamic feedback.
One criterion above all was used to select these 15 presses: Are these presses taking risks? Are they publishing material conglomerate publishing turns away, yet finding critical--and even financial--success? Are they ahead of the cultural curve--pushing literary trends--rather than behind it? Would there be a noticeable cultural hole in their absence? Safety, caution, and submission are not being rewarded on this Independence Day.
Just because a press labels itself "independent" doesn't make it so; small presses are also liable to slip into familiar grooves, risk-aversion, predictability, and catering to closed circles. But the presses chosen here embody a willingness to explore the outermost bounds of American literary culture with each new venture, despite few resources and few expectations of turning substantial profits.
Three individuals--James Laughlin (New Directions, est. 1936), George Braziller (George Braziller, Inc., est. 1955), and Barney Rosset (Grove Press, est. 1951)--stand out in the history of independent publishing in America, and they should be the models for every striving young independent press. These three, more than others, were responsible for introducing a world awareness to American literature; they brought in radical new voices from abroad, and they never compromised the mission, never sold out, never reached for the easy formula and the cheap profit. Braziller--whose unfailing judgment brought us Claude Simon, Buchi Emecheta, Janet Frame, Alasdair Gray, Amin Maalouf, and Orhan Pamuk--is still going strong at 94.
They say the book is dead in America, our fiction and poetry lack innovation, there is no future for print. In every respect, from encouraging writers at crucial early moments to designing books with loving attention, these presses give the lie to the myth. The book may well be approaching rigor mortis for the conglomerate publishers--because they won't take risks--but these presses don't believe that for a second.
In addition to these 15, there are many others which easily deserve inclusion, such as Canarium Press (run by Joshua Edwards), Two Dollar Radio, Ahsahta Press, Omnidawn, Sheep Meadow Press (run by poet Stanley Moss), Beacon Press, Counterpoint, Dalkey Archive Press, Featherproof Books, Marsh Hawk Press, Cooper Dillon Books (recently founded by Colleen Ryor and Adam Deutsch), Chelsea Green Press, Noemi Press, Other Press, Red Hen Press, Dan Wickett's phenomenally successful Dzanc Books (which just acquired Starcherone Books, and owns my own publisher, Black Lawrence Press), Four Way Books, Burning Deck Press (run by poets Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop), Wings Press (run by San Antonio poet and book designer Bryce Milligan), the Pitt Poetry Series at the University of Pittsburgh Press (run by poet Ed Ochester since 1979), and many others.
And let's not forget the best of the university presses, such as Yale University Press (especially for their poetry), Oxford University Press, Harvard University Press (have you seen A New Literary History of the United States?), MIT Press (for their books on art), University of Arizona Press, University of California Press, University of Minnesota Press (cultural studies), Wesleyan University Press, University of Iowa Press, and Duke University Press.
This is only meant as a teaser. In the coming months, watch for Huffington Post to feature, individually, many of these great presses, as we spotlight their most exciting new books, and engage the editors and authors in a lively discussion of their aesthetic choices.
Which presses would you like to see included? Were there any that were overlooked? Please join the conversation. And please support these presses in every way that you can.