Surrey Sonnets by Kevin Spenst and Naomi MacDougall from Jack Pine Press
by Jonathan Valelly
The phrase “small press” has been bandied about for more than a century now, but it’s only within the last decade that the tiniest of publishing projects have earned a new name: the “micro-press.” Many of these projects blur the line between traditional publishing, zines, DIY bookmaking, chapbook presses, and art experiments, but your typical micro-press is a one-or-two person operation, producing a few books a year in runs regularly clocking below 100 copies (and often far fewer). And, unsurprisingly, most of the people putting these editions together are writers themselves.
“It seemed like a natural extension, to write and then make a book from that writing as a way to share it, and I just got really into the whole process,” says Shanna Compton, who left her job in the “depressing and cynical-feeling” world of commercial publishing and founded Bloof Books, a collective poetry press based out of New Jersey. “It’s always been the endpoint of the writing process for me: to make the writing into a tangible object of some sort.”
As for most writers and DIY bookmakers out there, these endeavours are projects of passion, not profit.
“Nobody’s making a living off of it,” explains Sara Woods, a Portland-based poet who co-founded and operated Love Symbol press for a number of years (the imprint is now on indefinite hiatus) and has published a number of her own books through micro-presses.
Perhaps it’s the acceptance of low profit that helps make micro-press publishing so liberating. “Publishing doesn’t have to be approached as a trade,” adds Compton. “I think of the activities of Bloof more like a group art project.”
Indeed, there are many different models for how to organize a tiny press, creatively and financially. JackPine Press, based out of Saskatoon, has lucked into a unique model of funding that has allowed them to give nearly complete creative control to authors. In addition to commissioned work, writers or creators can submit proposals which, when approved, result in a few suggestions from the collective, a cheque, and free reign to create. Support from the Saskatoon Arts Board is key to making this approach possible.
“So many writers have had bad experiences with publishers, where (they) have no choice about what the design of the book ultimately looks like,” says Lisa Johnson, who is JackPine’s administrator. “Having that kind of control is a really big selling point.”
The freedom that comes with small press projects allows for experimentation unheard of in the larger publishing world. One example is JackPine’s Surrey Sonnets (2014) by Kevin Spenst and Naomi MacDougall, which is a book of poetry-laden beer coasters.
In addition to being daring, micro-press books don’t need to be perfect.
“That’s how I got started making books, it felt like this low bar — we’re just having fun and playing around, it doesn’t have to be perfect,” says Woods, whose upcoming chapbook, Don’t Smoke in Bed, is being printed by Saucepot Publishing. Saucepot has not only given Woods complete creative control over the book’s look, they are also “printing it on somebody’s mom printer or something.” How endearing is that?
Of course, in order to keep operating, one does have to at least consider the economics. Tiny presses are constantly trying to balance the materials, the size of a run, and the specificities of a work to maximize their reach while staying true to the adventurousness that they have precisely because of their small scale. Thus, the reach of these books can be unfortunately limited, and it can sometimes be hard to get them the attention they deserve.
“The market doesn’t regulate itself; how much a book sells is not much of an indication of the writing,” explains Jen Tynes of Horse Less Press, which recently published Woods’ chapbook Sara, or, the Existence of Fire (reviewed in this issue on page 67). ”Your book may be amazing or your book may be just okay, but money (and the time and energy that money buys) will get you an audience.”
Tynes says that PR and visibility can also be subject to the kind of inequalities that plague the publishing world at large.
“It’s important to realize that in terms of fixing some of the problems we have as a literary culture, contemporary micro press poetry is still way too white and way too male,” she adds. “I’m focusing on publishing more writers of color, and I’m focusing on making sure that the writers we are publishing are getting the PR they need to have the success we want for them.”
Ultimately, these are small projects, and there’s endless overlap between writers, makers, and presses. These communities may have their limits, but this web of small interventions in the world of book production together makes an impact.
“We aren’t Penguin and that is not our goal,” explains Marthe Reed of Black Radish Books. “We make books and, in the process, sustain a community and a set of values. Discovering new writers, new modes of making, thinking, being — these are what matter.“
Just a few micro-presses to check out: