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Unless you live in a hole in the ground, or don’t make a practice of reading obituaries, you know that these are tough times–and in too many cases, end times–for independent publications and small presses. The examples are disturbingly abundant: The dissolution of the Independent Press Association in late 2006, precipitating the demise of magazines like Clamor, Stay Free!, Kitchen Sink, and Punk Planet; the bankruptcy of Advanced Marketing Services, the parent company of book distributor Publishers Group West, leading to a financial crisis for McSweeney’s and the acquisition of Soft Skull Press by a larger publisher; a reduction in print advertising and fewer viable distribution outlets, resulting in a number of print publications moving to the web; ongoing media conglomeration, narrowing the space for niche publications, etc. Grave times, indeed.
As the bankruptcy saga unfolded last year, and more and more publications started to fold, many people involved in independent media considered giving up and retreating to that comfortable hole in the ground. Blogs and message boards conveyed recurrent themes: “Print media is dead;” “This is the end of independent publishing as we know it;” “New distribution models are needed;” “The future is the web.”
There are still no easy answers. Just as these conversations reveal the difficulties of independent publishing in an increasingly corporate-dominated climate, they also-somewhat miraculously-contain glimmers of hope. Despite numerous print casualties (a death toll that has grown steadily since last year), there are still small publishing houses and indie publications forging ahead with new ideas (many of them web-centered), determined to preserve their voice.
One of many such forgers-ahead is Featherproof Books. “All sorts of people point to declining ad sales and reading surveys in an alarmist way, but I really think that energy is still there,” says Zach Dodson, co-founder of the small Chicago-based press, “It’s just moving to different places.” In addition to publishing perfect-bound fiction, Featherproof also offers downloadable mini-books-short stories and novellas available online that the reader can print on ordinary paper and fold into pocket-sized books. “The free and easy distribution that the Internet allows is great,” says Dodson, “but we are in love with paper, and the physical object that a book is, so the minis were a way for us to combine the two… We’re trying to think of ways to embrace technology, while retaining the things we love about books.”
Such imagination and synthesis of print/web content seems vital to indie press survival, but understandably, not everyone is convinced. Certain publishers, like the owners of No Depression magazine, bear some pretty fresh wounds: Last week, they wrote a letter announcing that the 13-year-old magazine would cease publication after the May-June issue. In the letter, the three owners cited some of the all-too-familiar circumstances that forced them to call it quits: a decrease in ad revenue, the downfall of the music industry, and the struggling economy. “The cumulative toll of those forces makes it increasingly difficult for all small magazines to survive,” they wrote. “Whatever the potentials of the web, it cannot be good for our democracy to see independent voices further marginalized. But that’s what’s happening. The big money on the web is being made, not surprisingly, primarily by big businesses.”
But despite varying perspectives on what role the web should play in independent publishing, one thing is clear: An ever-growing readership is still valued, and full-fledged support is needed. Disillusioned though indie media advocates may be, we shouldn’t forget that there are great things still being printed and great things on the print horizon. To that end, Is Greater Than is beginning a new bimonthly feature showcasing new and noteworthy publications released via tiny budgets. We’ll try to include a range of titles, from political nonfiction to short stories and graphic novels; from science writing to zines and artist books. Our hope is to bring some much-deserved attention to various independents, to shine a spotlight on small presses working tirelessly to convey big ideas. And in case you ever need to tune out the bad news and escape into that aforementioned hole in the ground, at least you’ll be accompanied by some good reading material.