In 1966, an avid book lover named John Martin decided to start a publishing company, financing it in part by selling off his collection of rare first editions. His impetus? To provide an official showcase for the works of a street poet with a small cult following named Charles Bukowski.
They struck a unique bargain. Martin promised to pay Bukowski one hundred dollars per month if the hard-drinking writer – still struggling in obscurity despite achieving a small following via literary journals – would give up his day job in the post office, and devote his full time for writing. Bukowski responded with his first novel, appropriately titled Post Office.
Martin never missed a payment throughout their famous – and lucrative – twenty-four year association. In fact, the monthly payments grew exponentially. Bukowski more than held up his end of the bargain, too, since what once had been generous incentive had now become enormous royalties.
Black Sparrow Press was also responsible for reintroducing the world to the works of John Fante, a writer that had a lasting influence on Bukowski. Martin only published authors in whom he was personally interested. The list eventually included Paul Bowles, Theodore Dreiser, D.H. Lawrence, and Joyce Carol Oates, along with many more.
Though Martin sold his entire catalogue in 2002 and retired from the industry he helped transform or at least rejuvenate, he remains arguably the most successful small press publisher of the previous century, and probably this one, too.
I am recounting this legendary true story because I am not sure this could happen today. Scratch that – it happens all the time. Just not with the same results, because, for one thing, it happens way too often.
The online literary marketplace is jammed packed with small presses vying for the throne of John Martin, though very few are dedicated to the perpetuation or preservation of “literary” fiction, which has been steadily plummeting in popularity with the average reader.
Most of these presses are devoted to specific genres, primarily crime and horror, two marketing categories that attract more writers than any other, probably because they also attract the most readers. Other popular genres, particularly for novice authors, are erotica and fantasy, for the same reason: by and large, readers of these types of books care more about the quality of the stories than the notoriety of their authors.
The point is, there are now thousands of would be John Martins and Charles Bukowskis flooding the field, even if they have different creative agendas than the “old gangsters.” They’re bonded by one common denominator: the hope they will break away from the pack and make their own unique marks in the literary universe.
This hardly ever happens, and when it does, it’s someone like E.L. James, whose initially self-published erotic romance Fifty Shades of Grey became a cultural phenomenon, and inspired scores of imitators, but you’d be hard pressed to find even an avid fan admitting it’s an immortal piece of literature, a la the much more organically artistic Post Office.
To be clear, that’s not a knock against James (and in all fairness, I haven’t read a single word of her work, and frankly have no desire to do so). Any writer than can achieve that level of success, especially in today's literate-challenged culture.
But again, she is the exception to the rule, which is simply this: no matter how sincere their ambitions or talented their roster, most small presses will fail to achieve the enduring legacy of Black Sparrow Press, and very few if any DIY or small press authors working in any genre will ever come close to the rag-to-riches, gritty glory of Charles Bukowski.
This won’t stop anyone from trying, nor should it, because now starting a small press is easier than ever. And you won’t have to sell your cherished collection of first editions to bankroll it, either. Anyone can do it with hardly any investment capital at all, outside of subcontracting cover art, interior design etc., which is also a personal call (though recommended, especially for upstarts).
I know all this from personal experience, because I recently founded my own imprint, for the sake of publishing a single author (like Martin), only in this case, that author was the one I see in the mirror every day. I figured he deserved the exposure.
I’ve also been published by small presses, and frankly, I started my own imprint because from a purely promotional and public profile perspective, there isn’t enough functional daylight between the two to warrant cutting someone else a slice of an already tiny pie of profits, especially when all the free tools available to them are also available to me. True, I have to do all my own promotions, but then so do most small and even larger press authors.
Bukowski never had to worry about that end of the business, though. Martin did it all for him, on a tight budget, even commissioning his wife Barbara to design in-house the now iconic book covers for their releases.
But with the advent of social media platforms, promotional devices and distribution platforms became as accessible and affordable for the average entrepreneur as publishing itself. Martin had to pay the extra costs of printing and distributing his books, farming them out to local companies, especially essential since there was no such option as eBooks back then.
But they didn’t need them. Bookstores actually stocked small press books back then. Now, due to their ongoing feud with the most popular DIY platform for authors and small presses, CreateSpace, and bottom line concerns, it’s harder than ever for indie authors to get their books into indie bookstores.
But from a simple startup perspective, it’s all so easy now. Maybe too easy. There’s a glut of opportunity out there. So many authors and small presses pitch their wares on the global market day in, day out. Many have thousands of “fans” on social media, but that doesn’t translate into thousands or hundreds or even dozens of actual sales. The competition for consumer attention is simply too intense and overwhelming.
Still, anyone can become a “published author” now, and anyone can be famous, for almost anything. But not many can get rich or even earn a livelihood doing it.
That remains the challenge, even here in the conveniently ubiquitous nature of existence in the 21st century.
PHOTO: MARCO RAAPHORST