Advancing the cause of bookwormishness

Phil Zuckerman thinks people are going to start reading again. Mr. Zuckerman is president of Apple-wood Books. He works out of a warehouse in Watertown, Mass., and looks to the 1920s in US publishing history, when many of the large houses were started, as his inspiration. That was when people were really reading, he says, and we may be heading for another era of national bookwormishness, computer games and made-for-TV movies notwithstanding. The reason will be that there are more interesting writers being published, as there were in the good old days before the blockbusters loomed on the horizon.

"I model what I do after Random House," he says. "They started with a bit more money." I laugh, because I know Mr. Zuckerman started with $100, with which he published four courtly love poems, by hand, in his basement. The book was 16 pages long and sold for $20.

However, he points out, in 1925 Random House "started with two people and bought the New American Library." He admires Random House but also studies the way "they made some mistakes down the road." Their most obvious mistake, as he sees it, was "to grow too big." Random House might not agree with that assessment, though today it owns Alfred A. Knopf, Pantheon Books, and Ballantine Books, which together published 549 books in 1979. But size is the problem, says Mr. Zuckerman.

It is not something that troubles Apple-wood Books so far. In 1980 Apple-wood put out six titles. This year nine are planned. "Not growing is hard. We're still growing. We're hoping to level off between 8 and 12 books, which would essentially pay for the program."

Apple-wood tries to publish good but "peripheral" writers, Mr. Zuckerman says. Peripheral not in talent, but peripheral to the ambitious marketing schemes of large publishing houses. Writers whose audiences won't pay the big overheads big publishers have to pay still have stories to tell to audiences Apple-wood can reach. With only two full-time employees -- Mr. Zuckerman himself types the manuscripts onto a Radio Shack word processer before before they're sent to the printer -- overhead isn't a big problem.

At least 1,800 of the 3,500 small presses in the US specialize in fiction and/or poetry; all like to think they're doing the job publishers used to do, or perhaps the job publishers should have done. But not all are making go of it financially. Mr. Zuckerman considers making money part of the job. He frowns on government grants, such as those from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which up until now has been providing seed money for many small publishing operations. For the government to subsidize publishing, which should be independent of the government, he insists, is a conflict of interest, not to mention a violation of the First Amendment.

He points out that those who received the funds were usually antigovernment in principle if not practice. He says he chooses to remain independent of the government, and what's more, is making it on his own. This lends acurmudgeonly edge to his young voice. He is impatient with the romantic image of hippies on grants, cranking Heidelberg presses, the often true stereotype of small pressmen.

So what's the difference between Apple-wood and Random House, besides size?

Not much, Mr. Zuckerman admits, but size is all. Being small, he hopes he can "not concern myself with whether the book is good for now or then, not think of the market too much.People get caught in thinking about what people are going to want" instead of what's a good book, he says. But don't make the mistake of calling Apple-wood a small press. He quotes poet Kathleen Spivack as saying, "Small presses have a tropism towards failure." He feels this is because people have a hard time thinking of literature as a business.

Government funding has led some small presses down the path to that tropism, contends Scott Walker, editor and publisher of Graywolf Press in Port Townsend, Wash. The grants were "enought to make books, but not to sell them," he says. Mr. Walker, who has received three NEA grants over the years since he started publishing, says Graywolf Press is surviving on its own -- which is saying a lot in small pressdom. And he attributes his survival, and the fact that he has been chosen over a big publisher by poets like Linda Gregg, whose "Too Bright to See" came out of this June, because of his good sales record.

The life of a Graywolf book is long and carefully tended. All seven years' worth of books, except some that have gone into anthologies, are still in print. Mr. Walker points out that, while Houghton Mifflin Company, the large Boston publishing firm, will usually give a new poetry book four advertisements in magazines and call it quits, he stays in touch with authors, stocking bookstores near where they have readings. "I sell hundreds of books when there are readings." At any given time he is hawking seven Graywolf books.His sales, he says, are "remarkably good for any press." Most books get a first printing of 6, 000 copies. They are priced at around $5 for paperbacks and $9 to $10 for clothbound. He is very selective because, considering the work that goes into it, "we have to believe in everything we publish."

For poets, "there are real hard-core economic reasons to choose a small press ," says Jim Sitter, director of Bookslinger, a distributor of small press poetry and fiction, based in Minneapolis. "It matters to a poet to stay in print.

[Poet Tess] Gallagher has been established by Graywolf."

Still Mr. Walker maintains, some presses simply don't know how to sell books, adding that Boston publisher David Godine, whose company began 12 years ago as a small press but has probably outgrown that designation, jokingly calls independent publishers "privishers," referring to their habit of thinking in terms of a very limited audience.

Geoff Young, codirector with his wife, Laura Chester, of The Figures, a Berkeley, Calif., press, is a classic example of the privisher. He is rather proud of his operation, which gives a forum to new approaches to poetry and prose, like that of Ron Siliman, who writes in a sculptural manner, repeating groups of words again and again, slightly changed in order and so in meaning. The product is an evolving image that isn't a story but is engrossing to watch. This is not the type of book that is going to make droves of people turn away from their television sets, but it is breaking new ground. And it is prized by Mr. Young's readership, which he describes as "other writers, primarily, and interested parties" -- people who take writing seriously for one reason or another.

The Los Angeles Times gave Mr. Young's more recent book of poems, "Subject to Fits," a favorable review, which came as a pleasant surprise. But in general, Mr. Young is not the ambitious sort of publisher Phil Zuckerman is, nor the salesman Scott Walker is. He's glad he can pack off all his books to distributors who handle small press books. "BEcause I'm a poet, I prefer to side with the creative efforts of the bookmaking end," he says. ". . . if I had to stick books in envelopes all day and invoice people, I couldn't make it, take care of my kids, and take care of the jobs and all this stuff."

He and Laura Chester have two children, and Young has a job for every day of the week. He teaches: writing and photography at Juvenile Hall, writing to senior citizens at a San Francisco hospital, and a seminar at San Francisco State. He also runs a poetry reading series.

He and his wife don't draw salaries for their publishing. "Apparently the NEA now says we can take 10 percent of the grant as payment for what we do," he notes, without much interest, "But inevitably we spend too much on the books, more than the grant."

The books are mostly paperbacks, with original art for the covers by artists Mr. Young knows from working in the Sonnabend Gallery in Paris. They are beautiful and inexpensive -- he describes himself as someone who is not averse to making money, but "is not so foolish to expect to." Mr. Young groups small presses in three categories: poets who produce a few chapbooks, medium-size presses such as Black Sparrow in Santa Barbara, and then "people like me and Laura and many of my friends, who might print 500 or 750 or 1,000 copies of a book and be very happy if we can get rid of them over a five-or seven-year period."

What motivates the latter group is the quality they see in their writers, which may or many not be apparent to others. That they don't make money from this enterprise doesn't surprise them, since they are both poets, and poets rarely can live off their work. The satisfactions, like the readership, are purely literary.

"Im looking for God to notice that nobility has been always my main card. . . . [I'm] the noble idiot," says Mr. Young. "It's precisely the book that won't sell very much that I'd be more inclined to get involved with, because it's very valuable as a piece of writing, and no one else is going to touch it."

He says this happily, with his son Ayler on his lap, sitting in a lawn chair on a shaggy back yard under a cloud-filled Berkeley sky. This kind of attitude will not make him rich or get anyone reading who wasn't reading already. But it was peoplem who loved unpopular writers, not publishing houses, who got Joyce, Pound, and William Carlos Williams in print. And it was Walt Whitman's love of his unpopular self that makes it possible today to read "Leaves of Grass."

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