Publishers find that small is rewarding

In Cambridge, Mass., the firm of Goodheart & Van Vachtor, run by a husband-and-wife team who are also business partners, has launched itself on the basis of titles new to the American market as well as reprints. The pair, now operating from their Cambridge row house, came to book publishing fresh from the experience of running Canto, a small literary magazine. Says David L. Van Vachtor, who was once in the business of railway supply: ''I got interested in publishing when I realized there was money to be made in it. Through the magazine, we had a lot of access to writers and information, and good contacts in literature departments both here and in Europe. In 1978, we incorporated and began soliciting book manuscripts.'' The firm has so far reissued two previously published American novels in paper - Barry Spackman's ''An Armful of Warm Girl'' and Thomas Savage's ''The Power of the Dog.'' Van Vachtor points out that both these novels have been optioned for film. ''In fact,'' he comments, revealing an attitude that isn't typical of most small publishers, ''my view is that these days a book almost has to have a tie-in. Otherwise, a book is not newsworthy, and it is very difficult for a book to exist by itself in the market today. The hard-cover book alone does not make sense as a risk anymore. You need the backup of exposure to talk shows, mass-market sales, book club, etc.''

Money to operate, as for other small publishers, is a source of concern, and Van Vachtor feels that, initially, the firm was undercapitalized. ''It may have been an insane decision to begin with so little. The worry about money can drive you crazy, and you need people to help you. . . . We do the work of 10 people here, and we're under pressure all the time.''

Alicejamesbooks (as they eccentrically spell it), situated in a simple clapboard office building on Mt. Auburn Street in Cambridge, has approached the challenge of financing from a different viewpoint. As a nonprofit, cooperative press that emphasizes the publication of poetry by women, it is eligible for grants from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities. Instead of royalties, authors receive 100 free books, and the press also benefits from the lower postage rates afforded nonprofit groups.

The philosophy behind the cooperative is that, in essence, the authors are the publishers. Kinereth Gensler, an active cooperative member, explains, ''We're a communal effort, and each person who is published here actually devotes working time to the cooperative. We have about 15 currently active members, and a list of perhaps 50 authors.''

New authors are selected by members of the coop, and there is a certain period during the year that is set aside for the reading and choosing of new manuscripts. Alicejamesbooks has restricted its membership not to women (six men publish with them) but to New England writers, because of the required work commitment.

In an article she published in The Massachusetts Review in early 1983, Marjorie Fletcher stressed Alicejames's continuing commitment to women's concerns. ''The central task now for American women is self-definition, and the dominant theme of most writing by women today is the exploration of identity. . . . We continue to need houses like Alicejamesbooks that offer authors alternatives and that ensure the steady publication of serious books by and about women.''

The surge of activity by smaller publishers and presses has encouraged R. R. Bowker to issue Small Press, a new magazine devoted to the concerns of independent firms. There may be as many as 3,000 or more in business at any given time. But for any one of those, there are dozens that sink out of sight after the publication of one or two titles.

One bookseller in the Cambridge area that displays a special sympathy for the wares of small publishers and presses is the Grolier Book Shop. Grolier, now owned by Louisa Solano, who bought it from the legendary (at least in Harvard Square) Gordon Cairnie, stocks mainly poetry. Forty percent of her books come from small publishers, and she is willing to keep a book on the shelf for a year or more, not because it is selling but because she values it and the author. Ms. Solano says: ''I'm critical of a lot of small operations, because often the reason they are in business is accidental. Small presses can often be simply an extension of ego. They're an available route to recognition both for the author and the publisher. But what a small publisher can do is to demonstrate commitment to authors, and particularly poets. Small publishers can prove that poets, and other writers who don't fit the commercial mode, don't have to be losers.''

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