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A Highly Esoteric History of Small Press Publishing

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Selection and Acquisition of Small and Vanity Press Literary Works in English, 1880-Present

I made this PPT for my International Publishing course after a Discussion Board debate earlier in the semester, where some of my colleagues were repulsed by small, vanity and POD presses.  Obviously they needed to know about the entire history of publishing (my own knowledge of the specifics of publishing history is limited, but I understand the value of the small press). So for my PPT project I decided to try to enlighten them a little about “small press” publishing and its relevance to them as future librarians.  Given only 25 slides and tons and tons of writing on the history of the book, I could not condense all the possible information into the presentation.  Even this presentation is a little wordy for a normal PPT presentation– this would probably take an hour and a half to deliver.

Full disclosure: I run my own small press, Outside Voices, which uses POD technology to publish limited runs of avant-garde literature.  Our POD printer allows us to choose high-quality materials as if we were publishing larger runs.  Some of my International Publishing colleagues are also small press and little magazine publishers (Buffalo is a very artsy place, and thus its MLS program is probably more artsy than most.)

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2 Comments

  1. Tim says:

    I was wondering: what do you mean by non-monastic publishing before the 19th century? I was wondering why you made that distinction. Monastic publishing in the era of print (and even in the era of manuscript transmission, and the overlapping of manuscript and print) would have been remarkably small. Far smaller than the presses located in Antwerp, Venice, Paris, Madrid, London, Oxford, and Cambridge.

    I wonder if that could fit into your work at all. Publishing pre-1800 especially was certainly done by small individual presses, but under the umbrella of a licensed city. For instance, in England during the early modern period, books could only be printed in London, Oxford, and Cambridge and so the cultures of each city would define its publishing agenda (most literary works in the vernacular are out of London, while only extremely learned often latin editions came out of the university towns), so you had a much larger community identity pushing the publishing choices of a city. So the model of the “small press” in early publishing was actually part of a constellation of community driven presses defined by pretty specific local agendas. Though there may have been hundreds of printers in 16th century Antwerp, it’s clear the spatial imagination, geography, and the conflicts between protestantism and catholicism defined the agenda of each of those small presses.

    Just some thoughts!

    • Thanks Tim!

      I wanted to draw out monastic publishing as a different kind of publishing b/c it does seem small (I know almost nothing about print culture pre-1900… even the 1800s are kind of a blurry mess to me) and hand-made and not regulated and funded differently. Like, books published in monasteries are often beautiful handmade objects fashioned from high-quality materials and the art of the book was probably maintained by monasteries just as literacy in general seems to have been. But publishing in monasteries seems different from publishing in the outside world, where money is a larger issue and regulations are different. If you’re a monk, you can recopy old manuscripts without worrying about copyright. You’re probably making only one copy or a few copies for a very limited readership. Your materials come from the church. You might write a whole book overnight b/c you’re inspired by the devil. Maybe monastic publishing is like a very highly skilled version of POD 😉

      I like the idea of the geographically local “small press” — a culture that perhaps remains (but is no longer enforced) in the local pages of the newspaper, local interest books, etc. Anyway– cool!

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