Independent Presses Give Readers Greater Intellectual Freedom
By Liz Merton
September 29, 2020
Writing Twitter recently lit up with a discussion of Big Publishing and the [unremarkable] "news" that best sellers become best sellers because big presses market them to be just that. Fueling the chat was a September 19, 2020 New York Times piece on Penguin Random House leader Madeline McIntosh and "best sellers" as a concept. But the article also carries undercurrents related to the social and intellectual risks of literary homogeneity in a best-seller-centered publishing climate. Considering business pressures, the piece observes, "As publishing becomes even more of a winner-take-all business, Penguin Random House’s dominance represents the culmination of decades-long trends that have made the industry more profit focused, consolidated, undifferentiated and averse to risk."
This point regarding lack of differentiation and risk-aversion deserves some deep consideration . . . and relates to our Read Local® admiration for independent presses: small presses, academic presses, niche presses. The New York Times piece quotes Dennis Johnson (of independent press Melville House, whose books we have enjoyed), who explains, "The impact on literary culture is more homogenization, which is only going to accelerate now.” But the thing is: independent presses help combat this homogenization, and at no small cost. These publishers invest blood, sweat, and tears (and hours and hours of toil) into books that don't rocket onto best-seller lists. These books don't bring their authors and publishers seven-figure income streams (they may not bring in five-figure returns!). But these books do give readers (readers who cannot sit content with just another drag off the cigarette of Big Publishing's agreed-upon ethos) a choice.
In jumping on this soap box, I do not mean to denigrate the big guys. I loved Andrew Sean Greer's Less, from Lee Boudreaux Books . . . of Little, Brown
. . . of Hachette Book Group (a Big Fiver). Wary of hegemony in print, though, I'll look at the publisher's imprint on a book now before I invest my money and time in that book. I like to eat at local restaurants and shop at local stores because I don't want Main Street, Houston, to look just like Main Street, Grand Rapids, Michigan, or Main Street, Dubuque, Iowa, or Main Street, Los Angeles. I Read Local® for parallel reasons: I want to know that somewhere out there a press is producing something that reads different.