1 In April everyone involved in, or touched by, independent publishing saw a flare go up: Small Press Distribution launched a GoFundMe. SPD is looking for $100,000 to help cover its losses during the covid-19 crisis. To state the obvious, the crisis has profoundly disrupted bookselling nationwide—even and especially by Amazon.com, which has suspended and/or greatly diminished the sale of “nonessential” items (books included) and whose monopolistic status in the bookselling industry is now on full display. Obviously the needs of Amazon warehouse staff—a nonunion shop—are paramount to consider. Though those considerations have definitely not been Amazon’s priority. Meanwhile months of lockdown wreak economic damage: SPD’s “sales have decreased,” they report, “by upwards of 60%.” The GoFundMe money will help SPD cover payroll and health insurance for their small staff (10 people) and help them cover the royalties currently owed to the more than 400 independent publishers they serve. Fingers crossed, local and federal loan money and relief funds will arrive shortly after.
Full disclosure, I work as an editor for two of those 400 publishers. And I’m a small press author; one of my three books is distributed by SPD.
SPD is a nonprofit. It’s vital to the existence of independent and small press literature. If that ship went down, it would take so many books and presses and culture and history and writing and reading with it.
When in the long days of shelter-in-place I daydream pretty stupidly about what societal change might come in the wake of all this, the sort of disaster anarchism I picture takes the form of organizations like SPD. SPD lets hundreds of micro culture-making endeavors come together and function in a system designed to benefit multinational corporations. If SPD didn’t exist, we might not exist to invent it.
2 When I went to contribute to this GoFundMe, I saw a $500 contribution from Catapult, Counterpoint, & Soft Skull, the independent publishing trifecta whose CEO is Elizabeth Koch. Daughter of Charles Koch, his net worth $43.5 billion. (Charles Koch is tied with his brother’s widow as the 18th richest people in the world—no worries, Bezos is still #1.) I felt a sort of allergic reaction. Elizabeth Koch provided the seed money for Catapult. I have no idea how present her money is as backup in their daily operations. I don’t know if she made any decisions about this donation. It’s great that independent presses who don’t work with SPD support it, I could say banally. I don’t even know how much money the woman personally has. Though from observing how she spends it, anyone could guess that she could give SPD the whole $100,000 without feeling a pinch. Why the fuck are the rest of us giving $5, $50, $100 when we certainly feel some pinches?
3 I work as a college instructor (non–tenure track) and I haven’t lost my job during this crisis, making me unlike 26-plus million people in the US so far. Including members of my family. Like a lot of you I feel aware of my good fortune and not sure what to use it for, from my own home. I’ve been donating, like a lot of you. I gave $275 to the major food bank in Cleveland, where I live, which has seen desperately escalating demand. I think one in three families using it now have never used a food bank before, for what that statistic means. Shortly after making my donations, I saw news that a family in Cleveland had donated $500,000 to the food bank. Another family then donated $100,000. A foundation gave $1 million. I’m glad the food bank has this money. They need it, and more—it definitely won’t even cover all their needs, which are the needs of the people of Cleveland. So how do you describe how you feel as someone who gave a middle-class $275? You’re glad to pitch in. You feel better about yourself. But obviously your $275 doesn’t really matter. Was the point of giving just for you to feel better, or what? Just to feel like, everything’s working, when help was needed, you were able to help, see, things are going to be OK? Somewhere in your own city—one of the least wealthy cities in America—there are a few families who have $100k, $500k, sitting around. They gave it away immediately, even as the stock market plummeted. They are, we can assume, fine. Why the fuck did they ever have that money, in a city where people are hungry every day?
4 I don’t want Elizabeth Koch to bail out SPD. I don’t want Koch money in independent publishing and neither should you. Lucy and I already wrote about it. So what’s my problem? I don’t want her money, but I want to call her out as a hypocrite for not spending it like I think she should, if she’s styling herself a doyenne of indie lit or whatever? Is the point of that callout just to make me feel better, let me pretend I have a say in things? What two-bit shit am I always in?
5 How much, you might be wondering, did I give to the Bernie Sanders campaign? Around $1000. Bernie keeps track better than I do, for legal reasons, I guess. I think my husband gave about $500. We hadn’t maxed out yet, is all I know. One thing that motivated me, contribution after contribution, was that the Sanders campaign was fucking killing it in total funding, based on those millions of tiny grassroots donations. The New York Times (even them) would publish those graphic maps of campaign contributions, and the entire country was carpeted beautifully thickly blue with Sanders donors. No other candidate came close to his numbers, how many people were giving. As reported at various points in the campaign, “‘teacher’ was the most common profession of donors, and Starbucks, Amazon, and Walmart were the most common employers of donors.” (Teachers and workers wanting a livable environment, living wages, affordable healthcare, affordable college, some social justice for their students and families—what Bernie Bros, it’s a “toxic culture.”) We were proving—it felt, for that hopeful year—that there could be elections in the US, there could be government in the US, without billionaires. They didn’t matter; we mattered. Workers mattered. As the saying goes, they’ve got money, but we’ve got people.
6 Well, we lost.
7 Rebecca (at Fence) emailed me a couple weeks ago with a link to a story at The Intercept headlined “Charles Koch Pushed $1 Billion Cut to CDC, Now Attacks Shelter-in-Place Policies for Harming Business.” Throughout her career Charles’s daughter Elizabeth has been content to describe herself as “apolitical.” Rebecca reminded me.
8 Recently I got an email from the laudable independent book-reviewing venue Book Post. The email was covering the launch of Bookshop (I’m sorry that everything has kind of the same name), the new indie alternative to Amazon that I too have been interested to use. Book Post’s editor, Ann Kjellberg, summarized the career of Andy Hunter, founder of Bookshop, which began with Electric Literature and Literary Hub, “and then he founded,” as she wrote, “with Koch-family black-sheep literary sibling Elizabeth, the publishing house Catapult, which also functions as a virtual and real writers’ community.”
Black sheep. Elizabeth Koch is not a black sheep. She’s never said or done anything to distance herself from her family. Her involvement in publishing is (as Lucy has said) super consistent with the traditional activities of the superrich, moral money-laundering through cultural scenes: funding museums and operas and hospitals and chunks of universities and book prizes and film productions and whatever else they want. You can think of a million examples (Sacklers), and David Koch, big museum donor, supplied plenty himself. If people in indie lit are calling Elizabeth Koch a black sheep, it’s because it makes them (us) feel better about her presence in our cultural corner, buying drinks at our punk shows. We would lose some of our speak-truth-to-power reputation if a Koch was there as a Koch. Ergo any Koch we want to work with must be a black sheep, an anti-Koch.
9 Elizabeth Koch is, of course, boring. Why am I even writing about her? The only interesting thing about Elizabeth Koch is her money and she’s only interesting in relation to it. Her money is so interesting that you can literally die from not having it.
10 As people smarter about labor than I am have noted, the right-wing drive to end shelter-in-place policies and get everyone back to work is definitive obvious proof: the rich need our labor. They are desperate to get it back. They need our bodies, millions of them, showing up to do the work they make money off. And that work demonstrates the meaning of their money to them because they don’t have to, personally, even try to do it.
What do rich people’s toenails even look like right now? I want to get in on that museum.
11 Jane Mayer’s Dark Money is one of those rare great books published by the Big Five. As she informs us, a lot of early Koch money is profit from World War II, when Fred Koch (Elizabeth’s grandfather) built “a major oil refinery in Nazi Germany that was personally approved by Adolf Hitler.” The refinery was in Hamburg, and because it produced fuel for Nazi fighter planes, it was “an important target of Allied bombing raids” in Hamburg, which in turn cost the lives of “some forty-two thousand civilians” (see pages 35–38 of Dark Money, for a start). To be clear, most US businesses were not working with actual Nazis at this time. Later a whole bunch more Koch money gets made when the company takes tens of millions of dollars more oil than they pay for from under Native American lands, an activity that launches a major federal investigation because it is what anyone would call theft.
12 Usually you can’t “call out” billionaires (as a recent article on Jeffrey Epstein’s wide social circle reminded me) because you have no purchase on them. They thrive in a realm beyond our access and which has never needed to function morally. Yet this particular Koch wanted her name directly on this indie operation. She wanted to say she was CEO of Catapult, which lets us keep saying that a Koch is CEO of Catapult. This was, strategically, a mistake. Don’t waste it!
13 Online some people responded to Lucy’s and my previous critique of Catapult by arguing that the press does a good job supporting and paying emerging writers, many writers of color.
But the money that started it gets its start helping the Nazis literally fuel their genocidal war and stealing natural resources from Native American lands.
Not to mention serving as a major force in both fomenting and denying the existence of climate change.
14 I’m grateful for the existence of the books Catapult has published. I don’t know what other options for publication its authors had. (So often it’s fewer than deserved.) But I don’t like how money gets to disguise its criminal origins using artists’ good work. No artist intends their work for this use, which means that when we sell good art to bad money we’re letting that money get something extra, a bonus we’ll ignore but that was in fact its main aim: a disguise in the form of our own names, the work we’ve done that the bosses could never do.
I don’t know how to call this use of Koch money meaningful wealth redistribution, as its online defenders seem to be vaguely claiming it is. A few thousand dollars to a writer here, a writer there, in exchange for which Koch money gets plenty of value (suddenly, for example, it’s re-christened black sheep).
If wealth redistribution is what Catapult intends—if the press sees its cultural work as a kind of reparations for the source of its funding—shouldn’t it say so? Why are we left to do this ethical work on its behalf, serving money by dignifying it with a politics it has never bothered to support?
15 Of course now I’m more or less describing the history of museums, which arise as a place to house all the goods empire has murderously looted.
16 But I was given a specific task for this essay. Rebecca wrote to me and asked me a question: How would you redistribute the ill-gotten gains of the Kochs? If your aim is to support independent publishing, to support small press literature, what’s the actual best way to spend your billions (millions) (thousands) (hundreds)? What do I want?
17 To answer this question means articulating a specific politics. I seem to be accusing Koch money of bringing with it right-wing politics—even when it passes through the seemingly liberal arena of independently published literature. I seem to be arguing that silence in relation to ill-gotten money constitutes complicity, or at least implication, with the violence, exploitation, and greed that accrued said money. I seem to be saying that if you don’t make your money confess itself—if you don’t confess your money—its silence will speak on behalf of its owners, the bosses.
If you found yourself in possession of money whose origin lay beyond your moral agency (you do), what argument would you have with it and what argument would you make with it?
18 In a recent, recommended four-part series at Harriet (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4—read ’em all!) Matvei Yankelevich—poet, translator, founding member of the Ugly Duckling Presse collective—outlines the history and contemporary situation of small press practice. In his view, ideologies of the market threatened to overtake radical politics in US small press publishing around the late 1990s/early 2000s, as the small press professionalized, allowed for its own institutionalization, and expanded its sense of its work toward more broadly liberal values and audiences, consumer culture over grassroots participatory politics. (Inside-baseball aside: in making this argument Yankelevich cites a 2001 essay by Steve Evans that particularly critiques Fence as a “market conscious” and de-politicizing press. Many remember this old debate. Like Yankelevich I find the broad terms of Evans’s historical critique useful, even as aspects of its argument have, to my reading, since dissolved.)
Yankelevich traces the significance of the distinction between independent publishing, which includes and perhaps primarily describes small- to mid-sized noncorporate presses that have professional staffs; and small press practice, which is powered by volunteerism and publishing that is “editor-run”: “the editor does the work of publishing.” He describes the arrival of a certain glossiness to independent presses, de-politicization and orientation toward institutions. These presses may tend to lean commercial, define their aesthetics in broad bland terms, trim their sails to the wind of NYT reviews and major prizes. The Big Fives’ Little Ivies. Catapult’s mission, as one average example, is to publish “award-winning fiction and nonfiction of the highest literary caliber” (pearl-handled pistols?) and to “celebrate extraordinary storytelling” because that’s a way to “celebrate life.” Yankelevich frames this evolution:
When the small press had no power within the institution it was against institutions; when it viewed itself as political it was seen as political; and when it was connected to (or was born of) existing political movements, it was watched and targeted for infiltration by state agencies precisely for its access to marginalized communities. It also… [was] more diverse…
Now, the normalization of compromise with institutions that [Sarah] Schulman associates with gentrification is a reversal of Diane di Prima’s call for “power to the people’s mimeo-machines” or Gwendolyn Brooks’s decision to abandon Harper & Row in favor of Broadside Press and other Black publishers. As it turns out, the de-politicized aesthetic of the new professional literary class with its MFAs and glossy magazines did (and does) signify a politics—one that implies or concedes that the market will decide. It assumes we can all get along and fight the good fight: the growth of an institutionally qualified readership, the consolidation of a class with access for credentialed insiders, while further alienating others to make space for a vague “us” with vaguely defined liberal politics and consumer identities.
19 The second part of Yankelevich’s series, “Autonomy’s Compromise and the Professionalization of the Small Press” discusses the danger of the myth that literature is ever autonomous from culture, since this myth allows for the silent subservience to the market described above. Yet, he argues, the opposing belief is even more dangerous: the belief that it doesn’t matter whether or not literature is autonomous from “the academy, the state, or the marketplace,” that it’s all the same. “What is perhaps most dangerous—in that it is disempowering—is a different illusion: the fiction of autonomy’s irrelevance, of the inevitability of institutionalization, and the enjoyment of the professional or financial fruits of compromise with the institution or the state.”
We perpetuate this myth of inevitability when we get comfortable with Koch money. We all know the feeling (or at least I do): the comforting resignation we feel as we give up the idea of our agency, as we agree that there’s no hope for anything beyond compromise and complicity. That we couldn’t ask for another world than this, in which millions of dollars of oil money stolen from Native American peoples is just what’s available to fund our literary work.
That—I think people really try to believe this—this compromise won’t affect what kind of books get published, read, celebrated, received, taught, written.
That this compromise won’t affect who gets to live, and how.
This illusion—which I think is widespread—is that we writers and editors are somehow freest of CIA money (as in the well-documented Cold War era of literary publishing) or Koch money or Murdoch money or the strictures of grant money precisely when we accept that money. Implicit in the dangerous mindset Yankelevich frames is the idea that you, the writer, are freer to do your work, to realize your own potential for success, when you have access to this money. Thus it is in the moment you access it that you are somehow also liberated from it. The price of the birth of the author is the capitulation to the free market.
20 But why am I saying “this money”? NEA money? Koch money? CIA money? The salary I’m paid by a public university to teach creative writing and help run a press? When are these the same and when do they get to be different?
21 Let’s start with the moment when there’s no money. Like, there was a little, but it’s always gone. Small press literature, left to its own devices, does not make money. It loses money. In my early years working in independent publishing, worried about how the experimental Greek novels in translation we kept publishing didn’t quite fly off the shelves, my mentor taught me what she claimed was the old-school mantra of literary publishing, back when houses were often run by some robber baron’s poetic failson (familiar?): “Lose money responsibly.”
22 I’ve known tiny to mid-sized indie publishers whose literary lists were funded by 9/11 truth books, by other trade lists (travel, cookbooks, children’s books), by a rich patron, by one or two breakthrough books on the backlist, by someone’s or a couple someones’ middle-class day jobs, by money inherited from a deceased uncle’s middle-class job (telephone-system salesman, I think), by parents’ wealthy friends, by working-class part-time jobs, by the summer gig you do alongside your adjuncting, by credit card debt, by state arts grants, by the NEA, by your rock band, somehow by your life in your living room, the monitor tuned to a sleeping baby.
23 Most small presses involve little or no paid labor. I would be curious to know how many paid full-time staff positions exist total among the 400 independent presses distributed by SPD. (Back to Yankelevich’s description of small presses as “editor-run publishers” where no jobs are. Also if you want the math on small press lack of profit, he’s done that.) It’s less than 400 jobs, for sure. It’s less than 100, pretty sure. It’s probably less than 40. Maybe it’s 40? It might be, like, 10. The rest of that work is piecework that together makes something happen. It’s more like writing a poem.
24 This moneylosing nonprofit (a-profit?) situation makes needed pro-worker interventions such as those happening over @PublishersWeakly seem curiously irrelevant, even as I’m happy about them. Yes, I resoundingly believe in better pay, benefits, and unionization at every stage of book publishing and bookselling. I believe in them for every industry, so that’s not hard. Yet fights for unionization or improved salaries only indirectly affect the labor that makes our best and most challenging literature. Most small press writers are paid somewhere between a few thousand dollars and nothing at all for a book that took years to write. It’s not a way to make a living. Most small press editors aren’t paid, or only in some piecemeal way; their labor is a gift. Many regularly lose money in order to do this work. Yet maybe freedom is just another word, etc. The fact that we have no money makes us both easy to buy off (we’re broke and deeply marginalized by Big Five publishing, Amazon, lit prizes, and mainstream criticism) and hard to buy off (we’re used to being broke and unacknowledged, and so, in the words of Magdalena Tulli’s translator Bill Johnston, published by the indie press Archipelago, “The creation of worlds! Nothing could be simpler.”)
25 @PublishersWeakly describes how Big 5 publishing poaches small press work: “You see it multiple times a year, the major publishers using the small ones as testing grounds, making the people who are working with less take the risks. Once an author at an indie press proves themselves with things like awards, or cult status, the big publishers will dangle a larger book deal in front of them to try and steal them away. Small presses only work with less because it’s in the corporate publishers’ best interests to keep it that way.”
This is very true—it is in corporate publishers’ best interests to keep us little presses starved out and ignored by larger cultural institutions—but also (with respect), why do we ever need the hedge-fund-y language of “risk”? If someone thinks all this small press work was an investment in the later pay-off of a career, I already don’t care. You want to publish with Catapult, go for it. I don’t have to agree, but why act like this is the DNC and we all have to thank the corporations and grants who got us here, await our cabinet positions, and rally behind the electability of our chosen candidate, Independent Literature? Hell no, or not yet.
WE HAVE DIFFERENT POLITICS.
WE WORK IN THE SAME FIELD BUT WE DON’T HAVE THE SAME POLITICS.
WE DO NOT AGREE ABOUT WHAT THE WORK OF LITERATURE IS.
DO NOT BELIEVE THOSE WHO TELL YOU THAT THERE ARE NO CHOICES EXCEPT THEY WOULD LIKE YOU TO BE LESS ANGRY.
IF YOU ACCEPT THERE ARE NO CHOICES YOU LET MONEY MAKE ALL THE CHOICES INSTEAD OF KNOWING YOUR AGENCY THROUGH THE ENDLESS STRUGGLE AND FAILURE THAT DEFINE OUR EXPERIENCE OF AGENCY AT LEAST IN THIS WORLD. THAT JUST MEANS YOU WANT MONEY TO CHOOSE YOU AND AFFIRM YOU IN A TASTEFUL ENVIRONMENT OF MONEY’S CHOOSING.
SMALL PRESSES DON’T WANT TO GROW UP TO BE BIG PRESSES. WE’RE ALREADY VERY OLD.
This whole time—while money keeps waving itself around—we’ve been working. Every day we write and edit and publish different books and magazines. We reject and critique and love each other constantly. We put all this difference into the world and we actually don’t judge it by how many people wanted the same thing.
OUR WORK IS A GIFT WE ARE FREE TO GIVE DIFFERENTLY.
WE DO NOT NEED YOUR MONEY TO DO OUR DIFFERENT WORK.
WE ARE “CELEBRATING LIFE.”
27 But what if, to get back to Rebecca’s question, we had your money? What if we COULD do our work with your money? Shit. Here’s what I’d do:
a) Bail out SPD, and generously. NO STRINGS ATTACHED. Ensure SPD’s solvency while preserving their ethos in fostering the diversity and smallness of small presses.
Add 3–5 new staff positions focused on advocacy. Fight for better trade terms for small presses. Help readers and booksellers and critics learn about books that would love them by challenging them.
b) Fund a new publication at SPD for reviewing work published by independent presses. An independent editorial board of writers and critics would run it. Editors and writers would be decently paid. (This would all lose so much money.)
The collapse of book-review venues in the past 20 years has hit small presses especially hard. Our books are actively ignored, while mainstream criticism features the same five books and writers nonstop each season, same same same same same, because critics can only get recognized if they recognize the right thing. Enough. Wildly nourish the heterogeneous life of literature. Also yes there will be “negative” reviews because that’s what happens when there are real stakes.
c) Pay and protect the people who teach writing and humanities. Organize adjunct instructors at colleges and universities citywide, rather than per school, to acknowledge the multi-institutional reality of adjunct labor (when I lived in Philadelphia there was a project like this underway—thank you to all involved). Put up some real backing money and work with an extant unionization effort. Demand pay increases, benefits, and multi-semester contracts. Force universities to admit that teaching classes is the work the whole place is based on. If this works in one city—if it even comes to close to working—it’ll spread.
d) Pay and protect the people who ship books and everything else. Fund unionization efforts at Amazon warehouses.
e) Create a series of micro-grants for community literary projects. Applications would be fucking prose and would not require (another nod to Yankelevich’s discussion) presses to have exactly the sort of infrastructure in order to apply they need a grant to get. You don’t have to be a nonprofit. You don’t have to show how many people like you on Facebook. Disseminate. Prioritize projects that have a neighborhood, city, or regional focus. Decentralize. Fund projects related to documenting climate crisis, as it is on the ground and in the body. Testify.
f) Medicare for All. Green New Deal. Decarcerate. End endless war. Free college. Cancel student loan debt. Nothing could be simpler.