By Gabriel Levinson
Contrary to death knell hyperbole of many pundits, we are entering a publishing epoch. Cause publishing, a vital trend being set by the independents, holds the future of the printed word. But in order to reinvent its influence on society, the big houses must follow the lead of the independent scene. Now is the time to take risks, and the investment necessary to take these risks isn’t just about money; its about making a personal connection with readers. From raising proceeds to raising awareness, literary activism is fast-becoming the new arbiter of cool.
In 2006, McSweeneys published What is the What, Valentino Achek Deng’s terrifying account of how he was forced to flee his home in war-torn Sudan. Deng’s story, co-written by Dave Eggers, was powerful enough incentive to lend to friends and say “You must read this.” And I would have done just that…until I finished the book and turned to a page that read:
All proceeds from this book will go to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, which distributes funds to Sudanese refugees in America; to rebuilding southern Sudan, beginning with Marial Bai; to organizations working for peace and humanitarian relief in Darfur; and to the college education of Valentino Achak Deng.
My jaw dropped. All I had done was buy a book that sounded interesting to me, I had no idea that by reading it I was becoming an active participant in Deng’s life story. It is astounding what has been accomplished with the sale of this book, including building the first high school his community has ever had. Neither Eggers nor McSweeney’s took a dime of profit from this book, and this holds true today. Back in 2006, I spread the word: I told my friends that they must read this book and when they asked to borrow my copy I refused. “Buy your own, trust me, it’s worth it.”
McSweeney’s invested in cause publishing yet again in 2009 with Eggers’ Zeitoun — about Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-born painting contractor who stays in New Orleands post-Katrina and is accused of being a member of Al Qaeda. The proceeds of the book go to the Zeitoun family and to the Zeitoun Foundation, a grant-giving operation that distributes the proceeds to non-profits in New Orleans dedicated to rebuilding the once-glorious city. Not to mention McSweeney’s ongoing Voices of Witness series and their most recent contribution to cause: the stunning, meticulous San Francisco Panorama (in its first week of release, it was only available to the San Francisco community).
McSweeney’s is not the only one to step up to help a cause. Take for example the OxFam which commissioned short story collections called OxTales. OxFam connected with the top writers of the Brit-lit scene and asked them to contribute new short fiction to this project, the sales of which directly benefit OxFam’s missions. William Skidelsky, in his Guardian review, writes: “The result is a triumph: four volumes of mostly outstanding fiction that would be worth reading whether or not an NGO was responsible for it.” Note that there is no sacrifice in content when it comes to cause publishing, quite the opposite, what it becomes is fine literature with a purpose.
This concept, that of publishing with the purpose of building and engaging community, floored me. After reading What is the What, Deng’s selflessness in the face of all he has endured was, and continues to be, an inspiration; no less so for Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his family. I, too, wanted to do something for my community. So I pooled together what money I had at the time and built a tricycle.
This was early on in 2008, I was the reviews editor for Make: A Chicago Literary Magazine and I was getting tired of the form. I began to see how limited this audience was: who were we reaching with these reviews? Ensconced in the Chicago lit scene, I also noticed that I was running into the same friendly faces at each literary event. Here I am in one of the more experimental literary scenes in America, and I can nod my head at just about every face that walks in the bar. This is when I realized there was something more that needed to be done. We needed to bring the books to the people.
So I built a tricycle that could hold and display up to 200 lbs. worth of books. I wrote letters to every publisher on my shelf asking for book donations. About a week later, I received a call from a publisher asking what kind of books I was looking for. My answer: “Send me whatever you want people reading, I’m going to be putting these directly in their hands.” A few months later I packed the tricycle to the brim and rode this unwieldy beast to a park across town. There I displayed the books, cracked open a novel and took roost on the bike seat. It took some time before people’s curiosity got the best of them (I don’t shout out to people: those who are curious will ask; those who assume will walk on). Since that beautiful summer day, I have taken the Book Bike to parks all over the city of Chicago and given away over 3,000 new and used books to my community. The not-so-apt, but still affectionate, moniker Book Bike came from the local press.
While my project falls more in line with literary activism, it holds true the spirit of cause publishing. Cause publishing doesn’t have to be about raising money for a charity, its about getting our communities invested in books. There are many independent projects such as this going on around the world, the most incredible that I know of is that of Luis Soriano, a teacher in Colombia who has spent the past ten years loading children’s books onto a donkey and bringing his library to children in rural communities. Quoting Soriano from a NY Times profile on the Biblioburro: “This began as a necessity; then it became an obligation; and after that a custom. Now it is an institution.” I could relay Soriano’s mission here, but I think it better for you to get it from Soriano himself. Check out this documentary on the Biblioburro by Ayoka Productions; at that link you can also learn how to support Soriano’s mission.
There is a pattern in cause publishing, that of community. The examples above show individuals and not-for-profits directly enriching communities through books. Simplicity is key: focus on community and there is no telling the ripple effect that you could have. And its worth noting that none of this is new news: with or without the big publishing houses support, we will always be here, NFP and individuals alike dedicated to enriching our culture and community through books. But if cause publishing is to sustain itself, it is time the big houses take notice: invest in us.
DISCUSS: Are you interested in contributing to a book to help Haiti?