Why Independent Publishers are an Essential Public Service

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Manuel Rico

Government support for independent publishers is an essential public good because indie publishers provide an essential public service, argues Manuel Rico.

Editorial by Manuel Rico

It is a particularly cold Saturday afternoon. I decide to spend it roaming around and visit a few bookstores; today, Feast of the Immaculate Conception, only the big retailers are open. I find it extremely interesting to observe the new releases on display and compare them to the books on display no later than five years ago. Literature, literary fiction in particular, has lost ground and has been replaced by what I would define “so-called narrative.” I am referring here to those novels whose main features are either pseudo-thriller plots or some sort of historical settings that can range from Medieval Vatican to haunted Cathedrals and remote places of that kind.

These novels are topping the bestselling book lists and are inevitably throwing off titles with a stronger literary vocation from the shelves. Obviously, literary fiction tells stories, but it goes beyond suspense and thriller plots. It features both a strong commitment to the language and a clear intent to display the reality of the world we live in. Besides, it deals with polarizing and harsh themes that escape our logic and humanistic understanding.

Sometimes I feel that we are dealing with a weird conspiracy aimed at reducing any chance of in-depth analysis of our times, of present day history. Following the success of bestsellers like The Da Vinci Code, big publishers seem only comfortable with stories that have little or nothing to do with the present. They only commission or select manuscripts based on esoteric and mysterious facts and embellish them through all available means: hard covers, jackets, illustrations, interactivity with computer programs or video games, etc.

Where is their commitment in discovering new and good literature? We can find a few exceptions among some imprints of big and mid-size groups, but this task has been carried out, de facto, by independent publishers with a strong literary vocation. Indies are the ones who actually look for new, foreign authors, invest in unknown talents and bring about cutting-edge esthetic ideas. Their hard work and passionate literary militancy, that has not been studied as much as it deserves, make this possible. Because we all know that independent publishers can barely count on collaborators other than themselves and must combine their activity with day jobs that allow them to pay the bills and guarantee a minimum, albeit unstable, well being to their families.

We are led to believe that only administrations and politicians are responsible for public services. Well, we should start considering also the huge service that these small publishers provide to society in terms of the promotion of culture and good literature, keeping in mind that most of them are private equity companies (and more often than not, functioning in the red). Would any of the big players publish books like Rayuela or Ulysses these days? I hardly think so. If those manuscripts got to the commercial department of big publishers now, in all likelihood they would be turned down like all the good prose that keep receiving refusals, excuses and lies. Only Vatican plots and stories set in ancient times are enthusiastically accepted and published. The reason? They neither upset nor perturb the reader.

And if we extend our reflection to poetry, the merits of these independent publishers grow exponentially. As a matter of fact, they are the only ones who support new, contemporary poetry and young poets. Big publishers, as far as poetry is concerned, only draw upon classics or contemporary classics. In other words, they draw upon the immense work carried out by independent publishers who took risks and made choices, betting on poets like the young Ángel González that wrote “Áspero día” in the mid fifties or like Blas de Otero, author of “Ángel fieramente humano”, another young novice. Some paperback imprints of the largest groups like Galaxia Gutenberg or Círculo de Lectores, to mention the most famous ones, would publish both of them now, but would not have done so fifty years ago.

If all small poetry publishers were to disappear, it would be an irreparable shock for our culture. Any chance to renew this genre and to inject vitality into the world would be doomed. This hypothesis, far from being unlikely, proves the importance of this delicate network of publishing projects: not only do they play a key role in our culture, but they also provide an immense social service in favor of poetry. Hence, we must demand more government grants for these small cultural companies and we must claim more public funds for their projects. Let me insist, the reason is simple: they operate in the interest of our culture, of our literature. They provide an irreplaceable social service. Vital. Essential.

Manuel Rico is a writer and poet. He is President of the Collegiate Writers’ Association of Spain. This article originally appeared in a different form in Trama y texturas. It was translated from the Spanish by Valentina Morotti.

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