The Importance of Independent Bookstores

Independent bookstores have historically served as community landmarks and valuable resources throughout the world. The experience of shopping at a bookstore that is genuine, individualistic, and an asset to the local community cannot be matched by shopping at chain stores or online. Moreover, a book is no ordinary item to shop for. Whether it is a picture book for preschoolers, a fantasy series for dreamers, a biography for devoted fans, or a nonlinear peregrination for intrepid readers, a book has a singular ability to illuminate one’s intellect and imagination.

The United States is home to many notable bookstores. One of these is New York City’s Strand Book Store, which offers nearly twenty miles of new, used, and rare books as well as an array of literary and artistic proceedings spotlighting icons like Chuck Close and Salman Rushdie. Another is Prairie Lights in Iowa City, Iowa, which caters to the high-profile writers, professors, and visitors at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and provides a cultivated reading series that has featured some of the most influential and renowned writers in history, including E. E. Cummings, Langston Hughes, and Robert Frost. Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, stands as the world’s largest independent bookstore and fosters book groups and a wide range of events promoting up-and-coming authors as well as prominent public figures like Senator Bernie Sanders. And finally, City Lights Booksellers & Publishers in San Francisco, California, has become a celebrated historical landmark.

Highlight: City Lights Booksellers & Publishers
261 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco, CA

City Lights Booksellers & Publishers has established itself as a creative and intellectual landmark not only in San Francisco but also in the literary world as a whole. On their website, they describe their philosophy: “As the increasingly concentrated mass media and new information technologies change the way people live, work, and think, we believe that nurturing the ability to think critically, to discern truth, and to communicate knowledge is essential to a democratic society.” Founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and college professor Peter D. Martin in 1953, City Lights became the nation’s first all-paperback bookstore and a center for the Beat movement.

City Lights has also served as a press, boasting nearly two hundred books in print to date. In the fall of 1956, City Lights released Allen Ginsberg’s legendary Howl and Other Poems with an introduction by William Carlos Williams. Frequented by literary icons such as Ginsberg and his fellow lettered insurgent Jack Kerouac, the bookstore transformed the neighborhood into an enclave for the Beats. The street right across from City Lights was officially named Jack Kerouac Alley and has been decorated with lively, intricate murals and words of poetry.

Today, City Lights Booksellers & Publishers remains a hub for literary fans of all kinds, publishing everything from poetry to translations, politics to philosophy, music to spirituality. It still specializes in promoting the writers published by its independent press, as well as writing from the Beat movement that is difficult to find anywhere else. The store boasts rare, first-edition titles such as Love Is No Stone on the Moon by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and From Nicaragua with Love by Ernesto Cardenal. In 2001, the city of San Francisco designated City Lights an official historical landmark. It was the first business to receive this designation, which is usually reserved for buildings. As its website states, City Lights continues to publish “cutting-edge fiction, poetry, memoirs, literary translations, and books on vital social and political issues.” City Lights has also formed its own nonprofit foundation promoting “the goal of advancing deep literacy, which is not only the ability to read and write but fluency in the knowledge and skills that enable us to consciously shape our lives and the life of our community.”

The importance of City Lights has persisted in revolutionary intellectual culture, and it remains a beacon to independent bookstores across the globe.

Too Many Cooks? Management at Ooligan Press

There are a lot of things that make Ooligan a unique press. Most of these traits are externally visible—it’s student run, it’s regionally focused, it’s small. These attributes aren’t unheard of in the publishing world, but they do necessitate an internal structure that is also fairly unusual. Ooligan’s entire workforce is made up of students, many of whom balance jobs and internships as they attend their classes and finish different projects for the press. It would be easy to allow things to fall through the cracks, which is where Ooligan’s uncommon managerial structure comes into play.

Most presses operate under similar systems of management, in which individual departments oversee either in-house teams or freelancers who usher a book through each aspect of production. Often these departments are headed by one or two people. Ooligan has several department managers who most closely correlate to positions you would find in a standard press, including a digital department lead, a design lead, a social media lead, a marketing lead, a copy chief, a managing editor, two acquisitions leads, and two publisher’s assistants. For anyone keeping track, that’s ten department managers. There are independent presses all over the country that operate with an entire staff of fewer than ten people, let alone ten managers. But the truth is, Ooligan doesn’t operate with ten managers: it operates with seventeen. In addition to the department leads, each of the five books that are in production at any given time has an individual project manager, and there are also two managers in charge of outreach and events.

One of the major ways in which Ooligan’s organization diverges from that of other publishing houses is through the use of project managers. Rather than being attached to a single aspect of production, each project manager is instead primarily tasked with keeping their assigned book on track through the entire publication process, during which time they also serve as the first point of contact for their book’s author. Project managers oversee teams of around five people who do the majority of the day-to-day work for their books. Ooligan’s department managers—whose equivalents in other, more standard presses usually have dedicated teams—actually oversee the execution of tasks that are completed by teams of volunteers within the press. So while the majority of people working for Ooligan spend most of their time working on a specific book for a dedicated team, they also help with larger-scale projects for other books under the supervision of the department managers.

In addition to ensuring that there are multiple people to hold accountable for the completion of tasks, Ooligan’s unique structure also guarantees that the production of the press’s books is an especially collaborative process. Most large decisions are made democratically, and it’s virtually impossible to be completely uninvolved with any of the books in production. The collaborative nature of the press is especially important given that it is student run. This gives everyone the opportunity to gain experience in different departments, which often yields more creative and comprehensive results. It also prepares Ooligan students for potential careers in alternative forms of publishing, including publishing collectives, in which collaboration plays an important role. With so many revolving parts, it’s no wonder that Ooligan, a small press, operates with over a dozen managers while still keeping the cooks from overrunning the kitchen.

The Taste of Victory

The award season has ended, everybody! We’ve got the Oscars and the Grammys, and let’s not forget our local award celebration, the Literary Arts Oregon Book Awards. As we all know, what’s a good trophy season without some juicy scandal or an incitement for institutionalized social change? The recent Oscars itself received a barrage of social criticism across all media platforms for its monoethnic selection of nominees.

Bullet point: All nominees were white.

Many people were outraged, claiming this was an example of our elitist social bias rearing its multifaceted head. Others believed the results were just a coincidental outcome of honest, well­-earned expressions of respect. Oh Hollywood, whatever shall we do with you?

But as the rain continues to fall here in the Northwest, we Oregonians tend to turn off the tube from time to time and grab a book. You know, that dusty one on the end table that you will be meaning to read. For most of this coming year. With the 2016 Oregon Literary Fellowship sticker on the cover. You will open the book, and on the inside, you will notice it was published by Ooligan Press.

That’s right everyone, Portland State University’s own Ooligan Press was just awarded the 2016 Oregon Literary Fellowship from the Literary Arts Oregon Book Awards program! The prestigious award is offered annually to honor Oregon­-based independent publishers and to support their dedication to literature with some good, old fashioned cash. Ooligan Press’s staff of students pursuing master’s degrees in the Department of English at Portland State University are highlighted by this award. Ooligan Press is the only publishing­-focused graduate program on the West Coast.

This student-­run company of writers, designers, planners, and editors leads the independent press community by teaching publishing here in the Pacific Northwest. Cherishing their seven book awards since its founding in 2001, this student­-based press has worked hard to showcase the voices of the Northwest. Presently working on the publication of six novels from local authors, Ooligan Press recently announced that they will also be initiating a research and development team for expanding publication diversity and literary inclusion. Take that, Oscars!

So with gratitude, I’d like to thank the Oregon Literary Fellowship for letting Ooligan Press know how awesome they are. And to the authors, designers, editors, printers, distributors, and everyone else who help bring everything together at Ooligan Press, I thank you. And to the most valuable treasure, the readers, whose passions support us all, I thank you. Now go spend some of that award money, Ooligan. Looks like we’re going to be needing a lot more bookmarks.

A Big, Fat Knee-Jerk

In November of last year, I came across a blog entry on the Huffington Post that filled me with a familiar weariness. In it, best-selling author Tucker Max (I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell; Assholes Finish First) details the process by which he was able to circumvent  the Big 6 publishers for his third book, thereby tripling his percentage of the profits. Max proved that, at least for established, successful, and financially independent authors, it was possible to effectively commandeer many of the responsibilities usually handled by a publisher and turn that assumption of burden into increased profit share. With the exception of distribution, Max was able to more-than-adequately duplicate all the efforts he was ostensibly paying a publisher for.
As someone who believes ardently in the utility (if not exactly the vitality) of publishing for both authors and readers, it is draining to read article after article about the perceived uselessness of my business, particularly when the argument is depressingly persuasive. About the publishing business, Max says: “It’s terribly exploitative of authors (paying them a very small royalty on sales), yet it doesn’t even do a good job maximizing overall revenue from book sales.” He goes on to walk through the ways in which his own marketing strategies (special offers, immediate digital release on multiple platforms, etc.) were more effective than those that his “risk-averse” publishers had ever tried. His conclusion was that successful authors should cut distribution deals with big publishers and handle the rest themselves. And reap the spoils.
What rankled me about this post, aside from the implicit suggestion that I am stupid for working in publishing, was that it outlines a strategy that would cripple the already-shaky financial foundation of major publishing. The biggest authors, the ones that can afford to forego an advance, hire freelancers, and actively market their work, are the rising tide that lifts all boats in publishing. The massive sales of these authors allow publishers to produce the vast majority of all books, the ones that don’t sell as well but that nonetheless enrich our reading culture. We need the Stephen Kings and the Tucker Max-es.
It probably suggests something lacking in my self-esteem that I immediately jumped to the doom-and-gloom conclusion that (I thought) the post was arriving at. It might also suggest that I need to bone up on my critical reading skills, because not-so-subtly couched within Max’s debasement of Big 6 publishing was a stirring defense of publishing itself.
What Max was saying (explicitly; see the post’s section titled: “I’m not an author anymore. Now, I’m a publisher.”), was that he could pay to duplicate and improve upon the services for which he only received a pittance from his Big 6 publisher. He was saying that, so long as he could strike a deal for distribution (the one remaining aspect of a Big 6 contract that he could not personally handle), he could be his own publishing company. Not a self-published author (Max himself makes this distinction), but a real publishing company.
The good news of this fact is that Max’s method provides a blueprint for publishing’s future that could genuinely and equitably benefit all involved. Most authors can’t afford to be their own publishing company in the way that Tucker Max suggests, but increasingly, there is limited utility to a writer in going through “traditional” publishing channels. Big 6 publishing still has a stranglehold on the industry, but it is a monolithic and in many ways archaic mode of business that has been slow to adapt to change in an already-low-margin undertaking. Big 6 publishing wields a large stick, but it lacks the fine motor skills to innovate on the fly.
That’s the purview of smaller, more-dexterous publishers, and proof that such institutions are the way forward. An indie publisher (like Ooligan Press!) can help less-than-famous authors in specific ways that larger publishers can’t, for all the reasons Max details: creative, specific marketing strategies, distinct design and production, a defined niche that leads to brand loyalty among readers, the ability to scrap ideas that don’t work and formulate new ones quickly. Small publishers can also be more flexible  in their contracts, allowing for varying degrees of collaboration that can both yield a more equitable split of profits between publisher and writer and help to offset some of the initial financial burden on the press.   Small presses can (and do) strike the same distribution deals that the post discusses while still providing lesser-known authors with the protection of a publisher (which shields them from the “self-publishing ghetto” that Tucker Max is so keen to avoid).
Tucker Max’s post was not an assault on the notion of publishing; it was a plea for the creativity, innovation, and equity that ought to already be the hallmarks of our business, a business that, at it’s core, is fundamentally about the spread of ideas. It took a while (I’ve got a bit of the “kicked-dog” syndrome when it comes to publishing), but Max’s ideas finally inspired me and reinvigorated my belief in publishing.  It’s a smaller game these days, but it’s one that’s never been more exciting to play.
-Drew Lazzara