Celebrating 20 Years of Small Press and Independent Publisher: The Magazines of Independent Book Publishing

This article first appeared in our 20th anniversary, September 2003 issue:

Twenty years is a long time in the publishing business. The world of books is one where trends develop quickly, personnel changes occur overnight, and a new imprint is born (or abandoned) every day.

This publication celebrates its twentieth anniversary this month, counting the various stages of evolution it’s been through. Here are the basics: founded in 1983 by R.R. Bowker; who sold it to Meckler Publishing, who sold to Moyer Bell, who, in late 1995, sold it to Jenkins Group Inc. in Traverse City, Michigan (that’s us).

We published bi-monthly as Small Press until Jan 1998, when we changed the name to Independent Publisher, adopting the motto: “Leading the World of Book Selling in New Directions.” We published the print version of IP until the Nov/Dec 99 issue, and went to an online-only version with the January 2000 issue. (In September 2003 we updated and redesigned the website, and changed our logo to: "THE Voice of the Independent Publishing Industry.")

As they say in song, “it’s been a hard road to travel, with lots of broken dreams along the way.” But here we are, with the same dedication to promoting the independent spirit in publishing that Small Press magazine was launched with. We hope you’ve enjoyed the ride, and will to continue to come along with us.

Some excerpts from two decades of Small Press and IP:

From the first issue, Sept/Oct 1983:

“As everyone in the business knows, the publisher without money problems has yet to release a book, and reading typographic history won’t pay the bills. But after a day of trying to pay every creditor enough to keep the lights on and the presses running, many might find comfort in thinking about Gutenberg’s bankruptcy. We are part of a long tradition, we publishers, printers, editors, and booksellers. Our shops have been destroyed, books have been censored and burned, and we have been imprisoned, exiled, sent to concentration camps, hung and burned at the stake. We have libeled people; driven innocent people from their homes; driven honest people from government service. We have also helped fan the flames of noble revolutions, both political and social. A working knowledge of the history of printing, the book arts, and the book industry can help establish a vital sense of identity that can sometimes keep a harassed publisher from giving up.”
- Allan Kornblum, founder of Coffee House Press.

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From the first issue under Jenkins Group ownership, Jan/Feb 1996:









“Now the whole publishing business has become very tight and much more impersonal. The stakes are so much higher. By the end of the decade, there will be three publishers in New York doing 90 percent of the publishing and 2,000 independents doing the other ten percent.”

“Get an MBA to be your partner. You can be a literature major, but you need to know the fine points of the numbers game. And you need to know how to sell. The more ‘Barnum’ you have in you, the better you are at it. That’s what it takes: somebody with high energy who is ballsy.”
- Noel Young, founder of Capra Press, who died in 2002.

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From the 15th anniversary “name change” issue, Jan/Feb 1998:

“To keep pace with industry changes, our new name, Independent Publisher, reflects the spirit behind the production of your books, and not the size of your lists. The new name also accurately characterizes our own plans for the future, and our efforts to be creative when seeking to bring attention to your books.”

“Independent publishing is flourishing today as never before. Those few thousand publishers for whom the magazine was started in 1983 have blossomed into a segment of the industry numbering over 50,000. Books from independent publishers are regular fodder for national bestseller lists, and it is independent publishers who continue to validate new poets and novelists, and who have responded to the growing demand for New Age, spiritual and multi-cultural books.”
- Jerrold R. Jenkins, president and founder, Jenkins Group Inc.

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From the final print issue, Nov-Dec 1999:








“Publishing has not been in such a precipitous state since 500 years after the last millennium when moveable type was new media. But everyone understood what printing could do; today, we still struggle with e-books, on-demand printing of books, online books, changes in distribution from independent booksellers to superstores, and multimedia books on all forms of recorded media.”

“The only certainty is uncertainty. Publishers have always taken risks with content. Now they are seeing fundamental risks with the very nature of the relationship with their readers.”

- Frank Romano, Professor of Digital Publishing, Rochester Institute of Technology


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From the Independent Publisher Magazine Archives

An Interview with Jim Harrison: Thoughts on Independence in Publishing and Bookselling

Editor’s Note: This is the 30th year of publication for Independent Publisher, and to celebrate we will run features from the print journal that appeared in print from 1983 to 1999. Here’s an interview with Jim Harrison, the fiercely independent-thinking author, from the March/April 1999 issue. Harrison's latest book, The Great Leader, is reviewed in our Book Reviews section.

(Click here to see a PDF of the original printed article.)

To read a more current Harrison interview, a wonderfully well-written piece by Tom Bissell in the October 2011 Outside magazine, click here.

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While setting his smoking cigarette and ashtray on the podium to do a reading prior to signing books for 300 adoring fans at Traverse City, Michigan’s Horizon Books, Jim Harrison spoke with his unique, eloquent drawl: “Last year it was the tobacco companies getting all the heat. This year it’s oral sex. I don’t have a clue what it’s going to be next year.”

This was quintessential Harrison, addressing hometown followers during the second week of a two-month long U.S. and Canadian book promotion tour for his acclaimed new novel The Road Home and stunning volume of new and collected poems, The Shape of the Journey.

I had the pleasure of being with Jim for an hour beforehand while he drank wine, smoked and joked while signing one hundred or so books for people who had sent them in advance. “So you’re married again,” he asked while signing my wife’s copy of The Road Home. “Not only married,” I said, “but have a son and two Chesapeake retrievers besides.” “Oh yeah,” Jim recalled, “You and your Chesapeakes.”

It was pure fun getting reacquainted with this literary giant whom I had gotten to know years ago upon settling in northern Michigan. Jim Harrison’s recent independently published release The Road Home (Atlantic Monthly Press) is the sequel to Dalva, the novel he wrote ten years ago about a Nebraska family during the early part of this century.

The Shape of the Journey (Copper Canyon Press) is a career’s worth of poetry written by a man who considers himself first and foremost a poet, and then a novelist and screenwriter — because the demands of securing a lucrative livelihood require the latter two.

When I contacted Jim to ask if Independent Publisher could interview him solely with questions pertaining to the independent publishing industry, I thought he might find it intriguing to discuss aspects of his career having to do with something other than the typical fascination with lifestyle and success. Well, we certainly were not disappointed, and we appreciate all the time that this acclaimed poet, author of twenty books, numerous screenplays, and former Esquire magazine food columnist spent with us. Thanks, Jim!


IP: You seem to have an affection for independent presses and independent bookstores.

JH: My affinity for independent presses and independent bookstores comes from my fear of corporate venality and the tendency to make artistic decisions based only on money. Grove Atlantic is one of the last of the independent publishers along with W.W. Norton.

IP: This is a big book tour you‘re on right now.

JH: Promotion tours are based on the investment made; what I feel I owe the publisher in terms of help.

IP: The line between the novel, the screenplay, and the feature film is getting fuzzier all the time. Does the connection between many of today´s publishing conglomerates and the entertainment industry have an effect on how books are written?

JH: I don‘t see the line getting fuzzier in regards to real literature and I am not interested in the other kind.

IP: What do you think about predictions that in 5-10 years, downloading titles directly from the Internet, onto book-sized personal computers, will be the predominate means of acquiring literature?

JH: I have no ideas in regard to anything connected to computers (Harrison writes in longhand, usually with a single draft), though I do believe that people prefer having the actual, physical book in their hands rather than looking for hours at some fungoid screen.

IP: If you ruled the world, what changes would you make in the world of publishing and bookselling?

JH: Earlier in my life I worked as a book salesman in the Boston area. I have been connected with publishers and made friends with them for 35 years. I am modest enough to know it is a profession incorporating a great deal of knowledge and I have no idea for a quick cure.

IP: What has become of the Livingston, Montana publisher Clark City Press? They were so focused on publishing works having to do with the importance of a sound environment – a subject that is obviously very important to you.

JH: Clark City Press went bankrupt for a very large amount of money. It got too big, too fast, and was too loose-reigned to survive. It cost me over $100,000 to give my collected prose, Just Before Dark, to the press, but then we were all in it together. I probably should not have done so, but then my daughter Jamie was their main editor and she put the collection together.

IP: Speaking of your daughter, Jamie has chosen moderately size publisher, Hyperion, to publish her mystery novels. What has been your advice to her with regard to publishing house decisions?

JH: My daughter makes her own publishing decisions with the advice of her agent. With daughters you try to limit your advice to when you are actually asked a question. Ultimately a prime consideration is how to make a living in a squalid, venal culture.

IP: You have chosen northern lower Michigan, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and southern Arizona as places to live rather than, say, New York or Los Angeles. These are independent regions. How does this connect with you being an independent thinker and choosing independent publishers to work with?

JH: I do choose to live in areas remote from the centers of ambition, as it were. From this perspective, I see a tremendous and healthy growth in regional publishing. Oddly enough, much of my market is in France where The Road Home was first published and where it, at least temporarily, reached #2 on the best seller list. Ultimately, publishing is a business to get the word out, but often in New York City they don’t know what the word is for other parts of the country. Corporate publishing only gives people what they want, which is the philosophy of television and dope dealers.

IP: Do your friends in the writing and publishing world have similar beliefs on the state of the industry?

JH: Many of my writing and publishing friends are very concerned about the German takeover of our biggest publishing houses, though there is the question of whether Bertelsmann will do any worse than has already been done. This is the life of the human mind we are talking about, not a toy store. The real question is is whether these conglomerates will reduce competition for a writer’s work. I’ve made my living as a writer for a long time and often it was scant living indeed.

I know that a lot of extraordinary writers are tuning to the independents in order not to be re-written and not confined to corporate taste. For reasons of cost the entire NY publishing industry should move to Minneapolis where overhead is lower and there are proper facilities for printing. It would also be the Heartland, and make publishing less subject to the artifice of Dream Coast taste.

IP: Independent Publisher is also featuring Vic and Amy Herman of Horizon Books in this issue. What are your thoughts regarding their efforts to grow and compete in the northern Michigan bookselling market?

JH: Vic and Amy have always run a truly wonderful bookstore. Chain bookstores should not be given any unfair advantage over the independents.

IP: What are some of your favorite independent bookstores across the country?

JH:  Horizon Books in Traverse City, MI and Shaman Drum in Ann Arbor, MI; the great Books & Company in NYC which was demolished; Tattered Cover in Denver; Elliot Bay in Seattle; Book Mart in Tucson; Duttons in Brentwood and Los Angeles; Lemuria in Jackson, MS and Square Books in Oxford, MS; Barbara’s in Chicago; 23rd Street Books in Portland. I’ve doubtless forgotten some but then I am a geezer.

IP:  Read any good independently published books lately?

JH:  Go By Go, a mystery by Jon Jackson (Dennis McMillan Publications) and the fabulous Chokecherry Places by Merrill Gilfillan (Johnson Books).