A Short, Personal History of Small, Independent Publishing (1995-2009)

By

Guys do a lot of things for girls’ attention, and my involvement with Mused Magazine was one of those things.

1. The Centre Daily Times (State College, PA)

2. The Daily Nexus (Santa Barbara, CA)

3. Mused Magazine (Santa Barbara, CA)

4. Blessingway Author Services (Santa Fe, NM)

5. Synergetic Press (Cerrillos, NM)

6. RDR Books (Muskegon, MI)

7. Tara Books (Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India)

8. New Horizons Media (Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India)

9. Inkwater Press (Tigard, OR)

10. Graphic Arts Center Publishing Co. (Portland, OR)

THE CENTRE DAILY TIMES (State College, PA)

I lied about my age to get my first job. I just couldn’t hold out until I turned 12 to become a paperboy. I doubt the delivery driver I met that first Sunday before dawn cared much for such trivial details either. I was committed, competent, lived nearby, hit puberty early, and had a father who would do my route for me when I was sick – what more could he ask for from an 11-year-old paperboy.

The paper route routine came naturally to me and so did all the stereotypes. I recklessly rode a well-worn bike, bagged and tossed papers with a frenetic grace, and fantasized about seeing underwear-clad women in the windows (or better yet – having them come to the door as I approached). For $0.14 a paper I circumvented well-manicured lawns and gardens and followed strict delivery directions involving various entryways, doors and mail slots. Eventually I started rollerblading, cutting certain corners and missing the more demanding tosses (and probably some Christmas tips too), but I remained a dedicated and timely paperboy until the end.

These seminal years during which I spent formative hours inking my hands on thousands of newspapers left a mark that has proven indelible. The daily routine, the crisp early morning solitude, the rub and tug of the newspaper bag; it was a place and time separate from everything else.

My first experience working for a publishing company, in hindsight I can see I was proud of the job and what it represented even then. It seemed to me that time spent between the pages of a book or a newspaper was different than other time; it was a little like the early morning hours spent delivering the paper.

THE DAILY NEXUS (Santa Barbara, CA)

After getting caught up in the adolescent world of parental midlife crises, high school hedonistic distractions, and service-industry jobs, the next publication I worked for was my college newspaper. I found the job listed in classifieds section of the newspaper, and that’s where I stayed. EditoriallyThe Daily Nexus was decidedly weak, and rarely during the three years I spent in the advertising office jotting down classifieds and writing display ads did I feel envy towards those across the way in editorial. After being misquoted as a poly-sci major (I was a philosophy major, we take offense to many things) by an absent-minded blonde, my aspirations to write for the paper fully evaporated. I was living by the beach in Santa Barbara, CA studying art and philosophy. I didn’t want to work harder and get paid less. I wanted to get paid without having to think about work. So that’s what I did.

MUSED MAGAZINE (Santa Barbara, CA)

Guys do a lot of things for girls’ attention, and my involvement with Mused Magazine was one of those things. This particular girl, the editor-in-chief of the newfound literary magazine, seemed smart and ambitious, and I thought I might like her, so I devoted myself wholeheartedly to her cause – this being college after all, a time during which my heart never felt quite whole without a (female) devotion. After jockeying my way into the staff meetings I soon found myself spearheading advertising campaigns, contributing articles, and basically donning any hat the editor-in-chief proffered to place on my head.

By the 4th and final issue – at which point I graduated, the magazine went defunct, and my relationship with the girl culminated in anticlimactic break-up –Mused had a print run of 5,000, a spiffy website, and distribution throughout California (I personally distributed much of Santa Barbara). Besides providing a vessel for my ill-equipped heart, my time with Mused also afforded me even more reason to spurn the editorial department of the school newspaper. We knew we had a product of infinitely higher quality and integrity – I mean, ours was even in color.

BLESSINGWAY AUTHOR SERVICES (Santa Fe, NM)

College seemed to end abruptly, leaving my heart and mind high and dry – or perhaps dry and high, respectively. Like any sensible suspended adolescent I slowly made my way back to my parent’s house in Santa Fe, NM where we’d moved while I was still in high school. Then, maturing into the twixter I felt more befitting of my new circumstances – I was betwixt and between in almost every way – I resettled into a slightly rearranged room and promptly found part-time work within a few protracted months. I’d spent a lot of time comparing and contrasting my strengths, interests, and whatever else I felt composed ‘me’ (and making corresponding playlists) and had whittled my career options down to publishing, specifically book publishing.

Blessingway Author Services responded to my desperation-veiled query and offered to pay me for what, even in my resigned state, I thought to be gratifying work. Suddenly and deeply immersed in the New Age, middle-aged-woman side of Santa Fe where everyone seems to have misplaced large chunks of the their sanity, and with an insomniac boss whose sleep pattern corresponded precisely with my working hours, I surprisingly found myself learning a trade. Through the bohemian haze I managed to excel at editing manuscripts, writing book proposals, drafting marketing plans, even using a transcriber (I was especially agile with the foot pedals, probably due to my intermediate-level soccer skills). I clearly recall one splendid day in which I entirely rewrote the prose for an illustrated children’s book about brightly colored Teletubbie-caterpillar-like creatures. I decided this was something I was definitely good at.

SYNERGETIC PRESS (Cerrillos, NM)

Synergia Ranch was built out of homemade adobe by revolutionary hippies in the early 1970s, and many of them still live there, rent-free. Along with their radical views, the residents of Synergia Ranch happen to be a rather educated and cultured bunch, and I would often marvel at photos of them standing around the courtyard with the likes of William Burroughs and Buckminster Fuller. Most notable about this eccentric group, however, is the fact that they invented, built and operated the Biosphere 2 – a 3.15-acre, materially-enclosed ecological system in southern Arizona inside which “Biospherians” lived for two years without exit in the early 90s. For those unfamiliar with the Biosphere’s brief moment in the sun, it was also the setting of the far more memorable 1996 Pauly Shore and Stephen Baldwin movie, “Biodome.”

There’s a rich and juicy history behind Biosphere 2, ripe with conflicting accounts, warring factions, and inexplicable oxygen loss. I worked for Synergetic Press though, an ostensibly separate entity, albeit run by the same lady who ran the Biosphere 2 press (with some residual books as well). Mesmerized by the beautiful setting and independent spirit, and even a fan of some of the books, I was frustrated with the realization of my floundering productivity. My boss, Tango, (all ranch residents had nicknames) had me building websites and writing copy – interesting work – but, as far as I could see, nothing that generated any revenue. I began to feel guilty, a feeling augmented by the fact that she prepared delectable daily meals and often divulged to me about her troubled financial state.

The beginning of the end of my faith in the small publisher business model, my time with the Biospherians left several lasting impressions; also evoking both a powerful awe and deep disgust with humanity, and reinforcing the lingering feeling I often get that I was born a generation (or two) too late.

RDR BOOKS (Muskegon, MI)

Roger Rapoport is the publisher of RDR Books. I haven’t met or talked to him, but I know he has a funny, slightly childish-looking signature from the checks he mails me. Roger and I established contact through a mutual colleague (my networking tree had finally reached fruit-bearing maturity), and ever since I’ve been his official-occasional freelance copyeditor and proofreader. An enjoyable gig, I’m probably RDR’s biggest cheerleader, anxiously awaiting new titles to scrupulously proof for grammatical errors and typos. I even indexed a book once, and if you think reading a boring book is grueling, try indexing one.

TARA BOOKS (Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India)

The morning I heard back from Tara Books regarding their yearlong publishing fellowship I had the flu. I stared long and hard at the email, my watery eyes, stuffy nose, and foggy head obfuscating my response. It was the first time I’d been selected for something I’d concerted all possible effort towards attaining, and it felt good.

Six months later I found myself in South India, where every sensory signal – incessant honking, curry and chutney aromas, sweat-pooling humidity, fresh chai, people fascinated by Cricket – reminded me just how far I’d come to work for this internationally-renowned visual arts book publisher. Familiarities for any American Jew in South India are scarce, and I quickly set about feeling distressfully incompetent and unbecomingly dependent upon others. Surrounded by English-speaking friends (and the habitual comforts of the Internet) at the office, I was at least able to settle down briefly. In the beginning, I looked forward to workdays more than weekends. We had mid-morning tea meetings in the courtyard full of witty banter, stimulating discussion, and exotic accents; work was challenging and fulfilling; and I had several flirtatious outlets. I was learning the ins-and-outs of the burgeoning global publishing industry and esoteric handmade book-making techniques simultaneously. Even in the 100º heat life felt refreshing.

By the time of my departure I felt the reverse: stultified at work and invigorated outside. Not being a person drawn towards drama, the levels of internal conflict – emotional, sexual, and professional – reached within the tight-knit group far exceeded my comfort levels. In the end, I turned out to be the outsider, which was fine as long as I was outside the office. Frustrated by the cliquish nature of the “bosses” and my inability to reconcile my nebulous role within the company, I searched for solace elsewhere.

Mr. A, Tara’s indefatigable production manager, and I managed to keep up our postprandial badminton game throughout the controversy, however, even playing a round the day before my departure. Besides being a tireless espouser on the fitness benefits of 15 casual minutes of “street” badminton (no net, no scorekeeping, and very little legwork) Mr. A was also a beloved mentor and reliable friend. His MacGyver-like ability to overcome obstacles both inspired and ashamed me – He was an Adobe Creative Suite master with limited English literacy and two-fingered typing skills; no matter how fast I read or typed, InDesign and Photoshop always left me feeling bungled.

Before leaving I gave Mr. A a Swiss Army Knife, because all handy men need a Swiss Army Knife and he was one of the handiest I’d known.

NEW HORIZONS MEDIA (Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India)

I only went to the New Horizons Media office once – a memorable trip that took two rickshaw rides and the reconsideration of several ill-advised directions to make (In India if you don’t know where something is you give directions anyways, especially to foreigners). Upon arriving I signed-in to one of the large, wide-ruled notebooks ubiquitously found in Indian entryways and was momentarily ushered down the building’s main hall. Left by my escort in front of the publisher’s office, I entered only to find the publisher seated inside a makeshift structure located in the far corner of the office. He invited me to join him there, nestled within the two-by-fours and Plexiglas. I casually walked across the humid room and gently pulled open the flimsy door, trying to imbue the situation with a hint of normality. It was much cooler than the outer area in this mini-office, like a little icebox just for himself. I knew then that I would enjoy my time with New Horizons Media, and that it would not be business as usual.

INKWATER PRESS (Tigard, OR)

Dear Authors,

Your literary journey begins when you submit your manuscript for review.

And so also begins the submissions page of the Inkwater Press website. If you’ve got a manuscript and a spare grand (cost is not discussed on the submissions page), you can have a book published by Inkwater Press in about four months. The book will be print-on-demand, available for purchase on Amazon.com, and revenue will be split about 80/20 between you and Inkwater Press. High-end self-publishing with a little help – as Inkwater puts it, “If we accept your work for publication, we create a comprehensive, tailor-made publishing plan for your book” – this business model lobs the ball deep into the author’s court. Of course, the alternative is often no ball at all.

Inkwater has all the traditional staff – acquisitions, editorial, production, marketing, and sales – and produces high-quality books that are difficult to differentiate from those of traditional publishers. It’s just that they don’t pay authors for the rights to their books, authors pay them, which affects the overall quality of the books by lowering the bar for otherwise unpublishable authors to jump over. “Custom” books like these – a fast growing industry within the slowly shrinking industry of book publishing – are frequently used for self-promotion or other personal ventures, and recovering investment dollar-for-dollar is often not the authors’ main concern, which can range from sharing a life story, to promoting a guided-tour business, to needing a reference for an anger management course.

As an intern at Inkwater I finally found myself working for a company with a convincing business plan and promising future. It just wasn’t a company I saw myself working with for very long.

GRAPHIC ARTS CENTER PUBLISHING COMPANY (Portland, OR)

Right now I’m sitting at my desk in my office at work. It’s the end of the day at the end of the week, which ends on Thursday here and has for the last 9 months since money became really tight. Outside my office is the central meeting area, occupied by a conference table and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Something about this room has always evoked the early ‘80s to me – perhaps it’s the faded colors reminiscent of photographs from that period, or the lack of modern technology and overabundance of books. As the marketing manager my office is also piled high with books, although most of these are promotional copies left un-promoted; their only means of escape now via personal request as a desk or review copy. Beneath my arms sits my desk: hulking and industrial and another furnishing leftover from a bygone era. The desk’s large metal drawers chronicle marketing campaigns pursued long before digital files relegated file-folders obsolete.

This company is 30 years old; 5 years older than I am. I guess someday these will become the good old days, and I’ll recall the good old things about them – my first salaried job; first personal office; the bike ride commute. But for now the good old days ended abruptly almost a year ago when we stopped having acquisitions meetings, when forthcoming books became perpetually-postponed books, and when almost half the staff got laid off.

Sitting in my office harboring these disheartening thoughts I can only begin to imagine how my colleagues must feel. Doug was editorial director for the breakout photography book we did on Mt. Saint Helens after it erupted 30 years ago. Mike had million-dollar sales days as a bookseller in New York during the ‘80s boom years. Susan designed and produced books long before left-and-right clicking had anything to do with it. If only these walls could talk. I’d ask them to recount to me one of the best editorial meetings, and to ad-lib things I might interject. I feel like I could have some good ideas given the opportunity.

We print wall calendars too; I’ve got the next seven months displayed on my back wall. I can locate any significant day in a matter of moments, but I can’t say where I’ll be as the upcoming days get x-ed off. I just know that, like the people around me, publishing will always be a part of my life, just as much as change and adaptation have to be. Every so often when I’m rifling through my Google Reader or scanning The Huffington Post headlines I get the urge to see what The Centre Daily Timesis up to, so I type in the url and I get a little bit of that feeling I used to get delivering the paper. But just a little bit.


Ari Phillips currently works for Graphic Arts Books, an independent book publisher in Portland, OR. He is also a contributing editor and writer for the PubWest Endsheet and Global Envision, a Mercy Corps publication, and has published in Deep Leap, Mused Magazine and The Nervous Breakdown, among others. More from this author →