What’s at Stake: The NEA and the Literary Ecosystem


As a poet I get it: talking about “literary infrastructure” is boring. Who wouldn’t rather talk about poets, poems, or aesthetic movements? When we start hearing a lot about the organizations dedicated to supporting authors, presses, and readings rather than the people making literature it probably means those organizations are threatened. Well, welcome to 2017!

The nonprofit organization where I work, Small Press Distribution (SPD), was founded in 1968 but didn’t really get going until the mid 1970s. We now act as an umbrella for more than 400 small literary publishers, greatly expanding the reach of those presses and their authors by providing subsidized warehousing, order fulfillment, marketing, and a great deal of professional advice about book publishing. Because we work primarily in the supply chain for books we might be less visible than some of our sister organizations, but we’re one of those cogs that allow phrases like the “literary ecosystem” and the “literary community” to be actual and meaningful. Some of our presses use SPD as a sort of incubator when they’re first starting out, going on to become larger, essential literary institutions you may now know as Copper Canyon, Coffee House, BOA Editions, or Arte Publico. Others—like Aunt Lute, Dorothy, Ugly Duckling, or Hanging Loose—find that their model and mission dovetail with SPD’s mission and services so well they stick with us as their sole distributor even as they grow and become more successful.

While the UK, for instance, has generally deeper traditions of government funding for the arts, curiously there’s nothing quite like SPD there, and the same is true of a number of countries. When people ask us why, our shortest answer is: “the NEA.” Starting in the 1970s, we received an unbroken stream of National Endowment for the Arts funding that took us from a tiny band of a few dozen scrappy publishers to an organization employing a staff of twelve and looking to sell over two million dollars worth of books this year.

We at SPD are extremely concerned, to put it mildly, to hear of the Trump team’s plan to eliminate the NEA. We are doing what we can to keep that plan from going forward. At the same time, as SPD’s supporters and presses fan out to try to persuade others of the NEA’s importance, we want us all to keep in mind that the arts are not just the artists, and that some of the most important work the NEA has done is also the least visible. One key point I try to make is this: SPD’s sales have gone from a few thousand books a year to hundreds of thousands over that fifty year stretch, yet the NEA’s funding levels to SPD have stayed in pretty much the same range throughout. For example, in 1981 the NEA’s grant to SPD was $30,000, accounting for 37% of our budget; last year, it was $40,000 but accounted for only 4% of the budget. In other words, even from a purely market-based perspective, it’s been a pretty great investment.

Without the NEA’s funds SPD might need to raise fees, reduce services, or even reduce staff, and we are greatly worried about the many SPD presses who depend even more heavily than we do on the NEA’s funds. But we also believe SPD will probably survive without the NEA. That is: we could potentially survive now, albeit with a much more market-driven set of services. However, just like with seed money for a business there were long stretches in those fifty years where we would have simply collapsed without NEA funds. And that’s how cultural infrastructure of this sort works: when funding blinks off for a stretch you can’t just turn the spigot back on and pick up where you left off. You may not know exactly what cultural institutions will never come into existence thanks to a dry spell, but in just our small organization that’s a dozen jobs that otherwise wouldn’t exist even before we consider the works we help bring into being and send to every corner of the country. If you want to know what the NEA does, just ask smaller literary publishers in countries that lack an SPD what they most wish for, and what prevents them from reaching new readers. You’ll find it sounds an awful lot like a then-small project the NEA almost single-handedly brought into existence fifty years ago here in the United States.

It’s also worth thinking about what it would mean to have a more market-driven SPD. While we might indeed survive thinking more like a commercial distributor, it would also mean that many of the books we currently choose to distribute we would have to say no to. Just as the NEA “seeded” SPD’s existence, SPD currently makes long-term investment in books that might not make very much money right away but that we think are worth making available. Whether we think certain books have the potential to become classroom material, or we simply think they are important culturally and hope that others will catch up with that opinion, if we didn’t have contributed support we would end up assessing everything through the short-term lens of sales. The truth is, SPD exists specifically because the staffers here feel that literary quality cannot be judged or derived just from sales figures. It is very unclear what we would become if this core value were removed from our organization, and this, finally, is what is at stake.

Brent Cunningham is a writer, publisher, and visual artist living in Oakland, California. He currently works as the Operations Director at Small Press Distribution in Berkeley. He has published two books of poetry, Bird & Forest (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2005) and Journey to the Sun (Atelos, 2012). In 2005 he and Neil Alger founded Hooke Press, a chapbook press dedicated to publishing short runs of poetry, criticism, theory, writing, and ephemera. More from this author →