Magazine article The American Prospect

Read Local: As the Broader Publishing World Flounders, Alternative Presses Are Turning to Their Communities for Support

Magazine article The American Prospect

Read Local: As the Broader Publishing World Flounders, Alternative Presses Are Turning to Their Communities for Support

Article excerpt


When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes." So said Desiderius Erasmus, a Dutch priest born less than 20 years after the printing press was invented. This holiday season, publishers might like to sec his ilk in bookshops. Traditionally, the book industry depends upon the December gift-giving season to buoy its entire year. Many publishers shape their catalog around the six-week window of intensified shopping that carries particular urgency in the depths of a recession.

But this "make or break" bookselling strategy is one holiday tradition that a handful of innovative publishers are eager to end.

In search of sustainability, some publishers and booksellers are adapting ideas from the food movement. Community-supported agriculture (CSA)--in which consumers buy a share of a farm's produce yield for the season--translates to community-supported publishing (CSP), in which readers subscribe to an independent press that in return delivers books to their doorstep every month. "Buy Local" becomes "Buy Indie." And the do-it-yourself momentum behind home gardening parallels the energy behind literary chapbooks, a traditional form that's finding new popularity and legitimacy in the 21st century. More than a marketing strategy, the sustainability shift is carving out a place for diverse ideas--even in an economic climate where mainstream publishers abhor risk.

South End Press is among those that are crafting alternative models of publishing. The nonprofit, collectively run press has an author list that includes Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, bell hooks, Howard Zinn, Arundhati Roy, and Vandana Shiva. Founded in 1977 in Boston, South End opened a second office in Brooklyn this year to better situate itself financially and as a movement-builder.

The inspiration behind the CSP program is clear. South End's Web site invites potential subscribers to enjoy "a steady crop of books" that feature "all the new varieties and choice heirloom selections free each month." CSP subscriptions start at $20 per month. Members receive a book each month and a 10 percent discount on all further purchases; when no new title is available, members get an item from South End's backlist that is deemed to be timely. During this year's health-care debate, CSP members received Sickness and Wealth: The Corporate Assault on Global Health, a 2004 anthology of essays.

Asha Tall of the South End collective said that the publisher explicitly borrowed from the food movement's CSA model when it developed its community-supported publishing program in 2006. "We were looking for ways to engage more directly with readers," Tall says. At the same time, "rail adds, the CSP program was intended to "relieve the effects of the consolidation of book distribution."

With about a hundred CSP members, South End can count on a certain number of sales up front, allowing it to effectively underwrite its projects. The program brings in money throughout the year from supportive readers, rather than depending on the whims of holiday shoppers. Alex Straaik, an editor at South End and a collective member, says that "with a holiday gift subscription drive and by spreading the word to our new allies in Brooklyn," the publisher intends to significantly grow the program.

South End is looking for people like Soula Pefkaros, a 28-year-old activist in Virginia who is the creator of a documentary photo exhibit about "small ecologically conscious farming and the people building an alternative food paradigm," as she describes it. Pefkaros is willing to apply those beliefs to her reading habits as well--she spent a year as a member of South End's CSP program and plans to rejoin soon. "I intend to have a CSP again in the future because, first, it makes me feel good and I enjoy their books; and second, I want to keep supporting an organization that plays such a vital role in meaningful social change," Pefkaros says. …

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