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Just what is a small press?

Ask the head of a large publishing company if literature in America is thriving right now, and he or she is likely to give you an emphatic no, citing hard times, a decline in literacy, and stiff competition from TV and movies.

But ask Bob Fox, and he'll tell you there's a veritable renaissance under way.

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Mr. fox, founder of the Carpenter Press in Pomeroy, Ohio, insists that writing is indeed experiencing a period of resurgence in the US, but that the general public is hardly aware of it. The reason: Large, highly visible publishing houses, many of which have become more concerned with balance sheets than quality books, can't afford to take a chance on all but a tiny handful of the nation's new writers, he says.

In an article for the Ohio Library Association Bulletin (also available in reprint from the Carpenter Press, Route 4, Pomeroy Ohio 45769, for $1 postpaid), Mr. Fox notes that these dominant publishers usually have to sell 10,000 copies of a new book to break even. Their profit margins are so slim they're now devoting considerable attention to blockbusters, well-known authors, film and paperback rights, and schemes to imitate earlier successes.

The vast majority of new writers, therefore, are forced to look for a publishers with a lower overhead, a firm that can survive on sales of less than 10,000. Otherwise these writers must resort to publishing their own works, in the noble tradition of Pope, Blake, Burns, Irving, Whitman, and Twain.

The mass-marketing emphasis of the large publishers, combined with the availability of government and foundation money and inexpensive computer typesetting equipment and offset printing facilities, have resulted in phenomenal growth in the US small press movement. Today there are 3,500 firms while 17 years ago there were only about 100, according Ellen Ferber, co-editor of the International Directory of Literary Magazines and Small Presses (Dust Books, PO Box 100, Paradise, Calif. 95969), the movement's "Yellow Pages." She points out that about 1,600 of the presses publish magazines as well as books, a few of them magazines only.

Often located in spare rooms or low-rent buildings, these firms typically are run by writers, poets, or small business entrepreneurs with a special love of literature. Ordinarily they have fewer than five full-time employees who solicit and edit manuscripts, prepare catalogs or flyers, stuff envelopes, process orders, pack shipping cartons -- often all in one tiny room. A few of the presses do their own typesetting and printing; most contract this work instead.

Some of the books amateurish; others are comparable in appearance and binding to the vast majority on bookstore shelves; a few far exceed ordinary standards of design, paper, and printing. Some are written for a general audience, others for a small circle of like-minded readers; still others are so highly personal they seem to be exercises in self-expression, without any thought to an audience.

Where does the general reader find these books? A few are in bookstores nationwide. Usually these are handled by the five or six large distributors of small-press books, which include Bookpeople and Serendipity in Berkeley, Calif., Bookslinger in Minneapolis, and the Independent Publishers Group in New York City.

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But more typically, small-press books are sprinkled in a few specialty bookstores or are publicized in catalogs and flyers and sold by direct mail. Small-press books are not widely reviewed, except in the handful of publications that give them special attention. These include the Small Press Review published by Dust Books, the Bloomsbury Review in Denver, and the New Boston Review in Boston. The Pushcart Press is Wainscott, N.Y., publishes a wide-ranging small press anthology each year (see review Page B5) that can alert readers to both presses and writers.

How do people get involed in independent publishing? A few, such as Lovell Thompson, come from large firms. After retiring from a well-known Boston house where he headed the trade book division, Mr. Thompson started Gambit, a press in Ipswich, Mass., that published five titles last year.

Mr. Thompson recently addressed Radcliffe's publishing procedures course in Cambridge, Mass., contrasting the aims of the small publisher to the large. "You're in business to find a market for good books; the big publisher is in the business to find a good market for books," he told the students. "When you have stockholders who want their dividend, you have to think of profit first, quality second. . . . The necessity year by year to have a list -- a certain number of books -- whether it's good list or a bad list . . . is a trap to be avoided."

Many independent publishers start with little or no prior experience. For example, allan Kornblum started the Toothpaste Press in Iowa City 11 years ago, soon after leaving college, where he had been introduced to fine printing. His first publication was a mimeographed poetry magazine.

Today Mr. Kornblum is producing elegant books in editions of 200. For these he uses imported, handmade paper and letterpress printing. He also publishes less elaborate books in printings of about 1,100.

Mr. Kornblum helps support his company by printing business cards, wedding invitations, and material for other publishers. And like many other small press publishers, he received grant money from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) until the Reagan administration announced its budget cuts.

Last year NEA money amounted to 20 percent of Toothpaste's budget. The NEA support allowed the press to keep prices down on the larger printings to about $ 5 per book, permitting distributors to sell to bookstores at the standard discount. "I really view the NEA help as a price support," says Mr. Kornblum. "The milk industry and the Tobacco industry receive price supports. Last year it turned out that our subsidy amounted to $1.25 a book. That's a reasonable thing for the government to do to help a small business keep its prices reasonable, so as to compete. I wish it would be thought of that way instead of as 'giving money to the arts.'

"Of course, it's not being thought of that way, and so to survive I'm going to have to get smart and stay on top of my game. But we're going to do it," he says, adding that might mean turning more oftern to better-known writers rather than newcomers and doing more work for other publishers.

Still another route into small publishing is the road traveled by many writers who can't interest large firms in their work. Twelve years ago John Muir, for instance, wrote a book that was turned down by one East Coal publisher after another. He finally decided to produce it himself. He loaded the first printing of 2,500 copies into his van and drove up and down the West Coast calling on bookstores. Today that book. "How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive," has 1.4 million copies in print, and is back for its 24th printing. John Muir Publications in Santa Fe, N.M., is publishing a number of other authors as well.

The stories go on and on. With a investment of time, energy, and not too much cash, anyone with a message or an entrepreneurial urge can start a small press. These presses seem to represent one more channel for expressing the diversity of opinion and taste that is especially valued and protected in the US. People who are comitted to having their voices heard -- and whose messages can't be mass marketed -- are likely to end up as part of today's small press literary renaissance.

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