Small Press vs. Fine Press

Posted on by Jordan Hurder

The debate about what constitutes a small press bears about as much fruit as debating “what is art?”  Really, anyone who does anything to publicize literature could be considered a small press, from someone that runs a blog like Gloom Cupboard or Zygote in my Coffee to someone that painstaking hand-sews letterpress-printed pages into leather-bound deluxe editions.  You could draw the line at “press = paper,” but I really think that there’s very little difference between a publisher who copies and pastes a manuscript into Wordpress and a publisher who copies and pastes a manuscript into a document that is submitted to a print-on-demand service that makes books that are then sold directly on Amazon, all without the publisher ever touching a copy.  The line is always going to be arbitrary – do you have to sew the binding yourself, or can you use a stapler?  Do you have to employ manual methods of printing, or can you use a laser printer?  Does your paper have to be handmade?  How about your ink and your glue?

So, to avoid bloating the term “small press” into uselessness by claiming that it encompasses every word published by contemporary DIY culture, I associate it with some basic concepts:

  • Self-printing: this could mean Xerox, laser, inkjet, by hand, letterpress, silkscreen, woodblock, etc.  As long as YOU, the publisher, did it, and not a service that returned the printed pages to you.
  • Self-binding: staples, thread, animal hide, paper covers, hardcovers, cloth covers, etc… again, as long as YOU did it.
  • Self-fulfilling: meaning, literally, fulfilling orders yourself.  Packing, mailing, stamping, trips to the post office, etc., instead of warehousing your copies at Amazon and running all your payments through them.

Now, to reiterate, this is just my idea of what the small press is, and it is formed by my experience so far with the above categories.  (You know you’re always free to call me an exclusionary bastard in the comments section.)  This encompasses a fairly wide range of outfits as well, from zine-makers with a Kinko’s card and a stapler to experienced book binders with Teflon bone folders and stainless steel scalpels.

My guiding light as a small press publisher, as I stated in a recent post, is to make our publications justify their existence in print.  And this is where I encounter the crossover between the small press and the fine press.  At both extremes, there are books that are simply ridiculous – on the small press side, you have poetry books that are hastily stapled, poorly printed, and just plain ugly to read.  The publisher of a book like this will say that he or she only cares about the writing, man; apparently, all other concerns about form only serve to distract the reader from the author’s genius.  On the other hand, you have books that cost thousands of dollars, even though they only print five lines of a poem by a 16th Century Frenchman you’ve never heard of.  The publisher of this book insists that it’s not just about the writing, kind sir; it is about the craft of bookmaking, the interplay between the delicate grain of the paper, the hand-tooled Moroccan goatskin cover, the custom-formulated ink on the Vandercook press, the handspun slik headbands (are you bored yet?)…

But, there is value in looking at the fine press and emulating what they do while running a small press.  We can’t charge $250 and up for every book we produce, so there’s no way that we can create books that rival those put out by well-known fine presses (such as Whittington Press, Janus Press, Barbarian Press, Sherwin Beach Press, and Kickshaws, just to name a few).  However, these presses are the ones that hit the home runs, when they produce books that strike the absolute perfect balance between engaging text, elegant printing, deluxe materials, and beautiful (but still purposeful) binding.  Whittington Press’s annual deluxe edition of Matrix is a good example of the “perfect book,” in the context of this balance.  But it’s a rare thing, and almost impossibly difficult to achieve.

It all makes my head spin.  At what point does the object begin to overwhelm the content?  That this is such a subjective question only makes it worse.  Looking through catalogs of fine presses sometimes makes the actual content of their books seem like an afterthought; the author I imagine being embarrassed by the terrible small press publication of his work that I mentioned above seems almost to be in a better place than the author whose work recedes into the background, outweighed by the artistry of the book binder.

In pursuing the balance of form and content, I have felt at times that we do our authors a disservice by printing their work on a laser printer – that their writing is good enough to warrant letterpress printing.  I have come close to throwing away finished work because of small blemishes that only a perfectionist would notice.  I have a bad temper, and I often lose it while sitting at my desk looking at warped hardcover boards, crooked bindings, uneven screen printing, etc.  But we aren’t a fine press, and I’m not sure that our customers expect that of us.  Our goal is still to publish writing and art, and to call attention to book design and hand binding, but not to the detriment of the content.  More than that, the goal is for the design to enhance the content, and vice versa – looking at the book as a total package, rather than simply as writing or simply as an object.

We’ll get there, as we both continue to improve our skills as both publishers and book makers.  I’m very impatient, and I’m guilty of wanting to have the expertise of someone like Bill Roberts right away, without putting in the time at my desk, developing that expertise.  And already, 2010 looks like a productive year for us, so I can only imagine what we’ll be doing in 2020.  It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience so far, and I should add that we’re grateful to our repeat-order customers who give us the confidence to push on with our projects.  I write a lot about our goals as publishers on this blog, but I feel just as often that we’re not meeting any of them.  As long as the books are selling, however, we’ll keep doing our best.