Independent Publishers Make their Presence Felt at the 2014 Texas Book Festival
When the estimated mob of 40,000 descends on the Texas statehouse this weekend for the Texas Book Festival, Bryce Milligan of San Antonio’s Wings Press hopes at least a few of them will be there to hear his authors speak. After all, how often does an independent publisher in Texas get a chance to reach 40,000 potential readers?
With five of its authors on this year’s Texas Book Festival (TBF) events schedule, Wings Press will be among the most prominently featured state indie presses. Others include El Paso’s Cinco Puntos Press (with three authors featured on panels), Arte Público Press of Houston (seven), Austin’s A Strange Object (two) and newcomer Deep Vellum out of Dallas (one).
Many of these presses are happy to have simply made it through another year. “The biggest challenge [for Texas indie presses],” Milligan says, “is purely business. Getting reviews from the major trade journals has become a money game requiring one to pay for reviews—which I don’t do—or purchase advertising. There is undoubted bias against Texas presses in the review media.”
These five writers and more will also make appearances at the Wings Press exhibitor booth, allowing for the sort of direct author-reader contact that can be difficult to come by for indie presses, particularly in Texas. “So much of the book industry is located in New York, and much like the city itself, the book industry is so incredibly parochial that is still grapples to comprehend the existence of Brooklyn, let alone the rest of the United States,” says John Byrd, marketing director at Cinco Puntos.
Houston’s Arte Público Press, among the oldest publishers of Hispanic literature in the U.S., refers to itself as “David to New York publishing industry Goliaths.” Being an underdog brings plenty of challenges, according to Marina Tristán, assistant director at Arte Público, “including the fact that we don’t have the support that comes with being part of a huge multinational conglomerate with ties to the media.” Like Milligan, Tristán struggles to land reviews for Arte Público’s titles. “The decline of print newspapers means there are fewer traditional opportunities for book reviews,” she says. “The hardest thing about being based in Texas is that we’re somewhat removed from the publishing industry, which means it’s more difficult to get face time with key people, [including] reviewers.”
Unfortunately, you won’t be able to meet these writers at an Arte Público exhibitor booth; Tristán says the publisher couldn’t afford one. “Our resources—both human and financial—are limited,” Tristán says. “We can’t do everything we would like to do.”
But as long as Arte Público keeps printing successful titles (such as Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, originally published by Arte Público in 1984), it should at least be able to keep afloat and continue its mission. “The need for books that reflect Latinos’ contributions to U.S. society is really critical, particularly given the rapidly growing Hispanic population,” Tristán says. “The work that Arte Público does is important for everyone, because Latinos have been a part of the U.S. since before the British landed at Plymouth Rock, but, until recently, those contributions have not been valued or included in U.S. culture, literature, and history.”
But Collins and her co-director, Jill Meyers, have good reason to think they can overcome that challenge.
“Indie publishers are small and nimble enough to take on debut writers, diverse books, and work that is out of the ordinary,” Collins says. “We’re finding that readers seek out independent houses for their highly focused lists and their killer taste. It boils down to something pretty simple: We find great reward in getting fresh voices into as many heads and hands as possible.”
So it’s a good year for Texas indie presses at the TBF. But if you ask Milligan, Byrd or Tristán, it’s always a good year to be a Texas indie press, despite the challenges.
“I love unpacking the boxes of books that we bring to book festivals and arranging them on the table for sale” Byrd says. “Sometimes when I’m toiling away in the office I lose track of the reason we do what we do. But when I start pulling the books out of those boxes, I get so excited to see all these wonderful books that we’ve helped bring into the world.”
Being an indie press in Texas may not be “a game plan for making a fortune,” Milligan says, “but it does make for interesting literature, and it does offer a voice to those who have had difficulty being heard.” And so, he says, “We struggle on.”To support journalism like this, donate to the Texas Observer.