Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Of Politics, Publishing and the People: City Lights Book Store Shines

Even the name is evocative and meaningful: first a Chaplin film, then the title of a literary magazine, finally the name of the iconic San Francisco bookstore and independent press which straddles Chinatown and North Beach. But City Lights is on the cusp of more than just urban divisions; it’s a place that doesn't shy away from protests or avoid the political. And as I walk through the door, I sense that this is not to be a typical book buying experience. Staff members are infinitively knowledgeable about not only what City Lights sells, but also what they publish. And it is their published monographs, not bargain books, which take a place of prominence here. From icons like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac to lesser known but equally smart authors like Toronto-based Hal Niedzviecki, this press publishes a range of titles. As the name suggests, City Lights is a beacon of truth in the books they make available.

Like most other independent presses, this San Francisco landmark publishes not just what will sell, but what needs to be said. City Lights produces only about a dozen books a year, confirming their status as a discerning, not prolific, publisher. As bookstore, small press, and foundation (committed to ‘deep literacy’: the ability to not only read, but also think critically about what you’ve read) – buyer, seller, and advocate of books – City Lights serves an interesting function in the publishing food chain.

For anyone curious about the publishing industry, check out the October 2011 issue of Vanity Fair. “The Book on Publishing” describes the workings of everything from agents, to imprints, to editorial control. (The article actually mentions “the beloved” City Lights bookstore!) I had no idea how oligopolistic this industry is, controlled by the Big Six Publishers: Hachette, HarperCollins, MacMillan, Penguin, Random House, and Simon & Schuster.

My visit to City Lights bookstore precipitates other interesting questions that Vanity Fair could not answer. In this age of personal technology, why do we need independent presses? Anyone can start an electronic press of sorts with just the click of a mouse. Independent presses often have their niches (for City Lights, its political activism and historical critique) and will publish things that other presses will not. Their mandate is not to publish what will sell, but to sell what needs to be published – telling, not selling. Sales and marketing are admittedly not the strongest point of many small presses: at the fiftieth anniversary of City Lights, they garnished only a few thousand dollars in annual profit.

Independent publishing embraces the kooky. Vancouver’s Anvil Press has a yearly 3-Day Novel Contest over Labour Day weekend where regular people can spend 72 hours frantically writing and then submit their manuscript to Anvil for a chance at publication. I doubt any of the Big Six would have the patience for such shenanigans.

Independent publishing also takes good literature seriously. Canada’s best known small presses include the venerable Coach House Books, Gaspereau Press, and The Porcupine’s Quill, all of which still print and bind their own books. Many readers will remember the debacle when Johanna Skibsrud won the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize for her novel The Sentimentalists (check out the Critics at Large review here). Gaspereau Press, unable to keep pace with the demand precipitated by a Giller win, enlisted help from Douglas & McIntyre to produce paperback versions of Skibsrud’s novel. No matter what your opinion of Gaspereau’s move (pundits were divided on whether the small press sold out or stepped up), there’s no denying that the episode made readers consider the journey a book takes: from author’s mind, to printed page, amid agents and editors, through publishers and presses, and finally onto bookstores shelves and into our hands and hearts.

Up the street from City Lights, on the other side of the proposed Poet's Plaza, is Caffe Trieste, another beat generation hang out. Caffe Trieste is a wonderfully authentic Italian cafĂ© where there is no tall, grande, or venti. Whipped cream comes from a grimy tub beneath the counter, walls are riddled with weathered photos, and most clientele are either writing, reading, or reciting things they have written or read. It’s the perfect reminder that no matter what form the publishing industry takes, “the only necessary parts of the business are writers and readers,” as Amazon’s Kindle VP points out in Vanity Fair’s article. As the publishing industry adapts to the changing ways these two groups can be connected, the ethereal way that hubs like City Lights and Caffe Trieste connect us to ideas cannot be replaced. We can read Jack Kerouac anywhere, but is there anything quite like walking on the road where he walked?

Mari-Beth Slade is a marketer for an accounting firm in Halifax. She enjoys hearing new ideas and challenging assumptions. When not hard at work, she appreciates sharing food, wine and conversations with her family and friends.

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