"Books can be anything."
Thus spake Peter Workman, editor, iconoclast and all-around visionary founder of the eponymous publishing house when he received a Ben Award from the Small Press Center last week.
The Ben (as in Franklin)—recognizing "outstanding contributions to the field of independent publishing"—was given at the Center's annual benefit in New York. Flanked by two dozen of his Manhattan-based employees, Workman was introduced by both B&N's Steve Riggio and Workman author Sheila (The Silver Palate Cookbook) Lukins, and he waxed philosophical about topics ranging from starting his business 37 years ago to specific books and authors, though he stopped just short of quipping that some of his titles—I'm thinking What to Expect While You're Expecting—have been bestsellers for almost that long.
He also said, in the course of thanking the Center for honoring him, that his company was "not that far from being a small press."
At first I wasn't completely sure what he meant by that—Workman, with its 200 employees and $50 million+ in sales, is, by any definition, a medium-sized, profitable publisher, bigger than but much like, say, Grove Atlantic, which won the award last year. In the past, the Center has awarded its prize to presses like Unicorn (1995) and Pushcart, presses that were, and remain, small by any calculation. But in case you haven't noticed, the business has changed a bit since the Small Press Center was founded 20 years ago. Back then, distribution was the #1 problem for small outfits; the retail scene consisted mostly of independent bookstores—and about twice as many as now. The challenge was to get each store to order your book from you. The leveling effect of Internet ordering was only a glimmer in Jeff Bezos's eye. Today there are many thousands of small presses, more than ever. But now, some of the very best can be found lurking inside of established "big" houses supposedly run by philistine corporate overlords we publicly disdain but privately envy, if only for their deep pockets—think Ecco, Holt and FSG, as well as the family of imprints at Perseus. This mightily helps the distribution problem, as does the solid establishment of small press distributors—PGW, IPG, Consortium and NBN among them—which bring professionalism and clout to the feisty but small.
What Workman meant, I've decided, is that no matter the size, there are publishers who exist in the spirit of the "old time" independents—Barney Rosset and Grove (a 1999 winner) and the New Press (which won in 2000)—and that spirit doesn't necessarily change with the times. What does change is how the marketplace has required these houses to dress themselves. Twenty years ago, an independent press like, say, Dustbooks (the 1990 winner) could go it alone. Today, in the era of consolidation and Internet retailing and the chains—though, please note that the "indie" Workman was introduced by none other than the "big guy," Steve Riggio—the indies seek safety (and solvency) in numbers.
It's axiomatic in the publishing world these days to decry the lack of independent publishers or, at least, to suggest that nobody is paying any attention to them. But neither is true. They're out there: you just have to know where to look.
After all, to paraphrase Peter Workman, "publishing can be anything."