While more than 200 booksellers participated in tours of Cincinnati area bookstores on Sunday, about 60 publishers and their reps kicked off Winter Institute 2024 at the Independent Publishers Caucus's Indie Press Summit. After remarks, by American Booksellers Association CEO Allison Hill and Book Industry Charitable (Binc) Foundation executive director Pamela French, welcoming publishers and thanking them for their contributions to the industry, IPC's new executive director, Daniel O’Brien, introduced the keynote speaker, Hanif Abdurraqib, whose most recent book, There’s Always This Year, will be published in March by Penguin Random House. During his presentation, Abdurraqib critiqued the large houses and emphasized the importance of independent presses to his own career and to the book publishing ecosystem.
Recalling that his writing career began with the ‘zine scene in Columbus, Ohio, in the early 2000s, Abdurraqib noted that, at the time, “everyone wanted one, but no one wanted to write them,” so his “first writing felt like it served a purpose.” His philosophy of writing always has been, he said, “I saw something that was miraculous; you were not there; I’m going to tell you the story that makes you feel that you were there.”
Abdurraqib noted that he “didn’t know this, or register this back then, but this was my first foray into independent publishing,” defining independent publishers as “people with an idea chasing after that idea, bringing people along with them to fulfill that idea.” Explaining that he’d initially wanted to write “one book and that was it,” Abdurraqib’s debut was a poetry collection, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much (Button Poetry, 2016).
At about the same time, Eric Obenauf of Two Dollar Radio reached out to him to discuss publishing a collection of his essays on music, culture, and identity. Visiting Two Dollar’s headquarters, then in Obenauf’s home in Columbus, Abdurraqib recalled, “I saw these books that he and Eliza [editor Eliza Wood-Obenauf] were shipping out of their basement to reach people,” and “I thought, this is as close to the ethos of publishing as I always understood it. Someone makes something, and someone else labors really intensely out of love and care to get that thing into the hands of people.”
Two Dollar Radio published Abdurraqib’s debut essay collection, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, in 2017. Since then, Abdurraqib has been published by the University of Texas Press (Go Ahead in the Rain, 2019); Tin House (A Fortune for Your Disaster, 2019); and PRG (A Little Devil in America, 2021).
“That bridge I had between working with Two Dollar Radio and working with UT Press taught me pretty much everything I needed to know to empower myself to keep writing,” Abdurraqib said, praising both presses for allowing him so much input during the book design process. “By the time Random House came calling, there was a standard I had set in place,” he added. “I’d learned how to care for the books; I’d learned to make my books look like I wanted them to and have the work inside that I wanted to have. I’d learned to take risks and have those risks reflected on the text. I’m not going to sacrifice that; because if I sacrifice that, then I will lose the voice that I earned with these people.”
Noting that his most recent publisher is PRH, Abdurraqib—who, in a addition to his writing career, is nonfiction editor-at-large at Tin House—maintained that indie presses are not “a starting ground for weirdos,” but, rather, are “a clarifying point for what a voice already is, a reshaping point for what a voice already is.” He added that, even though he currently is published by a big house, he remains more drawn to independent publishers that don’t treat authors and their work “as a product.”
Noting that bestsellerdom is “fleeting,” Abdurraqib praised indie presses for caring more about their books getting into the hands of people who will enjoy them than being “popular.” They Can’t Kill Us “has endured for six years,” he noted. “Early on, we made the clear decision: how do we get this book into the hands of people who might be affected by it? It doesn’t matter if the book is popular or if it is a New York Times bestseller. They Can’t Kill Us never was—but it has a long life. And it has a long life because the people who cared for it initially are still caring for it now.”
Noting that the consolidation of the large houses has resulted in a “homogeneity” in who and what is being published by them, Abdurraqib noted that indie presses are more important than ever "for complications of narratives, for nuance, for conversations that are perhaps happening in parts of the country that don’t get exactly that kind of platform to have those conversations.” He also urged the audience to publish diverse authors who live outside of metro areas, such as “indigenous stories in South Dakota.”
“As readers, as writers, and specifically as independent publishers,” Abdurraqib said, the most important task is “to seek the voices that otherwise will not have a say at the large table. If we collectively as readers, as writers, as publishers, disrupt the hierarchy by [deciding] who’s writing about what, who’s getting to hear these stories, that reshapes the country in a more effective way than a flash-in-the-pan incendiary book that’s a bestseller that people forget about in a year—or less than a year.”
After an opening reception on Sunday evening that featured a prancing red Chinese dragon and drummers from the Ohio Wushu Academy in celebration of the Lunar New Year, WI2024 will officially kick off this morning with a breakfast keynote presentation by entrepreneur James Rhee. The gathering of 1,100 booksellers, publisher reps, and authors will continue through Wednesday afternoon.