Last week, the Perseus Group announced the closing of two imprints, Carroll & Graf and Thunder's Mouth (their fall lists will be their last). These two houses, each more than 25 years old, were founded in the early days of the small press movement. We talked to C&G; cofounder Herman Graf and Thunder's Mouth founder Neil Ortenberg about their memories of starting out, staying independent and moving on.
Herman Graf: Kent Carroll and I began Carroll & Graf on December 18, 1982. We had not five cents and no bank loan. I'd been in publishing since 1961—Doubleday, McGraw-Hill. I worked for Barney Rosset three times. Those were very exciting times with Barney. If not for his courage, many of the books we have today would not be published. He put himself on the line for literature.
There have been so many changes in the industry over the years. The onset of the huge chains is the biggest development. Years ago, if a book was appealing, it was automatically put in a good spot. Today there is a real estate charge.
I feel very bad about the people who lost their jobs, and that the name of Carroll & Graf will disappear. When companies own companies that they didn't create, it's going to be painful. We created a decent company with some books that will last. Joe Wilson's Act of Treason made a huge difference. Alexander Richie's book on the history of Berlin will be around forever.
I heard that C&G was closed because of “overlap” with other imprints in the Perseus group. I just don't see it. But I'm about to sign a deal to consult and acquire with another outfit, so I'm still in it. I'll be 74 in October, but I feel like I'm 35.
Neil Ortenberg: I started Thunder's Mouth Press in 1981. In the beginning my goals were to publish literary fiction and poetry by high-quality authors. My mentors were Barney Rosset at Grove Press and Glenn Thompson of Writers & Readers. They taught me that publishing could be an art form. My first book was From Sand Creek by the Native-American writer Simon Ortiz. I published reprints by such authors as Nelson Algren, Langston Hughes, John A. Williams, Richard Wright. A great memory was publishing the autobiography of James Brown, who would call me from jail in Atlanta, where he was doing time for drug charges.
The state of independent publishing today is tough, but it always has been! I got out [in 2004] when I could see that Avalon [of which Thunder's Mouth was a part] was bursting at the seams. I knew the next few years would be overwhelmingly frustrating, as recent events have proven. I've since directed and produced a film on Barney Rosset, which we hope to get into the Toronto Film Festival. I am still keeping my options open for a return to books if the right situation unfolded. As for Thunder's Mouth, R.I.P.