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Stop the Postal Rate Hikes — Now

Stamp Out the Rate Hike: Stop the Post Office [updated 5-26-07 with minor corrections and expansion.]

This is what I am increasingly thinking of as a “librarian-forward” issue, one that every reader of this blog can get behind–librarians, library workers, writers, readers, global kibitzers.

The United States Postal Service has unveiled a complex new postal rate plan that, as Ms. Magazine puts it, “unfairly burdens smaller publishers with [much] higher postage rates while locking in special privileges for bigger media companies.” I added the word “much” to that sentence because according to several reports, including one senior editor I spoke with this afternoon, small press publishers could experience postal rates over 11 percent higher than what they now pay, which for periodicals already operating on the margins could lead to stiff subscription fee hikes, operating as they are on such slim margins, where postage and mailing are a very high percentage of their costs.

If you’re on board so far, read no more: go to, sign the petition and send a note to your representative. Then send a note to ALA President Leslie Burger and incoming ALA President Loriene Roy asking ALA to take action on this issue, and ask your ALA councilor what he or she is doing about this issue–if there was ever an issue that justified ALA’s existence, this is it. Otherwise, read on…

The unduly heavy rate increases endanger small literary presses and independent journals and magazines (which you can learn more about through Stiff rate hikes mean most of us personal subscribers doing “rotating subscriptions” (six here this year, six there the next) will have to cut back (though I am determined to add more subscriptions next year, possibly at the cost of dark beer or electronic trinkets).

While in a fair world increases to the small presses should not affect larger collection budgets that much–we’re not talking Elsevier, we’re talking journal subscriptions in the low double digits, $18 here, $40 there–some libraries may drop existing subscriptions, and certainly price hikes are never an incentive to start new subscriptions. Some small presses might fold.

Is this the world we want to live in?

The small-press world is a fragile ecology, one hard to explain to others because its efforts are driven by the twin planets of rigor and passion. You don’t write for The Sun or Ms. or Gastronomica or White Crane to pay the rent; you might get a nominal payment or a subscription, but the real reward is that swooning sensation when a piece is finally accepted, a frisson down your spine only equal to sensations as erotically potent as the brush of a lover’s hand. It is very much a creative community; there must be small-press readers who do not publish, but I imagine every reader of a literary journal has at least a story to tell, if he or she has not tried to set it to paper–or paint or clay or metalworks or music or dance–at least once.

(I have found a modest cult of librarians who publish in the small presses; in the past month I’ve found an essay by Thomas Washington in the Antioch Review, and another by Jim Van Buskirk in White Crane. We’ll all have to get together at ALA over a cuppa, and discuss our erotic frissons.)

The small presses are not quite the minor leagues, exactly; some of the best writing happens in the small presses, but it’s the kind of work you may not be able to publish anywhere else, and often wouldn’t care to. (I’m carefully avoiding the word “experimental,” since I believe all writing, like all cooking, is fundamentally experimental.)  There’s not much traffic in sonnets and braided lyric essays in the mainstream press–which got a break on postal hikes, compared to the small press, and if they had any sense of decency would be speaking on behalf of their sweetly weird little cousins.

As I wrote earlier, the small presses also review their own kind, making the “quarterlies,” as some call them, an important alternative to the dictates of mainstream reviewing (or for a more neutral and pragmatic perspective, a series of useful catchbasins for the sheer quantity of literature deserving of review by someone, somwhere). The small presses — to borrow from a bumper sticker popular in the 1960s — subvert the dominant paradigm. In the mainstream press, the pecking order is the Important Novelists first, then well-publicized novelists, then short story writers, the occasional essay collection, and once a year, perhaps, the poor poets. I think of litblogs as delectable wildcards; what will The Elegant Variation write about next? But the quarterlies, like Sun Tzu, have their own sly logic, whether reviewing the under-reviewed or scratching out the third dimension of an author we think we know. I can finish the New York Times Book Review and feel edified and amused, but the reviews in the quarterlies almost always shock (why didn’t I learn about The Catastrophist while I was in academia?) and awe (David Sedaris doesn’t do email? Ever?).

Because of their focus, the small presses are the place you take a piece written strictly on its own terms, one that has suffered the rigors of serious writing–the hours barricaded in your office on a sunny afternoon, the shame of a review by writing peers that points out every weakness you thought you had avoided, the Jack-in-The Shining repetition of revising the same paragraph over and over and OMG OVER AND OVER!!! — a piece that now needs readers who will read it with the same indulgent care you took in creating it, which you did without worrying whether the world loves sonnets, or braided lyric essays, or second-person narrators, or experiments in recapturing the echt-hip sensibilities of Palm Springs in the 1950s. Knowing, in fact, that the readers are looking for something fresh and powerful — unapologetically full-tilt writing.

The level of attention is perhaps this is what I love best about the small presses: the sense that as reader and writer, I am participating in a careful community, one that still reads word by word. I remember in one workshop Aaron Shurin gave our class a pop quiz that asked, “Why are sentences wonderful?” I read entire mainstream magazines where sentences are not wonderful. I read the small presses because there, the sentences almost always grab my face and shake it.

I am fortunate that I have a wonderful bully-pulpit this coming week: I am keynoting at the North American Serials Interest Group conference, and my topic–“Libraries are in a state of emergency”–is an easy framework for proselytizing to a core community (in between taking on Portico, OCLC, Google Book Project, and last-generation cataloging practices; if I don’t push a few buttons that day, I give up).

But don’t leave it just to me. If you care about sustaining a global marketplace of ideas, please take action now, encourage action, and keep this issue on your radar scope. For that matter, you could even push the idea that the libraries in your area should subscribe to a few of these journals–who knows, you may have a few full-tilt readers of your own.

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