There are few genres that owe as much to small press as weird literature.
It could be argued quite strongly that there would not even be a genre of weird literature were it not for small press. It has been these companies that have kept the genre alive and flourishing for decades as well as preserving the history of the genre. It’s an interesting thing, really. How fans can keep something alive when most professional publishers have little to no interest in it.
Oh, sure, Stephen King will never have a problem finding a publisher. Neither will Dean Koontz, unfortunately. The ones with proven sales records will do just fine, thank you very much. But, in this time of dwindling economies and shrinking publishers, it’s the other writers who will suffer.
And that is where the small press comes in.
Writers like Laird Barron or Wilum Pugmire, who might be ignored by the huge mega-publishers are welcomed by smaller publishers like Centipede Press and Dark Regions Press and many others. Classic writers like Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood and William Hope Hodgson are kept alive by these small presses and introduced to new generations of readers.
The history of small press is well known to many acolytes. All know the tale of how August Derleth’s Arkham House preserved Lovecraft’s works until such time as he could be properly appreciated. Derleth championed many other writers both classic and new like Fritz Leiber and Ramsey Campbell. Where would these writers be today if not for the efforts of Derleth and other small presses? Where, in fact, would we be as readers and lovers of this genre?
But is this truly the best of all possible worlds for writers and readers?
There are probably more small presses operating now than at any other time in the history of weird literature. Part of this is due to the revolution in printing which enables virtually anyone with access to a computer the ability to become a publisher. Also, the creation of print-on-demand has decreased costs to the point where even the most marginal of books can be published without concerns about budgets and expenses. We are literally suffering from an embarrassment of riches.
Except that there are so many publishers (new ones almost every day, it seems) that it’s next to impossible to keep up with them. The field itself has expanded to the point where (unlike the 60s or 70s) you can’t be aware of everything anymore. By such diffusion, we are lessened. The audience for many books may go untapped simply because they can’t find out about the books until it’s too lake. And over expansion has its own risks as has been seen with Night Shade Books recently.
And then there’s the cost.
Some small presses specialize in expensive, limited editions that costs hundreds of dollars. I am unconvinced of the argument for these. I have always thought (admittedly from a reader’s standpoint) that the primary focus is to get the material out there so people can read it. However, I can see where high priced editions help to keep a press running. It is a contradiction that I have yet to resolve within myself primarily because I cannot afford these high prices no matter how much I might want a copy of the book.
Aside from major name authors, the mainstream publishing industry has forgotten weird literature. That is not likely to change until such time, if ever, another sales hurricane like King comes along. So the genre is left to the small press to preserve and expand, if it can.
And although there are many of us who are quite content with this state of being, should we be? There is much about genre fiction that is still suffering from a ‘ghettorization’. Science Fiction and Fantasy, while still popular with even mainstream publishers (especially since the influx of Hollywood attention and money), maintains an air of being in a minority. Even more so with weird fiction.
By keeping ourselves in our self-determined underground, we may even be doing a disservice to our genre. But it’s nice here, isn’t it? We all get to know each other and share in a comradeship that we may not feel anywhere else. It’s easy to become proprietary this way. To feel that writers like Thomas Ligotti and Caitlin R. Kiernan belong to us and not those others. I know how that is because I used to feel that way about Lovecraft.
When I discovered Lovecraft in the late 1970s, it was a time when most people still had no idea who he was and they’d certainly never heard of Cthulhu or anything else from the stories. That made it personal. That made it special. Necronomicon Press had just started publishing a few years earlier and I was there in the beginning when things really started to take off. Suddenly there were movies based on Lovecraft and corrected texts and scholarly volumes devoted to critical analyses. Lovecraft was on his way to not only becoming a respected writer but a pop icon as well.
And there was a lot about that which I didn’t like.
Because Lovecraft was no longer mine. He no longer even belonged to our select group, the “Providence Pals”. In a way, Lovecraft ‘grew up’ and I was left behind like that high school kid who never leaves their home town. And I resented it. I felt insulted. Who were these ‘upstarts’ who thought that they knew Lovecraft? And how dare they go and do all these things without asking me or the “Providence Pals”? Until I realized that the relationship I’d had with Lovecraft was the same one that they had also had and mine was no more or less important than theirs had been.
I had to let Lovecraft go because he did not belong just to me or to our little group. And he did not belong just to small press either. He was greater than that and deserved to be read by far more people as are so many writers in small press. But there are still times when I miss those days when just the five of us would sit in the now long forgotten McDonald’s on Angell Street in Providence and talk about the stories that no one else knew and delight in the knowledge that we walked down Lovecraft’s streets surrounded by people who’d never know or understand the importance of that information. But we all grow up eventually.