The Other 90 Percent

What Your MLS Didn't Teach You

By Byron Anderson, Head of Reference, Northern Ilinois University Libraries

[Published originally in Counterpoise Vol. 3, No. 3/4, July/October 1999 and republished with permission.]

This paper is based on participation in the panel discussion, Alternative Press and Intellectual Freedom," sponsored by the Alternatives in Print Task Force and presented June 27, 1999 as part of the American Library Association's Annual Conference, New Orleans, Louisiana.

In order to understand today's book publishing industry, it is helpful to understand some statistics and definitions that go along with the industry. All figures presented are approximate and gathered from reliable sources. More than 600 mergers and acquisitions have been reported in the U. S. book industry since the 1960s, a long-term trend expected to continue. Each year during the 1990s, approximately 65,000 titles were published in the United States. Eighty percent of all trade titles came from the five largest publishing conglomerates. The term trade books" is imprecise and generally taken to mean adult fiction and nonfiction, paperbacks and children's books intended for the general public and marketed through bookstores, including online sales and libraries. They are distinct from textbooks, subscription books, book clubs, etc. The 1990s had some revolving at the top among the five largest publishing conglomerates but generally included Bertelsmann AG, S. I. Newhouse (Advance Publications), Viacom, von Holtzbrink, and Pearson. With the purchase of Random House from the Newhouse family, the Bertelsmann Group alone is responsible for more than 30 percent of the U. S. trade books and close to 40 percent of the best sellers.

There are several terms used to describe the small press, and these are often used interchangeably. The term independent press" has gained in popularity and is commonly used in lieu of small press." Independent publishers are independent of corporate ownership and make up more than 53,000 presses in the United States. Independent presses are not necessarily small, for example, Grove Atlantic and W. W. Norton publish more than one hundred titles per year. Publications from independent presses cover a wider range of subjects than publications from corporate-controlled presses. The publications come from a greater variety of places than do mainstream publications and include academic institutions, associations, literary groups, home-based and one-person operations, hobbyist or collector's clubs and think tanks.

A subset of the independent press is called the alternative or progressive press. Though difficult to define, the uniqueness of progressive presses lies in giving voice to marginalized groups, emerging writers and poets, thought-provoking and sometimes thought-disturbing ideas and translations of international writers.

Unless aggressively pursued, librarians would be fortunate to be aware of even 10 percent of the publishers publishing today. The other 90 percent remain obscure. Library collections represent only a fraction of the true diversity of books available. While a library cannot collect everything, most librarians are not even aware of many publications available in their effort to build a collection. Examples of alternative publications generally absent from library collections include:

Translated works about the Third World by indigenous writers.

Topics of anarchism, poverty, labor, erotica, human rights, and peace studies.

Most books of poetry.

The writings of many new and lesser known authors.

There is a persistent myth that publications from small presses are the leftovers or rejects screened out by the rigorous" editorial standards set by editors at mainstream presses. If a manuscript can't cut it with the big houses, the authors submit to the smaller houses. With some exception, this is simply not true. In mainstream presses, decisions to print are market-based, that is, books are based on profit potential. In independent presses, especially progressive presses, decisions to print are topic-based or based on literary merit, that is, books are mission-driven or have something to say.

Inadequacies of standard library and information science textbooks

The failure of librarians to consider the independent press as an entity worthy of collecting begins in the curricula for library and information science (LIS). In collection development coursework, students are introduced to basic tools used in building a collection. The critique here is not in what students are taught, but in what they're not taught. Textbooks used in collection development classes, such as Elizabeth Futas' Collection Development Policies and Procedures, 3rd ed. (1995), lack certain headings in the subject index: for example, Small press, Independent press, Alternative press and Progressive press. More surprisingly, the index has no listing for publishers, presses, vendors, distributors or wholesalers. There is only one page devoted to approval plans. This strongly indicates that students are not introduced to the publishing industry, including how publishers and librarians should interact with each other.

G. Edward Evans' Developing Library and Information Centers, 3rd ed. (1995), presents a number of guidelines to use when developing collections. First, "Select items useful to clients." But there is no explanation of what is useful." It would be better to teach librarians how to develop a diverse collection and let patrons decide what is of use to them. Second, "Select only items of lasting, literary or social value." But without exposure to alternative presses, librarians are likely to select materials that reflect mainstream values. Third, "Select based on the demand for the material." But reader preferences can be rigged to create demand; for example consider the Princess Di publication industry. Librarians need to realize that there will be little or no demand for small press items. It's up to librarians to make these publications available.

Inadequacies of collection development policies

For libraries maintaining collection development policies, criteria for selection usually include components that do not fit the alternative press. First, "Suitability of subject and style for intended audience." Progressive publications are rarely targeted to suit reader tastes, but rather are challenging and thought disturbing.

Second, "Collect based on the reputation or significance of the author and publisher." Small presses will rarely have a reputation," and most of the authors will be unknown.

Third, "Collect based on popular appeal." Alternative press publications are not trying to compete with popular best sellers. The writing and content are not trying to suit mass market mentalities.

Finally, "Collect based on the number and nature of requests from patrons." Patrons will not request what they don't know, and most will be unaware of small press publications.

Collection development policies can contain criteria worthy of consideration in any library:

First, collect based on insight into human and social conditions.

Second, collect based on relevance to the experience and contributions of diverse populations.

Third, collect based on representation of a minority point of view.

Finally, this statement from the Greenville County (SC) Public Library:

The library does not act as an agent for or against a particular issue. The disapproval of materials by one individual or group should not be the means of denying those materials to all groups if, by library selection standards, they belong in the collection.

These criteria form a basis for the consideration and purchase of progressive publications.

Inadequacies of collection development textbooks

Collection development textbooks recommend bibliographic tools that leave out many alternative materials. These tools often begin with Books in Print. While expansive, this title misses many small presses and their publications. Even Len Fulton's International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses, while significant for building collections, lists approximately 6,000 presses, a small fraction of worldwide presses.

Second, textbooks will typically recommend that librarians "follow through on publishers' catalogs, flyers and advertisements." Independent presses cannot afford to market heavily, if at all, and corporate publishing houses are prolific mailers and advertisers. Often, they set out with a marketing plan in mind designed to create a demand for their materials.

Third, textbooks state that an item being considered for selection "should have been favorably reviewed in two or more sources." Of the 65,000 or so items published in the United States each year, approximately 10 percent are reviewed, and most of these books are published by fewer than 200 presses.

Finally, textbooks state that recommended" or best" lists should be used in developing a collection because the leg work" has been done in singling out worthwhile titles. The compilation of these lists rarely reviews titles published by progressive presses. For example, the Best Books of 1998" list in the Bowkers Annual Library and Book Trade (1999), put together by the Notable Books Council of the Reference and User Services Division of ALA, has five categories, covering areas from fiction to children's books, totaling 159 titles. Of these, only four titles—all children's books—were from two alternative presses that were profiled in the Alternative Publishers of Books in North America, 4th ed. (1999). This directory profiles 148 significant alternative presses which total hundreds of titles published during 1998. Surely, many titles worthy of consideration were missed as part of the "Best Books" recommendations.

Views of library educators

To examine what library and information educators say about the current state of their profession, one can turn to the Congress on Professional Education, co-sponsored by the American Library Association, held April 30 to May 1, 1999 in Washington, D.C. . Keywords and phrases taken from the "Statement on LIS Curricula" for the Congress include "leadership and management skills," "recognizing the fluidity of information channels," "marketing," "entrepreneurship," "grant writing," "multitasking," "strong technical abilities," "webmasters," "digital preservation," and "systems design." New topics for LIS course development were also identified in the five-year study funded by Kellogg and conducted by the Association for Library and Information Science Education, 1996-2000. Courses identified were Advanced Information Technology Design and Analysis; Advanced Studies in Intranet and Internet Design and Development; Data Mining; Digital Libraries; Electronic Commerce; and Information Policy. While the profession is headed in many of these directions, what's interesting is in what's missing. Besides lacking the word service (a separate concern), there is no mention of publishers or the publishing industry - print, online or otherwise.

LIS curricula should include instruction in the publishing industry. Students should know something about the marketing techniques of the publishing industry and the distribution channels for books. A book chapter by Patricia Glass Schuman and Charles Harmon titled "The Business of Book Publishing" in the ALA publication, Understanding the Business of Library Acquisitions, 2nd ed. (1999), Karen A. Schmidt, editor, lists the following concerns:

Librarians and publishers as professions are frequently unaware of the methodologies, economics, impacts and policies of the other.

There are few formal education programs for those in the publishing industry.

Few library education programs offer courses about the publishing industry.

Libraries are somewhat of an invisible market for many publishers, since a majority of libraries purchase books and journals through wholesalers rather than directly from publishers.

The Importance of learning about publishers and booksellers

A key to diverse library collections is publisher relations. Get to know who's publishing what and how to seek out small presses. Understand a library's acquisition process, including approval plans and standing orders, and the process used to add a particular item to a collection. Know how to order publications from small publishing houses, especially those with no distributor. Realize that most small presses will never find a library or bookstore market for their publications, nor are they trying to. Ensure by policy that small press material is represented in the collection. These ideas should be taught in the classroom and put to work in every library.

What you can do to link libraries and the independent press

Actions can be taken to create links between libraries and the independent press. First, become aware of organizations working to get small press materials into libraries and bookstores, such as the Independent Press Association , Small Press Distribution , the Alternative Press Center and the Women's Presses Library Project .

Second, join ALA committees committed to creating an awareness of the independent press and promoting its use in libraries. Especially valid is the Social Responsibilities Round Table's Alternatives Media Task Force .

Third, advocate issues surrounding progressive literature, particularly intellectual freedom, the freedom to read and the right to access. Read through ALA's "An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights" .

Finally, advocate library collections that reflect the true diversity of society.