South End Press: 25 Years of Activist Publishing

Lydia Sargent

It’s 1975 and you’ve spent
years fighting the U.S. government’s war in Vietnam and have no intention of
participating in “the system” that waged that war. What do you do? Well, if
you’re me, you do what any 1960s/1970s white middle class activist does. You go
to grad school, in my case to get certified to teach sports. The last thing
you’re thinking of is creating a media institution. So, when an activist friend,
Michael Albert suggested publishing books that would reflect the politics,
analysis, and critique of the 1960’s new left, I thought it was (a) impossible;
(b) dull (not wild in the streets); (c) not for me, my skills lay elsewhere; (d)
going to be sexist, and I would end up cleaning the office and doing the typing,
feminist consciousness not withstanding.

 When I saw the
initial budget that called for raising, over the next three years, at least
$150,000, when I saw that we were talking about a business that would eventually
generate over $1 million in income, I said this is not going to get off the
ground. On the other hand, we had stopped a war by raising the social costs,
hadn’t we? Sure, there was a need for alternative media, as the revolutionary,
liberatory politics of the 1960s were already being reframed by mainstream
media. Sure, we knew almost nothing about publishing books or building
institutions, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t try.

 So reluctantly,
in 1976, I joined with seven others in regular planning sessions for what became
South End Press. I was willing to do this because I was assured that it would
be: (a) possible; (b) exciting (there would be no recreating the hierarchies,
competition for profit, and all the other grossities we had been criticizing for
years);  and (d) it would be unbelievably non sexist.

 During the next
year, we hammered out a mission statement and a structure and process for a
model democratic workplace, raised the money to buy a five-story building in the
South End of Boston where we would all live and work, moved into that building,
purchased equipment, met with other progressive publishers to learn what to do,
read up on the publishing industry, particularly distribution, located a printer
and a warehouse, taught ourselves to typeset and layout books, and incorporated
as The Institute for Social and Cultural Change, d/b/a South End Press, a
non-profit, tax exempt institution. Since we thought of ourselves as activists
who publish books, we also planned to create as many outlets for new left
politics that we could think of—a journal, a news magazine, a cultural magazine,
a school, a cultural tour, a radio show, a speakers’ bureau, and more.

 By the fall of
1977, six of us were in a building in the South End of Boston, with procedures
in place for a working and living collective. The press would pay room and
board, but no salaries, so everyone had to make a little money on the side. We
announced ourselves to the progressive world of activists, academics, and
writers by producing and mailing an introductory brochure describing our
politics, structure and process, editorial policy, and our promotion and
distribution plans.

  We divided the
work into two categories: editorial/book production and business. Everyone would
be responsible for deciding on what books to publish and for getting them out.
We had policies for our editorial process, our production and design process,
and promotion and distribution. We divided the business area into finances and
fundraising; fulfillment (warehousing, distribution, customer service);
promotion (catalogues, ads); and production. These business jobs were rotated on
a yearly basis (with variations). Some other jobs, such as phone answering,
chairing meetings, mail dole, and cleaning, were rotated on a monthly or weekly
basis. The result of this arrangement of tasks would be, we hoped, balanced job

Our first book
came out in January 1978. We produced six to ten books every year after that. We
almost went bankrupt in 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984. 1985, etc.
Between 1977 and 1987, all but two of the founding staff moved on to other
pursuits. During that time, I helped produce over 150 books and countless
catalogues, flyers, ads, and newsletters. I attended book fairs in Chicago,
Atlanta, London, Frankfurt, and Managua. I went on publishing visits to Poland
and Cuba. I took two sales trips a year to bookstores in Boston, New York,
Philadelphia, and Washington. I also edited a collection of essays, wrote and or
directed two plays a year, and helped raise three children.

Looking back, I
think there were several key reasons for South End’s success.

First, we started
with a clear mission statement. We knew what our purpose and principles were and
why. It was on paper for future collective members to see, it was on the
copyright page or the back page of the books we published. No matter what the
financial situation was, no matter what the internal problems were, our goal was
to get those political books out. The book publishing decisions were informed by
what we thought would be a contribution to analyzing U.S. institutions, to the
left broadly defined, to what we referred to then as “totalist” politics
(recognizing the important of race, gender, and class), and to visions and
strategies for radical social change.

Second, we were
determined not to recreate the hierarchies and oppressions of capitalist work-
places. In fact, it was the experiment in workplace democracy that was the
radical, exciting part of what started to seem like apolitical office work. It
was no easy task to implement our principles of (1) Availability of all
information relevant to decisions for all workers; (2) No hiring and firing
other than by agreement of the whole project; (3) Sharing of fundraising skills,
so no member has sole access to the progressive funding community; (4)
Democratic decision making, one person one vote with attention to a strong
minority; (5) Salary equalization; (6) Equality of work assignments. After all,
you’ve got people who’ve coordinated 20 books and have been through the business
rotation 8 times and they have the same vote and the same salary as someone
who’s half their age and has been there for one minute. On the other hand,
everyone was committed to balancing types of work and to ensuring that our
structure encouraged workplace democracy rather than institutionalizing class,
race, and gender oppressions.

Third, we paid
careful attention to the budget. We got the advice of “movement’ accountants. We
were creative and often aggressive about asking for money. Of course, we
over-estimated how many books we would sell, but we always knew when we were
going to run out of money so we could rally friends and readers to
help—thankfully they almost always came through.

Fourth, we were
committed to our principles but flexible about tactics. For example, in the
beginning everyone had to be part of every decision made, including what cleaner
to use in the bathrooms and the font size of each book. Later, we delegated
decision making and autonomy within work areas, mostly by instituting a yearly
summer policy-making retreat. The retreat agenda usually included a day to
discuss the state of the world and the state of the press; a day to discuss
publishing priorities for the coming year; two days to discuss internal process
and structure; a day to discuss changes in policy and priorities for promotion,
fundraising, etc.; a day to do a budget; and hopefully a day left over to hang
out, swim, etc. This yearly planning and prioritizing meant that individuals and
departments made their own decisions and only came to the whole collective if
they wanted to propose changes in policy or spend more money than was budgeted.

Fifth, our
democratic voting structure of majority with attention to a strong minority
worked. We never tried to get everyone to agree—except on bringing in new
collective members. In fact, we wanted to know where the disagreements were. We
wanted people in the minority on a decision to argue for their views and, on
numerous occasions, this kept us from making snap decisions and the minority won
the re-vote. We also used straw votes a lot so that we didn’t spend hours
debating about something when we were all in agreement without knowing it.

Sixth, we had
fun, told jokes, and laughed alot. We did not see suffering as an organizing
tool or personal goal. Sure, we worked hard but we always tried to keep it
interesting and to incorporate some benefits, like a paid six-month sabbatical.
Collective members stayed active in various political groups, or wrote or went
to school part time or spun off new projects. We were able to hate capitalism,
patriarchy, racism, environmental degradation, homophobia, and still enjoy
sports, TV, movies, radio, music, food, mystery novels, and shopping—in spite of
the fact that they were mostly classist, racist, sexist, homophobic, toxic, and
mind-numbing. We were able to appreciate our structure, but to satirize it as

In 1987, when the
press seemed in a stable financial situation, Michael Albert and I moved on to
start Z Magazine and other Z-related projects. As one of the
founders of South End it was difficult to leave. So many things happened in the
ten years I worked there. So many memories as well:

  • The unending “name” debates
    that raged between calling it Heart of the Beast (HOB) Press vs. Seventh Wave
    vs. Left Field Books vs. Peace Press vs. People Press, and on.
  • The time we tried to
    “steal” our books back from a really bad distributor who took six weeks to
    ship our books to stores
  • Lobsters on the beach
    during our first retreat on the Cape
  • Daily breakfast meetings
    where we created the mission statement and all the other principles on which
    the press was founded, with the sun shining in through tall windows in the
    “nook” at 127 Pembroke Street, our first office
  • The snowstorm of 1978 when
    Boston was shut down and the entire staff quit work to trudge through mounds
    of snow to see a  movie together
  • Folding and stuffing
    mailings while watching The Rockford Files on late night TV
  • Schmoozing with Pluto Press
    at various bookfairs
  • The publishing trip to Cuba
    where we discussed Raymond Chandler novels with members of Jose Marti
  • Visiting one of our authors
    in Poland, talking with Solidarity members, hearing someone singing “Bridge
    Over Troubled Water” in Polish in the Warsaw subway station; the Solidarity
    secretary, who, when asked who did the work, volunteered, “Men no good.”
  • Laying out 600 pages of
    during July when everything stuck to the light box
  • Sales trips to New York,
    Philadelphia, and Washington, hanging out the window trying to find the
  • The fuse box at 302
    Columbus Ave (our second office) that we used to talk loudly into, pretending
    that the FBI was listening in
  • That fundraising meeting
    where the perspective donor wanted to know why we were publishing “this
    feminist crap”; who susequently took me to meet his women workers and, as I
    watched, asked them, “Am I oppressing you?”
  • Handing out leaflets for
    No Nukes
    at the opening of The China Syndrome; being accused of
    making Three Mile Island happen so we could sell more copies
  • The workers at our
    capitalist printer getting all enthusiastic about Jeremy Brecher’s Strike,
    as it went down the line


Working at South
End Press was one of the most important times in my life. So thanks to those who
helped start it and to those who have kept it going 25 years.

Sargent was a co-founder and collective member of SEP from 1977 to 1987.

The Middle

Cynthia Peters

In 1978, E.L. Doctorow
testified before congress against the increasing monopolization of the media. At
about the same time, South End Press, then one year old, was preparing to
publish a title by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, The Washington
Connection and Third World Fascism
. Originally published, printed, and even
advertised by Warner Modular Publications, The Washington Connection had
been abruptly canceled.

Rescued by South
End Press, the book had a powerful impact on many thousands of readers. I was
one of them. I read it during my freshman year in college and began to
understand for the first time why the families I knew while growing up in
McLean, Virginia (hometown of the CIA) were always packing off to global
hotspots like Vietnam, Indonesia, and Zaire. It opened my eyes to the workings
of U.S. institutions and set me on the road to a lifetime of political activism.

In 1983, the year
I started working at South End, Ben Bagdikian published Media Monopoly,
in which he reported the alarming news that only 50 corporations controlled the
majority of mainstream media. As the prestigious old publishing company, Simon
and Schuster, was sold to Gulf and Western and then restructured as part of
Paramount Pictures, and tweed-jacketed editors in the publishing industry were
being replaced by Business School graduates, South End Press contracted for bell
hooks’s second title, Feminist Theory. We sent Chomsky’s Fateful
to the printer, put the finishing touches on Cherrie Moraga’s
Loving in the War Years
, signed Cindy Patton to write about the politics of
AIDS and Michael Bronski to report on gay culture, and generated title after
title to supply the growing Central America solidarity movement.

Not that there
weren’t challenges. At the very first SEP meeting I ever attended, the main
topic was the relative advantages of declaring bankruptcy and starting over
under a new name. There was very little cash, huge debts, and not too many
people willing to loan money to a radical, collectively run, independent
publisher, attempting to make a go of it in an increasingly monopolized and
corporate-oriented industry. But it was pretty clear that no one at that meeting
table was capable of giving up. They had worked the first few years with no pay,
had taken on side jobs to generate income, and had reduced expenses by setting
up living quarters in and around the office equipment. They had made hard
decisions about juggling debt and had convinced authors and others to whom they
owed money to be patient, and to keep their eyes on the long-term prize.

For me,
relatively new to political work at the time, it was a great privilege to
witness not just the dogged commitment, but also the vision that it took to
steer the Press through these early years. It was clear that for something like
South End to survive, people had to be willing to work extremely hard. But, in a
way, that was the easy part. Much more challenging was keeping the relative
importance of our project in persepective when dealing with everyday setbacks
and challenges. We had to have the confidence to pick up the phone and solicit
titles from authors—with those books often representing years of work—even
though we couldn’t promise them royalties and, in all honesty, couldn’t promise
we’d exist the following year. We had to forge ahead knowing that the surest way
not to exist the next year would be to not make the phone call. And not existing
was more costly in political terms—in books not published, ideas not generated,
analysis not made available—than the cost of rejection or of appearing foolish
or of having to once again argue the Press’ case, which so many ridiculed as a
pipe dream.

My friends
thought a job in book publishing sounded glamorous, but they didn’t realize how
much time I spent rotating in and out of two-hour typing shifts. The books came
in on paper in those days, and had to be completely re-typed on the typesetter.
We used hot wax to lay razor cut corrections on the photo-processed book
pages—adding so many layers of corrections that the camera-ready page sometimes
looked like a set of terraced slopes on a landscaped hillside. There was also
the not-so-heady work of packing books off to reviewers, stuffing promotional
flyers into envelopes, answering phones, and making agonizing decisions about
which absolutely critical, pay-it-or-die bills would get a check, and which ones
would get a phone call explaining how the “check was in the mail.”

At editorial
meetings we talked about content and about future lists and at yearly retreats
we talked about political vision and the role of the Press on the left, but what
I learned most during those early years was making sure that long-term goals
(vision) governed everyday decisions, the importance of creating strong flexible
structures that foster workplace democracy, and the radical promise of
demystifying expertise.

By its tenth
anniversary, the Press seemed to have finally stepped away from the brink of
financial disaster. The bank foreclosed on us and auctioned off our brownstone
in Boston’s historic South End, allowing us to dispense with the worst of the
debt, and we became one of the first in the industry to switch to desk-top
publishing. No more typing 600-page tomes from scratch; we threw out the hot wax
machine and got rid of lay-out tables. With the savings in labor time and a
substantial backlist of over 200 titles, South End finally started making good
on its royalty debt.

SEP books kept
breaking new ground. Liberating Theory, collectively authored by Michael
Albert, Noam Chomsky, Robin Hahnel, Mel King, Lydia Sargent, and Holly Sklar,
put forth an alternative framework for combining and transcending mono-focused
theories, such as marxism, anarchism, feminism, and nationalism. With four books
on the list by bell hooks and six by Noam Chomsky, along with numerous other
titles on the backlist that generated solid sales, we were able to support the
launch of new authors and keep alive a level of debate, analysis, and vision
that otherwise would not have found outlet.

In 1989, South
End supported the launch of Speak Out!—a Speakers’ Bureau made up of many of our
authors. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Todd Jailer and I raised funds
and used long-awaited sabbaticals to travel to Nicaragua and El Salvador to
support publishing efforts in those countries. Todd and I have subsequently
moved on to other work, but the work of the press continues in the hands of
capable new collective members.

One thing that
had become clear over the years was that our role was not just to rescue
censored titles, but we were maintaining a spectrum of debate that included a
radical critique of mainstream institutions. Along with other alternative media,
numerous progressive publications and publishers, activist newsletters of all
sorts, and hard-working social change movements that fed off of, and in turn
fed, alternative media, South End Press helped keep the left end of public
debate alive.

South End Press
begins its second quarter-century with a great deal of potential and as a key
antidote to the corporate tendency to reduce public citizenship to a question of
consumption. It has a strong backlist, a wealth of experience, and cutting-edge
new titles that address the issues of the day, such as globalization,
privatization, growing inequality, the prison industry, and movement building.
Its proven track record in producing critically important content for social
change movements leaves it well-poised to face coming challenges. Its success at
internal democracy and self-management, its ability to break down race, gender
and class barriers in the workplace make it not only a role model, but a
challenge to other progressive workplaces to reconsider internal hierachies and
work structures that leave some people in charge of content and others tasked
with carrying it out.


Peters was a staff member of SEP from 1983 to 1995.


the Turn of the Century

By Loie

Where the Press in the
1980s had given particular attention to U.S. foreign policy in Central America,
after the putative triumph of capital over the Soviet version of socialism and
the virtual strangulation of the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, many SEP
readers and authors felt unsure of what strategies to employ in our ongoing
commitment to a better world. South End’s 1993 publication of Global Visions:
Beyond the New World Order,
an anthology edited by Jeremy Brecher, John
Brown Childs, and Jill Cutler, signified a shift in left thinking and in the
Press’ list.

While domestic
movements continued to be our first priority, we gradually augmented our
traditional understanding of imperialism and international solidarity with a
more nuanced vision that Brecher, et al., termed transnationalism or
globalization from below. Disparate books like John Feffer’s Shock Waves:
Eastern Europe After the Revolutions
, Reebee Garofalo’s Rockin’ the Boat:
Mass Music and Mass Movements
, and Cynthia Peters’s anthology Collateral
Damage: The New World Order at Home and Abroad
called attention to how
global capital was wagging the tail of U.S. military might and how transnational
movements could be utilized to undercut the forces of domestic repression,
militarism, and globalization-from-above. By the end of the 1990s, globalization
had become the explicit focus for much of the U.S. left.

Just as voices
from the global south, like Vandana Shiva and Saskia Sassen in Global Visions,
were arguing for a greater role in leading the fight against international
capital, people of color in the U.S. were raising their voices to demand
leadership in environmental and social justice movements at home. Within the
South End Press collective, people of color became the majority in the early
1990s and we launched our Race and Resistance Series to document the insights
and complexity offered by the maturing identity movements based on ethnicity. We
continued to offer analysis of race, gender, and class through books such as
John Anner’s anthology Beyond Identity Politics: Emerging Social Movements in
Communities of Color.
Works like Teresa Amott and Julie Mattaei’s Race,
Gender, and Work: A Multi-Cultural Economic History of Women in the United
provided a wealth of insight that bridged identity and economics.

By the time I
started working at the Press in 1988, we were beginning to talk about ending the
period of self-exploitation that had assured the Press’s survival through
infancy. In succeeding job descriptions aimed at luring new collective members,
we gradually shrank the expected work week from 60 hours to 55 to 45 and finally
40. The weekend that the labor movement had won decades before had finally come
to the collective. We also recognized that the Press would never draw many
applicants from outside the moneyed classes if we didn’t pay a living wage. We
even created our first, and to-date only, pay variation in the form of a
childcare/eldercare allowance available to those who needed it.

This less
stressful work schedule proved to be a key part of our survival during the
consolidation of the book industry that severely tested the financial security
of the Press. With mergers, low sales, and high returns squeezing big and small
publishers alike, we had to postpone new hires and reduced the collective from
eight to four members in less than a year’s time. This painful period of
uncertainty meant moving to smaller offices, temporary lay-offs, fewer new
releases, a fund appeal, and very constrained spending, but gradually these
tactics returned the Press to financial equilibrium. Through applying the
lessons learned in that period, we have laid the groundwork for more effective
fiscal planning.

In recent years
South End has been growing slowly and steadily, reflecting both our improved
publishing skills and also a growing left infrastructure. The Nader/La- Duke
campaigns and electoral reform campaigns in general gave a great boost to
organizers seeking to broaden democratic practice in this nominal democracy.

Left media in
particular has greatly expanded since SEP’s inception. There are now many more
progressive, independent publishers than the few that preceded South End Press.
Left periodicals, too, remain important and vibrant, while the Internet allows
some to move from paper to cyberspace. The Internet also allows progressive
audio and video programming to reach a much wider audience than could be reached
within a small signal area. South End has moved into the digital era with
e-books and an expanded website. This development promises a much more
streamlined method for getting information and analysis to readers in the
future. Like the desktop publishing software that proved such an enormous labor
savings in South End’s early years, we look forward to using every method at our
disposal to get progressive ideas into as many reader’s hands as possible.


Loie Hayes
has been a collective member for the last 15 years.