Alternative Publishing And Its Problems

(Note: This interview is carried out by Bogazici Performing Arts Ensemble [BGST] Publishing House during Michael Albert’s visit to Turkey in early December 2007. BGST Publishing House is a house trying to operate with participatory principles.)


BGST Publishing House : A recent survey in Turkey shows that alternative publishers are mostly identifying alternative publishing activity only with publishing dissident books and oppositional issues. What do you mean by alternative publishing activity? What features should an alternative publishing house have in terms of internal organization, decision making, and relations to other alternative publishers?


Michael Albert: In the United States also, just like in Turkey, many people who use the word alternative, as in alternative publishing, and mean only that the content is different from the mainstream. So, instead of having content that sorts and frames information on behalf of the rich and powerful, alternative content becomes information that is honest and accurate and that describes things as they are seeking to change things in a direction that benefits the less wealthy and the less powerful.


OK, that is a plausible definition, but as you apparently know, it isn’t what I mean. What I mean by alternative is that, yes, plus something more. And the additional that I have in mind when I use the word alternative media, or for that matter alternative production or alternative anything else, is that it alternative means not only that the product be different but that the processes are different also.


So, alternative publishing becomes publishing which is done in a manner that embodies our values, instead of being done in the typical mainstream way. In our case three decades ago when we formed the publishing house called South End Press what we meant by alternative was partly that we would do books that have radical substance and content. But also that we would operate in a radical fashion and that meant without an owner, without a typical corporate structure, without the old division of labor, without a class hierarchy. We instead sought to operate with new structures that were consistent with people controlling their own lives, with all the people who are working in our publishing having a say, with all the people who are working in our publishing having a work situation that is fulfilling, instead of a small number having the fulfilling tasks and all the rest doing mostly or only onerous work. So, for us going alternative meant making a change in structure, organization, decision making, and in the pay. Everybody got paid for how long they worked and how hard they worked and for how onerous or debilitating the conditions that they worked under were. But it wasn’t that some people got most of the money and some people got very little because we all had comparable conditions. So, it was a change in equity.  Alternative publishing meant publishing that was both in content and in structure consistent with what we wanted for a new society.


BGST PH: OK. Now the second question. You are one of the founders of South End Press and also you know many other publishing houses like Arbeiter Ring, Seven Stories, AK Press, The New Press in the United States and Canada. How is the financial support provided for publishing radical books in these houses? Are there any systems like sending newly published books to the readers who become in turn sustainers or subscribers who provide financial aid for book production?


MA: First there is a range of publishers. Let’s call them for a minute progressive publishing. Some of them are alternative in the sense of my answer to your first question like South End Press. And then there are some which are just progressive but not alternative. They are structured pretty much the way the mainstream is structured, but they are radical in their commitments and so the content is good. For example, Seven Stories is structured in the same way as the mainstream press. South End is structured instead in the way a participatory workplace is structured. So, we have a range of structures that we are talking about, but as far as finances AK press is the only one I believe that has a kind of well functioning club that people join and they pay a regular fee and they get new books, almost like the book of the month club. I don’t know the details of it. There is an outfit in Sweden called Ordfront. They have a book of the month club, very successful. So that people join Ordfront and they become contributor … I don’t know what they call it … sustainer or member or participant, something like that. And they pay a regular fee and they then get the monthly magazine – I think it is monthly, I am not sure – and they also get a discount on all books and they get a book of the month also.


It is quite successful, from what I hear, but in the US, for the most part, that doesn’t exist. We thought about creating something like it a number of times, and probably will consider the possibility again, but for now it doesn’t exist, save the AK example. Instead what happens is in the US, the income of publishing is overwhelmingly from selling books either via stores or online or directly through the mail. So somebody writes in “I want to buy that book” with the check included and they get the book directly through from the publisher or they go into the store and they buy the book, or buy it online. It is very difficult in the United States for alternative or progressive publishers, because the country is very large and  there’s a stranglehold on distribution. The left doesn’t have good distribution mechanisms of its own with the exception of AK Distribution, which does a considerable amount of distribution particularly to events, quite well. And then there is very little cash available to promote books, almost none, and that is crippling as well. And the stores simply bury the content, favoring the books that are highly promoted. So when Seven Stories or South End publishes a book, the book goes in large quantities to big, massive corporate distributors and then those distributors take orders from the stores who are also big massive chains etc. So some gets out but it is not nearly as much as it should be. It is very difficult.


Publishing right now in the United States is in a difficult time, largely because of the Internet. Not exclusively, but largely. It’s affected publishing in the US and all over the world, but we see it very clearly in the US. It’s affecting print media and it is reducing the extent to which audiences of all kinds are buying print media. Many people think, due to the internet, that their information should be free, and so they are very hesitant to spend money for information, whether for news or for analysis, and to an extent even for books, and that is reducing the volume of sales. So, for instance the person who runs Seven Stories press … I was talking to him and he said that two or three years ago, a book that would have sold about 10.000 copies now they would predict two or three years later, maybe four years later, 3000 copies or maybe 4000. So, there is a steady decline, a very serious decline in the number of books that publishers are able to sell because of people spending so much time in the Internet and becoming accustomed to the idea that they shouldn’t have to pay – ignoring, of course, that that is entirely premised on advertising – which Is on their being sold to corporations.


BGST PH: What kind of problems do alternative publishers encounter in the US given the fact that the books are distributed by massive distribution companies? How do they try to overcome this problem? Are there any alternative distribution organizations?


MA: Again, it’s scale. So, thirty years ago, at South and Press we saw the problem and we planned to try and create a distribution mechanism. I will explain how that might work in a minute. But we were never able to do it. Part of the reason… well first what is it? In the US, suppose you are a book store or a magazine store in some city in the United States, in Iowa or wherever. What you do is you order from some big distributors and there are a certain number of very big distributors, very few. And then there is a next tier, second tier, smaller distributors, mostly local or regional. And then a publisher could provide stock directly itself, but that’s very very difficult because there are so many buyers, so many stores that you have to ship all over the country. So almost all publishers give their books to distributors, to move through warehouses who distribute the books to the stores. So, why is it difficult? One of the reasons it is difficult is because those distributors are just big corporations and they couldn’t care less about progressive content or they are hostile to it. What they care about is ad budgets behind books. Promotion for books. Reviews. Etc. It should be clear that it isn’t that everybody is hostile to specific titles – so my guess is that inside those distributors, the people who physically handle the books everyday are typically quite happy about handling the books progressive publishers send, but the owners are not and so there is a difficult dynamic. But regardless who does or doesn’t like the books they are seeing in the warehouse, there is simply no promotion, no reviews, no coverage, and so low sales. So, your question… it would be nice if all the progressive publishers had some means both to collectivize distribution, but, more, to generate ample promotion… that we would all finance. But although that would be a good idea, it hasn’t happened and the reason it hasn’t happened is because all those progressive organizations have their own agendas and they don’t work together very well.




BGST PH: I heard that AK press created such an organization?


MA: Sort of. And it is very admirable and exemplary – but it is not everyone working together and it doesn’t have means to promote. So, in other words, they are a channel that South End Press or Z Magazine or The Progressive could use. Because of their scale which is relatively modest, they can’t extend into the mainstream as well as larger corporate operations can. So they tell South End Press “we’ll handle your books, we’ll get your books out to a certain sector of the population, and you should go to the big distributors to get to the other sectors of the population because we can’t. So, they are not exclusive. We distribute with AK and we do with others, too. And AK is the left one. The one we respect most. So AK does good distribution to small book stores, progressive book stores, and to the public who is already quite leftist, though even there, the absence of reviews, visible promotion, etc. pretty much hobbles what they can achieve. All those sectors would go to AK to get a book, when they know about it at all. But if you want to get a book into a chain of bookstores, that will happen only by working through the large distributors. And generally, it won’t happen, because they will only elevate into visibility books that are already highly promoted. But of course, all this said, everything is changing dramatically because of the Internet. So, I don’t know how much of this you want… but one thing that changes is if your book is on Amazon then any individual who wants to get the book can get it through Amazon. That’s a big change. The next big change, in the opposite direction, is that people don’t read books anymore and the number of books has therefore dropped.


BGST PH: they are mostly reading articles or commentaries …


MA: or nothing. So, that’s a problem. But now there’s a third big change coming. This one has just started but it’s also big I think, and that’s what are called e-books, an electronic book. I can actually show you physical entities that Amazon has put out. And it is quite remarkable. So you’re walking around with something about the size of a paperback, a big paperback, and inside of it are two hundred books and the pages are not quite as good to read as the pages of a paperback, but almost, any way they are better than a computer screen for reading. It is easy to tamper with, changing the type size, for example, and you can also order books with it, too. So, you don’t even need a computer. You could tell me about a new book and I can buy it right on this little thing and one minute later I have the book.


BGST PH: Then, you are downloading this thing to the computer?


MA: No, right to the e-book. You don’t even need to use a computer, so it downloads directly. So, I am sitting here and you tell me “now, go get Chomsky’s new book or whatever”. And I look it up and I get it and it comes straight to the little ebook contraption. This already exists but in a year or two these things will be so well developed, they will be in color etc. You can also get, amazingly, magazines and newspapers, though for now that quality isn’t so great, I think. So, paper is in deep trouble. Paper is, I don’t know how long it will be, it will never be completely gone but publication of books in print and even magazines and newspapers in print will tend to steadily diminish from now on and electronic distribution… psychologically good and it is also good in terms of labor and ecologically…will grow. You know this has many good values, and also the price will go down for distribution. The other thing that is interesting about it, like the internet itself, has to do with lower barriers to entry. For example, ZNet is much bigger than Z Magazine in terms of audience and the reason is because it’s so easy to access ZNet, and costless. You don’t have to pay. And now the same thing happens with books. When books are in e-books, they are cheaper and easier to get, so more people will get more – unless, of course, the offsetting tendency to read less is stronger. So some variables diminish the distribution problem. Other aggravate it. And how it will play out – well, no one knows for sure.


BGST PH: The next question is about bookstores. How do the mainstream bookstores and bookstore chains affect alternative publishing? Do they give enough space to alternative books? Are there any independent bookstores who sell only alternative books?


MA: Again, there are the mainstream bookstores and there are also what we call progressive bookstores and actually among bookstores, they tend to be more alternative so that progressive bookstores sometimes do tend to be collective, with better internal operations, structure and so on. The progressive bookstores tend to put on their shelves progressive books and some novels but overwhelmingly progressive bookstores provide lots of room to progressive publishing. But there are very few such stores. Basically none in small towns, maybe one in all but the largest cities, and often even then. They aren’t prevalent anywhere, including in the big cities, and there is a problem with them, to an extent, in any case. So, I as someone interested in all kinds of books might go to the progressive bookstore we have because I want to look around for progressive books – but you know I tend to like science books, too. Mainstream books are important also and often, except for the very best, progressive bookstores don’t stock everything, they just don’t have enough money. Take my most read book, Parecon done by Verso, or Remembering Tomorrow done by Seven Stories, suppose they go to Barnes and Noble or something like that.. and say we want this book to be in the front of the bookstore, we want to display the book. Barnes and Noble wouldn’t say no. They would say here is how much it will cost. The books that are widely displayed in the bookstores, in the front, with the big displays and the piles of books and everything, that’s all paid for. That’s advertising. So, publishers are literally paying for the shelf space and the cost is very high. And the progressive publishers cannot afford it. They can’t do it, so it doesn’t happen.


I will tell you one story that’s very interesting though. When I did the book Parecon, Life After Capitalism, there is a book store in Cambridge, which is where Harvard and MIT are…you know a very academic area.. lots of youth. So, very close to these universities is a bookstore called the Harvard Bookstore and it’s a big bookstore and very good. It has everything, very good. So, they set up for me to give a talk there and a week before I give the talk, they had Parecon, the book, on display. They had a lot of copies. During that week, that book was the biggest selling book in that store. It outsold all the novels, it outsold everything. So, a book about an alternative to capitalism sells great in a big mainstream bookstore. But the week before it was prominently displayed, and the week after, in fact the whole period before and the whole period after, there were at any time maybe two copies of the book hidden in the back shelves, someplace, you know under economics. And it sold nothing. So, what is very striking about this is that the problem isn’t that there was nobody out there in the store interested in reading that book, the problem is that they are not aware that the book even exists because it is not visible.


BGST PH: It’s like the situation in Turkey. Readers don’t even realize that you have published or written such a good book.


MA: Yeah, but it’s important to realize that it isn’t because the bookstore has a political censor. Who decides we won’t display Parecon, we will display some other thing. It’s because the massive publishing houses have huge resources and they put those resources behind certain books while other books have nothing. And so, as a result, the bookstore which is just trying to sell books… I mean from the book store’s point of view, I am sure they were happier, with good books, but they just can’t make it happen.


I was introduced to give a talk at the Harvard Coop, another big store in the area. I got one of the nicest introductions I ever got and it was from the guy who runs the bookstore who was ecstatic to be able to say something positive about me and parecon. But, if you go downstairs and look at the big displays, it’s all mainstream highly promoted titles, and that’s because the publishing house pays for it and the reviewers all rally round. So the progressive problem isn’t that there is no potential audience out there. Our problem is that we have no means to make our potential audience become aware of the materials that are available so they become real.


BGST PH: The other question is to do with the alternative channels to distribute the progressive books, like selling books during a talk of the author, or during demonstrations, through worker’s unions etc.


MA: It is very hard not least because the country is so huge. So we try to get things out by making videos and showing them, by having discussions, by having people speak, by using alternative bookstores, by using AK press, and on and on … we do the best we can.  But a little publisher, with barely any resources, has all it can do to produce books – it can’t send people to events all over the country. The cost is prohibitive.


Here is an interesting idea to see how things could conceivably be very different. Do you know what Citgo is? Citgo is oil company that’s owned by Venezuela which provides gasoline to cars all over the US. So, in other words, there are gas stations all over the US, some of them are Exxon, some of them are Mobile, some of them are Citgo. So imagine what it would be like if Citgo which is a gigantic corporation, but owned by Venezuela… imagine that Citgo decided “we’re going to diversify, we’re no longer distributing only gas and oil, we’ve decided we’re also going to do media. So a massive corporation owned by Venezuela sitting in the US decides to buy a few radio stations, to buy some cable channels, to add to all Citgo stations a book and magazine display and sales area, etc, and it starts highlighting progressive content. Now suddenly there is the progressive content that would be highly visible in the United States and the number of readers and the number of people who relate to it would jump up all a lot. Imagine the horror that this would provoke. But once you have that level of support, now you could have reading groups all over the country and discussion groups etc. It’s an interesting scenario to think about, whether it is possible or not is another question and I have no idea. Obviously, the United States would say to Venezuela: “stop this meddling in our society.” But Venezuelans would have a very good answer. They could say back “OK, we’ll stop… under one condition. You stop distributing American culture and books and magazines and other media all over the rest of the world. The minute you do that we’ll stop distributing in the United States”. That would be interesting.


BGST PH:  What about the solidarity among the various alternative publishing houses? Do you make common meetings together? Or do you share technical infrastructure and experience?


MA: Very little. And the reason it’s this very little is two fold. First of all, if you would create a list of all of the progressive, not alternative in the sense of your first question but of all the progressive publishers whether of magazines, periodicals or books, and then you ask how many of those are really very radical? Or really alternative? It would be very few. Most of them are just liberal. Most of them are like the left of the Democratic Party as compared to Z or South End Press which are way toward the left. So, that’s the first division. And that division means the ones that are less liberal wouldn’t work with the more radical ones. That’s the first problem. The second problem is different. Second problem is that everybody is trying to survive and it’s difficult and there are few resources for innovations. Worse, everybody in a sense is competing. They are trying to get their stuff out and they are not interested in helping others get different stuff out…. So everybody’s competing on the market, which is horrible. And they are also competing to raise money from donors. And those two problems, competing for donors and competing for audience diminish the extent to which people seriously relate together.


You mentioned sharing approaches, sharing messages… We have tried to pursue that kind of cooperation on a number of occasions. First South End Press tried and Z tried and ZNet is about to try, too. To get everybody to work together should give economies of scale. It should provide some mutual aid. It should prevent duplication and allow themes of publishing so that there won’t be lots of redundant materials but will instead be more diverse materials. But it is very difficult because each house has its own agenda… maybe, if we grow enough to have more means, we can generate a left book club and a left periodical club where we provide a mechanism for distributing and for getting out everybody’s content. Whether that would work or not, I don’t know. We’ll have to see. But you can imagine a book club in the United States which was a left or a progressive book club… not a South End Press book club or a Seven Stories book club… but one for all the better publishers, and you can imagine saying to each publisher “Ok, here’s what we will do, in the book of the month club people pay a certain amount of money every month and for having paid that amount they get a book that month automatically, that’s the way a book club works. And then they get half price on everything else. But they get regular promotion for all the books. And there are reading groups and forums, So you can imagine telling all the book publishers “what we’re going to do that is that each publisher gets to pick a book of the month during the course of a year.” You can imagine all sorts of ways of doing it, trying to arrange so that everybody benefits. We may well try that in the next year or so if our planned upgrades work out well enough…


BGST PH: You are coordinating a dissident web site, ZNet. Also in Turkey, there are newly emerging oppositional, alternative web sites. What principles do you think a dissident web site who wants to share a rich content must have in order to be effective and widely known?


MA: The first thing about the question is “what does the word effective mean?” for a website, or for a publisher or for any of those things. For most people, effective means reaching a reasonable size of audience with good material. That’s not what I would mean if I use the word effective. What I would mean would be being part of a process that’s going to win a new society, and that’s very different if you think about it. So, for instance you can imagine a bunch of progressive websites who are functioning quite well, who are putting out a mass of useful information, and you can imagine that going on for a long time, but the whole society doesn’t change. To me, that’s not effective. To me, that’s running a successful business, but it isn’t being a successful movement operation. What’s effective as a movement operation is that the society is changing and even changing dramatically in new directions. So if I ask myself what is needed from a publisher or website or a political organization, the answer is more and more people consciously and militantly desiring a new society and working to win it. So that means that it isn’t sufficient to just put out of information, what is needed is to inspire and help people make good use of it.


BGST PH: Yes, sure.


MA: I think you have to build a community of people who by virtue of the information they are receiving and also their connections to each other become a movement, and even a more and more effective movement. So to me, the answer to your question about a website would be, well, of course, one thing is that it must deliver good content, good information which contributes to people becoming more and more radical. And if you ask me, what kind of information would do that? My answer is it’s partly what everybody does; partly it’s analysis of what’s wrong, analysis of foreign policy, analysis of poverty, analysis of racism, and so on and so forth. But to me that’s not enough because the real obstacle I think to people becoming active, to people becoming really involved, to people devoting themselves, committing themselves to winning something new, is gaining some clarity and confidence about what that new thing is. Clarity about vision. So my first answer to your question is that the first thing a publishing house would need to do is not just provide analysis but also vision, and not even just vision but also strategy. So the content which is being delivered, the information which is being delivered has to be about what’s wrong but also about what we want, what’s desirable, what we’re seeking and desire to win, and how we can go about doing so. So that’s the first part of the problem. The second part of the problem is that the website or the publishing operations should not just deliver content to an audience but should galvanize the audience into working together. It should somehow create out of its audience a community of active people. That’s why we are doing a major upgrade of ZNet to introduce many more facilities and much more content that will generate lasting organizational ties.


So, for instance, one more example of this: You can imagine ZNet and the publishing houses and other media operations, ours and other peoples’, continuing to pour our descriptions of participatory economics and descriptions of other parts of society and how we would like them to be and that’s good. So what about additionally helping people to form groups in cities around the world, in Stockholm, or in London, or in Istanbul, or in Ankara, that are committed to participatory economics and a participatory society and that become organizations and that have teach-ins, and have reading groups and mutual aid groups and organizing projects, rather than just sending out the book and expecting people to read it and think about it all by themselves? That’s what we hope we’re going to move towards. So my answer is that websites or any publishing operations should a) provide good content; b) the content should not just be analysis but also vision and strategy; and c) it shouldn’t just provide content, it should help the audience to use its content, to refine its content, to develop its own ideas, and to work together in a movement to try to win changes. And that’s all our responsibility… otherwise we are not trying to win.


When I talk to audiences in the United States I often ask them “how many people do we need to make a revolution in the United States” and then they are silent. How many people do we need? Nobody really thinks about that. And the answer is hundreds of millions, hundreds of millions of people… not forty people, or forty thousand. It’s not sufficient to have forty people… or a hundred people, or a thousand people… but we need millions of people. And not millions of people without a clue – but millions of people with clear vision and strategy. So you have to start thinking in terms of “Ok what infrastructure do we need? What organizations do we need? What ways of combining people together do we need, to grow on such a gigantic scale?” And that’s our responsibility.


BGST PH: But the problem for a website of having a good content and creating a grassroots movement is intertwined. So when a local initiative is created, they also need to have a content to discuss and to share with other people.


MA: OK, exactly. Let’s say you have a Turkish website. Let’s say you like participatory economics and economic vision. So you put on a bunch of stuff on participatory economics. Now, there’s somebody in Diyarbakir or in Ankara or wherever, who goes to the website to read this material. They like it. Now what? In other words, what happens next? Does that person get in touch with other people who like the material, or do they just like it and then two months later forget about it. Is there a way to apply the insights locally, and to join up nationally, as well? Or does the positive experience just fade away because the person who enjoyed the site had nobody to talk to, they had nobody to work with? So the question is how can this website not only provide the information that people can benefit from – of course, it has to do that – but also provide a way for the reader of the information to get in touch with other readers, to have ties with other readers, and to work with other readers, to get more people to read about it, to get more people to think about it.


BGST PH: That’s why you are now trying to upgrade ZNet?


MA: Yes, that is exactly why. We are creating tools for networking among people, for people to contact one another and so on and so forth.


BGST PH: Is this sort of an alternative facebook? People can meet each other, find each other?


MA: Yes, we’re going to do even more than that, we hope, not right away but pretty soon. We are going to have things like online reading rooms, lectures where people come to the lectures online and so on and so forth.


BGST PH: Thank you and good luck.


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