Alternative Publishers of Books in North America, 6th Edition
By Nancy Kranich, Past President of the American Library Association
Millions of Americans spoke out in 2003 when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced changes in media ownership rules that allowed more consolidation and cross-ownership of media. They accused the FCC of undermining a viable democracy and weakening the ability of broadcasters to ensure “the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources.” (Associated Press v. United States, 326 U.S. 1, 20 (1945). This grassroots activism arose from years of frustration with a U.S. media system unresponsive to the need for diversity and localism.
Public concern about the impact of media consolidation on “the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources” dates back several decades before the Associated Press decision to the days when a broadcast reform movement emerged that opposed the commercialism taking hold of radio and encouraged the establishment of a non-profit, noncommercial sector. The Communications Act of 1934, which created the Federal Communications Commission (the FCC), signaled a recognition that government has a role to play in making information available, and set forth a “public interest, convenience, and necessity” standard for licensing and regulating radio and later TV broadcasting over the public airwaves. This regulatory framework for ensuring competition over a scarce number of channels defused reformers’ efforts to promote a non-profit alternative for the next thirty years. By the early 1960s, dissatisfaction with the airwaves re-surfaced following the 1959 quiz show scandals and Newton Minow’s 1961 speech describing television as a “vast wasteland.” In 1967, Congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act, which ushered in new opportunities for airing unprofitable cultural, educational, and public affairs programming—a move that was to level the playing field for a fair and balanced airing of diverse voices. Over the next few decades, increased penetration of cable television gave rise to an alternative television movement focused on public access and guerilla television that was produced by an engaged public armed with portable video cameras who could show their work on channels reserved for public, government and educational purposes.
The breakup of AT&T and the emergence of new information and communication technologies shaped both the information marketplace and the nation’s policy agenda. No longer limited to highly regulated telephone or television services, communication conglomerates repositioned themselves as multi-media information, entertainment, and shopping giants, controlling both the transmission and the content of information. To many, newly converging technologies and industries promised abundant open access to an infinite array of resources that could foster political participation and enrich people’s lives. Indeed, the arrival of the information age inspired dreams of a utopia where people could access myriad ideas, no longer constrained by location, format, cost, or other barriers. But instead of increased competition and more diversity, deregulation sparked mega mergers with companies such as Viacom absorbing Simon and Schuster Publishers and the CBS television network, General Electric buying NBC, and Capital Cities/ABC purchasing Disney. With the arrival of these new media giants, public concern aronse once more; but this time discourse focused mostly on the technological rather than content and cultural implications.
In the early 1990’s, media industries intensified their efforts to influence public policy, culminating in the passage of Telecommunications Act of 1996--the first wholesale revision of communications law since 1934. The 1996 Act further relaxed already loose limits on how many radio or TV stations a single company could own, and eliminated barriers to cross-ownership of broadcast, cable television, and newspapers as well as local and long distance telephone services. New activist organizations like Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, the Center for Media Education, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Internet Free Expression Alliance concentrated on various components of the law, ranging from deregulation to communications decency to ownership limits. These and other groups joined progressive activists who mobilized against a new media landscape that they perceived as threatening to the future of democratic discourse. To contemplate how to free the media from corporate control, many of these activists convened congresses to express their outrage.
But not until the FCC decided to loosen its already relaxed media consolidation and cross-ownership rules in 2003 did widespread opposition boil over. Outcry came spontaneously from both the political right and left, who feared that further reductions in the number of media owners would result in less diversity and more concentrated control over ideas and information. Although a federal appeals court issued a preliminary injunction blocking the FCC’s rule changes in September 2003, mainstream media elbowed each other in a gold rush to acquire and merge without so much as a nod to their public interest obligations. The result: a monoculture where the United States has become the “best entertained, least informed society in the world.” (Neal Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Penguin Books, New York, 1995.)
When Ben Bagdikian published his first exposé in The Media Monopoly in 1983, he warned against the chilling effects that control by fifty media companies could have over the free flow of diverse ideas and information. Critics at the time called Bagdikian “alarmist.” Today, the number of corporations controlling most of America’s magazines, radio and TV stations, books, movies, and daily mass-circulation newspapers has dropped from fifty to five, with those conglomerates amassing unprecedented influence over what Americans see, hear, and read. Activists like Robert McChesney have joined Bagdikian by documenting the debilitating impact of mergers, acquisitions, and legislative "de-regulation" on a functioning democracy and healthy culture. In addition, they have channeled public fury into a media reform movement aiming to increase popular participation in policy making; and ultimately, to invigorate independent media.
So how can this catalytic reform movement against the mainstream media also become an opportunity to elevate alternatives, particularly alternative book publishing? For media conglomerates have grown ever more massive and powerful, many reputable and independent book publishers, distributors, and booksellers have disappeared; and, once absorbed into conglomerates, financial and marketing people dominate editorial processes. If a book does not look as if it will sell a certain number of copies –and that number increases every year–the “numbers” people argue that the company simply cannot afford to undertake the project. Market censorship is increasingly in force in a decision-making process now based on whether there is a pre-existing audience for a particular title. Books by well-known authors or obvious successes are preferred; whereas new authors and critical viewpoints increasingly face rejection by the major houses. As a result, the playing field tilts toward larger firms with vast advertising budgets, publicity networks, and sales forces. The result, in the words of Project Censored’s Peter Phillips, is a U.S. media that “has lost its diversity and its ability to present different points of view.”(“Building Media Democracy,” in Censored, 1999: The News That Didn’t Make the News, by Peter Phillips and Project Censored, Seven Stories Press, New York, 1999, p. 129.)
While small, independent presses provide an alternative to counter balance the corporate media, their share of the market is estimated at less than 1% of total book sales. Unable to compete on equal footing, they do not have the strength or resources of the major firms, and they do not have anywhere near as ready access to bookstores and libraries. These presses are often absent from the review media, standard bibliographic tools, and conference exhibits. Furthermore, little money, influence or prestige backs alternative publishers. They are small, their authors and editors rarely known. Often, Library of Congress cataloging is minimal or non-existent for their publications. Book distributors omit them from approval plans, making it difficult for libraries and bookstores to acquire their titles efficiently. They are also outside the mainstream of other traditional distribution channels and the peripheral vision of wholesale book buyers like librarians and independent bookstore owners. Some are even unaware of the potential of selling to these markets or confused as to how to do it. This is unfortunate.
If the public is to benefit from a full range of relevant facts and opinions, authors and readers must make an extra effort to support independent, alternative producers. In the book publishing arena, they must pursue those presses that provide more obscure, diverse perspectives as well as vital information about their communities. Alternative publishers are on the cutting edge of important literature and issues. Their books may not make the bestseller list, but they have a vast, untapped audience that must be reached. Their important cultural and literary contribution is an essential part of the community of publishers with whom authors and readers must interact.
As of late, the frightening pace of media consolidation and disappearance of trusted publishers has dismayed many activists. Nevertheless, they have reason for hope. Over the last few years, book production in the U.S. has skyrocketed, driven largely by small publishers, with the output of the larger houses increasing only minimally since 2003. While overall revenues are barely rising, the outlook for alternative publishing is promising. As Americans seek new political visions and reject corporate control of the media, many look to progressive publications as an antidote. And it is within alternative books that new arguments and inquiries are examined at length and in depth. Moreover, these books are now more likely to find new audiences thanks to what Wired editor Chris Anderson calls “The Long Tail” of the Internet—a tail that makes it easier for consumers to find and buy niche products because of the net’s "infinite shelf-space effect." ( Wired Magazine, Issue 12.10, October 2004, http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.10/tail.html)
New distribution mechanisms can break through the bottlenecks of traditional retail, offering enhanced opportunities to draw attention to such niche products as alternative books. To take advantage of a more promising political and economic environment, activists must harness the same technological vehicles they have successfully deployed to mobilize political action--vehicles such as blogs and online customer reviews to showcase lesser known voices in the alternative press. An essential tool for identifying those meaningful voices is Alternative Publishers of Books in North America. Today, public participation and freedom of expression are at stake in the battle to control the flow of information and ideas. By promoting access to alternative book publishers, this Directory will help independent presses beat the odds in the marketplace for ideas, thereby ensuring access to the diversity of opinion so essential to the future of democracy.