But when editors and publishers feel they need to fight for every moment of planned reading, and readers are experiencing a shrinking cultural attention span, it’s surprising that large books inherently make the most market sense. With this pattern of investment behavior, major presses are inadvertently helping foster an environment where American indie presses can thrive by doing the very thing they’re best at: being small and, by extension, focusing on creativity and originality over sales.
Graywolf, for instance, is one of many independent presses that have found their place in the shadow of bigger publishing houses. In the past few years, Graywolf has released some of the most groundbreaking American nonfiction. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which won the 2015 National Books Critics Circle award, complicated notions of sexuality and desire with tender, cutting prose. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric conveyed a sense of exhaustion of American racial harassment and violence that resonated with many readers.
The Argonauts and Citizen are each less than 160 pages long. They’re built from fragments and vignettes that don’t so much combine genres—personal essay, critical theory, poetry, and photography—as they put them into a blender and shred them. Both play with method and perspective to offer insight into crucial subjects: One explores what it’s like to love a fluidly gendered person, the other grieves the continued killings of black citizens by the police. Rather than depending on preexisting notions of what succeeds, these writers pursued faith in new models, and The Argonauts and Citizen both happened to do quite well among mainstream audiences (the latter sold over 60,000 copies). The Argonauts won a National Book Critics Circle Award, Citizen was a finalist for a National Book Award, and both can be found in major bookstores just about everywhere.
Another notable press subverting traditional publishing standards is Dorothy, which is “dedicated to works of fiction or near fiction or about fiction, mostly by women.” Run by the experimental writer and book designer Danielle Dutton, Dorothy publishes just two books a year, and the books are small, beautiful, and cost only $16. Dutton started the press when she found out that Renee Gladman, a poet she admired, had written a trilogy of novels about the invented city-state of Ravicka. These books are absurd and surreal, and are stabilized by an eerie interior logic: Think The Phantom Tollbooth for adults. Dutton told Gladman she’d start a press if Gladman let her publish these books. Thus, Dorothy was born.
Dorothy powerfully demonstrates the deft curation that’s possible with a small press. Dutton has been a steward of the razor-sharp and visceral work of writers like Gladman, Nell Zink, Joanna Walsh, and many more. Dorothy books emerge each October like ringing endorsements of writers you’ve never heard of by a friend whose taste you can absolutely trust. The reading experience is more manageable, too. These books are short, but existentially grand in impact. Dutton said in a radio interview that being based in St. Louis, as opposed to a big coastal city, allows Dorothy to worry less about the business side of things.