HYPERLITERATURE: THE APOTHEOSIS OF SELF-PUBLISHING?
by Edward Picot, Guest Editor
My mother used to work as a secretary, and as a small boy I sometimes visited her office. I was fascinated by her manual typewriter: big and heavy, cold and grey. I can remember her typing at what seemed like incredible speed, occasionally stopping to make corrections with thick sharp-smelling fluid from a small bottle.
Copying was a problem. Almost every document she typed would have a top copy, then a sheet of carbon-paper, then a back copy, which came out grey and fuzzy. Sometimes there would be several carbon-sheets and several back copies, each one greyer and fuzzier than the one before. But if numerous copies were required, then she had to prepare something called a stencil or "Roneo." I assume that Roneo was a brand name. The typewriter punched letter-shaped holes through a flimsy sheet, the flimsy sheet was fitted to an inked drum, and copies could be made on plain paper by turning a handle at the side of the drum, dragging paper sheets underneath like laundry through a mangle, with each sheet picking up an inked impression from the drum on its way. The copies were poor-quality, the process of producing the stencil was laborious, and if a mistake was made at the typing stage it was almost impossible to correct. But this was the only cheap method of text reproduction available in the 1960s. If better quality was required, it meant going to a professional printer – prohibitively expensive per unit, unless your print run was in the hundreds.
New methods of reproduction were already on their way, however. The Rank Xerox company was founded in 1956. My brother became a printing apprentice in the mid-1970s, by which time photo-lithography, rather than printing from metal plates, was the norm in small printing firms. During his apprenticeship he was warned by one of his tutors that the whole printing industry was likely to be replaced by Xerox machines in the near future.
By the time I started my first job in 1976, electronic typewriters had begun to appear in offices, some of them "golfball" typewriters which could offer a variety of typefaces. Photocopiers had arrived too: the first one I ever encountered was a smelly machine which produced grey copies on tacky heat-sensitive paper, but wealthier firms already had plain-paper models, and people with access to them were already starting to use them for their own purposes. The era of the fanzine was about to begin.
1976 saw the birth of punk music, and part of the punk ethos involving doing it yourself, discarding technical mastery in favor of raw urgency, and steering clear of big business. Many of these ideas spilled over into the demi-monde of small publishing, initially inspiring a crop of punk fanzines, but later feeding into the wider culture of small-scale shoestring literary publishing, especially poetry publishing.
I was already in a poetry-society by the time I left school, and in 1978 we brought out our first publication. Initially it was a society newsletter, twelve pages for £15 (free to members). It soon turned into a small poetry magazine, published bi-monthly, usually 28 pages long. It ran for 26 issues, the last one appearing in early 1983, by which time the price had gone up to £35 (which was pretty cheap, even in those days). But even in our heyday, we never managed to sell more than 150 copies per issue. We never took any adverts, which might have been a valuable source of extra revenue, but our real problems were distribution and publicity. We had a few retail outlets – mostly local libraries, but a couple of shops too, including the Poetry Society Bookshop in London. Sales from these outlets remained modest, however, and only brought in a trickle of money. Most copies either went directly to society members (who paid a yearly subscription fee) or were sold in person to friends and acquaintances, at work or in pubs. We broke even. The only payment we could make to contributors was a free copy of the magazine.
This experience must have been fairly typical of the myriad of small publications which sprang into existence in the late '70s and early '80s. Some friends of ours launched an alternative local newspaper, which came out monthly for about a year. Various other poetry societies in our area brought out their own magazines; and in 1982, on a visit to Sheffield, I can well remember going into the foyer of the Crucible Theatre and discovering numerous small poetry magazines on a rack, all indigenous to Yorkshire and Derbyshire, including the following which I bought and later reviewed: Arrows, Pennine Platform, Northern Line, Kudos, Sheaf and Krax. Quite frequently, small publications would be sent to us through the post. Rupert Loydell sent us an early copy of Stride Magazine, for example – which brings me to the point that some of these publications are still going. Krax is still being published out of Leeds, and Stride Magazine itself has now partially transferred to the Web. The little publishing revolution is still with us. Peter Finch (the Welsh experimental poet, author of How to Publish Yourself) writes as follows in his article "Poetry – A Vigour Verging on Ferocity," which was published in the 2000 edition of The Writers' Handbook (UK, MacMillan):
"...It was not until after the Second World War and the rise of the transatlantic mimeo revolution that amateur poetry magazine and pamphlet publication really took off. Recent advances have seen that revolution overturned again. Technologically literate poets are everywhere ... Access to laser printers and the computers that drive them are commonplace. Desk-Top Publishing and Word Processing software make it so easy to do ... Poets in growing numbers are able and willing to establish competent one-person publishing operations, turning out neat, professional-looking titles on a considerable scale.
"These are the small presses and little magazines ... Professional distribution is still the age-old problem ... Small mags go hand-to-hand among friends, at slams, readings, concerts, creative writing classes, literary functions, via subscriptions and are liberally exchanged among all those concerned. The network is large. The question remains: is anyone out there not directly concerned with the business of poetry actually reading it?"