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Anarchism: in and out of the mainstream

Posted on April 17th, 2009 in About AK, Anarchist Publishers

Rob Ray’s recent blog post on Libcom about what he see’s as anarchist literature’s “failure to crack the mainstream” really resonated with me. In a nutshell, Rob says:

a) anarchist publishers are producing higher quality works as of late.
b) this increase in production standards hasn’t necessarily resulted in higher sales

c) distribution of our literature needs more fruitful outlets
d) anarchists need more resources to help them reach their rea

I’m not sure that the quality of anarchist publications has improved overall (design and readability is improving, editing and fact-checking are going in the right direction but we have a long way to go still). And I think sales have increased (again, for some, not others, but largely due to making publications available through mainstream channels). But I agree that it is always crucial for anarchist publishers to find better ways to distribute their materials and that it’s a great idea for us to share, and find new, resources to help everyone reach a wider readership. Cover design alone doesn’t move books, but some knowledge and experience about what does move them exists—there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. AK Press has been operating for almost two decades now under an assumption that anarchist ideas are not only worthy of being “in the mainstream,” but had better find a sizable following there (or else, um, there’s little hope in working toward an anarchist future).

Firstly, Rob mentions that “Even with the best of organization [anarchist pub
lishers] are having difficulty finding new places to stock [books, magazines] and hawk them around.” No doubt this seems increasingly true, but the picture is much broader than one might expect. The obvious place to start selling books is through the book trade. The good news is that almost anyone will carry your books (from Amazon to Barnes & Noble to City Lights)—if they feel that someone will wander in and buy them. So, since City Lights is a great bookstore and readily stocks radical literature, the big question is: who is going to buy our books from Barnes & Noble and the like? Well, to be honest, lots of people. In my opinion, the challenge is how to convince the B&N buyers that your book is going to sell (and hence it’s worth them stocking it). Well, that’s the icky marketing and publicity side of things. You want to gain access to these places? There’s two ways to do it: have convincing-enough marketing and publicity plans in place or buy your way in—large stores have “programs” where you can basically rent space in the store. Book stores are a business. Buying shelf space doesn’t guarantee sales for the publisher but it guarantees income for the store (Amazon has similar programs in place to “promote” your book for a fee). Amazon is the fastest-growing bookseller, hands down. They extract non-negotiable fees from AK’s main distributor (that we end up having to pay ourselves) just to sell through them. Wholesale distributors have similar plans in place to extract money from publishers and smaller distributors (in the form of warehousing fees, catalog fees, fees on books returned, etc.). It’s called business. You don’t like it? Neither do we, but that’s the playing field.

And none of this work is particularly gratifying, and certainly not glamorous. Further, it’s not generally thought of as “anarchist activity” by most.

Luckily, the established book trade isn’t our only source for reaching people. But how do we reach the vast number of
folks who never set foot into a bookstore and don’t troll Amazon for new books? AK Press reaches them by tabling at a variety of events, networking with other groups, and passing out catalogs. Certainly we endeavor to attend as many radical events as possible (see our Spring list here) but we also get out to places where our literature isn’t commonplace. Whether it’s the Barrio Bookfest in LA, the Sonoma County Book Festival, the Baltimore Book Festival, the San Diego International Book Festival, or The Crossroads of the West Gun Show (yes, two of us tabled there a few years back), we actually go out and talk to people. Sometimes we sell a lot of books, sometimes we don’t—but we always meet new people and do our best to turn them on to anarchist ideas.

And Rob really hit a nerve with “Both online and off, more effort has been put into looking at what the mainstream does, understanding why it works, and then turning out our own, more honest work.” I couldn’t agree more. Attending a sales conference at the Helmsley Hotel isn’t really my, um, cup of tea, but it helps get AK books into stores around the country and we learn new tips from our fellow publishers—anarchist or not. Everyday we’re on the phone with Ingram, drafting catalog copy for Consortium, making onesheets for the media, preparing new title updates to send out to our book trade contacts, sending Spring announcements to Publisher’s Weekly, and we’re tediously processing returns. Don’t know about Ingram, Consortium, or Publisher’s Weekly? Well, that’s because you are in the anarchist movement, and not the book trade.

What AK’s flurry of activity means—both as a publisher and distributor—is that anarchist ideas break out into the bookstores, the reviews journals, and get uploaded to Amazon, etc. When we handle distribution for publishers—like Freedom Press, Autonomedia, Black Cat, Bureau of Public Secrets, Charles H. Kerr, and the Kate Sharpley Library—they can rest well knowing that someone on our end is filling those purchase orders, warehousing the stock, and tracking down that money owed. It frees them up to what they do best: produce literature. But the scope of their reach will be determined in large part by how much effort they want to put into promoting their books. And believe me, it’s a lot of work.

Over the years we’ve made our share of mistakes, but we’ve always tried to learn from them. And while publishing and distributing literature is not the only priority for the anarchist movement, it’s an integral part of laying the groundwork for making social and economic change attractive and coherent. So yes, we’re asking ourselves these same questions Rob poses and answering them from within and without “mainstream models.”

And I have an answer to Rob’s final comments: “What we don’t have, yet, is a central clearing house for all this information. We don’t have a database of potential outlets, or much in the way of guides to expected rates, the best approaches to take—how to close a distro deal. … Such an entity, or collective, creating and maintaining this kind of resource and with the ability to walk new groups through the minefield that is publishing, would be worth its weight in gold. As a creed that is supposed to excel in mutal aid, we desperately need something along these lines, and it’s a great shame that now, when we really need it, we haven’t got it.” Yes we do. AK is happy to be a helpful resource. And, possibly more importantly, there’s always the growing web of infoshops and radical/anarchist bookstores popping up around the US. There’s a healthy diversity in the style and approach these spaces take and, among the valuable services they offer their local communities, they can function as an alternative book trade. Tap into the Infoshop Network and find out more.

To publish literally means “to make public.” We promote our ideas and histories but is it an end goal just to make books available? Do we measure “success” by our Amazon ranking? Certainly not. We need to reach people but let’s not let that pursuit become a substitute for action and efforts that can positively affect people’s daily lives (hopefully inspiring their own self-activity). In order to have a presence in society, we need to make public more than just new publications. We actually need to change the world. Let’s not lose sight of that.

You got specific questions about navigating the publishing world? Send them to or post them in the comments and we’ll try to answer them. With enough interest and a specific idea of what people would find most useful, perhaps we could do some “Distribution 101” posts.