We here at Small Press Distribution are tremendously proud to announce that from June 2016 onwards, Aunt Lute Books will be exclusively distributed by SPD. Aunt Lute was founded as a multicultural women’s press in 1982—and has quickly become home to some of our community’s most significant work by women of color including Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldúa.
As a publisher, it’s difficult to find an organizational model with a balance between being a financially viable press, and one that remains politically oriented. That said, over the years, Aunt Lute has managed to not only survive, but flourish after over three decades of publishing feminist work – without following any kind of precedent. As the industry becomes increasingly commercialized, small presses are having to find their own ways to redefine and revitalize what it means to be a mission-driven press. Aunt Lute has always been at the forefront of innovation and experimentation in terms of actively seeking out what works for their specific needs and world-view. As the inimitable Joan Pinkvoss, founder, editor and publisher of Aunt Lute from the very beginning says in an article in Publisher’s Weekly in 2012—“We’re trying to create a different model we can live with, and make happen,” something that can exist even with the limitations the industry.
We sat down with Joan to hear a little bit more about the decision to distribute exclusively with SPD, why finding a different path is important, how we might go about doing it, and what it’s like to be Aunt Lute in this contemporary moment.
TL: Can you tell us a little bit of what it was like to build Aunt Lute—what difficulties you faced and why you’ve kept on keeping at it?
JP: This has always been a difficult road financially, from Day One (in 1982) when my friend Barb Wieser and I started the press, storing and shipping books from my garage in the Midwest. We’d begun the press to give voice to women—and especially lesbians—because who got published was dependent on who controlled publishing. This was in the heyday of an entire movement of independent bookstores, women’s presses and a burgeoning group of women writers who were certainly not going to be published by mainstream New York presses.
What we could soon see, however, was that, even as the rise in feminist presses was happening, all of those owners were middle class white women (us included). I had grown up in and outside of an urban environment and had become part of a really diverse community of women. The vision for Aunt Lute came, then, from the understanding that existed at the time along with the understanding that only through community—healthily diverse and full-throated—could we move toward the possibility of political and social change.
In 1986, I moved the press to San Francisco to explore putting its control more in the hands of women of color. My goal has been to remain staunch in the grassroots part of the vision: to make publishing accessible to all women who want to give voice to what is important to them, inside and outside of their varying communities. Though of course we at the press still had to sort out which issues seemed to rise to the top in importance and—because of our own financial strictures (looming strictures, unfortunately)—would likely reach an audience who could appreciate and respond to what was being written (and, in the end, buy the books).
Now, however, we had women of different backgrounds to help make those decisions. We had a diverse board and a diverse pool of interns and staff. For example, Co-Director Fabienne McPhail was important in bringing this vision to reality when we became an “educational” non-profit in 1989. Shay Brawn, who joined Aunt Lute in 1995 as the Artistic Director and Co-Director, has, with patience and intelligence, added immeasurably to this vision and to its execution. And, of course, the hundreds of other women who’ve worked tirelessly for Aunt Lute, for little monetary gain, to keep us viable and relevant.
There is no way a press our size, producing long books of fiction or essays or anthologies, could survive on sales of unknown new writers. We’re dependent on grants and angels, both always outside our control, but oddly seeming to appear at just the right time to keep us from imminent collapse. Though, to be sure, there have been many sleepless nights wondering if we can meet our meager payroll. Given these monetary pitfalls, it has helped that we feel proud of the writers we’ve supported, many who have gone on to publish with mainstream presses or who have founded careers and had even more leadership possibility because of their published work.
Just this year, we have a prime example of the reason we continue to exist—to be there for the person who walks in the door with a project that needs to happen, who has found us because they know we exist just for them. In September of this year we will publish the anthology Good Girls Marry Doctors; South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion. Editor Piyali Bhattacharya approached us with this idea, making a compelling argument for its need and timeliness. With some discussion and adjustments to her original ideas and sample pieces, we readily agreed to support her. This is one to watch.
TL: Can you tell me a little bit about Aunt Lute’s decision to move to exclusive distribution with SPD? How one can remain a mission-based press in 2016 and still survive?
JP: One day, a couple of years ago, Brent [Cunningham, the Operations Director of SPD] and I got to talking, and I was telling him about our dream to have them be our major distributor because their vision of distribution seemed to match our vision of publishing. And said that we’d tentatively approached SPD about 10 years before and it hadn’t panned out. By the time of that second discussion, SPD had grown and thrived and was now in much more of a position to negotiate these terms with us in a way that we both could win. We want them to benefit from our sales; and they will provide services to us that larger distributors can no longer provide—with consistency, flexibility, and responsive, responsible service.
You know, we’re definitely what’s known in the industry as a “niche” press. When we first hooked up with a national distributor in 1995—one of the largest—there were few publishers in their “stable.” Maybe thirty. But that kept rising exponentially, fueled by the corporate expectations of amalgamated chain stores and wholesalers—all those middle people who popped up to take a cut; kind of a little Pacman eating away at any minor income small publishers could make. More and more our distributor had to capitulate to the middle people who had all of the buying power. Then it got bought out by a larger organization and one could see the writing on the wall. It had become, intentionally or not, a corporate model that had its own momentum. (And in fact only a few months after we announced we were leaving this distributor, they got bought out by a very large corporation).
What is exciting about this new partnership with SPD is that, perhaps, we are creating a new model together. One that fits the needs of many more independent presses—the small presses that can still generate reasonable incomes from their books but will no longer be paying for sales representation that isn’t helping them, or Amazon advertising that isn’t helping them. For instance, 85% of sales of our bestselling title, almost 30 years in existence, is sold through Amazon. No sales representation is needed for that, no advertising; just a well-functioning distributor. SPD has business savvy and is just as able to provide books to Amazon, as well as to other purveyors, and like us, has a fondness and respect for independent booksellers. So why not work with a distributor that shares your goals and concerns?
Sometimes the possibilities of literature working for social change gets lost and/or deadened by working inside a corporate model of distribution that puts greedy fingers between you and the readers who want to read the work you put out. We just can’t imagine that happening with SPD because their goals are based on their love of sharing literature—in all of its guises—with a long history of doing just that.
TL: Aunt Lute is one of a few identity/politics driven presses (including the Feminist Press at CUNY) who are still working and publishing in 2016—it is of course a great resource, especially in a moment where people are actively addressing the lack of diversity in our industry. Will this change for Aunt Lute as you move into a contemporary literary moment?
JP: I think this is totally unknown. Maybe it’s what makes the work exciting. But if your vision is to be there for the women (and some men, too) who have been voiceless, who those people are will continue to change. You know, when we produced Borderlands/La Frontera in 1987, Chicanas had little recognizable voice in mainstream. Now they do. And a lot because of that book. We just don’t know where the next Borderlands will come from but hope we will be open to it when it does come—with the courage to take the risks that need to be taken.
You know, it could be we just won’t be needed 10 years from now; something will have changed so radically in publishing that we’ll be obsolete. But as long as people keep walking into our door for a project worth doing, we’ll be here.
TL: What’s the weirdest thing that’s happened to you / your weirdest encounter in all of your time as a publisher?
JP: A few years ago a young woman called us, saying she was as a representative of Glen Beck Radio Show (ultra-conservative) and wanted to know—since we were partially funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (public tax payers’ dollars)—how we could be exclusively a women’s press. Shay, who had taken the call, is a very together person and immediately listed the male editors and translators we had, plus the two books we’d done with WritersCorps that featured young girls and boys. And then she suggested we would be delighted to talk more at length with them about this subject. For a while we were paranoid about losing our NEA funding, but none of Beck’s people ever got back to us. I kind of think the caller was a summer intern and was given a task to find these odd things for Beck to go after; NEA must have been on their list that year. Sort of sorry he didn’t come after us as it probably would have made us a smash hit overnight!
TL: The relationship between politics and aesthetics is an important and complex one – how do you personally feel that literature functions within a political movement?
JP: I got my MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in fiction. It is my belief—a very common one, of course— that only through the sharing of stories (and that’s mostly through fiction) does one truly understand the felt—the emotional—meaning of human experience. That sounds way too intellectual, though. It’s about the connectivity that story provides; I don’t think we can get to the bottom of how we all are in this together until we can place ourselves in the stories of those who are different from what we know in our own experience. You have to be open to stories and embrace them to have a chance of overcoming the stultification of those who want to separate us for their own power-mongering. There are many legitimate reasons why we can feel separate from each other, but some of them are made up by people who benefit from that separation. Stories, if told well, have a chance of overcoming those differences.
I think of the opening chapter of our book Shellshaker, by well-known Choctaw writer, LeAnne Howe. The story in that chapter is so well written, so beautifully compelling, that you have to be there in that very moment—you’ve no choice—and yet the details of that telling, which provide a story of Choctaw ethics and rectification, are extremely foreign to what most of us know. An excellent 2012 article in the American Literary Journal points out that for urban American Indian authors it is difficult to hold your identity when liberal academics are pretty sure they know what Native Americans are all about. This essayist points to Shellshaker as an example of writing that makes that hubristic assumption impossible and forces us to actually feel the story of the heritage being described. This is when literature can allow us to respect each other, realizing all the while that we can never know the entire story. It’s an important defense against the Donald Trumps of the world.
TL: What are some things that have inspired you in your work?
JP: I think all of life—even with the horrors of everyday reality—is filled with amazing surprises. And our senses are fed by those moments—serendipitous moments that give us joy and help us to continue. Staying open to it is so important; as well as giving attention to it when it happens. All art provides a lot of those moments. The major inspiration for me, though, are the everyday people who understand that working in even small ways towards social justice is worth something. Their humble and persistent steps, even under the harshest of circumstances, give me the will to continue to do this work. Working together towards a kinder world. Sounds flowery, but it’s a simple truth.
TL: Do you have any advice for young publishers looking to start out today?
JP: Good heavens, no. You have to be crazy…well, you certainly have to have a passion that moves you to do the work in a particular way for a particular reason. So be careful for what you ask foe. In the end, it is one of the most rewarding jobs (if you can afford to not focus too much on your own survival) because you will get to work with the most interesting people you will ever meet. I feel very fortunate to have worked with and learned so much from our authors throughout these 34 years.
TL: What is your favorite ice cream flavor?
JP: Okay, so fact is—because of allergies—I had to give up serious dairy. Even with the Bay Area having so many excellent ice cream makers. Regular ice cream is the worst of what I call the “coagulants”. So, in my book, then, coconut ice cream with cardamom flavor is the best.
Joan Pinkvoss co-founded Aunt Lute Books in 1982 and is presently its Executive Director and a Senior Editor
Trisha Low is Publicity Manager at Small Press Distribution. Previously, she spent two years as Director of Development at [clmp], SPD’s sister organization in New York, where she worked with over 400 small presses nationwide. Her previous experience includes time at feminist arts and activist organizations. She is the author of The Compleat Purge (Kenning Editions, 2013).