Indie Lit Cannot Be Killed: Thoughts From the Baltimore Book Festival

This past Friday I headed down to the Baltimore Book Festival, an annual three-day street fair full of readings, panels, small press exhibitions, and overstuffed bookshelves on city lawns. It was a pleasure to ramble around eating cinnamon pecans, playing hooky on whatever it was I was supposed to be doing, hearing some dear friends read their poetry at the Enoch Pratt Free Library tent, and above all, savoring a public celebration sustained by and centered on small literary organizations.

Even the names of the exhibitors did my heart good. Some were dignified and classical (Agora, Daedalus Bookstore Outlet), others chic and indecipherable (exittheapple). Many seemed to be commentaries on their organizations’ prospects in a cruel industry, economy, and universe; these ranged from the rosily optimistic (Promiseland Publishing) to the skeptically self-deprecating (Bathwater Press, Pennyworth Books) to the cheerfully fatalistic (Post Mortem Press).

To me, the very existence of such organizations is reassuring. I felt, looking around the festival, that the independent literary scene is not just “plucky” or “resilient”; it is actually unkillable.

We may fear for print books, we may fear for physical libraries and bookstores, we may fear for the big trade publishers, but independent presses—in the aggregate, at least—will survive. They will weather all markets because they never had a business model to begin with. They fly by night on acid-free paper wings and land somehow just within the realm of possibility. They’re emblems of the invincible hopelessness of publishing itself: mastodons like Amazon, saber-toothed cats like Apple will rise and fall, but small presses, with their logos by local artists, their slender “prize finalists,” their chapbooks—God love them, their chapbooks—will cling to life like those gleeful little microbes in the cracks of Arctic rocks.

All of which means that physical books, bookstores, and libraries will probably make it too. As long as people have the urge—call it vanity, but I think it's more—to see their thoughts realized in tangible form, a handful of outfits will survive to gratify it. Others will survive to retail and distribute those totems of thought: not only under website banners but under city awnings, or if nothing else, tents at community festivals.

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