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The power of self-publishing

By Chelsey Shannon, editor

The worlds of traditional publishing—often framed as the, singular, route to publication—and self-publishing—correspondingly: scrappy, minor, even un-rigorous—may seem like oil and water. But UNO Press is proud to represent authors (not to mention certain staff members) who take self-publishing as seriously as the work they publish in partnership with us. Read on to see how these artists’ lives and work have been enriched by taking the means of production into their own hands.

Harriet Burbeck

Artist, illustrator, author, and educator Harriet Burbeck has self-published everything from perzines to posters, even veering into literary preservation. In 2010, Burbeck started Lost Tales Publishing to bring Artie and the Princess, a 1940s children’s book, back into print. “My mom had it when she was little and then read it to me and my sister when we were little and we loved it! When my friends started having kids I wanted to get copies for them, but it was out of print and you could only find it on Amazon for like $100. So we did a copyright check and found that it was in the public domain.” With help from UNO Press’s own GK Darby and Abram Himelstein, Lost Tales Publishing was able to bring this family favorite back to life.

In the 2000s, Burbeck co-ran a weekly zine called The Nose Knows. She has also worked as a Print Production Associate at New Orleans’ Paper Machine, supporting others in their self-publishing endeavors. Paper Machine also printed the initial, hand-finished run of Burbeck’s beautiful and surreal An Illustrated History of Domestic Arthropods.

In a cultural glutted with media and content, there is great value in slower, homegrown productions. Via email exchange, Burbeck spoke of how self-publishing “removes the gatekeeper from the process of disseminating art and ideas.”

“Any kid can staple together two sheets of paper to make an eight-page zine that they can print and share as much as they want. Self-publishing is also an act of artifact making, which separates it from online media projects. Self-published products are precious, limited edition objects, at the same time as being the outcome of a system that is open to anyone. Which is magical on its own, but also often results in some really legitimate weirdness. When someone can share anything, sometimes they actually do!”

Kalamu ya Salaam

Poet, producer, educator, activist, BLKARTSOUTH incendiary, and Runagate Press imprint co-founder Kalamu ya Salaam has been published and performed all over the world, but New Orleans has always been the locus of his ebullient creativity. One early endeavor was Nkombo, a Black literary journal he co-edited with the legendary Tom Dent. In an interview with his friend, colleague, and mentor, Salaam reflected on the Nkombo and the kinetic interplay between independent publishing and regional networking—especially for the overlooked, underestimated Southern arts scene:

“When I look back over some of the Nkombos, I end up going back to my jazz paradigm. We did a number of regional issues. We did a theater issue that had plays from all over the South in it. The poetry came from Florida, Birmingham, Jackson, Houston, wherever we could find folk. It was almost as if we knew that we couldn’t survive isolated but at the same time we didn’t want to be not Southern.”

He also spoke on the power of self-publishing for Black people and other marginalized creators:

“… diasporic literature has not yet come to power, in terms of diaspora writers controlling the media and presenting their own image without having to appeal to White audiences. I can remember that one issue of Nkombo where we talked about not being about explaining our literature to White folks!”

At any mainstream literary outfit in the 1960s, this was a truth destined to be simultaneously effaced and demonstrated with one stroke of the editor’s pen.

Photo courtesy of Amistad.

Nkombo was just one project of Nkombo Publications, which also published chapbooks and anthologies by Black Southern writers, in collaboration with the Free Southern Theater. Spanning nine issues between 1968 and 1974, Andrew Salinas called Nkombo “one of the South’s most important contributions to the Black Arts Movement.”

The archive of Nkombo Publications can be viewed at the Amistad Research Center.

Davida Breier

While Florida-based thriller Sinkhole is Davida Breier’s debut novel, it’s far from her first publishing credit. A zinester since 1994, Breier has been recognized by Baltimore City Paper for her indie publications, which include Leeking Ink, a recurrent perzine whose “whimsical content has included everything from office supply lust and desk obsession to vacations that include medical oddities, sharks, and b-movie star adoration,” and Rigor Mortis, a short-running but impactful horror zine.

In an interview with Riverside Quarterly, Breier spoke on the zine as a form:

“Zines are commonly self-defined, but at their most basic level, they are an independent form of communication, usually printed and often self-distributed. In my eyes, zines are generally about sharing ideas or interests without commercial intent. Zinemakers often want to share—thoughts, experiences, art, music—without monetary gain as a driving factor.” 

Her roots in the zine world complement Breier’s work as an author and publishing professional. In fact, Breier directly merged the two worlds with Back Fill, a zine about the writing of Sinkhole.

“Unfiltered personal experience is unique to zines…” Breier told RQ. “They are tactile and creative in ways that make them an enduring media.”

Abram Himelstein

You could say that self-publishing is part of Abram Himelstein’s blueprint, his great-grandfather having published his own volumes of poetry and memoir. Before becoming editor-in-chief of UNO Press, Himelstein stepped into his role as a publisher with New Mouth from the Dirty South, which produced Factory Direct, a zine Himelstein co-ran in the 2000s. In an interview with Eclectica Magazine, Himelstein explained that the subscription-based Factory Direct was “an art envelope (done by a different artist each issue) with three zines in each issue,” including zines—whether audio-zines, story-zines, photo-zines, or other forms—written by Himelstein, Jamie Schwesnedl, or Asia Wong, his collaborators.

New Mouth from the Dirty South also published Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing, a novel Himelstein co-wrote with Schwesnedl in a process that encapsulates the grassroots, often collaborative nature of indie publishing. “The plan was to write the book in a month,” he told Eclectica. 

“Five pages a day, 30 days—a kick-ass 150-page novel. It took two years. We borrowed Jamie’s dad’s office in the Economics building at the University of Iowa, and we went there every day, like it was our jobs. We had an outline, and one person would try and write a section, and then the other would take a crack at fixing that part while the first writer played NERF hoops, or bought M&M’s. And then we would have our friends read it. We bribed our friends with dinner—and they would come over to dinner (picture bad tofu scramble) and we would ask them what they didn’t understand, or what parts sucked. Then we would fix those parts.”

Chelsey Shannon

Lastly, yours truly. I was first introduced to self-publishing by my second grade teacher, who had us compose short books that parent volunteers would then bind with folded cereal box cardboard, contact paper, and staples. Ugly as that contact paper was, I was thrilled by the sight of my finished product—and ended up asking if I could make more books than the allotted one per student (thanks for saying yes, Mrs. Hatterschide!). Ten years later, I co-founded an anthological arts & letters feminist zine that my co-editor and I sustained until we graduated. Since then, zines have brought me closer to the people in my life, opened my mind, and stirred my spirit.

Like others in this roundup have indicated, I find the artistic, political, and emotional license of self-publishing hugely compelling. Being Black, mixed-race, queer, a woman, and a survivor of sexual abuse, I grew up feeling alienated from my own voice, stymied by the meaning—or lack thereof—that others would ascribe to it. Expressing myself in my own publications gave me the space I rarely felt afforded by my formative environments, which then helped me project that voice in other spaces. Bringing that same license to other people, whether through Resist Psychic Death or the class zines I’d put together at the end of the feminist writing circles I used to facilitate for kids, compounded my feeling of liberation.

This winter, this arc comes full circle in the Self-Publishing Intensive I’ll teach with Harriet and Abram through UNO. In partnership with the estimable Paper Machine, who will furnish us with tools far luxer than the Lucky Charms boxes of my youth, this course is open to UNO and non-UNO students alike. We’re stoked to help students bring their self-publication projects to fruition, whether poetry chapbooks, flash fiction, visual art, perzines, or work that defies genre conventions.

More information on the three-week January course can be found here, or come visit us at this Sunday’s Zine Fest, hosted by Burn Barrel Press, 11am-5pm at Gasa Gasa!

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