Thursday, 03 January 2008

Dye Hard Press - an argument for independent publishing

Dye Hard Press was launched in 1994 almost by accident and on a shoestring budget. For some time I had been frustrated by the lack of poetry publishing outlets in South Africa, whether in journal or book form. South Africa has always suffered from a lack of outlets for poetry, a situation Lionel Abrahams once described as being more destructive than censorship.

In the early 1990s journal outlets for poetry consisted of New Coin, New Contrast, Sesame and Staffrider. A major obstacle to publishers then – as now – was the high cost of production and lack of capital. Funding could be obtained from the National Arts Council but even then funds were limited and allocation committees understandably cautious about funding individuals or ventures lacking a credible track record.

One publisher who worked his way around this scenario was Gus Ferguson who, apart from publishing numerous poetry collections under his imprint Snailpress, produced 30 issues of a monthly poetry journal Slug News, which was produced relatively cheaply – photocopied rather than printed – and distributed free of charge.

Slug News made me realise that a poetry journal did not have to be a glossy production and could be produced cheaply. This example was followed shortly by Roy Blumenthal, whose Barefoot Press printed poetry pamphlets by the thousands and then distributed them via bookshops throughout the country.

This encouraged me to start my own independently published poetry journal called The Magazine With No Name. In retrospect, the venture was doomed from the start but back then I couldn’t see it. Being able to produce something cheaply was not enough, and one of my main problems was that I did not have the credibility of “a name”. If The Magazine With No Name had been published by an Abrahams or Serote, it would have probably been an instant success – but not when it was being published by an unknown named Gary Cummiskey.

My solution was to get a small collection of my own poetry in circulation so people would see I was in earnest. I brought together 20 poems, typed them up on my computer at work, produced a simple cover, photocopied about 100 A4-sized copies, stapled them down the side, and there I had my first collection of poems, The Secret Hour, ready to hit the streets.

I had thought of stating that the collection was privately published, but then considered thinking up a crazy publishing-press name for a once-off production. Partly as a joke and partly as a reflection of my determination not to lay down and die after my plans for The Magazine With No Name collapsed, I decided to ascribe publication to Dye Hard Press.

Shortly afterwards I met Alan Finlay, who was starting up his own poetry journal, Bleksem. He suggested I continue publishing poetry collections by this method, as it was a quick and easy way to get poetry in circulation. If the high-gloss publishing route wasn’t working, all we had to do was ignore it and take over the means of production ourselves.

More titles from Dye Hard Press followed – Structured Space by JDU Geldenhuys, Burning Aloes by Alan Finlay, Icarus Rising by Gus Ferguson, Inside My Pocket by Robert Homem, more samples of my own work, plus others. I also started up a poetry journal called Atio, which ran to four issues.

There was, around this time, an explosion of new poetry publishing ventures, big and small. This period saw the emergence of Botsotso, Carapace, Guter 3, ImPrint, Something Quarterly and Sun Belly Press, to name a few. There was talk of a poetry renaissance and these ventures were generally received with enthusiasm. There were readings at public venues and on radio and TV. As Karen Press perceptively pointed out in New Coin, this sudden burst of activity was undoubtedly linked to the wave of optimism experienced in South Africa in the aftermath of the first democratic elections in 1994.

By 1996, however, a good deal of the initial energy behind the renaissance began to wane. For myself, I became swamped with manuscripts of poetry, stories, novels and plays, mostly of poor quality. I would conscientiously provide feedback to writers on their submissions, but eventually felt unable to keep my head above water. The effort of managing the process from collecting about 20 submissions per week from the mailbox to distributing pamphlets to the bookshops became too much for me. At the end of 1996, after publishing Roy Blumenthal’s Brutal Syrup, I decided to call it a day. Soon afterwards ImPrint stopped appearing, as did Something Quarterly, Sun Belly Press and Guter 3. There were, of course, diverse reasons for these closures, and they were not necessarily linked to my experience.

Old habits die hard, however, and after two years’ break I produced a small poetry anthology called Mad Rains. Unlike previous publications by Dye Hard Press, Mad Rains was A5-size, which made bookshelf storability a good deal easier. Toward the end of 1998, Roy Blumenthal and I collaborated on Head, which was designed by Roy and printed on better-quality paper with a cardboard cover. Roy had also designed a Dye Hard Press colophon for the collection and I have retained the colophon to this day.

Four more titles have followed since then - another anthology called Electric Juice, Arja Salafranca’s The Fire In Which We Burn, Reigning Gloves, Bog Docks and April in the Moon-Sun by myself, The Red Laughter of Guns in Green Summer Rain by Philip Zhuwao & Alan Finlay, and most recently Kobus Moolman's Full Circle.

I also published five issues of the annual literary journal of poetry and prose Green Dragon from 2002 to 2007.

Dye Hard Press is now recognised as a bona fide independent press and has a distribution agent. While originally Dye Hard Press was self-funded, publications are now sometimes dependent on funding.

The lesson behind Dye Hard Press is that print publishing need not be an expensive affair. No one will become a millionaire (or even earn a living) through publishing poetry, so there is little point in bankrupting oneself in the process.

(The above is an updated version of a piece than originally appeared on donga online. It was also published as Dye Hard Press newsletter 12.)

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