Small, independent publishers have been an important presence in the Great Plains since the mid–nineteenth century. During the early days of settlement, nearly every small town had its independent publisher, putting out community newspapers, political pamphlets, collections of sermons, church circle cookbooks, and, occasionally, for a price, a slim volume of poetry.
The principal difference today is that printing. or, better, reproduced writing.has become much less costly and more accessible to people who want to publish their own writing or the work of authors they admire. Until the early to middle years of the twentieth century, aspiring independent publishers had nothing to work with but time-devouring, hand-set lead type and manually operated, sheet-fed printing presses. Offset lithography eventually became the preferable option, but it was coste. cient only when large numbers of printed materials were ordered, and most small press entrepreneurs did not have the wherewithal to distribute large press runs.
In recent years, inexpensive typesetting programs for home computers and a proliferation of neighborhood copy centers have made an enormous difference to aspiring publishers. Len Fulton, longtime publisher of the annual directory of small presses published by Dustbooks, reports that at the end of 1997 his database showed 195 independent publishers and 73 self-publishers located in the American Plains states. A few of these publishers adhere for aesthetic reasons to original printing technology, creating beautiful limited editions using hand-set type and even handmade paper. These presses, which might publish editions of, for example, 200 stapled chapbooks or 2,000 perfect-bound books, have traditionally specialized in the noncommercial market, offering writing of high literary quality that may be too esoteric for established publishers.
The quality of writing published by small, independent publishers varies greatly, but many noted writers got their start in Great Plains literary magazines such as Cutbank (Montana) and the Cottonwood Review (Kansas). Native American writers such as James Welch, Diane Glancy, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, and others appeared in Great Plains small presses long before it became fashionable for eastern literary houses to publish them. As a young, aspiring writer, the important Native American writer Louise Erdrich worked for a time for Plains Distribution Service, a group of small press people dedicated to getting the publications of small, independent presses and authors into bookstores and the hands of readers.
In Canada, small independent presses have also allowed writers to have their say. Perhaps more important are the independent presses, small by U.S. standards but midsize for Canada, that, with the support of Canada Council and provincial writers guilds, publish much of the innovative writing of the Prairies. These include Edmonton's NeWest, Saskatoon's Fifth House, Winnipeg's Peguis and Turnstone, and Regina's Coteau.
Ted Kooser Garland, Nebraska