growing books

What Do Veggies & Books Have in Common?

A longtime fan of storefront and open air farmers markets, my first exposure to community-supported agriculture (CSA) came by way of my little brother. As a teller at the local bank, his interactions with a variety of local characters are often hilarious and sometimes enlightening. Like the time I asked about the abundance of massive zucchinis looking oddly out of place among the clutter of useless gadgets, unused cookbooks and unopened mail on his kitchen counter. He explained that one of his customers owned a farm nearby, and had offered him a share in his crop. My brother paid for his share upfront, and each week he received a bushel of whatever was ripe and ready. “That sounds great!” I said. “But…how often do you cook vegetables?” He quickly forced three of the bright green gourds into my arms. “Take them! I can never eat all this!” he pleaded.

I took the vegetables and considered this. What a time-saver, I thought. I shop for produce like some girls shop for shoes – my eyes positively light up for Jersey tomatoes and I drool over summer squash – but I don’t exactly keep farmer’s hours. Making it the market by 6 p.m. is about as realistic for me as getting to the office by 9 a.m. My other thought was that I eat the same things all the time – tomatoes, peppers, spinach, corn…. I could try new things! Learn new recipes! I drove back to the city and enjoyed the zucchini sautéed with onions and garlic, but I never did follow-up on finding a farm to invest in – setting the idea aside for someday when I might have a family, and a house, and I don’t work 90 hours a week.

Still, I found the concept pretty brilliant. And, outside of my family, community-supported agriculture has been gaining momentum. With it, the model has spilled over into other industries such as beer brewing, fishing, and most recently, the arts.

Building community support is nothing new to the publishing world. Small presses, independent bookstores and libraries have been promoting homegrown authors for years. Likewise, loyal readers tend to buy everything their favorite authors or specialty publishers put out.

So it is a natural progression to have community supported publishers springing up around and the country. For those of us who aren’t so conscientious – if only it wasn’t so time-consuming to keep up with things, if only it wasn’t so expensive to take a risk on something new, if only I had the incentive to get behind something in a less passive way than reading – things might be getting easier. Similar to the way shares in a community supported agriculture program work, community supported publishers get paid upfront so they can invest in future work. Consumers receive their shares of published work on a regular basis, often alongside other perks like discounts and merchandise. Readers get a bargain, an opportunity to sample things they would not have thought to look for or pay for, plus an investment in their community.

The Head and the Hand Press, of Philadelphia, is one local publisher trying the CSA model to further its creative work. This small press actually has agricultural roots. Nic Esposito, the founder, set out to be a writer. Through a stint in Americorps after college, he became interested in farming. Dreaming of living off the land someplace, he was surprised to find a thriving urban farming community right near his family in Philadelphia. His first book, Seeds of Discent, built upon his experiences as an urban farmer. He enjoyed the process of publishing the book himself and decided to establish a publishing company to find a voice for other writers.

“In many ways, publishing is very similar to agriculture,” he said. “Farmers and writers both share a personal and intimate attachment to the work that they do. They both accept that their profession will yield more in personal satisfaction than monetary compensation. But they also both know that they produce something people need to survive, and have needed since civilization started. So writers and farmers need to find creative ways to make their craft and livelihood viable. So as farmers started the CSA model to mitigate the risk of their production by tapping into the support of their customers, we want to do the same thing.” The upfront support helps them keep publishing books, and readers receive a bounty of literature. For $50, shareholders receive a bundle of products twice per year, including novels, memoirs, almanacs, chapbooks, and exclusive insights into the writing process and access to events. (Shares are available here).

Esposito is aware that Philadelphia’s literary culture is not as recognized as its music scene or its urban farming community. The Head and The Hand, among other local publishers, such as Apiary Magazine (whose tagline is “Wriiten by Homans”), hope to change that by “rethreading a love of literature back into the social fabric of the city.”  One of the things they have accomplished as a craft publishing company is to generate excitement and get people talking about books and writing in Philadelphia.

Wolverine Farm Publishing Company and Bookstore, based out of Fort Collins, CO, carries out a similar mission by publishing books, newspapers, online content, and running a volunteer bookstore inside a local coffeehouse. While some of their work is devoted to local matters, readers come from around the world. With a nod toward the inspiration of CSAs, their website encourages readers to “cultivate the world you want to live in.” There are different levels of support, with goods including t-shirts; and, at the highest level of support, an intimate dinner prepared by staff.

What many of these community supported publishers have in common is their sense of activism. Esposito channeled his activist energy into volunteerism, which led to his own publishing company. Just as artisanal farms focus on filling a niche, the heart of some community supported publishing programs have more to do with political perspective than geographic position.

South End Press, out of Cambridge, MA, does not limit itself regionally, but focuses on authors addressing critical social issues.  Their CSP program promises “a steady crop of books guaranteed to change your world.” For $20/month, subscribers receive every new book published, selected backlist titles, and a 10% discount.

Perhaps best represented here is Oakland, with its robust radical community. AK Press offers monthly subscriptions through their Friends of AK Press program. “For centuries, print media has been an essential part of movement building—from the hand-produced leaflets, pamphlets, and newspapers of our past to today’s more widely-distributed magazines and books, the ability to print and distribute information plays an integral role in developing and sustaining community structures,” their website states. Friends of AK Press subscriptions allow them to continue publishing over 20 titles per year. They offer various levels of support starting at $15 per month for e-books, plus steep discounts on other merchandise.

PM Press, also of Oakland, offers a similar program with their Friends of PM Press program. The small publisher has long been involved in the community, through their efforts founding book fairs, leading tenant organizing campaigns, and working with bookstores, academic conferences, and rock bands to deliver “political and challenging ideas to all walks of life.”

Come to think of it, the Hoboken Historical Museum, in New Jersey, has been practicing the CSA model for some time, even if they don’t market it as such. I happened upon their booth at an Italian street festival a few years ago. I went for the zeppoles and the beer tent but I came away with pleasures that last a lot longer – a handful of chapbooks from the museum’s oral history project. I think I spent about $30 on them that day. For just $40, the museum offers the chapbooks, free admission, discounts on events and gifts, newsletters, and recognition as a supporter. Perhaps I would not have sought out the memoirs of a Maxwell House factory worker or a maritime woodworker, but I would be delighted to accept them, knowing their historical ties to many of the places and things I enjoy on a regular basis.

Would I have donated to the museum anyway? Sure. But it blows me away to receive something so precious in return. The key to community supported publishing, according to Esposito, is that it mutually benefits readers and publishers alike.

Esposito notes that farming and publishing present their own unique challenges, but mostly he recognizes the good. “There’s nothing more exciting than releasing a book and watching it get reviews and get into the hands of a lot of people. And there’s nothing more satisfying than the rhythm of the farming life. And I feel really fortunate to have the privilege to combine the two.”

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