See our slideshow from the Menil Community Art Festival and Indie Book Fest.
Writing about writers is as daunting a task as introducing a dignitary to a room full of dignitaries; do it right, or don't do it at all. Imagine, then, the anxiety we felt while visiting the tables of independent authors, booksellers, small presses and literary organizations at the Houston Indie Book Festival last Saturday at The Menil Collection. The festival wrapped around half of the Menil, and the writers were set up like vendors, except instead of merely selling their literary works, each offered a different reason why they became involved in the independent book movement.
Take Ryan Dilbert, for instance. When the aspiring author couldn't get his book published through a blockbuster press, he found a home at No Record Press, a small book publisher that provided him with a hands-on editor, yet allowed him creative control of the cover design of his final product, a novel entitled Time Crumbling Like a Wet Cracker.
"Small presses are the only way that many authors are going to get published initially," admitted Kirby Johnson, event coordinator and founder of NANO Fiction, a flash fiction literary journal that co-sponsored the event along with Gulf Coast Magazine. (They were also voted 2011 Best Literary Journal by yours truly.)
"We do a lot more with less," said Laura Taylor, a member of Haymarket Books, a nonprofit small press that publishes left-wing material.
Others, like Setria James and Fara Walker, didn't think twice about taking the big or small press route, choosing instead to self-publish their books. Sitting only a few feet away from each other at the festival, they both possessed a self-aware, self-taught creative and business acumen that wouldn't allow the stiff-collared atmosphere of a big book publisher to stifle their literary endeavors. James founded Doodling Fun, her own company, to put out Doodles Ave, a series of interactive coloring books and worksheets. By self-publishing, James went a step beyond utilizing a small press: The Texas Women's University graduate and graphic designer created, illustrated, published, marketed, advertised and distributed her books -- all on her own.
So did Walker.
"I produced and published this by myself," said the author proudly. Her work is a beautifully illustrated graphic children's book entitled Jake the Dot? that tells a tale of discrimination and acceptance. We marveled at the massive size of the book, the midnight black paper offset by chalky white writing on the outside and rainbow-colored characters on the inside, the awesome moral story and Walker's determination not to go the way of the big press.
"I'm not seeking fame and fortune," Walker said.
Dilbert, James and Walker's go-getter attitudes represented the spirit of the book festival -- and the spirit of the independent book movement as a whole.
"[The festival] is nice because it celebrates authors who might not get their work out there," said Becca Wadlinger, another of the four event coordinators.
"It's an uphill climb," added David Duhr, owner of WriteByNight, an Austin-based writing center, about the indie book movement. "I think they're fighting the good fight."
All of the participants' tales of indie publishing, however different, weave together a common tapestry of tenacity. These are not fly-by-night writers. They take their craft seriously, and just because they're not big doesn't mean they're not successful.
It also doesn't mean they don't have support. Organizations such as WIVLA (Women in the Visual and Literary Arts) or the Poetry Society of Texas -- in our case, the Gulf Coast Poets Chapter -- or the River Writers, a Baton Rouge group of poets, called "tributaries, all coming together to form a river," according to member Benjamin S. Lowenkron, were also in attendance. These are groups created by writers, for writers, offering resources about publishing opportunities, entrance into literary events and even financial support through writing contests that offer awards of $1,000 or more.
Finally, some, like shane patrick boyle, a writer and artist who started a just-for-kicks publishing company in second grade, and who now publishes "Houston Z," a comic book "zine," simply enjoy the camaraderie that such a festival provides. "People don't recognize that Houston is a very important cultural center, both mainstream and underground," boyle said.
"It's nice to have community-based [events]," said Wadlinger.
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