Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


Member Area

by Pat Holt

Friday, July 12, 2002


[Send a link to this column to a friend]




After four decades of watching "merger mania" hit mainstream publishing, we know that the more publishers are acquired, the more "publishing for love" has become a luxury.

But among editors who have been successful decade after decade, Noel Young of Capra Press and John Martin of Black Sparrow Press have proven that a literary publisher can be healthy, independent and distinctive far outside the mainstream.

At least that appears to be the lesson that Young, who died a few weeks ago at 79, and Martin, who retired recently at 71, leave as a legacy for American readers.


Not to say it was ever easy. "I don't publish books, exactly," Noel used to say. "I *loan* them to the world, and then they come back to me. Forever."

Of course many books at Capra Press were not returned - at least not those by, for example, Raymond Carver, whom Noel was the first to publish, or Ray Bradbury, Edward Gorey, Lawrence Durrell, Gretel Ehrlich, Kenneth Patchen, Anais Nin, Andrei Codrescu, Edward Abbey, Tom Sanchez, Ursula K. LeGuin, Henry Miller, Tess Gallagher, Peter Nabokov, Ross MacDonald and others.

Noel loved to tell the story of how he "really started" as a publisher. Stationed on a beach in the Philippines during World War II, where his sole job for the Army Air Corps was to type lists of supplies brought there by military transport, Noel said he was determined to use his free time by writing the great American novel.

So there he would sit, typing away on his hand-made desk, in front of his hand-made hut, facing the ocean in "the middle of paradise." But something always interrupted him. "We had parrots and monkeys as pets, and there were beautiful people down the beach, and then another supply would come in . . . " and little writing got done. From such "failures," he would say, great publishers are born.

By the time Noel returned to the United States and was heading toward San Francisco with his wife and kids, the family car "blew up" in Santa Barbara and the Youngs decided to stay.

As his second wife, Judy Young, writes in a beautiful chapbook published after Noel's death ("Noel Young: A Casual Biography"), "he often pointed out that it took a wrecked car to stop a traveler in Santa Barbara, since downtown only had one stop light at the time."

The town also had a printer, where Noel got work and fell in love with lead type and a gorgeous Heidelberg press. After he opened Noel Young Printers, Judy writes, his creativity at times got the best of him. "Noel bent lead type in ways it wasn't designed for, outraged some of his customers with the originality of his designs."

Eventually he began printing for some of the more notable small presses of the day - Scrimshaw, Christopher's Books, Something Else, Oyez, Unicorn and, of course, Black Sparrow, which was also located in Santa Barbara at the time. But the call to publish was irresistible.

"One day I made the fatal presumption to publish a friend's poetry work under my own imprint," he wrote in 1979. "There, I'd done it! No trick at all. Not until the books were all stacked in the basement did it occur to me that something had to be done with them...

"All this time, of course, I was running the printing shop with a small crew and we were taking in a couple thousand dollars a week. So you can appreciate the absolute absurdity of my triumphant whoop one day when I opened the mail and found a two-dollar check to pay for a copy of that poetry book. There you have it - the birth of an obsession."

Noel paid for many of the literary titles he published through the sale of nonfiction books - local histories, architectural books, guides to alternative health (booming at the time) and books by his cleverly pseudonymous alter ego, "Leon Elder."

Noel never doubted that it took a steady-selling backlist book to keep the rent paid, and Leon Elder's 1974 "Hot Tubs," which went on to something like 20 printings, did just that. That book and others underwrote such projects as back-to-back Capra books in which a famous writer would be on the front cover and write a story or essay taking up the first half of the book, and an unknown writer would be on the flipped-over back cover with a story or essay taking up the other half.

But the press's golden era waned as Noel found it increasingly difficult to reach audiences that were adventurous enough to appreciate Capra Press. "The retail side of the book world came to be dominated by superstores, giant chains who had driven out of business almost all the local neighborhood bookstores that had been Capra's steady customers for years," Judy Young writes.

And, true to form, Noel rebelled. In his office one day he confided that he was not going to fill orders from a certain chain bookstore because "I lose money with every book they order," he said. "They make me do their 'drop-shipping' for them - look at these labels! it's insane! They don't do the co-op (promotion) they say they will, and they pay their bills with returns. To hell with them."

But Noel, like many independents, published books that were different enough from mainstream titles and still commercial enough to make the inventory of chain bookstores look good. The chain didn't want to lose Noel, and so Capra, though begrudgingly, made its peace with the chain.

I learned another lesson from Noel besides what it means to "publish for love" that came to be important in my own work for the next several decades.

One of the more eccentric craftsman of his time - he designed and constructed two of his houses in the Santa Barbara hills, built a harpsichord from a kit and learned to play it "where he could view the tops of trees while practicing Bach" - Noel became famous as one of the most indefatigable partygoers ever to hit the itinerant (i.e., one trade show after another) publishing scene.

He was the only person I've ever known who would fall asleep at a party until someone called out, "Noel! The music's on!" at which point he would open his eyes while walking out of his chair and dance in a frenzy until the music stopped. "You learn more about the people you're interviewing when you socialize with them," he advised, "than when you transcribe tapes in your lonely old motel room." So true, I found. The only trouble was remembering what they said the next morning.

"Constantly under-capitalized, always fighting the economics of publishing, Noel nonetheless relished the life," Judy writes. Indeed, this was the way Noel endeared himself to many a famous writer - from a very young poet named Gretel Ehrlich to an aging Henry Miller, for whom Noel was a "handyman" and friend for years - and got them to write for Capra Press. He relished every detail of the publishing process.


Publishing reporters today are astonished to learn that in its 30 years of business, Black Sparrow Press never applied for or received grants, sold only to about 50 bookstores (well, some were chains whose branches accounted for many hundreds, but still) and "published for love" every single time John Martin selected a manuscript.

Martin didn't start out with any thought to be a writer, printer or publisher. The manager of an office supply company in 1966, he was 35 when he stumbled across an unknown writer named Charles Bukowski, whose poems appeared in the kind of "magazine" of the time that was mimeographed and passed around until it fell apart by the staples.

Astonished by Bukowski's searing originality and style (OK, I have called this the Dirty Armpit School of Writing but there's no doubt Bukowski was a gifted, often brilliant writer), Martin found out where Bukowski lived and drove there one morning unannounced.

"Bukowski, by his own later admission, was on his 'ninth or 10th beer of the morning,' " Sonoma County Independent writer Gretchen Giles wrote in 1997. "He answered the door and admitted Martin, who asked if the poet had any work he might read. Bukowski jerked a thumb towards the closet. Opening the closet door, Martin was stunned as a waist-high pile of onion-skin manuscripts fell to his feet."

Waist-high in manuscripts! A publisher's dream! Martin started reading through the pile - "refusing Bukowski's offer of a beer (much to the poet's displeasure)" - and discovered one publishable manuscript after another.

"Finally [Martin] looked up and offered Bukowski $100 a month for the rest of his life if he would quit his postal job and become a full-time writer. For Bukowski - whose low-rent life was immortalized in the self-scripted 1987 film 'Barfly' with actors Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway, and whose actual rent was only $37 a month - this was one easy decision."

For Martin, too, the decision to launch Black Sparrow Press was easy, though today it sounds unimaginably risky. But Martin knew exactly what to do. He sold his collection of D.H. Lawrence first editions for $50,000, began printing books at Noel Young's shop in Santa Barbara and worked 16 hour days - 8 hours for the office supply company and 8 hours at home for Black Sparrow.

Soon his wife, Barbara, began to take over the design of all the books. Her clean, creamy, streamlined design reflected the elegance and grace of Black Sparrow's publishing program. John selected only 10 books a year, regarded his authors (not some marketing plan) as the center of the Earth and edited their books with meticulous scrutiny.

He created a mailing list of buyers and collectors who loved the literary quality of Black Sparrow books and wanted the press to succeed. His first printings remained small, rarely exceeding 3,000 copies. He developed a following of booksellers who loved Black Sparrow's high standards and definitive style, and - at least this was the goal - he covered the costs for each title before it came out.

Many unknowns stayed unknown to audiences beyond Black Sparrow's devoted readers, but many are recognizable today, such as John Fantes, Joyce Carol Oates, Tom Clark, Diane Wakoski, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Wanda Coleman, Robert Duncan, Jane Bowles, William Everson, Wyndham Lewis, Wright Morris and Lucia Berlin.

Martin also released 40 more works by Charles Bukowski, many illustrated by R. Crumb and including even a t-shirt, sweatshirt and "Assorted Postcard Pack" (no fool Martin).

Martin also sparked a resurgence of interest in Paul Bowles, whose books were "completely out of print," he says, until Black Sparrow published "The Collected Stories of Paul Bowles" in 1978. This, says reporter Giles, "led to Bernardo Bertolucci's 1990 adaptation of Bowles' shattering 'The Sheltering Sky,' starring John Malkovich and Debra Winger, in which the author makes a cameo appearance."

What I love about both Noel Young and John Martin is that they *wanted* to stay small - strategically so - and independent, but they were never provincial. Martin especially was a master at reaching beyond the sometimes parochial distribution outlets in the United States to develop an international audience.

"My whole thing was [that] I would publish only what I really liked myself, and there's got to be two or three thousand people in the world who would agree with me," he told Geneviève Duboscq in a recent and excellent retrospective piece about Black Sparrow in the Sonoma County Independent - see http://www.metroactive.com/sonoma/blacksparrow-0227.html.

Today, being independent in the cyber-world of the Internet may very well provide the many different books for many different audiences that editors used to envision when they looked out (metaphorically speaking) from their windows in New York skyscrapers.

But now that they can't do much of that - now that they are pressured to seek out that one big blockbuster audience with nonrisky books - how lucky we are that new technology has made "publishing for love" affordable to others.

In one way, what everyone hoped would happen - that there would be many more Capras and Black Sparrows one day - has taken place. Thousands of independent nonfiction publishers are in the grip of what Noel called the "obsession" to publish. One can feel their love of the publishing process lapping out from Internet listservs as they exchange even the most practical information (copyright, pricing, page design, type fonts, discounts, etc.).

But while over a dozen very good independents are publishing fiction and poetry, whether there will be enough *literary* independents to provide readers with real choices in the books they want to read is another matter.

As Noel Young and John Martin showed us, you can love the printing and publishing process, but the key element in selling literary books is quality, and quality is the one thing that can't be "democratized" (thank heaven) in the latest cyber-publishing revolution.

Nor can the eye for talent or belief in authors that Young and Martin embodied.

"What [Bukowski] needed in a publisher was total loyalty and complete honesty," Martin told Pif Magazine. That seems the least a publisher should be able give to an author, yet with pro's like Young and Martin out of the business, it's not something you hear very much, at least in the mainstream, anymore.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

Sharon Jarvis wrote: "More about the Pledge of Allegiance: I heard that the original creator was a Socialist who intended the pledge to reflect his own views of what America should stand for. Then I heard that congress later inserted the words 'under God' at the behest of a religious organization. Since everyone seems to have a hand in meddling with it, maybe each individual should create his or her own pledge without the government telling us what to say."

The author of the original pledge, Francis Bellamy (1855 - 1931) was a Baptist minister, a Christian Socialist who had lost his Boston post for being too vigorous an advocate of the poor. _His_ version said, "to my flag." In 1923 and 1924 the National Flag Conference, under the leadership of the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution, changed the Pledge's words, "my Flag," to "the Flag of the United States of America." Bellamy opposed this change, but he was ignored. In 1954, Congress, after a campaign spearheaded by the Knights of Columbus, added the words "under God" to the Pledge, as an attack on Godless communism.

Michael J. Lowrey, Editor-in-Chief
Sunrise Book & Software Reviews

Dear Holt Uncensored:

It's interesting to note that while the lowly (journalistically not much respected, thin, mostly ads, afternoon) Call-Bulletin was picking up what was, as you say, your aunt's revolutionary column (for the 1950s) the venerable CHRONICLE (still considered a respectable, independent, responsible paper) had started to run an ex-hairdresser (forget his real name) called "Count Marco," who, in bitchy tones, advised women to perfume and subjugate themselves to their men because the woman was always wrong and could find fulfillment only in self-abasement. He was a joke, but a very nasty joke. People chortled nastily about his stupid column. Not only men, I suspect. In that strange psychological twist of really hurting women, some older women, perhaps sensing the cruel lies arrayed like guns against women who'd found new independence during World War II and were having it stripped from them, soothed their own frustration by approving the attempts to push women back into subservient positions.

I was a young feminist long before there was any second-wave feminist movement. But I knew that "Count Marco's" existence depended on outraged women writing to protest his insults, and I resisted doing that, waiting, waiting, for the column to die. It was a long time going. It's hard now for young women to imagine those times when such extreme cruelty could be masked as humor. It took many years (most of the '70s and '80s) of "feminists have no sense of humor" to combat the contemptuous laughter that in some twisted way was enacted by the existence of "Count Marco."

In those times, in that now unimaginable context, it's quite true that the Ann Landers Column had frequent whiffs of sanity, like "he beats you, lose him!" that were revolutionary in their way. Thanks for reminding us.

A Reader

Holt responds: When I started working at the Chronicle I found the "Count Marco" days affectionately remembered by veterans there. One copy editor told me she was working the late shift on New Year's Eve when a voice asked, "Would you like your drink here or at the news desk?" She looked up to see a topless waitress with a tray of martinis. Despite grumbling from the few women on staff at the time, she said no one ever questioned that "Count Marco's" vitriolic humor stimulated circulation. Embroiled in a circulation war with the Examiner (also a morning daily), the Chronicle set out to win, truly at any cost.

Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
You can send comments or suggestions to

To subscribe, send a blank email to:


To unsubscribe, send a blank email to: