I wondered, as I held ‘Books Without Bosses’ in my hands, who its intended audience might be? It is, in brief, a comic book history of the non-hierarchical publishing collective, Between the Lines (Toronto, Canada). As a member of one of the world’s few non-hierarchical comic book publishing collectives, I think I am as close to a target audience as this book is likely to get. And indeed, it was a rewarding, complicated read for me. But it raised some emotionally difficult questions.
Title: Books Without Bosses: 40 Years of Reading Between the Lines
Author: Robert Clarke
Illustrator: Kara Sievewright
Published: October, 2017
Buy it: via BTL’s website
How many people work in radical publishing in North America? Five hundred? A thousand? If we count every zinester and amateur distro, maybe about 5,000 souls in all. That seems like a very thin prospective market for a title. At Ad Astra, we probably couldn’t dare to afford to publish something so extraordinarily niche. But we are a different generation of radical publisher from BTL. Since this is a very niche book it seems only appropriate that I write a very niche review.
When you open Google Scholar, it implores you: ‘Stand on the Shoulders of Giants’. For aspiring radical publishers, ‘Books Without Bosses’ offers a shoulder. Between the Lines was founded in 1977, a joint project between the Development Education Centre of Toronto and Dumont Press Graphix in Kitchener. As the title suggests, BTL was, from the outset, a non-hierarchical publishing collective. In an era of doctrinaire Marxist’ presses, their title was meant to emphasize their independence – rather than cleaving to one party line, they were between them. Over the next four decades it has survived police surveillance, the collapse of the brick and mortar retail trade and even the election of one of its authors to public office. Along the way it has published the likes of bell hooks, Noam Chomsky, Vandana Shiva and Cornel West.
That above paragraph covers much of what you’ll learn from the pages of ‘Books Without Bosses’. The history of a publisher, even an anti-capitalist, non-hierarchical publisher, is still the history of a business. That means it is a history of meetings, business decisions and tedious problems in your supply chain. For a baby publisher like Ad Astra, this history would be a priceless guide no matter what format it was printed in. The fact that BTL saw the value of using comics to tell their story is an added bonus.
The value of comics as a medium for political communication is, in part, that political history can sometimes be boring. This is a difficulty faced by ‘Books Without Bosses’. Even the most expertly-constructed comic can only hope to hold the attention of its reader for so many pages with tales of meeting minutes and shipping mishaps. Even for me, a text-only book on this subject would have been too much for my attention span, which was tested by ‘Books Without Bosses’. [Editor’s note: if you’re up for such a challenge, check out ‘”They Called Eachother Comrade” Charles H. Kerr & Company, Radical Publishers‘ (PM Press, 2011)]
There’s no avoiding it: business history is dry stuff. The illustrated faces of BTL’s published authors, appearing beside their book cover, start to blur together by the second half of the book. I recognized an activist mentor here, an old university professors there, but it was otherwise beginning to drag a bit. If the narrative had chosen to highlight fewer authors, and use its pages to bring the core theses of some of its titles to life, it might have been a little more engaging. As it is, the comic ends up feeling a bit cluttered. As such, it struggles to take full advantage of the virtues of the comics medium.
Books are allowed to be boring, I think, if they are important. And while ‘Books Without Bosses’ is boring at times, it is an important text for a number of groups. If you have left wing politics, work in publishing, are interested in starting a cooperative or work in the Canadian arts sector, this is a book with relevant things to say to you. All of these strands tied together for me, since I tick all of those boxes.
I mentioned above that Between the Lines is a different kind of publisher from Ad Astra . This is largely a question of vintage. BTL was founded in the heady days of the 1970s, when government arts spending rained down on Canadian publishers like manna from heaven. OK, this is an overstatement. But arts spending at every level of government has been falling since Between the Lines was founded. These days, established cultural institutions like BTL are well positioned to take advantage of what arts funding remains. Newcomers like us are at a disadvantage from the angle of public funding.
The inside cover of ‘Books Without Bosses’ thanks both the Canadian and Ontario governments for its financial support. There is an acknowledgment of that support in the story of the book itself, too. By contrast, Ad Astra Comix receives no public support for its publishing projects. We fund our print runs entirely through crowdfunding campaigns. Similarly, Between the Lines has its offices in 401 Richmond, an arts and culture hub in downtown Toronto. This prime piece of Toronto real estate enjoys tax relief that allows it to stay open. Ad Astra Comix, by contrast, exists almost entirely in cyberspace. We run the publisher out of our home, with our basement as our warehouse.
I am not trying to make BTL sound like some kind of tax-payer subsidized stroll in the park, contrasted to Ad Astra as a neoliberal wet dream of private sector innovation. Far from it. As it developed, Between the Lines found resources where they could and built something precious and wonderful with those resources.
But as I read ‘Books Without Bosses’ and learned about the history of BTL, I felt two powerful, conflicting feelings. The first was awe and inspiration at all that Between the Lines has accomplished. They have survived and even thrived through several terrible decades for the publishing industry in Canada. They have produced many important books that are of real value to the left. And they have done it as a non-hierarchical collective!
The second feeling was one of deep sadness and frustration. Realistically, I don’t think that Ad Astra is ever going to be eligible for the kind of state support that has helped in part to make BTL viable. We are also wary of building up a dependency on public funding in an age of austerity – these days it seems far riskier to count on grants.
We are millenials. I joined Ad Astra while working as a freelancer. It is almost a religion for us that ‘no one works for free’. While we admire the good will and hard work of Between the Lines volunteers, we don’t want to build a publisher that relies on volunteer labour. Our rule is that joining the publisher means sharing in the profits and labours of the publisher in equal measure. In an age of unpaid internships, zero hour contracts and temp work, we mean it when we say: No one works for free.
Thus the sadness and frustration. I want to do as much good as BTL has done. In setting out to do so, I find a lot of lessons in the pages of ‘Books Without Bosses’. Their commitment to amplifying the voices of marginalized groups sets a good example. Their building partnerships with professors to get their books into schools is a lesson in sustainability. And the sheer grit that it takes to just exist as a publisher for 40 years as the industry goes down in flames around you is an inspiration.
But as I look toward the future I can’t help but wonder how I am ever going to do as much good as Between the Lines has done. Many of the circumstances and opportunities that enabled them to flourish were tied to the historic moment they existed in. I know that we have part of it figured out already: the internet has made crowdfunding possible, which enables us to take books to print based on pre-orders. This particular puzzle is still missing a lot of pieces, though.
What no one tells you is that giants move through history with the rest of us. Their thunderous strides shake my perch and it can be hard to keep steady. But the view from up here is incredible –as long as I don’t look down.