'Underground California' Sheds Light on California's Literary Talent

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On April 1, Small Press Distribution (SPD) and Poets & Writers, Inc. (P&W) will be launching the second annual "Underground California." Funded by the California Arts Council (CAC), the week-long event has two goals: to strengthen the bond between independent California bookstores, California writers, and California independent publishers; and "to get the message out there that California has its own literary identity," said Brent Cunningham, sales and Web manager for SPD.

Presently, 39 California-based independent bookstores plan to participate in the weeklong "Underground California." SPD is supplying a number of promotional items to participating bookstores for their in-store displays, including books, posters, and shelf-talkers. During the event, bookstores will be featuring California-based poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers. All the titles being showcased are distributed through SPD.

The nonprofit P&W is planning a number of author readings, and, thus far, five California authors will participate: Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gerald Haslam, Beth Lisick, and Francisco Alarcon. Proposed sites for the readings include: D.G. Wills Books, in La Jolla; Midnight Special Bookstore, Santa Monica; Alexander Bookstore, San Francisco; The Open Book, Sacramento; and The Depot Bookstore and Café, Mill Valley.

"Underground California" resulted from a brainstorming session among members of P&W, SPD, and CAC, according to SPD’s Cunningham. The CAC was looking to hold some type of statewide event to showcase California writers and independent publishing. The SPD was already holding an annual national event, "Get Lit," a program that spotlights independent presses and literary works around the nation, and aspects of that program inspired the more regional "Underground California."

Key to the event was the involvement of independent booksellers, said Cunningham. The nonprofit SPD, the only nationwide distributor of exclusively literary books, currently carries 550 different publishers (135 of which are based in California), and 34 percent of its sales are to independent booksellers, he explained. The next highest percentage of sales is 11 percent, and that is to universities. "We’ve existed for 30-plus years, and we developed that existence almost purely because of independent booksellers," he said.

By the same token, it is clear from talks with California booksellers that the titles that independent publishers offer are crucial to their businesses, especially those that give a particularly regional spin. "We already feature a lot of small press books, especially from Los Angeles," said Kerry Slattery, general manager of Skylight Books in L.A. "But it takes a program like this to remind us that this is an important part of our inventory."

John Evans, store manager for Diesel, A Bookstore, in Oakland, California, echoed Slattery’s sentiments. "The rich, alternative variety that small presses [in California] provide is important," he said. "‘Underground California’ shows [book-buyers] what’s out there."

Overall, Evans, Slattery, and Cunningham believe that, like New York, California has its own distinct literary identity and that "Underground California" will present California’s independent booksellers the opportunity to showcase important titles. "Do people realize that this is taking place in their own backyard? I don’t know," said Skylight’s Slattery. "I think it’s good to call attention to it, that the publishing world does not exist only on the East Coast." --David Grogan