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« Sexual Selection and Fashion Redux | Main | True Art School Tales »

October 14, 2003

If Big is Bad, Is Small Good?

Friedrich --

Those horrendous, octopus-like multinationals, that funny big money, those soulless corporations with the hearts of accountants -- the horror of it all. What do they have to do with art, with writing, with culture? Where to turn, if you're a person who cares?

A valid set of concerns, worries and anxieties that not even a Blowhard would try to pooh-pooh. What I am going to pooh-pooh, though, is the sentimental flipside that many of us fall for, which is the assumption that if big is bad, small must be good; if soulless is bad, souful must be good; if corporate is bad, storefront must be good. I'm taking a shot, in other words, at this picture: if you're horror-struck by what's become of bigtime publishing (whether books or magazines), go to the little guy instead. There you'll find welcoming arms. If the money is vanishingly small, well, at least you'll be treated like the talented person you are, and your work will stand a decent chance of displaying its intrinsic worth. And you'll be dealing with real, decent human beings -- people who care.

Well, as it turns out, maybe. One of the more common sad discoveries writers of books and magazine pieces often make is that not only do many of the small presses and magazines barely pay money at all, they behave unprofessionally. They ignore you; they're rude; they don't know what it means to return a phone call. Despite their rhetoric and grooviness, despite their loudly-announced devotion to art/lit/ideas, in many cases they screw you over as effectively as the mega-corporate places do. All the while treating you badly, failing to promote your work, sending along tiny checks that bounce, and carrying on as though they're the ones who are suffering for art. Many exceptions allowed for, of course.

I was set to remembering all this -- a few tussles of my own with small magazines, as well as tales book authors told me of wrangles with small book publishers -- by this article here in the New York Press about shenanigans at Soft Skull Press. Link thanks to Turbokitty.



posted by Michael at October 14, 2003


I'm shocked, simply shocked that you would question the motives of small businessmen such as myself. Obviously we small businesspeople are paragons of virtue! No one can actually prove that I had my hand in the till!

Actually, it's long been a private thought of mine that big businesses are probably, on average, more ethical than small businesses, not out of greater inherent virtue but simply because their size and financial resources makes "doing the right thing" seem less suicidal. Of course, considering that both doctors and lawyers are typically small businessmen, what does that say about the ethics of those professions?

I guess it's time to shut this comment down before I offend everyone.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 14, 2003 02:39 AM

Being a large corporation generally means that as much as possible procedurally is limited in its variation: to reduce liability, improve quality, manage risk, make better budget forcasts, etc.

This has the effect of, if not making it more ethical per se, making the ethics of a particular corporation fairly predictable. Corporate culture is a real thing, and varies fairly widely.

But a small business is usually owned by one or a very few persons, who may behave in a completely arbitrary fashion at their whim, with no recourse 'up the chain of command'.

This also can be very good or very bad, as the character of one individual is usually the moral compass (or lack thereof!)

I'm currently a freelancer, but I've been a corporate hack before too, so I've seen the good and ugly on both sides.

Corporate predictability has made me, over time, come to prefer property management companies over individual landlords for apartments. At least the corporate landlord won't try to screw you much BEYOND what the law will allow! :-)

Posted by: David Mercer on October 14, 2003 04:28 AM

For food or elbow-bending I am decidedly a fan of Mom & Pops (the shabbier the better), but for a utilitarian purchase you will find me in line at WalMart with the rest of the goobers taking advantage of the massive economy of scale...

Posted by: jim in austin on October 14, 2003 08:51 AM

Jim, you might want to try Costco, too. It's a rather unique and even urban store.

Posted by: David Sucher on October 14, 2003 11:45 AM

First the Catholic Church, then European governments, then American robber-barons...

...but, today, with world multi-national-conglomerates as the 21st Century equivalents completely ignoring their duty to support art & culture (when Seagram & Vivendi auction off their collections, and the likes of Viacom & Disney throwing almost nothing to the traditional arts), what is to become of world art & culture?

Sure, the Getty Trust will wind up owning all the old stuff one day, but who's pulling up the next generation?


Posted by: jon's mind on October 14, 2003 11:54 AM

My fiance is a freelance writer, and he's a) much better paid by the big boys and b) paid by the big boys. A nameless little mag in the Northeast still owes him $3,000 - from 3 years ago. The problem is that the nameless little mag is supported by a big boy who gives it absolutely no oversight - so you have the worst of both worlds - money to burn and no one to be responsible to.

Posted by: Courtney on October 14, 2003 09:33 PM

It's not just the arts... most mom and pop shops are great and depend entirely on their reputations and word of mouth (they don't have marketing budgets, after all) but you do run into vendors/grifters who count on the general rep of the other mom and pops.

I’ve also noticed that, very often, a town’s lauded local indy bookstore gets whatever business it gets ONLY be appealing to idiots who consider themselves too good to shop at chain bookstores. New York and Chicago seem to have a handful of truly great little bookstores, the rest of the country is a wash.

(P.S. Blowhards - why does your site attract so may J. and C. people?)

Posted by: j.c. on October 15, 2003 10:35 AM

I feel like Friedrich should change his name to "J" and I should change my name to "C"...

You've got me remembering my fave enraging encounter with the little guy. A small-magazine editor commissioned a piece from me (in other words, asked me to do this) on a tight deadline. I got the piece in ... then heard nothing. Couldn't get through to the guy, via email or phone. Finally heard back from him (via email!) after six months, when he wrote to let me know he still "hadn't had a chance" to look at what I'd sent him. (As though I'd been pressing the piece on him all along.) This from a guy who made a big public show about how much his magazine was devoted to writing and writers, and how he himself was taking a big risk by going far out of his way for the sake of writing and writers.

I wonder if that's part of what makes it so especially common and angrifying in the arts. They aren't just a mom-'n'-pop restaurant you can skip if the service is no good. They're People with a Good Cause, Fighting the Good Fight -- you owe it to them to support them, or you do If You Care ... And then they in fact turn out to behave biger jerks than the corporate sharks and monsters they denounce. Maybe an equivalent would be a small local store that browbeat everyone into patronizing them because it's good for the community, and then turned out to be overcharging everyone and delivering lousy service ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 15, 2003 11:00 AM

The piece that started this discussion was inaccurate and unfair. Notice that the writer didn't attempt to get me, the subject of it, to comment? Notice that he didn't get any quotations from any of the writers who were allegedly ripped off?

Read my rebuttal to this character assassination at


Sander Hicks

Posted by: Sander Hicks on December 6, 2003 09:12 PM

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