City Spotlight: Philadelphia: Publishing 'Wit'
Throughout the month of June, Hidden City Philadelphia, a website devoted to writing, photography, and the city's "dormant and hidden places," is holding a series of artistic happenings at derelict or under-appreciated urban locales. An abandoned city hall becomes a lending library; an old swimming pool hosts a tea room; knitters take over a century-old synagogue; gun emplacements become dwellings. The events, designed to get people out of comfort zones to experience their surroundings in a new way, represent a grassroots effort to engage culture, creativity and place.
In a sense, this is what publishing in Philadelphia is all about. In this city of 1.5 million, once a publishing powerhouse to rival New York, literary and artistic efforts often have a decentralized, grassroots feel, despite the presence of major universities and cultural institutions. People come to Philadelphia to attend school and, because they can afford to, stick around to start magazines, websites and small presses.
The Painted Bride Quarterly started this way back in 1973, when a group of recent college graduates decided to form a literary journal. "It was run out of people's living rooms, bars, pizza places, trunks of cars, and it was fortunate enough to always find the next willing parties to take it over," recalls Kathleen Volk Miller, co-editor of Painted Bride. "The problem with the lit mag is a bunch of people get together and say, 'Hey, let's start a lit mag,' and then realize how much work it is—or they do it for four, six, ten years and then just get burned out and no one else picks up the ball."
Close to 30 years on, the PBQ was rewarded for its perseverance. Under Miller's leadership, it entered into a partnership with Drexel University, which now houses the journal's offices, provides tech support and uses the magazine as a pedagogical tool, providing a pool of fresh young talent every year. Yet the magazine itself is still an independent nonprofit.
Painted Bride Quarterly, which like Philly-based The American Poetry Review enjoys a national reputation as one of the country's oldest and most successful literary publications, is still very much part and parcel of its host city. The magazine holds two events a month, a traditional reading and a not-too-cutthroat interactive writer's competition called "Slam, Bam, Thank You, Ma'am" at the Pen & Pencil, the nation's oldest press club.
The Elements of (Philly) Style
According to Miller, if there's one thing that characterizes the publishing scene in Philadelphia, it's get-togethers. "Any night of the week you can go to an event if you want to, and most nights there are two or three," she says. "I don't know what the culture is like in other cities, but I feel like Philadelphians who are in that industry are much more supportive of one another."
She cites a yearly, day-long event at the Free Library of Philadelphia held by the Mad Poets Society, The Philadelphia Poetry Festival. "Each group stands up, says something about their organization or magazine, has a reader read a poem and sits down … there are five hours of five-minute sessions, so just imagine how many people are there, and how many separate organizations are represented."
Christine Weiser, executive director of another local literary magazine, Philadelphia Stories, finds the local publishing community "welcoming and supportive." A magazine-sponsored annual event, Push to Publish, draws over 100 writers, editors and agents for networking and learning. "I believe the success of Philadelphia Stories would not have been possible without this supportive community," she says. "We started the magazine with two writers, an ambitious idea, and a small circle of friends. I am still amazed by how large this network has grown."
Philadelphia Stories has always been "more than a magazine," Weiser says, offering, in addition to Push to Publish, Philadelphia Stories Jr., a bi-annual publication for young writers; The Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction; the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry; a boutique books division; and an exhibit last year featuring "art inspired by specific heritage sites with poems and short fiction that speculate on the stories behind these hidden treasures."
"I think Philadelphia's long history is at the core of its cultural identity," Weiser says. "We are proud of our role in history as the home where independence began, yet we are still a mainly working-class city that gives us a humble side, too. When I travel to other cities and say I'm from Philadelphia, I am surprised by how many people still think of Philadelphia as Rocky's home and a place to get a great cheesesteak. Even residents don't always know all we have to offer, like our first poet laureate, Sonia Sanchez, and our first youth poet laureate, Siduri Beckman."
"A lot of writers and artists are inspired by the history here," says Nathaniel Popkin, co-editor of Hidden City Daily. "They respond to what's here, what's missing or gone—and all that's inspiring material to reflect on and relate to if you're an artist or a writer. I do this very directly, in part through history, in part through literature by seeing our time in other times, while being charmed by the layers. You can read the human layers all around us."
Popkin's novel, Lion and Leopard, which comes out in November, is based on the lives of a group of 19th century Philadelphia painters. "I was drawn to the story and to fictionalize it just through my own personal confrontation with the city … my own interrogation of the layers of the urban fabric, the history of art, writing, thinking, publishing," he says.
Philadelphia's strengths, Popkin says, emanate from a mix of projects, approaches and talent. He runs off a tally of local publishers: two strong university presses and a handful of niche book publishers (e.g. Camino); nationally-known, consumer-oriented presses Quirk Books and Running Press; a "quirky literary press"; a varied stock of magazine publishers. Philly-based Head in the Hand (which is putting out Popkin's book) is "working on a McSweeney's Model," and he believes a good way forward for the city would be to "understand the various strands of the Bay Area's lit community."
"I'd like to see a really strong national magazine perhaps linked to a book press," he says. "This is an impossible request, of course, but I feel like there are West Coast operations like this. Perhaps one of the universities can create a publishing line that's not academic. But what we need, really, is everything. A better funded library system, more than a small handful of good booksellers, a press or two that publishes original fiction."
Comparisons with New York, 90 miles away by turnpike or train, are inevitable, though local publishers feel the city's uniqueness makes for a strong contrast with its neighbor up the Northeast Corridor. "When I think of New York, I think of a busy city with lots of energy that can be contagious and exciting. But, I feel Philadelphians take the time to slow down, to enjoy our pockets of neighborhoods, to sit on our stoops and tell stories," Weiser says.
"I think just by the very size of New York, the ginormity, it forces a silo culture that we don't have here in Philly," Miller says. "What I personally prefer about Philly compared to New York is how you can get from one end [of the city] to the other in minutes. You can't do that in New York. There are so many neighborhoods and boroughs and they are all doing their own thing. There is something nice about being a smaller city as far as building a collaborative culture of writers. In New York it becomes very borough-oriented; there are Brooklyn people, there are [Manhattan] people ... that may be why we do play together down here—because we can."
A Lasting Legacy
While the days of media giants like Cyrus H. K. Curtis' Curtis Publishing and Walter Annenberg's Triangle Publications are long gone, elements of Philadelphia's reign as a major publishing center still survive. The city retains a strong base in STM publishing as the headquarters of Elsevier's U.S. Health Sciences Division. U.K.-based Taylor & Francis also maintains a strong presence here.
The Saturday Evening Post, which traces its roots back to Benjamin Franklin's Pennsylvania Gazette, is moving back to Philadelphia next year after 43 years in Indianapolis. "The Post is moving back because Philadelphia is our historic home," managing editor Steve Slon told Publishing Executive in December. "It feels right."
Farm Journal Media, founded in 1877 by a Quaker farmer, still has its headquarters in the city, though most editorial operations are in the midwest. Farm Journal magazine at one time had over 4 million subscribers (circulation now stands at 365,000); today it is the flagship of a healthy stable of print and Web products.
"Legacy is the main reason we are here," Steve Custer, executive VP and CEO of Farm Journal Media, says. "Most of our clients are in the midwest, but we have the heritage and we love Philadelphia. It's been very good for Farm Journal over the years."
Farm Journal Media also stays because it can draw from the talent pool of a major city while avoiding the sky-high cost of operating in places like New York or Washington. "I was just looking at office rents for our operation in Kansas City," Custer says, "and our office rates there are as high as they are here."
Down by Washington Square park, once known as the epicenter of Philadelphia publishing, a building (now owned by the University of Pennsylvania) still bears Farm Journal's name. In this part of the city, plaques and markers abound to remind passerby of the legacy of Franklin, Curtis, Annenberg and many others, while elsewhere around town, new legacies are forged by the likes of Painted Bride, Hidden City and Philadelphia Stories.
It seems fitting, as a scene once centralized and institutional has now become diversified and entrepreneurial—qualities that bode well for the business of publishing in the City of Brotherly Love.