Punk Rock Publishing

Success From the Underground Up

In the world of book publishing, success is often equated with blockbuster bestsellers and mainstream, front-window-of-the-chain-bookstore recognition. However, there is an alternative, "underground" style of creating and selling books that is more about passion than profit, and that depends more on connecting intimately with readers than by reaching them with a huge promotional budget. 

Harken back to the mid-1970s when punk rock music emerged as a reaction to the excesses and commercialization of mainstream rock music and disolutionment with the establishment. Punk bands embraced themes of rebellion, anti-authoritarianism, and a DIY approach that included self-producing their music, releasing albums independently through small record labels, and booking their own shows.

Sound familiar?  The same thing happened in the early 1990s, when development of desktop computers and the Internet created a revolution in book publishing.  Armed with DIY bookmaking tools and access to the World Wide Web, "punk" self-published authors now had the creative autonomy to push boundaries, thumb their noses at the Big Five publishers, and cater to niche audiences hungry for fresh voices telling new, untold stories. 

As with Punk Rock Music, success in Punk Rock Publishing isn't measured solely by sales figures or critical acclaim. It's about forging meaningful connections with readers who resonate deeply with your work. A self-published book extends beyond numbers—it sparks conversations and leaves a lasting impression on its readers -- and like a punk rock song, celebrates the spirit of independence and resilience in the face of industry and societal norms. Building a loyal following within a specific community or subculture can be more rewarding -- and in the long run more profitable -- than chasing mainstream fame.

Where does that intimate connection come from? According to Steff Green of MakeaLivingWriting.com, "the first way to sell more books is to know your genre intimately. Be a fan first."

"Understand what people get from their reading crack," she continues (referring to avid readers' addiction-like passion) "to the elements that are essential to get them to pick up a book -- and then build those elements into self-publishing your work. Don’t get hung up on being a bestseller -- punk and metal musicians don’t care about external validation, such as chart placements. They know that’s part of a world that’s often hostile to their music. Instead, they focus on their smaller audiences of die-hard fans"

Also central to the Punk Rock Publishing ethos is the zine—a small-circulation, self-published work typically produced by individuals or small groups. Zines have a rich history rooted in punk, skateboard and DIY culture, providing a platform for unconventional voices and niche interests. They serve as a stepping stone for aspiring writers, offering an accessible means of self-expression and distribution.

Quoting commentator Chris Landry, punk publisher Microcosm Publishing of Portland, OR says on their website, "Zines take the profit and fame motive out of artistic expression and focus on communication, expression and community for their own sake. Zines are the one truly democratic art form. Zine writers are the most important writers in the world." (Check out the huge catalog of Microcosm zines at https://microcosmpublishing.com/catalog/zines.)

Many successful independent authors and self-publishers began their journey with zines, gradually building a dedicated readership and refining their craft. The transition from zine-making to self-publishing a book is often a natural progression, fueled by a desire to explore deeper themes and reach a broader audience while retaining creative control and maintaining a direct connection between author and reader, forging new paths and leaving their mark on the literary world—one zine, one book, and one reader at a time.

"Of course, just because we have blogs and print-on-demand doesn’t mean that zine printing has gone away," says the Blurb.com self-publishing website. "In fact, while they haven’t exactly gone anywhere, you could also say they’re making a comeback. Zine festivals are popping up worldwide, from San Francisco to Melbourne. Purists insist that it’s got to be a genuine DIY zine, meaning that it’s photocopied, or it’s not a zine. At the same time, others consider print-on-demand as just another technological advancement, like that old photocopier."

Readers are drawn to both zines and self-published works because they crave authenticity, originality, and perspectives that defy the mainstream. Whether it's an unconventional genre, experimental format, or a diverse narrative, self-published authors have the freedom to explore ideas unfiltered by commercial interests in the traditional book market.

On the Microcosm Publishing manuscript submission page, their guidelines describe what they look for in a potential Punk Publishing prospect:  "Our readers respond especially strongly to small, heartfelt books about a narrow interest of a self-empowering nature. We love books that help us discover interest in a new topic. Books with illustrations, photographs, or other strong graphic elements are strongly encouraged."

"The most common reason that we cannot accept a submission is because the author didn't research the other books on their shelf at their local bookstores, so their book is not differentiated in any way."

In other words, do your homework, and familiarize yourself with what's out there. Avid readers of various genres have excellent bullshit detectors, and to borrow a skateboarding term, "posers" are not allowed. Taking creative risks and raw, unfiltered writing only works when an intimate connection with readers occurs.

So, as the Detroit rock band MC5 declared in their 1969 punk anthem, "Kick Out the Jams," successful punk authors must unleash their emotions and voices, amplifying the urgency of their narratives like high-octane, ear-splitting electric guitar riffs.

Writing with the unfiltered spirit of punk rock means "kicking out the jams" on the page—shredding through conventional plots and clichés and defying literary norms. Create your own raw and unapologetic style that no one has ever experienced before -- but they totally get it and they totally need it. Now...let's KICK IT OUT!!! 

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Check out these established and successful Punk Rock Publishers:

PM Press is an independent, radical publisher of critically necessary books for our tumultuous times. Our aim is to deliver bold political ideas and vital stories to all walks of life and arm the dreamers to demand the impossible.

Haymarket Books is a radical, independent, nonprofit book publisher based in Chicago.Our mission is to publish books that contribute to struggles for social and economic justice. We strive to make our books a vibrant and organic part of social movements and the education and development of a critical, engaged, and internationalist Left.

Microcosm Publishing & Distribution is a vertically integrated publishing house that equips readers to make positive changes in their lives and in the world around them. Microcosm focuses on relating the experiences of what it is like to be a marginalized person and strives to be recognized for spirit, creativity, and value.