By Jason Schreurs
New Noise Magazine
June 22nd, 2021
Like the record industry, the publishing industry is in a constant state of flux, often to the detriment of smaller publishers. Independent bookstores are being crushed under the boot of the large chains who, in turn, are being pounded into the dirt by Amazon.
Formed in 2007, radical independent publisher PM Press has seen monumental changes in publishing. Co-founders Ramsey Kanaan and Craig O’Hara, along with a small group of agitators, have fended off industry bullshit and its vision remains the same.
“PM started with the old-fashioned concept that ideas actually matter,” Kanaan says. “It was born out of a desire to disseminate those ideas and find as many creative and effective ways as possible of doing that. Since then, I don’t think the vision has changed at all.”
PM publishes books on a number of topics, including anarchism, race, economics, and gender. It is dedicated to bolstering the voices of radical authors, artists, and activists. And, yes, PM has a history of publishing punk books, including ones about Black Flag, Crass, British anarcho-punk, and an upcoming history of Victoria, BC punk weirdos Nomeansno.
“Most of the people in PM came out of punk rock, so we’re following our interests,” says Kanaan, who was the vocalist in Scottish anarcho-punk band Political Asylum in the ’80s. “As a propagandist, as a communicator, or as a political organizer, for that matter, you start with what you know and what you’re comfortable with.”
Kanaan has been selling radical books for more than 40 years. He started AK Press in 1987 and released books and spoken word CDs by activist writers such as Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. AK also aligned itself with progressive political punk bands like Propagandhi, a connection that’s remained intact with PM.
“We can call up Jello Biafra and say, ‘Hey, can we come and table at your show,’ and he’ll say, ‘Yes, please.’ Or NOFX, or whoever, because these are friends of ours,” Kanaan says, “and they’re contemporaries of ours, and people that are aware of us, so we’re not some weird outsider trying to muscle in or impose ourselves.”
In addition to punk shows and festivals like Punk Rock Bowling and Pouzza, PM sells books at book fairs, info shops, conferences, and political demonstrations. It set up shop at 500 different events in 2019 alone. In the past five years leading up to quarantine, Kanaan says PM sold more books face to face than in retail stores.
It’s a necessary approach as the mainstream publishing industry swallows the voices of diverse and often marginalized writers. As independent book outlets are forced to shutter themselves every day, small publishers like PM scramble to find alternate ways to disseminate information.
“It’s not only the destruction of the independent bookstores, and record stores, but the destruction of the specialty stores,” Kanaan says. “In the book trade that meant, as an outgrowth of the ’60s and early ’70s and the new social movements like gay liberation, women’s liberation, and black liberation, there were gay bookstores, black bookstores, feminist bookstores… By the end of the ’80s, early ’90s, they’d been destroyed by the chains. Then Amazon came along in the mid-’90s and is eventually destroying all the chains. From all angles, the old ways of doing it are being completely… fucked.”
With 11 employees hoping to make a modest living, with no source of funding other than book sales, PM publishes books that can hopefully pay the bills without wavering from their original vision.
“There are many books that we choose to do out of love, or belief in them, and many of the books we’ve done have lost money, but, nevertheless, anything we do has to have that financial component,” Kanaan says. “Fundamentally, the reason that PM exists is because we are revolutionaries and we want to destroy capitalism, we want to destroy the state, and we want to have a better world.”
Kanaan says the best-selling punk books in the PM catalog are Spray Paint the Walls: The Story of Black Flag, The Day the Country Died: A History of Anarcho Punk 1980-1984, and The Story of Crass. Both the Black Flag and Crass books have gone to third printings. Another popular title on the fiction side is The Primal Screamer by Nick Blinko, leader of British anarcho punk band Rudimentary Peni. His jagged, buzzsaw songs inspired heavy hitters like Killing Joke, Amebix, and Neurosis. Blinko lives with schizoaffective disorder and the book features the same satirical bite and dystopian world vision as Rudimentary Peni’s lyrics.
Book titles about long-lost punk bands and anarchists aren’t going to make any best-selling lists soon, but that’s never been the point or goal of PM Press.
“Everything we do, we have no outsource of funding,” Kanaan says. ‘We don’t have a sugar daddy, although we’d love to have one. We don’t have foundations, or corporations, or any backing. I don’t think our vision has changed at all. The application of that vision has changed, just because we continue to have to deal with extant reality.”
Kanaan sees many parallels between the major book and music industries—the steady decline of book and music sales, the corporate ownership of publishers and record labels, and the repackaging of new formats to maximize profits. (Anyone else remember how much CDs cost when they first came out?)
“For the last 40-plus years, the traditional ways of disseminating ideas through the printed word has been in cataclysmic decline for a variety of reasons,” Kanaan says. “The destruction of the so-called book trade closely mirrors the disintegration of the so-called record industry.”
Kanaan points out it’s been the book and music delivery mechanisms which allow corporations to swim in money. Over the years, the book industry has had audio books, e-readers, and e-books. Music has had its own built-in money makers, and it’s not the actual music, according to Kanaan.
“Apple, who pioneered the download, don’t care if they give away the music for free,” he says. “If they’re selling downloads for 99 cents, no one is making any money from that, including Apple, or Sony, or Spotify. They don’t care. They make their money from the delivery mechanism. Apple inventing and selling the iPod, or Sony selling the Walkman, that’s what made their money, not the music.”
The similarities between the two industries don’t end there. Besides the devious delivery mechanisms, another factor in small publishers and record labels having to scramble to survive are the content providers, which are growing larger and more powerful.
“In the same way that 40, 60, 80 years ago there was a plethora of record labels, and they all got consolidated and basically own everything, it’s similar in the book industry,” Kanaan says.
While mainstream content providers continue to consolidate, it’s the artists on the bottom of the chain that suffer, whether authors of musicians.
“They started laying off, so to speak, all of the authors, in the same way every time there’s a consolidation in the music industry, labels start, in effect, laying off their artists,” Kanaan says. “They cancel their contracts, the decline to do their option on the next record or whatever. It’s the same thing that happened with the book trade.”
Kanaan says PM has sold more than a million books outside the mainstream industry. Although its distributor still sells to the Amazons and the Barnes and Nobles of the world, PM has proven it doesn’t have to cater to the old dogs to learn new tricks.
“Part of our efforts are how can we help make our books do the best they can within what’s left of the old ways of doing things [at retail],” Kanaan says. “The flipside is, how do we create new channels? I wouldn’t say they haven’t been done before. We weren’t the first people to ever table at a punk rock show, but we helped to make it more commonplace.”
In addition to in-person sales, PM does a subscription service where readers can pay a monthly amount to receive every book it publishes. Still, tabling is the most effective way to put the PM catalog in front of willing eyeballs, Kanaan says.
“Not only is tabling a decent chunk of sales, it’s also our main form of publicity,” he says. “Because, in a literal sense, we are everywhere. People see us everywhere. Wherever they go, there’s a PM Press table. ‘Fuck me, there’s a PM Press table again.’ It’s also our way of interacting with the outside world, that’s how we meet people. It’s how we meet authors.”
As long as we remain under the boots of capitalism, where literature and music are slapped with a price tag and monetized, PM Press is willing to work within the system to put its book titles into people’s hands. But that doesn’t mean it’s happy about it.
“In an ideal world, knowledge should be free, and everyone should be able to access whatever they need,” Kanaan says. “We haven’t got there yet unfortunately.”