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On the Books

On the Books Part Four: Small presses in San Antonio push on, despite economic hardships

Photo: Photo by Sarah Maspero, License: N/A, Created: 2011:06:06 13:51:14

Photo by Sarah Maspero

Bryce Milligan, publisher of Wings Press

Photo: , License: N/A, Created: 2010:08:13 18:30:29

Anisa Onofre and Juan Tejeda of Aztlan Libre Press.

Bryce Milligan — a poet, novelist, and all around “follower of the muse” — took over Wings Press in 1995 by handing over $10 to diagnosed schizophrenic Joanie Whitebird, whom he’d several times talked out of suicide over the phone, and promising to keep things going. What he received for his cash and kindness was a backlog of shrink-wrapped books and a cycle of fluctuating debt. “We’ve been as much as $150,000 in debt,” Milligan told the Current. “You don’t do this to make any money, or to have an insurance plan.”

Milligan manages Wings without the benefit of a salary, making his living instead from royalties he receives from his children’s books (he is the author of such well-received titles as Brigid’s Cloak: An Ancient Irish Story and With the Wind, Kevin Dolan), and from the occasional teaching gig. This troubadour, carpenter, and self-described “literatonto” — a word he likes to use to mean “literary fool” — does what he does for the preservation of literature, and to keep important works in print. And Wings Press, with its list of writers that includes Ana Castillo, Lorna Dee Cervantes, and John Phillip Santos, can certainly claim to be one of the most durable, impressive, and uncorrupted small-press publishers in the U.S. “But things are definitely worse now,” says Milligan, who recalls a time in 1984 when he penned an article for the Texas Humanist bemoaning the fact that there were only 45 viable small presses in the state. “I don’t think there are 15 now, and that would be pushing it. In the 1970s there were hundreds.”

So what has happened?

“Obviously the biggest threat is the economy, with its crippling effect on funding for all aspects of arts and education,” Milligan said. “This economy, similar to the Great Depression, puts artists on the road — looking for work where they can find it. … And if it takes a village to raise a child, it certainly takes a community of artists to keep a scene going.”

Milligan goes on to recount that not long ago writers were able to make a living doing workshops at public schools, but that many schools no longer have the budget to fund adequate amounts of textbooks, much less pay for visiting writers and artists. “I regularly get these pathetic letters from kids all over Texas asking if Wings Press can donate books to their classrooms or libraries,” he said. “I give away a lot of books, but those letters I just forward to Rick Perry.”

Huffington Post profiled Wings last fall and the press will undoubtedly receive wider coverage when their 50th-anniversary special-edition hardback of Black Like Me hits the stands this September. Thanks to savvy contract-making skills, Milligan acquired rights to the definitive hardback and all future e-book sales of John Howard Griffin’s 1961 classic. Penguin Books, which still handles the paperback rights, is furious, said Milligan, who is happy to busy himself with the promotion and publication of what he sees as necessary voices.

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