I’ve received a tremendous positive response to the Anti-Columbus Day sale–thank you for that! I was surprised, then shocked and a little dismayed, that some people, even a few I deeply respect, disapproved. They unsubscribed from my email newsletter, saying that it used “violent” language and was merely an unwise “marketing grenade” that didn’t take the problem seriously.
It gave me some pause–I had thought that it was generally accepted, in my main circles at least, that Columbus was truly awful and that celebrating him was just as awful. Blatantly saying so didn’t seem like a bad idea, even if it was to promote books. With all the “Columbus Day Blow-Out Sales!!!” going on…well, I felt like I had to do something, and the toolset I’m most familiar with is what I learned as a community organizer in Detroit’s inner-city, fighting alongside Black churches for political and social equality. Agitating tends to be my default setting.
What I appreciate from the disapproval is an encouragement to be a little more nuanced, to frame the issue in a more constructive, culture-building way, rather than a way that contributes to our current culture of outrage; and to not make the issue into a shallow sales pitch. There’s a lot of truth here that I’m taking to heart.
And yet, within the context of commerce and trying to build a socially responsible and active business, any stance I take with my company can be construed as commercialized–even political. I’m not sure there is a way around that, and I’m not sure that’s a terribly bad thing: to work to correct a sickened culture while promoting books at the same time seems okay to me. Promoting the voices of the voiceless is part of the purpose of Conundrum Press, and it’s right to take their side, to promote their work in a capitalist society, in a capitalist way, while calling out past atrocities against them. What I want to avoid is over-commercializing what we’re doing, especially by co-opting stories that aren’t mine in order to sell products.
I’ve tried to construct corrections within this strategy: In this week’s sale, the only people making money from it are the book printer and the USPS. It’s one way I’m trying to meet our “multiple bottom line”–Conundrum Press has to make a profit to survive, but I always make sure that we don’t make a profit from marketing like this week’s (not directly–of course the company is promoted, etc. Again, how can you avoid it?), or from any big event we throw–any money made gets donated to non-profit arts and culture organizations working with at-risk and underserved youth, or we produce books for them pro bono (like Youth on Record, Urban Peak, Lighthouse Writers program for young writers, and the young choreographers program at the Colorado Conservatory of Dance). My authors too have donated their royalties from these sales to these organizations in order to make the donated amount larger.
So here’s to more nuanced agitation that still has a sharp edge, fulfills multiple bottom lines, and moves the cultural needle away from outrage, shame, and oppression toward goodness, beauty, and love. And here’s to an expanded set of tools and the skills and wisdom to use them well.
Caleb J Seeling
publisher, Conundrum Press
Tags: agitation, Columbus Day, commercialism, Culture Care, Indigenous Peoples Day, multiple bottom lines