Four Small Presses Rage on in Brooklyn

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Things are looking bleaker and bleaker for publishing industry big guns, but in spite of the doomsday forecast for the printed word as we know it, small-run presses are thriving. It’s not exactly surprising that Brooklyn is an epicenter for these little publishing houses: Newcomers like Molasses in Bushwick (captained by Matt Winn, a writer and book dealer) and old standbys, such as Ugly Duckling Presse, which has been putting out books since 1995, are reminders of the potency of presses in Brooklyn. But we’ve confirmed that Brooklyn has some of the finest independent publishing operations around. We caught up with a pack of small-time publishers who are putting out some seriously innovative and beautiful objects while still managing to back first books, weird books, and lesser-known writers and poets. Here’s your proof that books ain’t dead. Yet.

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Brooklyn Arts Press

Joe Pan runs BAP, which he started back in 2007 with his own book Autobiomythography out of his living room in Williamsburg. Since then, the press has put out chapbooks, art books, fiction, photography, and poetry collections from writers across Brooklyn and the country. Like many people at the helm of small presses we spoke with, Pan started a press because of his dissatisfaction with the accepted post-MFA path. Today he continues to challenge the status quo by coming up with innovative ways to get the word out about BAP’s books.

Joe Pan: I had gotten really close with some big [writing] contests, and I just decided that, instead of spending $500 a year in contests where they choose one out of 1,000 people, I could do a better job of promoting it myself.

BKMag: When did you start taking on other authors?

Pan: Pretty quickly, but I only took on two at a time. I was working on some big manuscripts and trying to get a lot of things settled. So the past three years have really been going, we’re doing like ten to twelve manuscripts a year.

BKMag: Do writers come to you because you publish a certain kind of book?

Pan:  Aesthetically we’re wide ranging, both in terms of how a book looks, and what goes into a book. We get like 800 manuscripts a year and we narrow them down to about 5, 6, 7 from that pool. And they come from everywhere. In some ways having ‘Brooklyn’ in our name, it represents having as much variety from the submissions as we can from those we receive.

BKMag:  What are the advantages of operating in Brooklyn?

Pan: One of the great things is there are a lot of writers here. So you get to know people in the community really quickly. And there’s not just one community, there are dozens of communities here. And strangely, unfortunately a lot of them aren’t mixing right now.

And it’s hard to kind of pull those [groups] together. Hopefully I can help with that in what I can publish. But I’m also the poetry editor of Hyperallergic, and I try and pull from as many different places as possible for that as well.

BKMag: How do you make it work financially?

Pan: Honestly, it’s a struggle for everyone. The thing that we have going for us is that we also publish art books. They’re more expensive to make but when they’re a good seller, they make more money. I’m not paying myself anything, so it’s all passed financially on to the next book. And you can do two or three poetry books from the profits off of one art book. And one poetry book that does especially well can pay for two chapbooks or maybe one or two other books.

BKMag: How many editions do you generally put out?

Pan: I found the magic number to be 250 for poetry books. Since we’re getting into novels, I honestly have no idea. I think I’m going to start out with about 500.

BKMag: How do you feel about Amazon?

Pan: I have mixed feelings about dealing with on-demand publishing and Amazon, but they do amazing things for self-publishing. They also do amazing things for people who don’t have a lot of money who are starting small presses. At the same time, Amazon should probably be broken up. And if there are other places that can sell as many copies and print their own books, people would be doing that as well.

BKMag: What about e-books?

Pan: We do e-books too, which is interesting. Poets are non-amenable to purchasing ebooks. Or at least not yet. I think it’s coming around now, we’ll see. You read things on the internet differently, you just scan it, and poetry is something people take time with.

A lot of readers of poetry are writers. And to have those objects and be able to look at them every day, it feels necessary. You can’t really do that with an ebook the way that it is right now because it’s bundled in with all these other things you’ve already read. It doesn’t have that kind of recreative recreational possibility where you go back to it and you see it and it reinforms you and it reinvigorates your writing.

BKMag: Do small presses share the same concerns as the larger publishing industry?

Pan: How we’re selling is different, social media is huge. The thing is that they have a lot more money to lose than we do. If we throw $1000 towards something and it collapses, it sucks. But we don’t have to change our paradigm. With us, it feels like we can take these risks and occasionally you’ll have the ones that don’t pay off.

Something that hasn’t been tried, that I’ve seen, is giving away an actual hard copy of something and asking people to pay what they want. This is something that’s possible, and we’re looking into that. We’ll see what happens. It’s interesting, but there’s a lot to lose. Again, a big publisher could never do this.

I honestly don’t know how it’s going to turn out and poets aren’t necessarily buying different kind of books. They’ll buy one famous poet, and then one of their friend’s. But they won’t just try another poet’s book. They’ll maybe go online and look at some of their stuff. But $15 feels to most people like a lot to pay for a book. Never mind these fuckin’ $30 hardbacks that we’re being asked to pay for now.

So how can I survive publishing these things without making them look like shit and getting them in the hands of people I think would really benefit from reading them, that would love them. How do I do that? I can try to create crazy scams, I can try to create a word-of-mouth campaign, but how the fuck do you do that ? Or I can somehow make my press extremely vulnerable and see what people do with it, and that’s what I’m going to try to do. So here’s hoping that vulnerability pays off.

Badlands Unlimited

This relative newcomer isn’t your grandma’s small-run press, it’s a multimedia publishing house that’s put out some radical stuff. Some of their work might even make you rethink what a press can be. I mean, there aren’t many presses out there that dare touch net art, but Badlands‘ digital art books nail it. See Petra Cortright’s Hell_Tree and AD BOOK. Even if you still don’t “get” net art, Badlands has something for almost everyone: bizarro erotica novels, a book of interviews with Marcel Duchamp, and even a book by Saddam Hussein.

Artist Paul Chan started the press back in 2010, just two years after his solo exhibition at the New Museum and his very own profile appeared in The New Yorker. Chan created the press in his own image– like Badlands, Chan’s work seamlessly moves through a variety of media, both two dimensional and digital. The press is now run by Chan, Ian Cheng, Micaela Durand, and Matthew So. True to Badlands’ form, we conducted the interview over email.

BKMag: Can you describe the types of books you publish?

Bandlands: We make books no one knew they wanted.

BKMag: What kind of authors do you publish?

Bandlands: Authors we want to spend time making a book with.

BKMag: What about your book covers? How do those work?

Bandlands: Mostly in-house design. What we make is whatever we are capable of doing on a computer.

BKMag: Are you based in just Brooklyn, NYC, or all over?

Badlands: Isn’t Brooklyn all over?

BKMag: How do you feel about the challenges faced by big publishing?

Badlands: We are in a different orb.

BKMag: How do finances work?

Badlands: We are not a non-profit. We are a no profit.

BKMag: What separates you from other small presses?

Badlands: We published Saddam Hussein.

BKMag: What’s your office space like?

Badlands: We have a studio in Brooklyn It functions like an office. We just got plants.

BKMag: What’s up with your ebooks?

Badlands: We like ebooks. We like that we can make them. They are dumb websites. Another form for us to think about and work with.

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Birds, LLC 

Sampson Starkweather and the four other editors behind Birds, LLC (pictured from left: editor Justin Marks, author Monica McClure, editor Sampson Starkweather, author Eric Amling, not pictured: editors Dan Boehl, Matt Rasmussen, and Chris Tonelli) were fresh out of MFA programs when they met at the annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference in 2005, right before the small press boom that was to follow. The experience inspired the writers to get together and start their own small run press, which is now based in Brooklyn, but also lives in Austin, Minneapolis, and Raleigh– places the the editors have scattered to over the years. The press known for its devotion to putting out not just great books, but beautiful and inventive objects.

BKMag: How’d you get started?

Starkweather: We were all right out of grad school and naive and hungry. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to AWP, but it’s kind of a weird, overwhelming thing. There are thousands of presses, yet all the books had a similar feel and style, and that seemed silly and counterproductive to us.

There was this clear power dynamic of the people who were sitting behind the table and the people on the other side. And we wanted to be behind the table, we wanted to be making things and we wanted to make things that are different.

I feel like poetry is a zero capital industry to some extent. There’s not a lot of money to be made. So it seems silly that it was like sort of conservative and guarded in a way.

Because we’re all poets and writers, the guiding impulse to starting our press was that we wanted to be the kind of publishers we wanted. We wanted to make an author-based press, like having authors know what goes on at every level of the book, from design, to production, to marketing, to cover art, and making sure their vision is met and maximized.

BKMag: You’re a poet, but since you started the press, has your role as an editor surpassed that of your role as a writer?

Starkweather: I don’t think one has surpassed the other, but I do think the two have informed each other. And I think that my poetry is often improved by going through the editing process with other poets. One of the things that it’s allowed me to do is really not just think about poetry as poems or collections. But as an editor, I can really think about poems as a book– this sort of coherent, total experience.

BKMag: How do you pick writers?

Starkweather: We get approached a lot and it’s a system that we’re still figuring out. We’ve grown a little faster than we anticipated, which is a good thing. But we only do two, at most three books a year so we put all of our resources and time and energy into really making sure that those two books find an audience and are really successful so in some ways we are a little bit limited in how we operate with submissions because we can only take so many books at a time.

BKMag: Would you say the press has a consistent aesthetic?

Starkweather: I think you could see all of our books together and you would probably say, ‘Oh that feels like a Birds, LLC book.’ People say that to us sometimes, and I do think the visual and materiality of the book is really, really important to us. We put a lot of time and money into making sure the books really have a life of their own, and that the book is basically an object that fits the content and allows the content to sort of come alive.

BKMag: Do you see the evolution of e-readers and digital publishing as a threat to your press?

Starkweather: I don’t think it’s a threat so much as a reality. We’re excited about the opportunity of digital publishing. It hasn’t affected us too much so far because poetry is such a small market and there are a lot of technical difficulties with devices and e-readers, line breaks and that sort of thing.

Although it looks like there are a lot more solutions and options now, but so far we’ve been really sort of focused on making the physical books as objects.

But I think we’re really interested in embracing the possibilities of digital technology. And there are other possibilities. We love the idea of audio books and even QR codes with links to extra materials. We do a lot already with videos. We make trailers around our books, as like an extension of that book’s life.

If there’s ever a chance we can give back to our authors, that’s really exciting for us. And we’re hoping that e-books will be one of the ways we can give back to our authors. As a publisher you have to look out for your vision as a press but also your authors. And really, I think to some degree, the public and your readership, and if there are people out there and reading books digitally or on devices is their method of reading…

I think at some point you need to make books, if you really believe in them, available to as a wide an audience as possible. And that’s part of our aim. And figuring it all out, and making sure the integrity of the books is still there, that’s one of the things we’re trying to figure out now.

Hanging Loose Press

Hanging Loose Press has somehow managed to survive since the ’60s and is therefore indisputably Brooklyn’s OG small press operation. From a small lit magazine started by a group of friends, to a press that put out books without bindings (hence the name), Hanging Loose evolved into a proper press with books by some seriously respectable authors including Sherman Alexie. Even after all this time, the press has managed to retain its casual approach and inclusion of a diverse set of authors. The editorial team includes Robert Hershon, along with Mark Pawlak, Dick Lourie, and Donna Brook. We spoke with Hershon about the press, past and present.

BKMag: How did Hanging Loose get started?

Robert Hershon: The idea originated with Ron Shreiber and Emmet Jared who were up at Columbia together. They started a distinguished literary press magazine called Things and they got out a couple of issues and then they went broke, in the small press tradition.

The idea was first of all to do [the press] as cheaply as possible, so we mimeographed the pages, and collated them by hand and then put them in an envelope which served as a cover. So the name was sort of a joke. We did I think 25 issues that way, and we sort of outgrew the format. But I think by that time we were fairly well known within our small communities, so we’ve had the name ever since. I like to think it stops us from getting too pompous, but I don’t know if that’s true or not.

BKMag: Things have changed a lot over the years obviously, with the advent of digital printing and the internet, etc., but what’s your typical print run these days?

Hershon: It varies, but my definition of a literary small press is a press that among other attributes publishes first books. I think that’s crucially important. And it’s not easy to publish a first book, often you’re dealing with someone who nobody’s ever heard of, who may be new to the whole poetry world.

I would say then we’d start with 1000 copies, but for our better known authors, somebody like Sherman Alexie, we would usually start between 5,000 and 10,000 copies because I know his book is going to sell pretty well. And Sherman, we’ve published I think 7 of his books altogether, and now he’s a famous writer, but he has a happily stayed with us over the years. And is a good friend in fact.

BKMag: How do you find writers, do they seek you out or do you find them?

Hershon: Well, it’s  a little of both. A lot of magazines, and I think this is a disgrace, pay virtually no attention to the unsolicited manuscripts that come in. There are mags that won’t even read unsolicited submissions and others that will take 14 months or something to reply, and it’s really disgraceful and a terrible way to treat writers.

But we take unsolicited submissions very seriously, and most of it is not any good. But when you find the diamond in the ashes it really stands out. A lot of our authors we first found that way.

BKMag: Your authors are very diverse, they come from all sorts of backgrounds, there are writers of color, immigrants, women, etc. Can you talk about that a bit?

Hershon: Yeah, that’s true. And that’s important to us. But at the same time a lot of it has just grown up that way naturally without our making some sort of concerted effort to say, ‘ oh my god we have to get a Chinese poet,’ it just reflects our tastes and often our politics. And it’s something we’re proud of.

When I tell young women writers that back in the ’60s and ’70s it was hard for women writers, particularly women poets to get published, they look at me like I’m nuts. Which is really a healthy sign. Hanging Loose very early on became known as a press, and it was funny because it was a press that was edited by four guys, but that was very friendly toward poetry by women. And we’ve published a lot of very, very strong women writers over the years.

 

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