How to Build Your Own Small Press in Brooklyn
This installment of our oral history project looks at DIY presses and magazines in the Brooklyn literary scene
The Brooklyn Letters project is a series of oral histories of literary Brooklyn from 1999 to 2009, presented by Electric Literature with support from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.
This is the fifth installment of Brooklyn Letters. You can read earlier oral histories here.
You’ve got an idea for a small press, or maybe a literary magazine. Maybe a few people have your back, even if the enthusiasm is their primary contribution. Motivation’s what you’ve got. Money’s what you need (when is it not?). Still, why wait? Nobody else is doing this, so why not build your own? The same DIY ethos that paved the way for grassroots arts movements informed many of Brooklyn’s independent presses. From Akashic to Tin House, Soft Skull Press to Brooklyn Arts Press, so much of Brooklyn book and magazine publishing owes its existence to the urge to dive in and do it yourself.
Richard Nash helped revive Soft Skull Press from financial failure, moving it to Brooklyn and quickly building an impressive roster of writers. Elissa Schappell and Rob Spillman decided to give Wyn McCormack’s offer to start a literary magazine a shot, even though they were skeptical. Fast forward to the present day, Tin House has become a bastion for great writing and books. Johnny Temple treated Akashic Books like a hobby while tending to his own musical endeavors; however, all it took was the inclination and urge to invest in risk and give it a shot. Akashic Books is one of Brooklyn’s literary mainstays. Joe Pan, having received numerous roadblocks and rejections, decided to self-publish and began using the knowledge he gained to publish other poets’ work.
Together we spoke about the perils of being at the helm of a startup, the surprise of seeing a community forming around your efforts, the earnestness in taking big risks, and how the smell of pies makes the effort of publishing worthwhile.
Elissa Schappell [co-founder of Tin House Magazine]: From the beginning, which was a long time ago (circa 1997), Wyn McCormack — he started The Oregonian magazine and was one of the early founders of Mother Jones — he was working at The Nation and decided he wanted to start a literary magazine. I had been the senior editor of The Paris Review for a while and I was on maternity leave. He got in touch with me and said, “Would you be interested in this?” I asked Rob [Spillman] — he had just recently left The New Yorker — if he would be interested because I thought, “God, I don’t know if I want to do this again; I could just go back to The Paris Review, why would I not just do that?” I ended up saying, “No, I don’t think so.” McCormack came back to us and said, “No look, let’s just meet, let’s talk about it.” Over the course of a couple of months he persuaded us and we decided to give it a shot. The idea was he wanted us to move to Portland and do it there but we had just moved to Brooklyn and there was no way in the world once we arrived in Brooklyn that we were going to live in Portland.
Richard Nash [former editor-in-chief of Soft Skull Press]: Soft Skull Press started in 1993. The founder, Sander Hicks, had a novel that he wrote in a creative writing class at The New School. He printed it out and no one took it. He was working at a Kinko’s with his girlfriend Susan Mitchell, and she had learned Pagemaker. They worked the night shift, which meant there was no manager around. She basically did book layout using Pagemaker, printing on 4×1 and 8.5×11 paper. They used the tape binder at the Kinko’s, and over the course of a bunch of shifts, they printed over 400 copies of his novel. For many publishers, certainly many desktop publishing companies that began in the 90s and even early 2000s, it goes back deep, to the impulse to publish a book by the person involved, the person who becomes a publisher. A self-publisher, you could say, is just a publisher who ended up not becoming a publisher.
Johnny Temple [editor-in-chief of Akashic Books]: Akashic was a hobby while I was playing bass guitar for years in the band Girls Against Boys. (We still play on occasion.) The first two years, 1997 and 1998, we published three books. At some point I became more interested in publishing books than making music full-time. About four years into publishing, I started playing music less, and publishing more.
Joe Pan [founder and editor-in-chief of Brooklyn Arts Press]: Brooklyn Arts Press started with a manuscript I’d written while at Iowa. I came close with some big prizes but honestly didn’t want to keep spending 25 bucks a pop for contest fees, so I calculated how much it would cost to put the book out myself. I imagined what it would take to create the entire thing, from cover art to font stylings. I was making a lot of weird art at my day job, literally hiding it under my desk at this ad agency, so the idea of just making a book fell in with this idea of myself as someone who considered himself an all-around artist. Nothing was off-limits. The DIY aspect appealed to me. I did all the math, and it would turn out to be wildly wrong, much more complicated than I imagined when I tried to scale up, but at the beginning, that didn’t matter, I just had what I felt was an accomplished manuscript and a drive to get it out into the world. And it worked. Despite a few friends telling me it was terrible for my career, and what did I know about publishing? I asked this lovely woman I would soon marry what she thought and she said do it. She said, “I love that you make things happen.” It’s important to pull close those who inspire you to create and live openly. I published the book and sent it off to famous writers I loved. I have postcards from Don DeLillo and C.D. Wright on my bookshelf, saying nice things about my poems. I’d written and published a book I made, and I was delighted. I felt it tied me to a long history of poets who’d done the same, and a greater history of artists who took matters into their own hands.
Rob Spillman [co-founder of Tin House Magazine]: It was at a time when literary magazines were kind of really stodgy and considered almost like castor oil. They were supposed to be good for you like medicine. There was no design, there were no pull quotes, it was very flat. Non-designed. Like, when we had pull quotes people were like, “oh god, they’re lightweight, they can’t be serious.” But it was kind of in the air. McSweeney’s, the first issue came out six months before us. So we came out right at the same time — and Dave Eggers was living on 9th Street at the time. I was living on 5th Street out here and we would kind of compare notes and he did a couple of fundraisers out here. Eggers and I worked at slick magazines and [tried] to bring in a little more slick sensibility and having fun with that form.
Schappell: Brooklyn felt immediately like home to us. This was a time in Brooklyn when, I don’t know, there was a lot of interesting and smart people there looking to do some great things. I mean I guess there always has been, but at the time, it felt new, refreshing. We got to Brooklyn and we were just like, “this is the place to be, this is awesome.” And when it came up to do the magazine, we didn’t say “oh, we want to do it in Brooklyn,” but that was how we were feeling. For a short period of time, like a year and a half I think, we operated out of our publisher’s apartment on the Upper East Side which is what we had been doing at The Paris Review forever because The Paris Review used to be in George’s — George Plimpton’s apartment. So there was something kind of, a nice little symmetry there. But that’s not what we wanted. We really wanted to have our own office, to have our own space. We ended up getting a place over on 4th Ave. It was totally shitty. We had no money. I remember when our poetry editor, Brenda Shaughnessy, showed up for the first day of work; we had her putting together terrible IKEA furniture with those horrible little pegs. That was her first day of work. It was a terrible shitty little hole but you had the smell of baking pie coming up through the floorboards all the time, which was quite lovely. We were going to be something very very very very different. The Paris Review was all about history and all about gravitas and all the things that really were, and are, important to me… but Tin House had to be all about us. It had to be something very different and it was really important that it be in Brooklyn because Brooklyn was all about taking risks and getting out there and doing it yourself.
Nash: It wasn’t so much the idea of it being a press. It was the idea that we were inventing an internet start-up that happened to be a press. At the time was working at Oxford University Press, not because I had any aspirations vocationally in publishing. It was just a way of getting health insurance, given that theater wasn’t how you got health insurance. So I started learning stuff about publishing, not much, but I was learning some stuff around publishing. In particular, I was learning about digital publishing and electronic publishing because Oxford had some of the first things that were formerly part of print publishing like reference texts that were starting to go online. Encyclopedias and dictionaries, of which Oxford published a great deal, were some of the first stuff for people to figure out they could make a business out of the first dot-com boom in ’98, ’99 to 2000. I had a little bit of money at the time, so I actually became an investor. I invested $5,000, largely foolishly.
But yeah, Soft Skull was in deep, deep, deep financial shit. Although I didn’t have much of a formal role at Soft Skull other than being an investor and a volunteer in a whole bunch of different ways, I offered to help out. At that point Soft Skull had three somewhat-paid employees ranging in age from 20 to 23. I was 31. I was a fucking grown-up, so I basically started negotiating with the printers and the authors about all the unpaid bills. I had to persuade them to keep working with us, and in the case of the printers continue to extend us credit, even though we already owed them a bunch of money and hadn’t really be forthcoming with the circumstances around why. Over a period of time, I fell in love with the Sisyphean task of making it work.
Pan: I had no fancy ideas of what publishing meant or didn’t mean when I started. Brooklyn Arts Press was almost Manhattan Arts Press, as I was sort of between Williamsburg and my girlfriend’s place in the West Village, where I’d eventually go live for a few years. I knew a bunch of poets and some artists and thought putting their work out would be fun, enjoyable, a form of collaboration that ended with an object in the world and a party. About this time I’d gone in with two friends on a gallery up in Beacon called GO NORTH, so I was scouting artists in Brooklyn for shows and did a bunch of studio visits, which is how I found Jonathan Allen and Anne Beck. Anne was teaching at Pratt, Jon would introduce me to the Lower East Side gallery scene and Lu Magnus and he actually already had ties to the poetry world — he did a bunch of book covers for poets early on. And I ended up doing a book that’s basically one big interview with one of my GO NORTH co-curators, Greg Slick, about his work. And just about this time I also hooked up with Hrag Vartanian, who had just founded Hyperallergic, his and his husband’s art blog, and they were living down the street from me in Williamsburg and had started reviewing BAP books on the site. He’d offer me a job as their first poetry editor in 2012. I’m bringing all this up not just as a history but to show how sort of free-flowing entrenched you become in these scenes, and how for me publishing was just one aspect of who I was as an artist. I wrote poetry and fiction, primarily, but I also made art and published art and poetry books, and was in daily life an editor, which is at certain times the most valuable of artists, in my opinion, as a collaborator and shaper. I was being inspired by what people were doing around me, in ways that didn’t feel like direct competition, even if it was, but which felt more like “Hey, we’re alive and doing cool stuff and flying hard under the radar and nobody gets to dictate our art but us.”
Spillman: We were doing all this work to discover writers, so why not? We wanted to have a workshop where we could use people who don’t necessarily teach all the time. So we had Joy Williams and Kelly Link, people who aren’t primary teachers come in and teach. So it’s less academic it’s more toward craft intensive. That was the impetus. We were looking for new voices and almost every issue we would discover a new voice and it would get signed up by somebody and get a book contract. And we were like wait, we’re doing all this, why don’t we just publish them ourselves? That was the initial impulse.
Temple: In April 2003, I was selling Akashic offerings at a table at the National Black Writers Conference at Medgar Evers College in Crown Heights, when I had a chance encounter with best-selling Jamaican writer Colin Channer. After a lively conversation, we realized we lived right across the street from each other in Fort Greene. This led to many collaborations, with Akashic publishing several of Colin’s books, and him inviting Akashic authors to appear at the Calabash Literary Festival in Jamaica, which he cofounded with Kwame Dawes and Justine Henzell. Akashic authors have appeared at every Calabash since then, and I have been fortunate to always attend. This unplanned, life-changing exchange with Colin at the National Black Writers Conference was Brooklyn to the core.
Pan: I arrived in Brooklyn in 2003. I had no idea what the lit scene was like. I knew about only a handful of small presses. Ugly Duckling, Hanging Loose. Futurepoem. I just assumed they’d all started off as DIY projects and built themselves up. It didn’t seem impossible. I used to live across the street from North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston Salem, and a whole group of modern dancers I knew from there who moved to New York started their own dance company — VIA Dance. I had a filmmaker buddy start his own film business for his first feature length. Another friend from Florida who started his own sand-sculpting company, and he’s spent his life traveling the world doing what he loved. In my circle of friends, funding your own artistic projects and inventions for display was never a sign of failure or some maudlin display of ego, it was how you got shit done. I tried to remember this when I’d tell people what I was doing and with some have to withstand their “blank with internal eye-roll” expression. I tried not to let it get me down. There was more relief once I’d published six or so books, when I had a catalogue and my book was one of many. I’ve always really hated the term “vanity press.” What a myopic elitist term to throw at hard workers who didn’t luck out on the right editor. I mean, we’ve all seen shit books, and maybe you like me know editors who have turned shit books into bestsellers. And eventual movies…. Editors are the photoshop of publishing, in certain respects. Good stories and well-written books are often passed on because they’re judged to be unmarketable in the current climate, or due to some lack of personal resonance with an editor or more often now because the writer lacks a sufficient platform or loyalty base for audience engagement. It’s a crap shoot. There should be no shame attached to a diligent writer turning her accomplishment into a salable work via Createspace and building up an audience. None. Most visual artists I’ve known in Brooklyn are forced to self-promote on the open market without gallery support, and only the very worst snobs would attach any shame to their hustle. The rest recognize the situation and the initiative.
Spillman: I did physically distribute the first year, all of the issues, to the NY bookstores. In my Subaru Outback would drive to St Mark’s Books, drop ’em all just to make sure that they had them. I remember the second or third issue I drove into Manhattan and dropped off issues at St. Marks — like 30 issues — they were our biggest supporter right from the start, they were great. And dropped off 30 issues, got home; the manager called me up and said Molly Ringwald just came in and bought all 30 issues; “Can you come back with 30 more?” And I was like, “Are you kidding me? What’s up with that?” It turned out she had just started dating a writer I published — Panio Gianopoulos—and that’s how I found out they were dating. They now have three kids together. That was like a really weird early call to get.
Nash: There is one sense of it being very grassroots, and then there is another, of critical mass that more easily allows the larger world to create a new category in their brain called “edgy publishers.” It becomes a kind of a cycle. The vast majority of people in the world who identify with Soft Skull were not going to go to a huge amount of effort to participate in it. Their participation was largely reading and writing, and reading and writing are not lacking intensity, but they don’t require that you do a lot of the shit work actually required to run a publisher. If you were doing a tour to promote your book, we were one of the people the publishers called to say, hey, this person is in town in three months, or hey, that person is in town.
I remember one sweet thing: Paul Muldoon read in the middle of a fucking blizzard, and that was very cool. He had to schlep back to New Jersey. He could have canceled so easily, but instead he drove in from Princeton and he drove back to Princeton. By having a store, it implies a certain openness. You can’t walk right into Random House. It was a highly permeable membrane between us and the world. A lot of times publishing gets claimed as a matter of taste, a matter of personal taste of the editors. Editors’ tastes are divine and poised, and elite by the insiders. That may be true in some instances, but what independent publishing is much more about is that it is a tacit community where the people who run it are not deciding what the community wants but trying to infer what the community wants. We are a conduit through which the community expresses itself. My role and the role of the folks who worked with me was to listen as attentively as possible to the community. We searched for Soft Skull-ness. We found Soft Skull-ness out in the world.
Temple: While sitting in Fort Greene Park in 1938, Richard Wright completed Native Son, which went on to become the first nationally best-selling book by a black author in this country’s history. That book was an important piece of my own social and literary education and in the shaping of my interests first as a reader, and later as a publisher.
In the early 2000s I teamed up with the Fort Greene Park Conservancy, African Voices magazine, and Griot Reading Programs to found the Richard Wright Project, with the goal of publicly celebrating his work. On October 18, 2001, a Richard Wright Commemorative Bench was unveiled in Fort Greene Park as a result of our efforts.
Schappell: I think this is something every generation has to do, to be the one to create — everyone needs that art, that magazine, that movement, and you don’t create a movement, or you don’t create a different form if you continue doing the same thing. I think that’s something so exciting about what everyone’s done in Brooklyn. All these people arriving and managing to do their own thing. You don’t feel like — or really I don’t feel like any of the things that come out to Brooklyn are just a pale imitation of something else. I mean look at A Public Space [a literary magazine founded by former Paris Review editor Brigid Hughes]. A Public Space is amazing! And it’s not The Paris Review. So I really do think that’s one of the things that’s cool about Brooklyn. I do feel like we have this outside influence. Brooklyn itself has impacted the art world. But certainly the people that move here are arriving with the same ideas and desires, to have things changed in the same way.
Brooklyn Letters is supported by a grant from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.