Monday, July 23, 2012

Chaps good, fees bad, and the jury’s still out on debt: Stacia M. Fleegal interviews Janaka Stucky of Black Ocean, publishers of gorgeousness

SMF: Tell us about the history of Black Ocean.

JS: The short version is that I’d fantasized about being a publisher since I was around 14 years old, when I started making zines. Years later, after finishing grad school, it seemed like a “now or never” moment for me to try and realize that dream.

In my MFA program I had become friends with Carrie O. Adams and Susan McCarty, who became the Poetry and Fiction editors, respectively. Carrie had marketing experience from working at U. Chicago Press, Susan was working as an editor for a Penguin imprint in New York, and I had years of DIY design and publishing experience. This was back in 2004, and there weren’t nearly as many indie presses as there are now—or at least it didn’t seem like it. My models at the time were young upstarts like Verse, Fence and Soft Skull. We came out of the gate with four books: a memoir, a collection of short stories, a full-length poetry book, and a poetry chapbook. I secured a $10,000 small business loan against my personal credit to get off the ground, which I managed to pay off five years later. At one point I was in close to $20,000 of credit card debt, which is now also paid off. After that first year we pulled back to doing just one or two poetry books a year, until recently.

This year we’re putting out four books, plus our annual magazine, as well as a book / cd / vinyl project called Pink Thunder. Next year we’re doing six books, while reintroducing prose into the catalog and publishing our first illustrated book. Our growth is due to dedication, sacrifice and an incredible amount of hard work by a fantastic staff and an amazing group of authors—but some of it has also just been good fortune. Every year one of our books has been a recipient or finalist for some sort of recognition or award. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t feel grateful for how far we’ve come in such a short period of time.

SMF: Name a book or two that you recently published and tell us about the moment you knew you wanted it. What line or image or word or comma or free association made you have to have that book?

JS: What comes immediately to mind is the ending of “Fourth of July,” from Feng Sun Chen’s Butcher’s Tree:

I am small, I am small. Here comes the parade! All that beauty!
I want to die! I want to die!
I want to die!

I remember reading that and just being totally smitten by its strange exuberance; the paradox deeply resonated with me and it made me eager to read what would come next. That sense of eagerness is important to me; if I’m not excited to discover what will occur in the next line or the next page then I’m probably not interested in publishing the manuscript. That eagerness should also be coupled with a sense of dread that I will read more lines I wish I had written but now never will.

SMF: Besides the writing itself, the aesthetic, the stunning yet minimalist design of the books, I love two things about Black Ocean that I wish were the paradigm for small press publishing: no entry or contest submission fees, and serious, customized marketing and promotion of your titles. Can you talk a little about why those things are important to you as a writer and editor, to the other writers/editors on your staff, and to the press? And if you feel so inclined, what do or should those things mean to the literary publishing world as a whole?

JS: Fees are a very contentious subject so I’ll try to tread lightly there… I’ve already told you how I put my own livelihood on the line, and ruined my credit for a number of years, to make Black Ocean happen. I’m not saying everyone should do that, but I think you should be willing to do that if you want to start your own press. As publishers, gifted authors trust us with their life’s work, and we owe our own life’s work back to them. As a poet myself, I find reading fees somewhat insulting—even though I deeply sympathize with the reasons behind them. I should also say that I recently paid a fee to enter a contest, the first time I’d done so in almost a decade, and I won. Ahsahta Press published my collection, The World Will Deny It For You, and I couldn’t be happier about it. But Ahsahta also publishes a number of books without charging fees; in their case (as is the case for a number of other publishers) the fees help supplement the rest of their catalog with one or two additional titles by authors they might not otherwise be able to afford to discover.

But it all really comes back to that ethos of life’s work for me. We pour ourselves into the editing, design, publication, and marketing of each book because we care deeply about what we do, and because we only publish authors who also care deeply about what they do. Why anyone would settle for mediocrity in the world of publishing is beyond my comprehension. There are so many other paths, so many pleasurable pursuits… Often I think I’d like to spend my days exploring the planet, becoming an athlete an expert duelist or a musician, taking pictures of the sun and the ocean floor, having sex in the morning and just staying in bed for hours… If I’m giving all those things up to be a publisher then I want to be the best publisher I can be.

SMF: Why won’t you publish my chapbook so I can have a book with my name on it that’s as pretty as Feng Sun Chen’s or Julie Doxsee’s? No seriously. We had a brief exchange about chapbooks a while back. I’m of the opinion that the chapbook is The Marketing Tool of the poet: a recession-proof but attractive bound selection of work that sort of introduces a poet (or a more known poet’s recent thematic preoccupation, say) to readers, one which is, on the flip side, inexpensive for the poet him/herself to procure and have available for author events. Others argue that chapbooks have become their own phenomenal entity—pretty and prevalent enough to be more than marketing tools. Your thoughts?

JS: I think chapbooks are great for all the reasons you mentioned, and more. I strongly believe in their opportunity for beauty, and their accessibility. However, there are so many people already making really stunning chapbooks that I haven’t felt like we need to throw our hat into that arena.

SMF: But you did say you published a chapbook at the press's inception. What was it, who was the author? Was it just a big crop of chapbook publishers that prompted you to abandon that format?

JS: The first chapbook we published was actually by our poetry editor, Carrie. Those poems later appeared as a section in her first full-length book, also published by Ahsahta. I wanted to publish a chapbook to supplement the “splash” I was trying to make in our first year, and I loved those poems so I asked Carrie if she would let me publish them. I’m still proud of that chapbook, but from a design and production perspective it can’t compete with the likes of so many other chapbook presses that have emerged in the years since. If I viewed the chapbook simply as a marketing tool, I might be able to convince myself to publish them again, but I don’t. I really value the physical artifact so until I feel like we have the human resources to create something on par with Brave Men Press, or Greying Ghost, or any of the other stunning chapbook presses out there, I’m going to stay focused on doing what we do best.

SMF: You spoke importantly earlier about the role that finances have played in your experiences as both a writer and publisher. Of course it isn’t all about the money. But in terms of sales numbers, some of your authors are seeing great “success.” For example: Who says poetry doesn’t sell? And who says no one wants to read tangible, physical books anymore? Not Black Ocean, that’s for sure, who this month are celebrating the 10,000th printed copy of a Zachary Schomburg book. (from the Black Ocean blog, fall 2011). Since you don’t charge fees and are still afloat, would it be wrong to assume that the press itself is doing well as a business? And if that is the case, what advice do you have for other publishers committed to recession-proofing their projects? (We can talk later about how no one should say “recession-proof.” Ugh.)

JS: I think what you’re trying to get at is the nuts and bolts of the business. Reb Livingston started a great mini-trend on transparency for small presses, and I could talk at length about this. To be concise, you and your readers will just have to take me at my word about a few things.

The first thing that everyone should understand is that when they buy a $14.95 book from a bookstore the profit that a press makes on that book is usually around $1. When you buy a book from our website, even after we give you free shipping, our profit on that same book is around $10. So one initiative I’ve really pressed is having an attractive and accessible way for readers to buy books directly from us, and to forge a relationship with our readers that keeps the coming back to our website (rather than, say, Amazon).

Additionally, old adages like “you have to spend money to make money” are adages for a reason. I could print 200 copies of a book digitally, and only spend $800 on printing it, but my profit margin would evaporate entirely. Indie publishing is a long-term investment and you have to assume that by shelling out $2,500 to print 2,000 copies today, you will see a return on that investment over a year or two.

In short, I’ve tried to apply conventional entrepreneurial wisdom to the spirit and ethic of small press publishing. So is Black Ocean doing well as a business? If a business’ purpose is to make its owner and employees money—then no. If the purpose of the business is to grow, be self-sustaining, and stay true to its core values—then absolutely we are thriving.

SMF: So that was finger-quote “success,” the financial gain kind of success. To re-romanticize it a bit: in the "staying true to its core values" sense, to what do you attribute your and/or your authors’ success?

JS: When I was a young child, maybe four or five, I found a shriveled human arm while walking on the beach. It was dark and mummified and looked almost like a tree branch. I knew this was my own arm, or the arm of my mother, and I was terrified to discover it. I buried it in the sand and will not return to uncover it until I succeed at what I dedicate myself to. The arm, dwelling in the future, knows this and whispers my secret to the lice, the starfish, the crabs and the clams. This is what I attribute success to: the invertebrate prayers that will one day reunite us with the bodies we’ve hidden from ourselves.

SMF: In what direction is Black Ocean headed?

JS: Inland.