Saturday, April 19, 2008

Thoughts on "Small Press Publishing": from the Archives

Interview with Denny Ludvino (circa 2006?)

DL: I personally love the freedom that independent organizations bring to the world of print. Publishing companies can be so predictable because it’s safe to be predictable, independent companies don’t care about safe, it’s like the exact opposite of what we’re trying to do. I guess in a round about way, what I’m trying to get to is this: since you both run and operate Bootstrap Productions, do either of you feel that there is a certain role the small press plays in the broad scheme of the publishing industry?

Well, we secretly have always desired world domination, or at least a coup of American culture, but we are also realistic—experimental writing and art and music seems most intriguing when it’s hermetic, a little hard to find, something that makes you feel like you have discovered something that not everyone else has caught up to yet—music has always done a better job at this that writing. Or maybe that’s just a creative way of saying that very few people actually read poetry anyway. We just publish what we love, which isn’t limited to poetry—we try not to concern ourselves too much past that.

We do have our mission, which we guess is worth stating, but it reads like a mission. It’s not the most inspirational writing we’ve ever done,

Bootstrap Productions is a 501 (c) 3 non-profit publishing company that promotes the integration of multi-dimensional art forms and experiments into fine press publishing.

The organization seeks to introduce the general public to experimental and contemporary art and writing; to stimulate public interest in the work of new, struggling and relatively unknown artists; and to benefit the community generally by promoting the appreciation of contemporary art and writing.

The organization’s goal is to provide a venue that affords the benefits and aesthetics of a quality small press to committed and brilliant writers, visual artists, and musicians who may not otherwise have the opportunity and freedom to display their work as they envision it.

The organization creates the opportunity for the public to experience and learn about such art and writing that might otherwise never have a public forum.

So yes. In one sense, we’d be pretty psyched if some of our authors and artists find publishers who will pay them money for their art. We never got the “I will never sell out” manifestos from artists and writers. We’ve been trying to sell out for years—who wouldn’t want to make his or her livelihood from a daily artistic practice. (We realize this is an unfairly simplistic criticism).

As far as the “freedoms” we have because of our independence from any sort of major corporate influence—well, we’d love the press to experience some discretionary income, see how it feels to quit our day jobs. Send our writer and artist friends cash to go to the Kentucky Derby or quit their jobs and write books to “rid the world of illiteracy, soporific poetry, and sentimental art”—our unofficial mission.

DL: I know from my own experience running an independent literary journal that the challenges awaiting any independent publisher are numerous. Have there been any areas that have been particularly trying for you guys?

One thing to note before getting to the issue of obstacles is that it is far easier today to keep a small-press afloat than it ever has been. Technology makes it easier each day on a number of fronts. Typesetting can be done on computers, (though letterpress is a beautiful art and should never die.) It’s also easier to locate hard-to-find books through the internet. And generally there are connections happening between artistic/literary communities with common aesthetic principles.

We faced many obstacles when we first started Bootstrap fresh out of grad school. We made a lot of mistakes along the way, from typos to getting gouged by printers who knew we were green. Even when we started in 2001, how to make and print a book was almost this sacred Gnostic process that only a few people knew well. We don’t think that’s fair—that’s one of the reasons we started to take on imprints at Bootstrap, so other people going through the painstaking process of printing books could have some kind of resource.

That said, the avant-garde literature circle is a small community, largely existing outside of the Academy and Universities (where it always has and should remain), and is about these little hidden niches. We recently published Gavin Pate’s first novel, The Way to Get Here, and we sort of cherish his farcical description of us, “when I say small press I mean extra bedrooms, oompa-loompas on leave from Wonka, guys who sweat too much, have tongues covered in postal glue. . . . but you can get it straight from the publisher with paypal. . . . they're at least that high tech (but I still think, somehow, there is an old fashion cash register or abacus involved and a guy with a green visor in the back personally checking things off).” We’re okay with that perception— the word bootstrap has connotations of making something out of nothing, a little modern-day alchemy.

The biggest obstacle always was and is money, in some form or another, whether it’s the money to print a book or store it (almost $100 a month now that we have over ten thousand copies books)—things cost a lot. And sure, being a non-profit helps, but that was a lengthy process to go through to print some books—it was three years of legal paperwork. It has, however, allowed us to accept donations from people we deem saints (and who can receive tax breaks for their contributions). Our profits from book sales take care of our operating costs, but we still have to raise money every time we print a book. We also have been selling our art (we’re both visual artists) and give all that money to the press. We’re waiting for our own version of Ruth Lily, the woman who gave Poetry Magazine 100 million dollars, or for someone to hand us the keys to a Lowell mill and say, “have at it.” Can you imagine what 100 presses could have done with a million dollars each—that seems like it would have been a healthier investment in American culture.

Anyway, this is a long-winded way of getting to something that Bob Creeley said when he taught one summer at our grad school, “Poetry is a team sport.” We firmly believe that team would not be the Yankees.

DL: You guys said, tongue in cheek, that you secretly seek world domination, it seems a good way to begin going about that is by acquiring imprints, which you also touched upon. It seems there is a symbiotic relationship between the imprint and the larger publishing company. The benefits to the smaller publisher seem obvious (greater visibility, nonprofit status under your umbrella, and a wealth of knowledge at their disposal), but in what ways do you see Bootstrap benefiting from this type of relationship? I'd also like to know what do you look for when considering someone or some organization to partner with Bootstrap?

Actually, this is more of a genuine effort at being altruistic. There are so many manuscripts that deserve to be in print, but we are only human. We also get some exposure from a new community and take a small percentage of sales so that we break even distributing, acquiring ISBN numbers, helping with the printing, etc. This is part of our non-profit mission that we do because we believe it is the right thing to do, just as we plan to establish outreach programs for at-risk youth in the near future. We don’t really see art and literature as being separate from life. This is why we spent three years filling out 80 pages of legal paperwork to become a 501(c)3 not-for-profit. Because people can give us donations and receive tax-breaks for their contributions, we also have a duty, legally and morally, to help the community somehow.

DL: I read on the Peregrine (a literary journal out of Western Mass) Web site that their name, stemming from an endangered species of bird, came about because of the transitory nature of literary publications. They said publications lasted on the average of 3 years. As a production company that publishes experimental work in both literature and art, I'd imagine that your survival is continually threatened (we know ours is). As you say that you'd like to have some money to quit your day job and focus on Bootstrap, does this sword of Damocles fuel you guys in any way?

It is not uncommon for us to receive more manuscript submissions in a month than orders for books. Well, I guess that doesn’t happen so much anymore now that we have built up a catalogue and have a distributor and can sell with Paypal on our website, but three or four years ago, it was certainly true. We’re going on our sixth year, projecting it to be our most productive yet—this is partly due to the fact that our books are selling a bit and being reviewed. But the fact that people are realizing that they can give us large sums of money and “write-it-off” on their taxes helps tremendously. Personally, our visual art has been getting some attention as well, and when that sells, we donate the money to the press. The donations and art sales are what have been really keeping the press afloat; I’m not sure we’d still be in it if we were relying solely on book sales.

I’m also not so sure we see it as the sword of Damocles; we’d be loafing around under the psychedelic sky during some ancient psilocybin pagan festival while the suits and slugs sit around the table staring at each other. We’re artist first. We live by Wallace Berman’s “Art is Love is God.” If we were ever invited to the table, it would be because the table walked up to us and formed into a fantastic Beckett novella.

DL: How old are you guys?

Ryan: I was born in Lowell, MA on April 29th, 1976. That makes me 30, a bicentennial baby and a Taurus. Roger Clemens hurled 20 strikeouts on my tenth birthday.
Derek: I’m two years older than Ryan. I’m from Kentucky, then Ohio. I like getting gifts.

DL: How old were you when you started?

Started Bootstrap? It was 2001, though we experimented a bit before that on some projects for a year or two before.

DL: I know you said that you have 10,000 books in storage, but how many individual books have you published in total?

Our first perfect bound full length book was LOVELAND by Steven Taylor. We printed 300 copies and have sold out. Since then, we usually print in runs of 1,000. The rest of our books are on the website. If you include ORGANIC FURNITURE CELLAR: WORKS ON PAPER 2002-2004 by Jessica Smith from our Imprint Press Outside Voices, we’ve published 8 full-length perfect bound books and 2 anthologies: the @tched documents 1 & 2. We also have a few copies of the five staple-bound chapbooks we did way back in the day and enough manuscript submissions to fill a small Uhaul truck. Our distributor in Berkeley, CA
Small Press Distribution, stores a box or two of each title.

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Since this interview, we have published For The Time Being: The Bootstrap Book of Poetic Journals edited by Tom Morgan and Tyler Doherty, Tom Morgan's On Going, Michele Naka Pierce's Beloved Integer (imprint book with Pub Lush), John Wiener's A Book of Prophecies, Geoffrey Young's Riot Act, Ryan Gallagher's The Complete Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus (translations from the Latin). That brings us to 14 full length books (3 of which are anthologies of sorts) and two more imprint books. We have a bunch of projects on the way.

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