Interview with Robert Lasner, Editor-in-Chief
How did Ig Publishing start?
You know, the typical publishing story. I was sitting in a bar in the year 2000 with some freak I knew from a miserable job I had at the time and he turned to me and said, “I want to start a press and you should be the editor because you are very outgoing.” I downed my tenth or so beer and told him that was a great idea and he could count me in. At this miserable job, I had written a novel called For Fucks Sake, and we decided to launch the press with my book. At the same time, I started dating my future wife Elizabeth, who already worked in publishing, at a literary agency. The three of us spent the next two years meeting at the freak’s apartment with occasional assorted other freaks making detailed plans on how we would publish our one book; after the meetings, we would all go to dinner and get drunk. Eventually, we released For Fucks Sake in 2002, and the book did shockingly well—6,000 copies sold with practically no distribution. The freak then quit the press because he couldn’t handle the pressure of publishing one book, in the process taking much of our start-up money with him. Driven and foolish, Elizabeth and I continued on our own, quickly secured distribution, and basically struggled editorially and financially for the next few years because we really didn’t know what the fuck we were doing. Around 2007, we honed our focus to literary fiction, which we had always published, political nonfiction, because we are both political junkies, and a selection of classic reprints. The rest has made publishing history—at least in our own minds.
Tell us a bit about Ig. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
It is very hard for us to classify our fiction, which of course is very bad because we live in a world of micro-classification and no one will read your books if they don’t have the right tags. We have gone from the punk, Henry Milleresque of For Fucks Sake to the hillbilly noir of Kentucky novels Ghosting and Marble Orchard to wonderful books by LA author Diana Wagman to our just chosen 5 Under 35 pick, Tracy O’Neill’s The Hopeful, about a former ice skating prodigy who becomes addicted to uppers after she is injured in a fall. We have also done a few Cuban-themed story collections, a collection about Vietnamese immigrants in San Francisco, a novel set in Vaudeville, one set in the Arctic, another set in Alaska and a gay-themed short story collection that was a PEN/Faulkner Honorable Mention. As you can see, the clear pattern in our fiction is that there is no pattern. Elizabeth and I have very extensive and diverse tastes in literature, and our only criteria is, do we like the book? When you publish something you like, even if it doesn’t sell well or get critical acclaim, you can still be proud of it—unlike during our years of struggle, when we too often published stuff we weren’t crazy about, thinking it would sell. It didn’t, so we ended up with no money, and no pride.
Our non-fiction gives voice to ideas and issues that are not generally covered in the traditional media. A few years ago, we published Crow After Roe, about how abortion has become almost illegal and extremely difficult to obtain in many states in this country. Our most successful work of nonfiction, The Terror Factory, is about how the FBI has, under the guise of engaging in counterterrorism since 9/11, built a network of more than 15,000 informants whose primary purpose is to infiltrate Muslim communities to create and facilitate phony terrorist plots so that the Bureau can then claim it is “winning” the war on terror. In the spring of 2016, we are publishing Boy With A Knife, about the need for prison reform for juvenile offenders.
If I had to sum it up succinctly, our mission is to publish literature that we like, and non-fiction that matters. Or maybe it is non-fiction that we like, and literature that matters? Either way works for us.
Can you give us a preview of what’s current and/or forthcoming from your catalog, as well as what you’re hoping to publish in the future?
We have this great, great, great—did I say it was great?—novel coming out in April called Missile Paradise by Baltimore author Ron Tanner. The book is set in the Marshall Islands, and deals with the major social and political issues of our time, including racism, represented by the relationship between the Americans who enjoy life on Kwajalein and the subservience of the native Marshallese, who live on the neglected and trash-strewn island of Ebeye; and climate change—the climax of the novel is a great storm and flood which forces the Marshallese on Ebeye to flee to Kwajalein. The Marshall Islands has been a lead story in the news recently around the Paris climate talks, as the island fights to avoid rising sea levels that would decimate it.
We also have an amazing short story collection coming out by Sean Carswell called The Metaphysical Ukulele. Each story is about a writer—Pam Houston, Melville, Kerouac, Thomas Pynchon, Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, to name but a few—and is based on an actual event in that writer’s life with a ukulele thrown in. It’s one of the most original collections I have ever read, and each story is told in the style of the particular writer. And yes, Pam Houston did blurb it.
We are also launching a new literary series called Bookmarked, where a writer writes on a book that had a major, lasting influence on them. Think the 33 1/3 series, but for books, not music. The first two titles in the series are Curt Smith writing on Slaughterhouse-Five, and Kirby Gann on A Separate Peace. (Kirby is the editor of the series.) Later in the year, we have Paula Bomer on The Man Who Loved Children, and Aaron Burch on Stephen King’s Different Seasons. The series is an idea we have had for several years, and I am super excited about the launch. We allow the writers complete freedom to choose the book they want to write about, and they can take it in any direction they want, whether it be autobiographical, critical, whatever. If you write, or work in publishing, you were likely heavily influenced by a book(s), and this series taps into that primal love of literature.
What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?
When you run your own press for as long as we have, you become hyper focused on what you are doing, and don’t really notice—or frequently care—about what else is going on, other than how it affects your books. We weren’t publishing back in the 1960s and 1970s when the big presses still published mid-list authors because they didn’t care about the bottom line and there were bookstores on every corner in Manhattan and editors edited in pencil, so the recent technological and social changes in publishing haven’t displaced a world we had any familiarity with to begin with. Since we started publishing, all we have known is change, so change seems normal to us. People can throw around BS words like disruption, but its still about good words on a page—whatever the platform—in search of an audience.
I guess what excites me is what has always excited me about our press—that it completely belongs to us, and fully represents our vision and our beliefs. We publish books because we think people need to read them, not because of what the marketing department tells us. The first and really only criteria is that the books we publish are good—everything else flows from that.
How do you cope? There’s been a lot of conversation lately about charging reading fees, printing costs, rising book costs, who should pay for what, etc. Do you have any opinions on this, and would you be willing to share any insights about the numbers at Ig Publishing?
We cope with liquor and drugs and sex. Since Elizabeth and I are married, we can engage in all three with each other, so that’s nice.
We would never charge fees to read people’s work. From a purely business perspective, charging people a few bucks to read their work is not going to make or break your company. Ethically, making the submission of one’s work a financial transaction is not something we are interested in doing.
The other costs are not really an issue. For example, printing costs have stayed fairly fixed, and as you become more experienced as a publisher, you learn how to get your costs down—cheaper paper, using printer quotes against other printers, etc. E-books are definitely something that help financially, as they cost less to produce. However, I would never want print books to go away. Holding a book in your hand is a beautiful, meaningful act, and I love being surrounded by tall, dusty, packed bookshelves. Of course, I grew up with print books, so maybe the next generation of publishers and authors, raised from birth with small screens in their hands, won’t have the same attachment to the physical book as I do.
It’s all about change, and as an independent publisher, you either change and adapt, or die. It can be difficult because things that once seemed certain can disappear in an instagram. At the same time, it can also be exhilarating when you discover the next book or author before anyone else does, or, as with the majority of our books, publish someone who was passed over by presses both big and small and thought their career was over, or was never going to start. Sometimes I think about how many of our authors would never have been published if it wasn’t for us. It makes you realize how important indie presses are, and what a vital role they play in the publishing ecosystem.