Interview with Carissa Halston, Co-Founder/Editor-in-Chief
How did Aforementioned Productions start?
Aforementioned actually started as a small theatre company. AP’s other co-founder, Randolph Pfaff, and I were producing an evening of five short plays I wrote, and we needed a company name. We came up with Aforementioned because we wanted to sound like we were already worthy of discussion.
Around that same time, early in 2005, Randolph said he wanted to start a magazine. I told him I was game, but the only magazines I knew anything about were literary journals. I’d been a bookseller for 5+ years, and all the magazines I knew of were lit mags, so I told him I could only really help if we started a literary journal.
We’d wanted to start in print, but couldn’t afford to, so our journal, apt, was online for its first five years. And throughout those five years, we were always trying to figure out how to have work in print. As it turned out, we printed a book every year or two.
The first print book we made was way back in January 2006, when we published the script for those plays we’d produced in 2005. We went through CafePress because on-demand publishing wasn’t really around yet, but then in 2007, we used Lulu.com when I self-published a novel. Though both books were exciting things to hold, they came with qualifiers. First, there was no editing process. It was all my work, so the necessary conversation about how to make the manuscripts stronger wasn’t happening. Plus, visually, the books never quite turned out the way we expected. I’ve met many publishers in the intervening years, and we all agree that small press publishing means learning through trial and error. Those early books informed the decisions we made for the books we’d publish later on.
In 2009, we did a small run of handmade editions of Michael Lynch’s chapbook, Underlife and Portico. In 2011, we published two books: the first print annual of apt and Gillian Devereux’s chapbook, They Used to Dance on Saturday Night. We had a lot of success with Gillian’s book—she sells her work really well—but we wanted to have more of a reach. An author can only sell so many books because one person eventually runs out of friends and colleagues. So we became a non-profit organization and we got national distribution through SPD in 2013. That same year, we rereleased U&P as a permanent collection. And we acquired Dolan Morgan’s debut collection, That’s When the Knives Come Down,which we published in 2014. It was our first full-length collection and the book that made us feel like we’d finally arrived.
Tell us a bit about Aforementioned Productions. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
Part of our mission is to support writers we’ve worked with in the past. The way to get a book published at Aforementioned is that you first need to be published at apt. It’s a practical concern—we’re two people running a journal that produces work every week online and work in print each year. We don’t have time to read manuscripts unless we’ve requested them. And we don’t request a manuscript unless we know we can work with you—that you’re open to being edited, that you’re not a prima donna, that you’re willing to promote your work, etc.
The other part of our mission is the one on our website: We publish challenging writing that combines the cerebral and the visceral. That’s just a fancy way of saying we publish work that makes us think and feel. We’re not interested in work that’s all style and no substance. And we have no time for work that ignores the intellectual aspect of writing.
As for influences, we like McSweeney’s and New Directions. But it’s easier to talk about influences and aesthetics by way of graphic design. Whenever Randolph and I have been disappointed in our books, it’s always been because the book didn’t look the way we wanted it to. And whenever we’re disappointed in someone else’s book (before we’ve read it), it’s because the book is laid out in a way that seems to say, Please don’t read this.
The margins are too small. The text is too big. There isn’t enough space between the lines. The font is ungainly. Or ill-suited to the content. The best fonts are legible, and then you stop noticing them.
Our design influences are sometimes split. We’re both fairly minimalist, but Randolph leans toward modernist design (think Bauhaus), and I prefer the patterns and layers of more contemporary design. I like using text as image. Mainly, we both want our design to be clean. A lot of editors and publishers act like publishing a book is enough. But there are a hundred reasons why readers won’t buy a book, and one of them is amateur design.
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?
Our most current story collection is Susan McCarty’s Anatomies, a book about all the problems that go along with being stuck in a body. We adore it because it’s funny and honest, and Susan pays a lot of attention to how her sentences sound and how her stories are structured. The collection is a joy to read, and I’m really pleased with how it looks.
Up next, we’re publishing Krysten Hill’s debut collection of poems, How Her Spirit Got Out, wherein she questions all the ways black women’s bodies are commodified, used, and disregarded. There’s a great amount of urgency in Krysten’s work, not only for its political relevance, but because she renders each poem as a weapon or a shield and uses both for self-defense.
I’m currently reaching out to writers for our next prose collection. I’d like to publish more work by LGBT writers, specifically with LGBT themes. I’d love to have work by a bisexual writer, with a bisexual speaker or protagonist, because we’re often presumed straight when we write about heterosexual love or gay when we write about homosexual love. And that’s a form of erasure that bothers me, not just as a bisexual writer, but as a reader as well.
What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?
A larger publishing house might not take a book because they don’t know how to sell it. That means they don’t believe in its readership, or they don’t believe its readership even exists. But a smaller publishing house can take a risk on a book. A smaller house can say, let’s build a readership for this book. Smaller presses can be weirder in terms of marketing, without question.
We’re at an exciting point in publishing because we’re making new decisions about whose voices are heard on the page. That’s a risk that benefits everyone because it forces writers to think about who they’re writing for, and it forces publishers to consider whose voices they’re supporting. Plus, it allows readers to be part of a larger conversation about why those voices were marginal or absent for so long. There are movements via social media, like #WeNeedDiverseBooks, which means editors are defining diversity for their publication or for their publishing house, so diversity might mean publishing more work in translation, or more work by international writers or by LGBTQ writers or by writers of color, or a combination of all of the above. Whatever the definition, it’s a mark of success for everyone in publishing because it’s a great opportunity to learn. That’s what most readers want, I think. That’s a reader’s measurement of success.
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 Aforementioned Productions?
We lose money every year. Last year, we made a little less than half of what we spent. A large part of that is because we have distribution through SPD, so when they order books, we often don’t see a return on that order for at least another year. Plus, we pay our writers. Royalties to authors whose collections we’ve published, and we pay the writers we publish in print issues of apt. So, even when we get money from SPD, we don’t keep much, and what we do keep goes into printing the next book.
There are other costs too, beyond just printing and mailing books. Conferences and promotional events. AWP is always a sunk cost. It now costs $650 for one table. And, in order to attend, we need to have books printed, we need a place to sleep, and we need to travel to get there. And if that weren’t enough, everyone expects books to be discounted at the book fair. And if we don’t discount books, there’s the expectation that small press publishers are keen on trading books. I’ve had undergraduates come up to our table and ask to trade issues—theirs for ours, and theirs are journals with university support. That book cost them nothing to make. I know students are struggling, but unless we have a conversation about what it costs to make a book, that sort of thoughtless bargaining will happen forever.
One excellent breakdown for how much it costs to publish a book is in this interview with Adam Robinson (who runs Publishing Genius) and J.A. Tyler (who ran Mud Luscious Press). The money issue comes about halfway down the page. And it’s really important to take those figures seriously. That interview ran in 2013. Costs have only increased from there.
That said, the topic of reading fees is not cut and dried. I worked for another journal within the past year, and I quit because of the many ways in which the EIC and I disagreed about how to treat writers. Unsolicited submissions would languish in Submittable to the tune of 3-4 years. But worse than that, they charge a reading fee for every submission they get, then pad the journal with solicited work. I know for a fact the solicited writers don’t pay any fees. And I also know the journal in question has donors and they don’t pay their writers a dime. Also, with the exception of two part-time staff members, all their editors are unpaid.
Let me be clear when I say it doesn’t have to work that way. I worked for another journal, AGNI, almost three years ago, and their process is great. Yes, they get support from Boston University, the NEA, and the Massachusetts Cultural Council, but they don’t charge submission fees, and they pay their writers and editors. And their editors are amazingly hardworking. Sven Birkerts, AGNI‘s editor, reads every submission, of which there’s never a shortage. William Pierce, AGNI‘s senior editor, steers every accepted piece through several rounds of revision (I don’t know anyone with a better eye than his). The system of financial support helps the editors and the writers.
But back to Aforementioned: we don’t charge for submissions. We have a donation option for apt, but we see very little revenue on that front. We don’t run ads on our site. We don’t have donors. The operation is funded by me and Randolph.
The issue with reading fees and book costs and who pays what is that there are far more writers who want to submit than there are writers who want to read. I still don’t think that should be an invitation to only publish solicited work or take donations and not use it to support the writers you’re only paying via lip service. If you don’t agree with me, reconcile this double-bind: most small press editors reach prospective contributors online. That means editors expect writers to have regular access to a computer. But computers aren’t cheap and neither is internet access. And we talk all the time about diversity. As well we should: diversity matters. But elevating every voice means acknowledging the readers and writers who can only afford books from a library. Not everybody can afford to drop money on a reading fee. Not every writer can afford to keep writing when they need to pay to submit work. This is especially true for writers whose gender and race means they make less money per hour. It’s especially true for writers who are disabled or ill, and whose medical bills are prohibitively expensive. And it’s especially true for writers who are just starting out—all those young, emerging writers we talk about with stars in our eyes. Emerging writers are often saddled with debt and they worry about how to make ends meet.
There are writers who don’t have mentors or connections. Writers who still somehow find time to write because, I believe, that’s how they cope.
So if we really want to be inclusive, we need to think about how to make submitting more accessible. Whether that means we all get together and pool forces and resources somehow (this interview series being one such resource), or working with your local arts agencies to find funding for your press, or if you don’t have a local arts agency then working with your local government to create one, or working to find a different source of income and not publishing anything until you do, there’s one consistency: you need to work. We all need to work harder, harder than just pointing to a problem and expecting someone else to fix it. Because raising awareness is only the beginning of a solution, and if we stop there, awareness doesn’t do us any good.
I’m glad you referenced that J.A. Tyler interview at HTMLGIANT. Somehow it seems like every interview we run should take that one as a sort of prerequisite or institutional history.
I’d love to have more editors (and writers) aware of that interview with Adam and J.A. Tyler. MLP was popular, and its popularity was one of the things that led to its closure, but unless everyone is aware of that connection, we all run the risk of doing it again.
The popularity thing…I can’t figure out if that means then that it’s something to be avoided, or if there’s some other way of dealing with it/accommodating it? Because reaching more people is unilaterally a good thing, right, until that point where it runs a press off the cliff.
It’s funny—I’m divided over the idea of popularity. Obviously, I want our authors to succeed and find as many readers as possible. But we’re ponying up our own money to support the press and we’re working for nothing. Even the editors/publishers I know who somehow pay themselves for their effort (which usually still only works out to $2-$5 an hour) wind up only paying their authors in books instead of cash, which is still a net loss.
But a hugely popular book will sink both operations because readers want books immediately and they want to pay as little as possible for them.
There are ways some presses get around this conundrum—using crowdsourcing to fund every issue of a journal or title in a catalog. But that only works if it’s done infrequently, or else your platforms are changing (moving from print to online, etc.). And there are still really popular journals that have still folded due to lack of funds, even when there was an audience willing to pay money in advance (Unstuck comes to mind). And crowdfunding campaigns usually require initiatives wherein the editors are still offering up free books or merchandise, which means a loss of funds via a different avenue, but still: a loss is a loss in publishing. And then there’s the question of how readers get books. Amazon. Bookstores. Libraries. Borrowing from friends. Giveaways, etc.
All this basically adds up to competing senses of value:
An author wants their book published. And if they’re particularly savvy, they’ll come up with low-cost (though usually time-intensive) means of promoting their work. And most authors don’t have time for that. They really only want to write.
A publisher wants to print as many books as they can reasonably afford, while compensating their authors, and not going bankrupt in the process. That means compensation is sometimes late, or only in copies of their own books.
Readers want books at a low cost. If possible, they want them for free.
Amazon/Bezos wants money and has therefore ruined readers’ concept of what a book “should” cost (Amazon vs. Hachette started over the cost of ebooks, but eventually meant a lack of availability for titles in their print catalog).
And booksellers need to make a living, and actually often do right by small presses because booksellers are run by people who read widely (and often).
So what’s the value of a book? Monetarily speaking? Is it enough to tell readers, “Buy books directly from us and you’ll be securing a longer life for our company and our titles”? Can we tell readers, “If you buy our books on Amazon, you’re securing the eventual demise of our press, and small presses in general”? It’s a dangerously delicate balance we need to strike. Literature is supposed to make readers think about life in a way that galvanizes the spirit. No publisher wants to make readers feel bad.
But we do have to think about how to drive readers to buy books directly from us.
And that often comes down to branding. Making a publishing house into an icon that people think of as a person, spinning that personality via social media, imbuing it with charisma, which makes readers want to get on board because being around charismatic people/enterprises makes us feel good. But as a result, the person/people behind the press get erased.
So, the value of the press is diminished somehow in order to keep operations going: either the money needed to continuously pump into the press with no hope of a return, or the free merchandise readers have come to expect by dint of the various outlets readers invest in before books become available, or the soulless task of creating something that sounds and looks like a soul in the name of using popularity to make money.
Which, make no mistake, is not dissimilar to how large publishing houses market authors as people in order to sell books, though that’s apparently what readers want, so the question of which is worse is debatable.