Interview with Crystal Simone Smith, Managing Editor
How did Backbone Press start?
Many moons ago, I was a graphic and web designer with a salary and benefits, but I knew I was really a writer, so I abandoned my career and took the sharp pivot to an MFA program and eventually started teaching in higher education. When I finished my graduate program and saw the bleak state of the publishing world in terms of poetry and diversity, I figured I could certainly put my technical skills to good use designing books. I had no starter funds for a press, so when I placed in a contest one year, I took the prize money and started the press. We ran on fumes for quite some time, but grew over the years.
Tell us a bit about Backbone Press. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
Backbone is a niche press that focuses on writers of color and culture writing. We believe, in art, but certainly the literary arts, every voice is essential. I have always considered myself a citizen of the world and poetry as an engagement, an opportunity to speak the language and hear the voices of others. We consider it our responsibility to provide a venue for diasporic voices. We are certainly limited in our capacities like all micro presses. We only publish chapbooks. We consider chapbooks tiny, functional works of art carved from cultural experiences, myths, and truths.
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 inaugural chapbook contest winner, American Herstory by celeste doaks is currently our bestseller to date. Doaks honors the iconic first lady Michelle Obama in contemplative poems that honor and personalize her reign in the White House. The Smithsonian Institute kindly gave us permission to use the first lady’s official portrait, painted by Amy Sherald, on the cover. We are thrilled with the response and praise the title has received. In addition, Present Values by José Edmundo Ocampo Reyes was awarded the 2019 Jean Pedrick Chapbook Award from the New England Poetry Society. Reyes delves into themes of colonization, moral errors, and the power of the coin. Currently, we have two forthcoming titles, both chapbooks of haiku. As a practitioner of the genre, I had long wanted to hold a haiku chapbook contest. The winner, The Years that Went Missing by Susan Antolin and the runner up, This One Life by Renee Owen will release in late summer. Our second chapbook contest winner will be announced in June and we hope to hold another themed chapbook contest in the fall.
We used to ask, “What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?” We’re still interested in the answer to that, but we’re even more interested to know what you think needs to change.
I won’t belabor the point that indie publishing is challenging. Funding is always patchy and volunteers are the backbone of most presses. I will always urge more collaborations and bridging with large publish houses and MFA academic programs. An industry that acknowledges our unique struggles is a first step. Indie presses with low budgets should receive sliding-scale fees to advertise and participate in literary venues and conferences. We need to re-think the value of small presses—venues that publish the largest percentage of poets and writers.
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 Backbone Press?
In terms of budget, we have only been able to operate successfully by utilizing many alternatives and cost-free resources. The cost of attending AWP, for example, can equal the entire annual budget of an indie press with no guarantee of recoupment in sales. Yes, printing costs and book costs have significantly increased as many consumers continue to prefer “real books.” In truth, we are more reliant than ever on technology and a future dominated by digital publishing may be the only sustainable option.