Interview with Brendan Kolk and C.A. Mullins
How did Bottlecap Press start?
Brendan Kolk: Well, the origin story of Bottlecap Press is probably best left for C.A. Mullins, since he’s the one who actually started BCP. For me, it starts with C.A. offering me a position when I was at a crossroads. I had been playing in a local band, and trying to survive off giving private music lessons, but that career path hit a ceiling at a certain point.
So my best friend C.A. and I ended up chatting about the hardships in that field I was going through. He offered me a position with BCP. I had studied writing, communications and design at University a few years prior, so this actually seemed like a really good chance for me to jump back into the field I had sort of originally set out towards.
C.A. Mullins: The idea for Bottlecap was born on a park bench in Skagway, Alaska in June of 2014, when I was at the end of my rope. That’s a story I’ve told before though, and those first six months or so didn’t amount to much more than a planning/educational stage. I think the moment BCP became more than some cockamamie scheme and entered the real world was that December, when I started printing chapbooks and found the direction that BCP would eventually take. The addition of Brendan the following January was the next milestone moment that cemented Bottlecap as less a hobby and more a legitimate business. The addition of Erin Taylor as our social media wiz kid this year helped us drive even further toward legitimacy. The original idea for Bottlecap may have surfaced in 2014, but since then, we have managed to keep our business and ourselves in constant states of becoming something new.
Tell us a bit about Bottlecap Press. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
Brendan: Well, Bottlecap Press itself is run by myself and C.A. Mullins. The two of us work in an attic to manage projects from start to finish.
Our mission is to hand creative control back to the creative. The thing I’ve always loved about this company is that we’re working for the authors, artists and readers. We’re not a big corporate juggernaut answering to a bottom line, but two guys answering to our own hearts about what art really should be.
C.A.: I think Brendan nailed our mission on this one. We just want to see a world where an artist can retain control of their own projects. We’re here to help.
As for aesthetic, I think one of the more unique things about Bottlecap is our broad interest in creative work, regardless of style. Brendan and I have different tastes, and often end up accepting very different types of projects, and that’s a good thing. We try to see the value in every manuscript, especially those that challenge us. At our core, we’re just two guys publishing books that we like, but when you combine our tastes, there’s a very wide range of material that can fall into that category. Because of this, our aesthetic is always evolving, keeping bits and pieces from what we’ve learned and what we’ve liked in the past, but trying new things with new projects every day.
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?
Brendan: Well, as I’m typing this, it’s the release day for Alessia Di Cesare’s collection, How the Heartache Humbled Me. This one’s been a very easy, but very satisfying chapbook to put together. I love the content within, and it reminds me of a lot of my favorite things we’ve published, though it has it’s own unique voice for sure.
As for the future, we always have projects and ideas for expansion. But those don’t always work out. I think one of the things I’m having to learn is patience, and when to really initiate a new idea. Wait for the time to be right.
Until then, I have a few outstanding books and impressive collections on my desk lined up that will be getting more publicity through our social media. Stay tuned!
C.A.: As Brendan said, he just released How the Heartache Humbled Me, and I just released Elijah Pearson’s a nt, two collections that are very valuable for very different reasons. Heartache is soft and tender; a nt is eccentric and full of soul. As different as the two books are, they both connect to their audience on a very human level. That’s one of my biggest goals with Bottlecap: to remember the importance of humanity in writing, even in this digital age.
We’ve both got exciting projects on our desks (it seems that we always do), but when I think about the future of Bottlecap Press, I imagine a time when we can work across genres and across media to create a huge, diverse range of projects. We’ve got a lot of wild ideas for unique new ways to progress the state of literature in new directions, but for now, we’re moving forward one book at a time.
What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?
Brendan: For me, I love the way independent presses are trying to free the artist from the corporate system. I’m hoping independent presses can grow and have as large of an impact in the world of literature as independent labels have had in music. The chance for new art to get into the hands of a public that maybe doesn’t even recognize the play-it-safe political views and corporate agendas they’ve been fed.
C.A.: The most exciting thing to me about the independent press is its ability to give voices to ordinary people. We’re living in a post-Twitter society where everyone’s got an audience and those who don’t have the potential to build one. Authors don’t have to rely on the Big 5’s million-dollar marketing schemes to publish successful books anymore. Largely because of social media, small presses can help authors to reach a genuine audience who loves their work without the gridlock and bureaucracy of the old system. I also love the flexibility and efficiency of independent presses. If someone came to me right now with a manuscript that absolutely had to be released tomorrow, I think I could handle it. I think a lot of small presses could, and I think that’s amazing.
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 Bottlecap Press?
Brendan: I certainly wouldn’t want to give any direct numbers and specifics for BCP. For starters, C.A. wears the accounting hat, so I sometimes don’t even know what everything looks like coming in and going out.
As far as coping with changing times… I think, in very generic terms, it’s been about sticking to a philosophy as much as a business model. We’ve always talked about fairness. We have very simple royalty systems in place, and we work hard for the authors and artists we represent. We try to do as much in-house as possible to cut out “middle-men.” C.A. Mullins and I have a lot of conversations about “what’s fair,” for everyone. Not just ourselves, but our authors and our customers.
What’s helping us ride the tide is not being out for ourselves, but being out for the art. And maybe it’s naive, but I think most people who interact with us can feel that. Ultimately, I think that’s how you survive in the 21st Century as any small business, really: you have to conduct yourself entirely above-board, and be honest and genuine with everyone you work with.
C.A.: Our strategy for keeping our business profitable is as simple as keeping costs transparent and ensuring that our authors get their fair share. Higher royalty rates mean happier authors, and happier authors mean more recommendations, more positive word of mouth, and that business model just happens to fit well with our philosophy on art. As opposed to charging silly fees or raising the prices of books to unreasonable levels, we keep everything fair and publish a high volume of projects, and this strategy has worked out well for us. As we continue to grow, we’re learning to give each project the attention it deserves more quickly and more efficiently, and as the number of books in our catalog grows, overall sales grow in turn, thus keeping the Bottlecap train consistently rolling forward. The relationship between price and profit isn’t as straightforward as many people might believe, and I’ve found that the more we invest in our brilliant authors, the more profitable we become as time moves forward. A successful business in the 21st Century needs to be utilitarian to survive, and the world is better off for that. We do not deal in dollars and charts; we deal in happiness and words.
I’m fascinated by what you’re doing, especially a couple things: the fact that you refer to the press as a “business” (I haven’t spoken to many chapbook publishers who talk that way) and the fact that you seem to work separately on the projects each of you chooses, though under the aegis of the same press. Is there any way you could speak to either of those things?
C.A.: We do work separately to a degree on our own projects, but at the end of the day, we’re more team-oriented than not. Managing our own projects helps us to focus our energy and work as efficiently as possible. We do both pop in on each other’s projects fairly often, as we both have our own specialties (for instance, Brendan’s a master of InDesign and Photoshop, while I tend to handle the accounting, sales, and logistics) and we generally share the manufacturing work. Managing projects separately though is good for keeping our selection broad and ensuring that a wider range of authors have the opportunity to publish through us.
One important thing to note is that although we do publish a lot of chapbooks and intend on continuing to publish chapbooks, some of our best-sellers are full length collections (Uptalk, Do Conjoined Twins Masturbate?, and List of Consonants, for example). We have a lot of lofty goals for publishing more and more types of projects as we gradually acquire the technology to do so, so the opportunities are endless. We feel it’s important to treat our press as a business because it keeps us honest and it encourages people to take us seriously. We are entrepreneurs as much as we are artists, and that gives us some important perspective on how to grow and learn to take on new projects, as well as how to best meet the needs of our authors. It also helps to prove our dedication—Bottlecap is our career and it’s important we do it right, because it’s what we’ve got. We’re serious about sticking around.
We are very fortunate to have had some opportunities that most people might not get which keep our cost of living low and keep us in a position where we can focus entirely on Bottlecap, but the thing that’s really kept us successful as a press so far has been good old fashioned hard work. It often feels like we’re a very small team tackling the work of a much larger team, and I think the amount of energy we put into this shows in both the quantity and quality of the books we produce. We’re certainly still growing, but as a press and as a business, we have successfully managed to keep a surprising level of stability. We have a grand artistic vision and we know that to turn that vision into a reality, we need to make waves, which requires dedication. Think of our work over these last two years as a thesis statement for what’s to come—we are bold and we are full of surprises.