This is the thirty-second in Entropy’s small press interview series, where we ask editors about their origins, their mission, and what it’s like to run a press. Find the other interviews from this series in our Small Press Database here and under the Resources tab at the top of the page.
Interview with Joe Pan and Sam Hall
How did Brooklyn Arts Press start?
Joe Pan: BAP was partly born out of frustration. The manuscript of my first book was shortlisted for some big prizes and I was tired of sending people money each year for contests that only chose one manuscript out of a thousand. So I self-published. How dirty. I had it in my mind that my book would be the first in the catalogue, and then I’d publish a lot of other shortlisted poetry books. I knew a good deal of poets this was happening to, so maybe they’d be up for having me publish them? We could work on the book together, do line-by-line edits, really get to the meat of what they were after. We’d choose the artwork for the book and do everything ourselves. I didn’t want to hold contests because I never wanted to be in the position where I’d have to publish a book I didn’t think was very good. My tastes are, I think, varied, so I don’t care what form the work arrives in, I just need it to speak to me in some original way, to somehow distance itself from everything else. At the time I started BAP I was co-director of an art gallery, too, so I was doing studio visits and meeting a bunch of talented artists, some of whom I’ve gone on to publish, like the collagist Jonathan Allen. Plus digital printing was just being introduced as a viable alternative to offset printing, meaning I could keep costs down. Instead of publishing one book from a given batch, we could publish five or ten, some of whom had never published a book before. Some that had never published a single poem before. It was exciting.
Tell us a bit about BAP. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
JP: There is no BAP aesthetic, as far as I can tell. We see no limit to language or art. Artists and writers are just going to keep changing and dipping into the past and transmuting and progressing. We’ve published a wide variety of texts, from narrative poetry to experimental gay lyrical fiction to monographs of street photography and collaborative works. We look for work that excites and inspires us. That may sound standard but it’s true.
Sam Hall: Isn’t that every small publisher’s mission? To help the books we love find a shelf in the world?
JP: As for influences, I’d say all these amazing new small presses started by writers are my influences. They get me excited about publishing now. I can name maybe forty small presses founded within the last decade who’ve made a serious stamp on the literature of our time, publishing what they like, publishing from their communities, publishing international writers, publishing themselves. It’s not new—there’s been Virginia Woolf and Hogarth, Ferlinghetti and City Lights, Dave Eggers—but I don’t think there’s ever been so many of us. And a lot are working with shoestring budgets, but the work they’re putting out is groundbreaking.
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?
SH: In January we published Alex Green’s hybrid poetry/prose collection, Emergency Anthems, which has been a top seller for eight weeks at Small Press Distribution, alongside The Story of How All Animals are Created Equal, & Other Tales, by Matt Runkle, which has been on the same bestseller list for four months.
In February we published Michael Ernest Sweet’s second photography collection with us, Michael Sweet’s Coney Island. This month we’re publishing our first collection of essays, Responsive Listening: Theater Training for Contemporary Spaces by various artists at Østfold University College/Norwegian Theatre Academy. Our spring list includes poetry collections by Noah Eli Gordon (The Word Kingdom in the Word Kingdom) and Seth Landman (Confidence). Later this year we have chapbooks by Wendy Xu and Anäis Duplan, and full-length collections by Matt Shears and Daniel Borzutzky. In 2016 we’re looking to publish our first novel and our first poetry anthology.
What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?
SH: Although it’s been around since BAP’s inception, social media as a tool for developing audiences is particularly exciting because we’re really starting to see how it can help the success of a press. I’m particularly thinking of the hashtags #amreading and #amwriting. Amazingly, using either of these in just one tweet suddenly puts your press in front of thousands of eyes. We’re hoping to engage with the culture as it’s lived, using trends to participate in a national dialogue, even the ridiculous stuff, like the llama and dress fiascos from last week.
JP: If we only use social media to aggressively publicize our books, people will get annoyed and stop paying attention. We don’t want to bore people. We want to chat with our friends, point out interesting things happening in the community, but we do also want to make folks aware of what we’re doing and boost our writers.
SH: There’s a balance to using these platforms.
JP: Melville House is the model, with a dash of Big Lucks. We just started. It’s a work in progress.
SH: Social media acts like a personality of the press, and the more this personality participates, the higher their stake in the conversation. We’re always thinking of ways to develop this voice.
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 Brooklyn Arts Press?
JP: Digital printing costs have risen some in the past few years, but nothing extraordinary, in my purely anecdotal experience. There seems to be more printers vying for our business, promising reduced prices, but you have to be careful, as quality can vary widely. I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve communicated with over two hundred printers in the past, trying to figure out who has the best machines and production staff. Regarding who should pay for what, the publisher should pay for printing and the usual marketing, but if the author wants to contribute toward the campaign with self-promotion, apart from the press, that’s great, every little bit counts. As for numbers, last June we read through over eight hundred submissions—a huge amount for us, tripling what we received the previous year. For eight years we didn’t charge for reading manuscripts, but this next year we’ll be introducing a ten-buck reading fee, for which submitters receive a BAP book. These fees will be used to print and ship the book, and the remaining money used to compensate our super smart, passionate readers, which we are incredibly lucky to have. We publish seven to twelve books a year, many culled from the opening reading period, and most of whom are emerging artists.
You let readers “pay what they want” for Noah Eli Gordon’s The Word Kingdom in the Word Kingdom. How did that promotion get inspired, and how did it work out?
SH: We haven’t had much luck with advertising, so we’ve had to move away from more traditional modes of promotion. Poetry isn’t as easy a sell as fiction, which led us to try out the pay-what-you-want model for poetry.
JP: We wanted to find out what people actually want to pay for a book of poems. If it’s a book by their favorite author, maybe they would pay $15-$20 for a paperback, plus shipping. If it’s a poet they’ve never heard of, we have a free PDF excerpt of the book they can download from the website. Maybe they like the poems from the sample and pay $10 for the book. Maybe they don’t have $10 to throw down, so they spend $5. Maybe they spend a penny and we lose a few bucks on that copy, but there it goes out into the world, sitting on someone’s coffee table. To me, that’s fine, I chalk it up as a marketing expense. If everyone paid a penny we’d lose a lot of money, sure, but not everyone is. Actually, we’re finding people pay along a wide spectrum. The average price being paid right now, with Noah Eli Gordon’s campaign, is about $13 a book, including shipping. Some people have paid $25 for the book, which is surprising and wonderful, and a great number have paid $18, which will be the cost once the promotion ends.
SH: We decided to try the campaign after realizing that our poetry sales were plateauing. It seemed that no matter how much money we put behind the books, we just weren’t seeing the sales to validate that kind of spending. So we had to make a change and take a risk. This type of campaign is not new to the marketing world, as we’ve seen the likes of Radiohead and Louis C.K. give the power to the consumer, and so we thought, Why not poetry? Joe took a quick survey of some people he knew, asking them how much they would be willing to spend on a book of poems. In the course of the survey it became clear that the price point varies. For each reader, you have to factor in the popularity of the poet, the type of reader (casual, academic, etc), and also the size of the book, among other things. It became clear that if we allowed people to pay what they thought was fair, that we might see more sales (a reader who would balk at $18 might be willing to spend $5). It’s a win-win; we reach more people and the reader can participate in the community and receive a great book without breaking the bank.