Interview with Ryan Rivas, Publisher
How did Burrow Press start?
Five years ago in a bar that has, over time, become a little less dive-y, me and co-founder Jana Waring met up to figure out a way to meet other fiction writers in Orlando. It started with one book (a locally themed anthology) and a book release party, and has since turned into ten books and over 80 events.
Jana moved to Los Angeles early on, and handed me the reigns. I didn’t have any money to fund a press, but I was already working for a very small literary nonprofit, Urban Think Foundation, named after Orlando’s only indie bookstore at the time. The only existing program under the Foundation was Page 15, which offers children’s literacy and creative writing programs. But there was room in the Foundation’s mission for more literary programing—publishing, readings, etc.—and I was able to move Burrow under the 501c3. That was a sort of serendipitous re-start and it may be the only reason BP is still around.
So, in short, Burrow started ass-backwards and with lots of luck.
Tell us a bit about Burrow Press. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
Burrow’s aesthetic is as varied as my personal influences (which are too numerous and scattered to name). I realize it is helpful, for various selfish and unselfish reasons, to focus on a niche in publishing, but I prefer the reckless impulsivity of following what interests me (and Burrow’s helpers) at any given moment.
Broadly speaking, Burrow is art first, commerce second. Good design is important. Working with local artists and designers is a personal goal. The writers can be from anywhere, but for the print books they tend to live in Florida. The books’ content, however, is all over the place. I lean more toward the weird and quirky. I look for language, vision, and a cohesion of the two. I am afraid that all of this sounds terribly pretentious, up to and including the phrase “terribly pretentious.”
Burrow’s mission is somewhat unique from many small presses because, in in addition to being committed to books, we are also committed to fostering and growing the literary community in Orlando and in Florida. We do that through a variety of community programing, including a reading series, a radio show, and working with Page 15 (the aforementioned children’s literacy program).
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?
This year we published a book of absurdist short stories about fatherhood (Pinkies by Shane Hinton) and a darkly comic novella that was the basis for Terry Gilliam’s film, The Zero Theorem (The Call: a virtual parable, by Pat Rushin—Pat also wrote the screenplay for the Gilliam film).
Next March we’re putting out something unabashedly realist: Forty Martyrs, a novel in stories by Flannery O’Connor award-winner Philip F. Deaver, which involves a fire, a stabbing, and a questionable religious sighting in a Midwestern college town. Also, we’re publishing a book of advice for young writers by some pretty famous authors whose names I cannot divulge until contracts are signed (proceeds benefitting Page 15!).
But Florida is near and dear to my heart, and so Burrow is actually moving toward a focus on Florida (while always leaving the door open for other projects). The state is so massive and diverse, we’re in no danger of hitting the same note or running out of rich material. This focus on Florida begins in 2016 with the launch of a blog, Fantastic Floridas (a phrase taken out of context from Rimbaud’s “The Drunken Boat”) and will extend into 2017 with some print books. The overall goal is to showcase the immense diversity and weirdness of the state in a literary way, since Florida literature is so often associated with mystery novels and sunburns and flip flops.
What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?
I think the general indie landscape is always fascinating. It encompasses short-lived experiments and long-term sustainable projects, both of equal value, all part of a healthy eco-system of people who believe in the art of literature and are providing venues for that expression. It’s here where the innovation and evolution happens, so it’s always fun to watch.
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 Burrow Press?
I am incredibly lucky to work on literature every day, even if it involves inventory or budgets or whatever, so I cope just fine.
Rising print costs, figuring out how much to charge for books, and generally making money to sustain or grow the operation, is all part of the deal. It’s a damn job (multiple jobs) to keep it all going. It’s why most businesses don’t survive more than four years.
This is also why some presses / lit mags are driven to charge submission fees, but I don’t think that’s the right or sustainable path. You’re taxing the wrong part of the chain. Writers give publishers the material to present to readers. You should either charge readers for the material, or ask for donations, or eat all the costs yourself, or close up shop. Though it’s often a shame when a literary endeavor can no longer support itself, there’s no shame closing up shop.
We’d love to hear more about your connection with the literary community in Orlando and Florida in general. How would you describe that community?
Though Burrow’s books and media reach beyond our city, the literary community in Orlando is really what sustains us. I’ve written a whole overview of Orlando’s lit community, but, in short, there are a lot of talented writers from all kinds of backgrounds. Tons of these writers come out to literary events, and many run their own literary events, host podcasts, volunteer at a bookstore or with kids, run a press, and thus contribute to the local lit community. I think one projects inspires the next, and it all works because writers here support each other. Other artists are also aware of their literary arts counterparts, and the local media recognizes literature more and more alongside the “mainstream” arts like dance and theater (and pop culture events). Burrow was created in order to find this community, and so if Orlando hadn’t turned out to be such a great place to be a writer/editor/publisher, Burrow probably wouldn’t exist.