Interview with Richard Brammer, Co-Founder
How did Dostoyevsky Wannabe start?
Dostoyevsky Wannabe is me and Victoria Brown. A few years ago, we were making video-art together and separately, Vikki was also painting and I was writing more conventional poetry type stuff. We were both getting frustrated in different ways. Vikki was getting tired of the lack of immediacy in painting and the amount of preparation and space needed. I was getting sick of large parts of the British poetry world which I find very parochial.
It was around then that I started to read Jon Leon. I found Jon through a mixture of British poet Sam Riviere and via interviews that Jon did in HTMLGIANT. This was how I simultaneously picked up on some of the other stuff going on over on your side of the pond. I started to write the odd “25-Point” reviews of books by people like Juliet Escoria, Mike Young, etc. for HTMLGIANT. The immediacy of some of this writing changed my own writing. At the same time, Vikki stopped painting and started writing and putting her own book together so we thought we’d start a sort of very small DIY press initially just to publish ourselves.
We were keen to break the taboo of the “vanity press.” We’re based in Manchester, which is the place where The Buzzcocks became the first band to put out their own record, kick-starting the concept of self-releasing and of independent music more generally, so it always struck us as odd and kind of backwards that in publishing that route was blocked off by the “vanity press” taboo. There are maybe a few good reasons to preserve that taboo but we didn’t feel it should be a non-negotiable commandment. Popular music experimented with this like 40 years ago now! Vikki and I were both really into Riot Grrrl bands and that fed in. The Bratmobile song “Cool Schmool” and the shouted bit at the beginning “Fuck you too, cool schmool!” was sort of an early slogan that summed up how we felt about the mainstream and about any idea that writers have to write “properly” or publish “properly.” In the last five years, the western world has been drowning beneath a sea of, what we consider to be, worthless advice about how to be a writer or a publisher or a whatever and we just thought “Fuck that.” We decided to go further and get other people involved. Being in your own bubble is all very comfortable and narcissistic but we wanted to try to get to know and make connections with interesting folk outside of our own immediate experience.
Tell us a bit about Dostoyevsky Wannabe. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
Mission-wise, ours is almost an anti-mission as described above but that’s not meant in a negative way. Our aesthetic has always been very important to us. Vikki is a very accomplished designer and so we wanted to use that, for sure. We also had a background in visuals so we wanted to produce something that was fairly high quality design-wise and also to heavily push book trailers and mixtapes as alternative ways for people to come to our books. We want the reader to look cool when they’re sat there reading a book we’ve produced. Maybe that sounds shallow but we believe in the power of the physical book, cover and interior, and feel that there can be connections made to the content through the packaging and vice-versa. There were a couple of big influences on this aspect. We wanted to do things in a similar manner to the record covers that Manchester’s Factory Records and Peter Saville put out in the 80s for bands like Joy Division and New Order that you can read more about here but crossed with a kind of classic Penguin/Pelican books stylistic consistency.
All designs on our Dostoyevsky Wannabe Originals imprint are underpinned by the Marber grid which was used to design many Penguin and Pelican books from the mid-sixties to the nineteen seventies. We were also inspired by the deliberate low-cost of Penguin and Pelican books at that time as it led to a democratization of reading and allowed working class people to acquire and read affordable books.
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?
As we speak, the latest from our sampler imprint has just come out in the form of Cassette 68. There have been three Cassette samplers up until now. We edited the first, the second was guest-edited by Juliet Escoria and the most recent one by Nat Baldwin. They’re all great with some great writers in there and they’re all still for sale. We should give a shout out to Juliet Escoria actually as she’s always been really helpful to us since we started and to Nat for pulling some great writers together for this book.
As far as Dostoyevsky Wannabe Originals go, we’ve released books this year by Jamie Morgan, Patrick Trotti, Shane Jesse Christmas and Peppy Ooze and we’re due to bring out titles by Benjamin De Vos, Timmy Reed and Grant Maierhofer. We’re looking forward to them all. They’re all really cool books and very diverse in the way they’re written which is what we’re about.
Finally, our experimental imprint is gearing up to release a book entitled What to do with all these skulls?, which is being guest-edited by James Nixon and is a collection of writing inspired by hauntology. Vikki also has an experimental book out this year called 150 Pornographers. We were very pleased to publish Jon Leon’s The Arrivistes last year because what he does is kind of where this press started. All of our books remain available unless authors ask us to render them out of print. Elizabeth Ellen’s Bridget Fonda is only available until after the summer for instance.
What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?
We’d like to see more people attempting our model with print-on-demand alongside the more usual ways that independent presses operate. We think it could turn out some pretty interesting stuff in a way that lo-fi music genres work and we’d be happy to cross-support such ventures on social-media if we dug them enough. I don’t think it would do us any harm and I don’t see that it should hurt other independent publishing which is always probably going to be seen as more legitimate than publishers using the POD model.
Other than that, I think it’s important for presses to continue to develop distinctive identities in a way that independent music has done for the last 40 years. This has already started to happen in the States but I’d like to see it a lot more in Europe. I don’t see much of anything like us happening in the UK, for instance (if anyone in the UK is reading this and thinking “What about us?” then please get in touch and say hello). For the last twenty-years in the UK, terms such as “creative industries” have infected the artistic landscape and have made everyone beholden to a complicated funding application culture. Everything is tick this box, tick that box and “Why not put out a book for some worthy charity?” and we’re just not about that at all. It’s not that we’re misanthropic but we just feel there’s something inherently suspect about that whole set-up.
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 Dostoyevsky Wannabe?
For the sake of mystery, we’ll keep our sales figures a closely guarded secret but suffice to say our books sell ok. I guess exactly how ok would depend on the many and varied business models that go into making independent presses though. Print-on-demand allows us to produce books of desired quality but at the same time doesn’t put any pressure on us to sell a load of them to make back costs. This can be fairly liberating in a punk-style way, both for us and paradoxically for a certain type of writer.
Whilst looking over the options of how to start a press with zero-start up money and zero-overheads, the most obvious idea was to do it via the conventional DIY model but the truth of that model is that it’s comparatively expensive (postal costs, distribution costs, printer-ink costs, photocopier costs). We have full-time day-jobs in public services that don’t pay amazingly well, so we’re both time and money-poor. We realized that the only way to do all this would be to utilize print-on-demand and social-media. We had a few ethical misgivings about effectively giving any potential profits to a multi-national company (not that there are vast profits to made for this type of thing) and having our books only on sale from Amazon but we rationalised this as a necessary modern evil in the same way that it’s a necessary modern evil to use Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr on a daily basis.
By foregoing our share of Amazon’s royalty rates (pennies and cents and even less when the United States government taxes them), we can price the books virtually at cost price (or what Createspace lists as cost price) which allows us to get books out there at good, democratic prices. We definitely lose money on everything we do, mostly via giving our time for nothing (designing covers, doing press for books and to promote DW, running our sister-sites, occasional copy-editing, etc). I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the possibly apocryphal story about how Peter Saville designed the packaging for New Order’s single Blue Monday for Factory Records. The story goes that he was so obsessed with his design idea that he failed to price the cost of the ostentatious artwork properly. The single went on to sell a lot of copies which led to them actually losing money on every copy sold? Well, that’s our business model.
We probably wouldn’t have the gall to charge reading fees, not that other presses shouldn’t do whatever they need to do.
And so what about Dostoyevsky?
Ah yes, Dostoyevsky. The title of our press actually comes from Richard Linklater’s 1991 film Slacker. That film has a paradoxical aimlessness which is probably the template for all that we do and Dostoyevsky Wannabe is the name of one of the characters in the film who says typically pretentious, wannabe writer-philosopher things like: “Who’s ever written a great work about the immense effort required in order not to create?”
Vikki is 38 and I’m 40 so we’re both the tail-end of Generation X and I think sometimes what we do harks back to a pre-internet time in the nineties. A time when the news cycle wasn’t so hectic and popular culture wouldn’t dream of featuring an article about a piece of technology like some new fitness app. Nor would there be hand-wringing think-pieces about this or that or any of the general “Capitalist Realist” hegemony of the present-day. It’s only a small hankering for the past. We’re not nostalgia-bores, we just want to keep a bit of that attitude alive whilst still checking our iPhones for email.
We’re just stereotypical Gen X cynics who’re just trying to do our thing. Probably.