Interview with Diane Kistner, Editor
How did FutureCycle Press start?
FutureCycle Press, by that name, was started in 2007 by my partner, Robert S. King, with me working in the background as a grunt. We both had been actively involved in the small press movement—me from the early seventies when I was Atlanta Poetry Collective and Ali Baba Press head, Robert as a working poet and collector of little magazines and books. We became partners in 1981 after I fell madly in love with him and his poetry. Since then, separately or together, Robert and I have headed up a number of other little magazine and small press efforts—all labors of love and all now dead from a thousand tiny cuts. Out of all this, FutureCycle Press was born.
When so many poetry publishers (including—gasp!—tried-and-true university presses) went under during the Great Recession, it became clear to us that we had to find a resilient publishing model that could be sustained no matter what. After the online magazine and annual contest models just about killed us, Robert was more than ready to throw in the towel so he could spend more time writing and “get a life.” I knew nothing we’d tried before was going to work for long, especially not if I was doing it all by myself with just a few volunteer editors reading submissions. I couldn’t bear the thought, though, of yet another small press going under, leaving more dead books.
In short, in 2012 I took over as FutureCycle’s director, incorporated the press as a non-profit, and developed an inventive publishing model that eschews outside funding and doesn’t depend on sales for survival. But publishing is costly; what can’t be paid for in cash must be paid for in time. I have been ruthless in finding ways to cut time costs by minimizing the need for secretarial services, accounting, staff training, or needless wheel-spinning. I’ve written a Guide for Authors—the contents of my brain, updated periodically—to answer as many questions as possible so I don’t have to address them over and over and over again with each new author we sign. I’ve instituted production efficiencies that make it possible for one person (me, with the help of modularization and my little customized bots) to do the work of three people. Most importantly, to the best of my ability, I’ve reduced potentially destabilizing risks that could kill our press before we know what’s hit us. Twelve years and pushing 200 titles later, I am confident that the press can be kept alive as long as I am not too depressed or decrepit to function.
Tell us a bit about FutureCycle. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
FutureCycle’s slogan is “a small press determined to look like a big one.” This is our mission. As far as influences and aesthetic are concerned, we’re very eclectic. We value the old but long to see something new. Robert and I are baby boomers, so we were steeped in the poetic canon being taught in universities in the seventies as well as the richly varied music and lyrics of the day. We were influenced, too, by the turmoil that surrounded us (like now!) and that raw emotional spirit of growth and change with which we resonated.
I head the poetry-only “book side” of the press, supported by four extraordinary, independently minded acquisitions editors—Joan Colby, Temple Cone, George Bishop, and David Chorlton (emeritus)—and Rachel MacAulay, who helps me copyedit some of the books. Robert (who had too much printer’s ink in his blood to stay away for long) heads the “Good Works” side and is Editor-in-Chief of the annual Good Works Review (formerly Kentucky Review). GWR accepts poetry, fiction, essays, and artwork and donates all proceeds to the ACLU.
As working poets, Robert and my acquisition editors are more familiar with the overall state and trajectory of contemporary poetry than I am because they are always evaluating “what’s out there,” and they each have a very different idea of what constitutes good poetry. My own aesthetic tends toward the lyrical, richly connotative, fresh, and subtly (but skillfully) crafted. I don’t much care for anything that separates readers from the poetry itself—be it ego, errors, inconsistencies, mundanities, or gimmickry. I personally prefer collections that follow an arc from beginning to end, so a poet’s use of extended metaphor and leitmotif enrich my experience of a book. The bottom line: I want poetry to open me up, to awaken or reawaken me in some way, to make me have to stop and read and ponder it even though so much else demands my attention. I expect the best poetry to do nothing less than expand consciousness in a way that will ultimately change the world.
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?
We actually consider all of the titles we have published over the years “current” because we think of each book as a living being with meaning and importance extending from its birth through now and on into the future. Last year, we published the following full-length book prize contenders, with Katharyn Howd Machan winning the 2018 FutureCycle Poetry Book Prize.
Red Clay Journal, Harold Whit Williams
Katharyn Howd Machan: Selected Poems, Katharyn Howd Machan
Like a B Movie, Jennifer Lagier
Xanthippe and Her Friends, Beate Sigriddaughter
Tread Softly, Dianna Woodcock
Vortex Street, Heather H. Thomas
Burlesques on the Secret Book of John, Egon H. E. Lass
The Miner, G. Culshaw
Like Rain Returning Home, Kathryn Collison
Night Fable, Seth Jani
Mortal Lullabies, Ken Meisel
The Unbeckonable Bird, Pamela Murray Winters
There Is a Field, Barbara Conrad
Living on Madison Avenue, David Lawrence
The Apathy of Clouds, Domenic Scopa
Wild Beauty, Alan Catlin
Arabesque, Rachel Dacus
Still, Mary Jo Balistreri
After All, Pat Daneman
Missile Hymnal Amulet, G. F. Boyer
We finished out the year with the last chapbooks we plan to publish, works by Charles Rammelkamp, Nancy Owen Nelson, Susan Purr, Jane Simpson, and Jennifer Lagier. The massive serial anthology, Good Works Review 2018, is slated for early 2019 publication. Excerpts from each title appear as a review on our Goodreads bookshelf.
I’m not getting any younger and need to restore some balance to my life—that food forest is not going to plant itself—so beginning in 2019, we will publish an average of one full-length volume of poetry per month instead of two, with books by Grey Held, Kristen Staby Rembold, Tanuja Mehrotra Wakefield, John Laue, John Brugaletta, Daniel Romo, Jeanine Stevens, Martin Willitts Jr., Sandra S. McRae, Richard Levine, Lucia Galloway, Larry Thacker, and Jane Ellen Glasser. (Also in 2019: a new collection by our own legendary Joan Colby!) We’ve scheduled books by Lake Angela, Maureen Sherbondy, Michael Jennings, Arnold Johnston, Bill Freedman, G. Culshaw, Dennis Trujillo, and Christopher Bursk into 2020.
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.
What’s perpetually exciting to me is how far we’ve come. Before personal computers (and, much later, print-on-demand or POD), “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one” (A. J. Liebling) was a major issue and rallying cry for the small press movement. We had to be very creative to get around the heavy gatekeeping done by the big profit-oriented New York publishers and the agents who fed them. Oh, we were a young, defiant lot! I only wish the new generations of small publishers could have experienced such a trial-by-fire apprenticeship.
The stigma of self-publishing was so heavy then that we invented little presses and published each other’s books. We hung out together, taught each other the skills we needed to do the work, and traded what we could. Some of us took grueling, low-pay (but skills-enhancing) production jobs at newspapers or printing companies just so we could barter (or, more likely, steal) access to very expensive typesetting and printing equipment and supplies. Importantly, when we shared the hard-won fruits of each other’s labors, we didn’t just toss them onto a shelf and forget about them. How well we understood what our “little mags and rags” cost—how precious they were. We hadn’t yet learned how impossible it was to get them into the only game in town, the bookstores.
I’m not sure today’s younger self- and small publishers realize how truly revolutionary it is that they have unfettered, cheap access to the expensive technologies required for printing and distributing their titles. Skills must still be acquired in our brave new post-POD world, but skills acquisition is largely a time cost that yields enduring benefits. Small publishers now can opt to provide the editorial, design, and pre-press production work that once was prohibitively costly, print a book through a POD service with a remarkably small out-of-pocket cost, and then have it be available worldwide! Miraculous!
What needs to change? I can think of much that can be improved today, most of it involving promotion, curation, and apprenticeship opportunities for upcoming publishers who will replace us older folks when we’re gone. What I want to address is tomorrow: Chain of custody. How do we keep these books alive—preserved like an insect in amber, to use our mission statement analogy—for future generations to discover, be moved by, assess in the context of human history? John Donne wrote “No Man Is an Island” almost 400 years ago. Think of what a tragedy it would be had it been lost!
I have seen so many small press books die. Somewhere among the dead were at least a few poems that should have lived on and on. But the contract expires, the publisher goes under, the publisher or author succumbs to age and illness and whoever takes over doesn’t care or know what they’re doing. The existing stock falls apart, is damaged or destroyed, and then the work—all that hope, creativity, and hard, hard work—blinks out of existence. Without strong efforts on the part of the small press community to keep the books in print across generations, most of our labors of love will not survive. With time, the works will fall into the public domain, which does give me some comfort, but it won’t matter if there is not a Project Gutenberg-like entity in place with a mandate to preserve the fruit of our efforts.
One major reason I insist on publishing Kindle editions of all our titles is so there will already be a digitized version that could easily be folded into a permanent collection. But what about the paperbacks? Technologically speaking, there is no reason that POD books should ever go out of print. Once the PDF “plates” used to print the books are uploaded to a POD service, they can be there forever—as long as the POD service stays in business, anyway, and they (and we) make good backups. FutureCycle chose Amazon for POD precisely because we think it has the best chance of them all of staying in business.
Legally, though, there are major impediments. When a publishing contract expires, the book is usually taken out of print; used books are available only for a short while. In anticipation of this, we wrote our contract to renew perpetually unless an author formally requests it be terminated and their title retired. Even if I or our authors die, I know our books can stay in print on Amazon. But somebody still has to be there post-publication to communicate with the POD service, manage our Amazon press account, answer requests to verify information, troubleshoot the invariable snafus, and keep an active bank account and tax ID number so any royalties, no matter how meager, from a book’s online sales have a place to be deposited and reported on. It’s too much to ask of a small group of individuals to sustain this over long periods, especially when we’re talking about hundreds or thousands of small presses, not just one.
Could an ethical, reliable, legal, but low-cost mechanism be set up for POD publishers to donate all proceeds from sales of their titles (only with authors’ written or contractual approval, of course) to a centralized, enduring charitable foundation or trust? I know Amazon Smile already allows customers to donate a fixed percentage of purchases to charities of their choice through a one-time signup. Could an option be added to Smile or a similar program for publishers to donate 100% of royalties so we wouldn’t have to worry about someone managing bank accounts, tax returns, etc., when we can no longer do it? Could a press that, for whatever reason, must close its doors opt to archive itself and its catalog for future generations to access freely?
I’m thinking aloud here. As I push closer to the end of my life, I think about it a lot. I hope authors and my fellow small publishers will be thinking about it, too. I think what we are doing is important. We all are going to die, but our work could outlive us. Isn’t that what we all want?
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 FutureCycle Press?
I hate to say it, but I hate money, and I hate “pay to play”—even when it’s necessary. I’m always trying to come up with ways to buck the capitalist system we must live in. The publishing model and systems I’ve implemented ensure that FutureCycle Press will never do more or (importantly) less than break even. If there’s ever any extra money, it gets plowed back into the press—maintaining and upgrading the website and those tools and services we need to do our job, buying more storage so everything is well backed up, giving modest bonuses to our book prize judges, maintaining and honing skills, hiring independent contractors to do something we cannot yet do ourselves, etc.
Stress is the mother of all hidden costs, and lowering expectations definitely cuts down on stress. After almost half a century—double gasp!—of involvement with poetry publishing, I know not to expect to make much money at it. Except for the potential benefits for our authors, I don’t even factor profit into my decisions. I’m only concerned about risk of loss because that could kill us. Stability and sustainability is everything. None of our staff gets paid for their work—and, yes, I do recognize this is a luxury for many. Robert and I and some of our editors can do it because we have modest fixed retirement income that keeps food in our stomachs and a roof over our heads. We don’t have other mouths to feed or jobs demanding so much of us that we have nothing left over for anything else. I can choose to work twelve-hour days as long as I feel like it. The downside of this is that I know it’s not fair to expect anyone else—especially not young adults building their lives—to work as hard at this as we do for nothing but the pleasure of knowing we are helping keep good poetry alive.
As far as rising costs are concerned, that one is easy: We put all of our eggs into the Amazon basket. I know a lot of publishers are down on Amazon’s print-on-demand subsidiary, but they provide self- and small publishers the most efficient “one stop shopping” experience for the lowest out-of-pocket cost. Their per-copy cost for printing and shipping has stayed stable over the seven years we have been using them for POD, and in return for their cut from online sales (comparable to what brick-and-mortar bookstores receive), they handle all distribution, order fulfillment, and returns. We’ve used other POD services in the past, and they were far more costly than Amazon, less dependable, of inferior quality, and/or had far less reach. This is not to say Amazon is perfect but, for us, it’s the platform that works. If we had to spend time doing book distribution and order fulfillment, we couldn’t afford to publish these books—and I would lose my ever-loving mind. With Amazon, I am able to do all pre-press paperback and Kindle production by myself. I’ve programmed bots to assist with author-copy invoicing and promotion, so I don’t have to deal with “train ’em then they leave” staff losses. This frees me up to handle more author correspondence, day-to-day accounting, and webmastering. (The obvious downside, of course, is that I can never get sick or die!)
Essentially, the only up-front costs we now have are our ISBN numbers, which we get in discounted blocks of 100 from Bowker, and the free copies we send to our authors, book prize judges, a few promotional outlets and course adoptees, and the Library of Congress. We have overhead with our website, equipment, software, and such, but our modest submission fees for book manuscripts help defray these costs. All printing and distribution costs are paid for by online buyers or those authors who order author copies through us. Because we’ve turned all order fulfillment over to Amazon at point-of-sale, we don’t have to worry about pre-paying for books, warehousing them, or hand-addressing and mailing out books.
Time costs are still huge for us, however, and because we are already working free, there are only so many ways to minimize these costs without sacrificing the quality and professionalism we insist on for ourselves, our authors, and readers. We refuse to scrimp on editing, accuracy research, and design time, so that leaves only bookkeeping, accounting, and marketing hours to cut.
The key has been to shift author compensation from the traditional percentage-of-online-royalties basis with a typical 20% to 40% discount on a limited number of author copies to “only” giving authors a 70% discount on an unlimited number of books they might optionally choose to buy/resell themselves. This has slashed our time costs for bookkeeping and accounting while simultaneously encouraging those authors who are so inclined to profit handsomely from their own marketing efforts, whether in person (e.g., giving readings) or through their own website or Amazon seller account. Essentially, we are giving up compensation for our labors and passing those savings on to our authors in the form of a very generous advanced amount against their own sales. Because author-copy orders are paid for in advance, the risk to us of ordering them is minimal, and by foregoing the 10% author royalties—amounting, in our 12-year experience, to only a few bucks per year for all but the most famous or course-adopted poets—authors get a lower-risk, low-hassle, better deal while sparing us many, many hours of the bookkeeping/accounting drudgery we most detest.
For those interested in number crunching, here’s a comparison of our way versus the traditional way. At the time of this writing, when ordering our 25-copy minimum, an author’s total per-copy cost for a $15.95 title is about $4.75 ($2.15 printing cost, $1.60 honorarium markup, and ~$1 each for shipping/handling and sales taxes). This means the author stands to make more than $11 on each copy resold at gigs. (To paraquote Joe Biden, “This is a BFD.”) If, instead, we offered the traditional 40% author-copy discount plus 10% of royalties from books we sell, that per-copy cost would be $9.57—not including shipping/handling or taxes, which most publishers pass along to authors—plus the annual pittance from royalties. You do the math.
Another way we cut costs is by combining manuscript reading and contest submission fees. Every full-length poetry book we publish is automatically entered into the annual juried FutureCycle Poetry Book Prize competition, which spares us the extra work a second fee tier would entail. We’ve keyed our book prize honorarium to a percentage of online sales instead of to a pre-announced fixed amount, so now we don’t have to worry about cannibalizing the family grocery and heating budget if we don’t receive enough submissions. (Been there, done that. Will never do it again.) The annual book prize winner gets 20% of the royalties we receive from online sales, which for a number of years now has been more than your typical contest award. It eases my mind greatly to know that if another Great Recession hits and online sales are zilch—with the sheer size of our list, this is very unlikely—we are only obligated to pay the winner 20% of whatever royalties we actually do receive, and 20% of zilch is zero.
So, by splitting out actual third-party costs from percentage-based in-house costs, requiring the former to be pre-paid by authors or readers and working to reduce the latter to a bare-bones minimum, we have been able to do more with less while delivering authors a professionally vetted, copyedited/designed product plus a 70% return on any books they sell directly. Because we aren’t expecting to be paid for our work and don’t have to pre-print/pre-order any books, we don’t have to ask our authors to guarantee X amount of orders to cover these costs. Assuming their manuscript is accepted, after an author pays our modest reading fee, they don’t have to do anything else except work with us to make sure the PDFs we upload to our POD service are as perfect as possible. Together, we labor to bring a good book into the world that is globally available as long as the author wants it to be, and big-P poetry lives on—that is FutureCycle’s compensation for doing this work. If our authors and readers recognize and appreciate what we are doing for them, well, that’s the icing on the cake.
Okay, I’ve focused in this interview mainly on the books, but I also want to say something about Robert’s domain, the serials. It’s very important to us that submission of individual works to Good Works Review or other Good Works projects (all proceeds of which are donated to charity) remains free and open. We want to hear all voices, but especially those of writers and artists who do not have much, if any, disposable income. Mailing out free contributor copies is by far the most costly aspect of publishing a magazine or anthology, but (Robert tells me) many contributors still expect them. Enter reading fees to cover the cost! I say no, we’re going to do it differently. For now the way we are handling this is by offering a free Kindle edition to each contributor during a specified (and free to us) promotional period. For those who want a paperback copy, we offer a handsome rebate with proof of online purchase. This way, we don’t have to deal with out-of-pocket printing costs, doubled shipping expense, time-intensive order fulfillment, or lost or damaged shipments. In return for sparing us these destabilizing costs, people can submit their work free. It’s a more-than-fair trade-off, methinks.
So, for now, our resiliency seems quite robust. Last year the press lost a few acquisitions editors, we weathered the strongly destabilizing “improvements” thrust on us by Amazon’s CreateSpace/KDP merger, and the madness of the world was no less stressful for us than it was for everyone else. To top it all off, I lost my dear sister and had to execute the chaotic landscape of her will. All of this came together in a perfect storm that did cause a few distressing problems—but, still, I was able to put out the fires, keep us on schedule, and publish 25 titles that we and our authors are quite proud of. Where there’s a will, there’s way. Onward, upward!