This is the seventeenth 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 Debra Di Blasi, Publisher-in-Chief
How did Jaded Ibis Press start?
Let me begin at the end of it all:
“I think that it’s pretty widely accepted now that we’re living through the sixth massive extinction. The fifth one was 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs vanished. Today we’re losing biodiversity at a similar rate. And this is, of course, an anthropogenic mass extinction. The primary cause is human communities… Stories are one way we make sense of the world and decide what it is that matters and what it is we will invest our time and energy in trying to hold on to and take care of… So all that I can suggest to others is that they find ways of contributing, which they feel similarly passionate about and which might contribute, even in some small way. I don’t think change comes from singular, world-changing events. I think it’s built slowly, piece by piece, by people who are passionate about the world.”
—Thom Van Dooren, Australian anthropologist and author of Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction
Looking back now, with vision less ‘rheumed’ by naïve optimism, I began Jaded Ibis to try to save what I considered to be important literature in an industry increasingly commodified by mergers and managed by bean-counters. For nearly 30 years I’d been reading and studying serious and often avant-garde narratives, while mutating my own writing toward narratives that sought to reflect a world rapidly shifting toward digital, multimedia spaces, both literal and figurative. Since 1994 I’d been developing and teaching writing courses in experimental, mixed/multimedia and ‘hyperfiction’ narratives for visual art students. Possibilities existed. But I’d reached a point where I could find fewer published books that surprised me, elated me, exceeded my expectations of what narratives could do if unrestrained by a 19th Century publishing model.
In 2008 one of my teaching colleagues at Kansas City Art Institute, Patricia Catto, could not get her intelligent, magic realism, archetype-rife memoir of her Italian family published because, according to nearly all editors and agents to whom she submitted the manuscript, it didn’t fit the tight mold (and mold) that was the industry’s concept of memoir. “We don’t know how to market it,” was and is a standard comment that really means, “We don’t know how to read it.” One of the agents told her to rewrite it to “make it more like Cloister Walk,” a nonfiction book that in no way resembled the creative intent of Catto’s Aunt Pig of Puglia. Aunt Pig is not superficially a complex book, but if one knows how to read beneath the surface of the text, therein teems layers of Jungian, mythological and literary references, and much of the great humor and tragedy of the book is specifically tied to those references. Essentially, Catto was caught between those who thought her book wasn’t “innovative” enough and those who thought it wasn’t “accessible” enough.
My frustrations grew in proportion to the ignorance of publishers, media, and bricks-and-mortar bookstores, most of which survived as a result of catering to the masses to the exclusion of those who sought superlative, more challenging art, and to publishers with big advertising budgets. When digital technologies, platforms and services progressed, I tested (and dove-tailed) them with my own work. And when the quality of Print-on-Demand (POD) books matched or exceeded those printed by non-sustainable means, I decided to publish. Because I could.
The advantage of POD was that I could publish more titles with less upfront expense, and also publish in color. Full color, with every page saturated at no extra cost. In traditional printing, total cost is based on color-per-page. (I’d had to cede important conceptual elements in my own book, The Jiri Chronicles & Other Fictions, because FC2/University of Alabama Press would not pay for full color in the final two stories that were meant to reflect the advances in DIY, aka ‘home’ technologies.) POD also meant no warehousing expenses, a significant expense for those using traditional printing. Jaded Ibis Press’s first full year of publishing would have required over $300,000 cash upfront for small print runs of 3000 each. (I realize that “small” means 100 books to most small-press people, but I am using broader industry figures.)
Sustainability was also important to me, in terms of the environment and the art form. My husband, an architect whose corporate projects addressed sustainability issues, opened my eyes to the nuances of environmentally sustainable projects, as in LEED certified, wherein absolutely everything—from energy efficient design to materials and packaging recycling—is taken into account. I’d read about the shocking amount of environmental waste produced by the publishing industry—from felling to pulping, to printing to shipping to reshipping to reshipping again to pulping to disposing, and all of the transportation and manufacturing, fuel, packaging, ad nauseam, used to ship books that would never be purchased (i.e., not demanded). By contrast, I also knew of authors whose aesthetically and intellectually important books had gone out of print, something that does not need to happen with POD.
Further, I wanted to effect a convergence of literature, visual art and music in order to (ideally) expand the audience for all three disciplines, and to see what fantastic hybrids would result in the process—both aesthetically and commercially. Initially, I had planned fine art objects that conceptually represented the book, art and music, and were intentionally (over-) priced to comment on the value of the handmade over the machined. The time and cost of making objects for a nonexistent market proved unwise. So I advertised limited editions as special order only. We did sell one, albeit to the author’s parents. Over time, I raised the prices even more—to $20,000+ each—to parallel the devaluation of books via descending ebook prices.
Tell us a bit about Jaded Ibis. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
Our mission: To publish and produce a collision of literary, visual and musical art that is intellectually, culturally and environmentally sustainable.
When I began structuring the business model of Jaded Ibis, I did so much in the same way I would create a literary or visual art project: (1) What is the question? (2) What is the creative process in answering the question? (3) What is the shape of the process? (4) How does the project benefit the parts of the system? (5) How does it benefit humanity, or at least humanity’s knowledge base?
I’d been casually studying Systems Theory for many years, and had already begun exploring the design and artifacts of its principles via The Jiri Chronicles, a multimedia literary project that eventually resulted in 13 years and over 500 individual works of prose, poetry, video, music, websites, and ironic consumer products. As someone who grew up on a large wooded cattle farm, I learned first-hand how biological systems, including humans, overlapped and affected each other, and that damaging one system (e.g., overgrazing, overbreeding, not rotating crops, using toxic chemicals, damming creeks, felling trees, destroying native grasses) creates a ripple-effect and widely damages other systems, harm that might not present itself until years later.
Yet, ripples can also be beneficial. Producing something positive in one part has the potential to symbiotically expand outward so that all parts of the whole receive a significantly greater benefit than if acting alone. (More about Jaded Ibis Press Business Model here.) Ergo the mashup: literary books with fine art and music, and sometimes video, interactivity, odors. I wanted to see how such a collision would produce a narrative with multiple layers, how the meaning of a writer’s textual concept would shift as meanings of images and sounds by others were inserted or juxtaposed. It was an experiment in trying to understand how divergent parts of a system (social, cultural, political, etc.) create a whole that thereby requires another, more complex level of conscious decoding. The artist and musicians were urged to respond to the writing, not illustrate it. That was and is a crucial aspect of the experiment. As experimenter, I also keep an eye on how ‘readers’ approach and interpret the amalgamations.
I take the same approach to acquisitions. The experiment that is Jaded Ibis inevitably consists of ever-expanding criteria for books inserted into or juxtaposed against the whole of the Press’s list. That is, what beast is Jaded Ibis now versus what it was three years ago…five years ago? What might it be in the future if we add this particular title to our list—specifically, accepting a manuscript that thwarts expectations rather than reinforces (assuages!) expectations.
My own aesthetic is reasonably diverse, and wholly and unapologetically idiosyncratic (as is everyone’s; let’s not pretend otherwise). I’ve selected manuscripts that are strictly conceptual, and books with a somewhat conservative writing style that contain perhaps a single nugget that I found compelling, whether in terms of structure, style, meaning or cultural significance. I appreciate spare, elegant writing—very difficult to master—and I appreciate fecundity. I support content that adds to humanity’s historical and/or socio-political archives and I support content that will likely offend. I enjoy the lyric and I enjoy the mechanized. The constant for me is that somewhere in all of those books must exist something that I feel should be and remain extant in the world, if for no other reason than to state, “This, too, was Homo sapiens at this time in this place.”
Realize that I, as a writer and artist nearing the age of 60, have read-studied-processed literally thousands of literary novels and stories, and thousands of poems and long- and short-form nonfiction, successively winnowing my time to those that, for one reason or another, posit a question or questions to which I am compelled to find an answer. Because—and this is a critical because—because the point of it all in a world where the point seems now to stop penultimately at self-promotion and self-elevation… The ultimate point of reading, studying, pondering, writing, listening and seeing is to intellectually and emotionally evolve as a human being during one’s own lifetime, and in so doing benefit, in some small or large way, other systems to which one is intrinsically interconnected.
The fact that evolving is most likely moot as we tumble headlong toward the sixth mass extinction doesn’t cause me to change my philosophy; it just causes me, now, to change my methodologies. Otherwise: the abyss.
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?
Please take a look at our catalog to read descriptions about past titles, and recent and forthcoming books (here, in no particular order): nonfiction criticism by Anis Shivani; poems by Carol Ciavonne (art by Portuguese artist Beatriz Albuquerque); novel by Jorge Armenteros (art by Liselott Johnsson, music by Sarah Walin Huff); multimedia project by Katharine Whitcomb + Brian Goeltzenleuchter; novel by Pedram Navab (art by Yalda Zakeri, music by Houda Zakeri); novel by David Hoenigman (art by Tokyo photographer Inbe Kawori); novel by Marlon Fick (art by Cuban-American artist Christian Duran); stories by John Skoyles; short-short stories by Sharon White (art by Sharyn O’Mara), novel by Jacob Paul (art by Sarah Martin, music by Shlomie Lavie), poetry by Martin Nakell, multimedia novel by Dao Strom (art and music by Dao), novel by Margo Berdeshevsky (art by Margo), novel David Schneiderman (art by Tim Guthrie), the long-overdue (my fault) anthology edited by Grayson Del Faro, Mutilations on a Theme: Best Innovative College Writing.
Highlights related to recent changes in or reflections of our business model are:
Janice Lee’s #RECURRENT series at Jaded Ibis, which last year published Joe Milazzo’s novel, Crepuscule W/Nellie, will bring out two more titles—by Jordan Okumura and Jason Snyder—with the help of Laura Vena. #RECURRENT publishes books that simultaneously continue the legacy of the novel while reimagining the form as an interface and interactive narrative of the future.
Elizabeth J. Colen is editor for the newly structured Jaded Ibis series, Bowerbird, which attempts to situate the memoir outside of a tired genre now bound by fairly strict ‘rules.’ Amanda Montei’s Two Memoirs: An Auto+Biography allows her mother to comment on, dispute and criticize the author’s memories of growing up in a eugenics-obsessed family in celebrity-laden Los Angeles. Another memoir, tentatively titled Crime a Day, by Joe DiBuduo, is authored by a former long-time criminal who began writing at age 66 and is now in his 70s. Written in unfiltered language, with no alliance to political correctness, the memoir is a necessary perspective in a literary world populated by academic tropes—and particularly needed in this day of tiresome 30-Under-30/40-Under-40 anthologies. A book dear to my heart as well as mind is the late Pamela Mills memoir, Kamastone: One African Woman’s Search for her Ancestors, edited by her friend Maria Brandt as a promise to Mills before her death in 2004. My South African-American husband and I have an apartment in South Africa, where playwright-director Mills grew up, and we visit the country often.
Our new Blue Bustard series publishes, in one volume, two novellas each by a different author. The series premiered in December 2014 with Women Born with Fur: a biography by Beth Couture + Out from the Pleiades: a picaresque novella in verse by Leslie McGrath, with art by Rachel May and music by Jim White. Fall 2015 will welcome the second Blue Bustard book: Forget You Must Remember by Nathan Hansen, (former Arabic Linguist and Combat Flight Medic in the US Army). + Greetings from Gravipause by Brian Bradford, with visual art by Derek Miller and music by the band, Decker.
Because it’s socially important: Our 2014 Giving Project, The Color of Being Born, is a full-color book, edited by Jessie Malatesta, featuring paintings by noted artist Michael Cadieux and music by Kristine Barrett, with writing by eco-concerned notables Dr. Kevin Grazier, Science Counselor to Battlestar Galactica, Eureka, and Gravity; Margaret Killjoy, Founder of SteamPunk Magazine, Ursula Vernon, Hugo Award Winning Writer; Alex Shoumatoff, Contributing Editor at Vanity Fair magazine, and Founding Editor of DispatchesFromTheVanishingWorld.com; and other equally renowned writers, artists, educators and scientists. (Our Giving Projects support environmental organizations as a way to offset our carbon footprint.)
Because it refers to the end of it [& us] all: Devouring the Green: Fear of a Human Planet, is a monstrous anthology of new writing, edited by Sam Witt, with fractal-based art by Christopher J. Arabadjis, that should be out by the time this interview appears online. The 600+ page anthology consists of poetry by almost 90 important writers exploring ecological, technological, and/or spiritual concerns in an Anthropocene era confronting cyborgs, catastrophic climate change, rising cancer rates, killer asteroids, the singularity, melting ice caps and permafrost, worldwide drought and desertification, viral pandemics, obscene economic inequality, among other potential disasters.
What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?
That it still exists.
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 Jaded Ibis?
We (as in the royal We) do not cope, and We are very tired. Nay, exhausted.
I’m happy to share insights in hopes that it will deter some naïve, optimistic sod from taking on the mantle of saving publishing from the mediocrity of the Big Four. Authors who have never run a press have absolutely no idea what the job entails, in terms of time, skills, and money. They don’t understand cost analysis, have never held a business management position, and don’t keep up with publishing industry news and statistics. I suspect they’re not even aware that their own reading/buying habits have changed over the past 3-4 years, as have mine. (I recently left Facebook and discovered heretofore missing hours that I now dedicate to reading whatever the hell I like, or sitting in the Hong Kong Botanical Gardens and contemplating plant species.)
The numbers for literary art are bad, and getting worse. I do not believe it is possible to sustain a new publishing endeavor—whether for- or non-profit—with an annual list of 10-15 titles for more than 5-10 years, if only for the reason that receiving negative income (that is: paying thousands of dollars a year to work 10- to 16-hour days, and 7 days a week) for five years is exhausting. Especially when most of your 50-100 daily emails are demands, requests that add to an already burgeoning work load, and complaints (some of them unbelievably rude and batshit crazy). And especially when you will be absolutely the only one who will wake up at 2AM every night fretting over the survival of your press.
Certainly, sustaining a small press is not possible if one pays out unusually high author royalties like we do, and if one is nearly the only person who seems to understand the efficacy of Systems Theory as applied to marketing and promotion. The most disappointing aspect for me has been the lack of interest by authors for not only other Jaded Ibis books, art and music that they could easily and expansively help publicize using Systems Theory by the simple click of a “share” button, but also an astonishing lack of interest in their own books once published. I sorely regret that I’ve taken on more academic writers concerned not with literature but rather using their book only as a vehicle to obtaining a teaching job, tenure or promotion. It’s one of the reasons I have lately and intentionally selected more writers outside of the academy. It’s also the reason I’ve taken [to date, at least] one title out of print.
When I began Jaded Ibis I gave myself five years to build a publishing company along the lines of great independent presses of the past (e.g., New Directions, Scribners, Algonquin, FSG, Nan Talese, before they were swallowed up by the whales). I wanted to build a company that could financially sustain itself via an exponentially profitable backlist and increasing sales of new titles via press awareness—all the while maintaining author royalties of 40% of our net (which typically pays 4 times more than the industry standard of 7-10% of list price). With no salary, I paid all company expenses through personal savings to the tune of approximately $20,000 a year. (For math dullards, that’s a total over $100,000, thus far.) Until last year, our family could write-off most of those expenses, but no longer. The IRS has its rules, and my husband and I have our own financial and offspring lives to consider.
For the first three years my goal appeared feasible. Net revenue increased and, based on the chart incline, I anticipated that we’d break even around the end of five years; after that, we’d begin earning a profit. But sales in the past two years have plummeted at a rate I suspect no one anticipated — and not just for Jaded Ibis Press but also for others. (Read stories about McAdam/Cage who filed a $1.4 Million bankruptcy and then shuttered; McSweeney’s who’s shifting to nonprofit as a survival strategy, Mudluscious who threw in the towel after a notable effort; Atavist funded by big Hollywood money and names, closed in December 2014 after only 2 years.)
Even our titles that were selected by notable critics as a ‘best book of the year’ produced low sales. (By “low” I mean net revenues that barely paid for free author and review copies.) Because I can track sales in real time, I can also see just how many people pretend to buy the books they say they will or have purchased. One of our recent titles—much anticipated by a great number of people on social networks—has sold just 6 copies. As for our poetry titles, they sell as well as expected for the genre—and one has sold more than some of our fiction titles.
Increasingly more bookstores refuse to pay for our books they sell. Two of our authors apparently refuse to pay for books they ordered. Jaded Ibis ended 2014 owed over $2500, in addition to the usual losses. That’s not just a loss from the company, that’s now a loss from our family’s retirement savings. It’s personal. It’s the last straw.
“We fought [going under] at a personal expense. It was like entering a monastic life, it takes total dedication, spending so many hours at the job, reading at night, looking for good literature…. I don’t regret any minute of it but I began to ask myself what am I doing with my time? It has to be a tandem. The business can only exist if you are two dancing the tango—the person who sells and the person who wants to buy the product.”
—Odile Hellier, owner of the independent, English-language Paris bookshop, Village Voice, on the day it shuttered its doors
The camel’s back is broken, and you’ve got the scoop: Jaded Ibis Press, in its current incarnation, will no longer take submissions. We’re completing our contracted books—asking the authors to pitch in with marketing and publicity at a level we have not previously requested or expected. While we remain very excited about every one of our forthcoming books, we’re also aware that the audience simply may not be there; rather, the audience will be on Facebook or Netflix or Tumbler or Youtube or one of the many other ‘distractifications’ available to erstwhile book readers.
We hope someone will come along and absorb Jaded Ibis Press titles into their company or organization—whether they continue it as an ongoing endeavor or not. Meanwhile, the Press will continue to manage our past, present, and future titles, and develop and create marketing strategies as long as this Homo sapiens is able. Or until the coming extinction, mass or individual. Janice Lee will continue management of #RECURRENT books.
I do think Jaded Ibis has made some small contribution to literature and human history, though its own history be brief. I hope that our business model is one that others will consider adopting, both in terms of intersecting disciplines, understanding and attending to interconnections, and also giving more—to authors, artists, and musicians, toward the environment, and to humankind.
As for me, I will extricate myself from social media and read more books and make more drawings, and view more art, and listen to more symphonies, and spend more time with those I love here in Hong Kong and elsewhere in the world. And I’ll sit in the Botanical Gardens just up the hill, next to the caged monkeys, and ponder what it may have meant to be human at the end of it all.