Interview with M. Scott Douglass, Publisher/Managing Editor
How did Main Street Rag Publishing Company start?
It started as all good garage bands do: a group of people, an idea, beer, wine, cigarettes, etc. I’d spent 5 years collecting small press publications from around the country. We talked about what we liked about them, what we didn’t, how to pay for it (I was the only person of the three who was steadily employed). We came up with a name, created the first two issues through a contest (that also included a subscription—some of which are still active). After the start up, we placed a Call-for-Manuscripts ad in Poets & Writers and off we ran. As I recall, those ads were free back then. From the one ad we ran, we received 2,500 submissions the first 2 months and 6,000 in the four months that followed. We had enough to publish for a year or two and word of mouth carried us from there.
Tell us a bit about Main Street Rag. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
Mission? Do people really sit down and consider that shit? Our mission was to publish the best that was sent to us, get the journal out regularly—on time (since that’s what keeps subscribers coming back) and to have it pay for itself. Our biggest influence was the cost of production. We’d seen what others had done. We were passive participants in the Charlotte Poetry Review experiment (that flopped because of bad planning and a lack of financial support). We liked models like Slipstream because it was independent (at the time), but the cost of perfect binding was restrictive, so we started out saddle-stitch for our first few years. As our subscriptions grew, so did the production, but we were always beholden to someone else’s schedule and costs. So, in 2001, we bought production equipment. By that time my two partners had moved on. I took out a loan, bought some equipment and started making books for myself—mostly because I’m a control freak and like to do things my way. But the equipment cost too much to limit what we did to a quarterly literary magazine. We solicited work from other publications first, THEN started publishing chapbooks, and finally full length poetry books, novels, anthologies.
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?
Not really. We are a leaf on the wind…
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 needs to change are the authors. Everyone wants to be published and, if people tell them they need to write better, they flip the bird and self-publish it. Then they wonder why it doesn’t sell—or blame the production house. Authors need to be the best spokespersons for their work, but they don’t want to do that… that’s someone else’s job—as if that someone else is going to do it for free. Authors don’t understand the food chain and how to be successful. Not every writer can be a businessperson, but someone in their circle needs to be if they want to be successful. We’re putting out more books than we are book readers. It doesn’t take a mathematician to know that there is a limit to success under those circumstances. The numbers just aren’t there.
Bottom line: What needs to happen can’t happen because there is too much money involved. When you own the beast (the equipment), you must feed it. So we are putting out more than we are consuming, running us all to ground because we’re all control freaks who want to do it our way and we need to feed the beast to put food on our own table. The guaranteed money that is being made these days is in production and design. Everything else is speculation that relies on authors to be active participants and most of them either don’t understand what that entails or aren’t interested in doing that kind of work.
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 Main Street Rag Publishing Company?
I get on my motorcycle and run through twisty backroads. I don’t let the costs control me. I know how the system works from every aspect of it. I choose my projects based on what is successful for me—with or without an author’s participation because I’ve learned not to count on it.
Costs are increasing because a handful of companies have feet in all aspects of the food chain. This allows them to steer costs in their favor. As a production house, yes, I could create things for a lesser price, but why should I be less than someone else when I’m getting praise for the quality of my work? That’s not just me speaking—that’s everyone.
We’re all trying to make a living at this and the places that could help us—the review places—are now charging for reviews. What kind of crap is that? Does anyone really believe they are getting a legitimate review when they are paying someone to do it? Those with deeper pockets can afford this. As a result, they benefit from it. I guess it’s a failure on my part to want it done honestly, not because someone is paying to have it done—but those reviews sell books if you’re willing to compromise yourself for cashflow.
As for reading fees…they always existed, we just didn’t see them that way. If you’re buying envelopes and postage—that’s a fee. Paying it to a place like Submittable allows a small press like me to hire and pay readers. It’s also a great organizer. Contest fees have always helped pay for production and prize money. It’s the ebb and flow that keeps the industry moving. If you don’t like the way an industry works, you either try to change it or you get out.