This is the twenty-ninth 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 Michael Newton and Emmalea Russo, Editors
How did Ugly Duckling Presse start?
UDP started as a zine in the 1990s. In 1999-2000, it began to take shape as a volunteer-run arts and publishing collective, with an emphasis on investigations into what makes a book a book. The original members—Matvei Yankelevich, Ellie Ga, Yelena Gluzman, Julien Poirier, Filip Marinovich, Marisol Limon Martinez, and G.L. Ford—dreamed of a stable base from which to celebrate avant-garde works across genres and time periods, and made the decision to incorporate as a nonprofit in 2002; their mission was “the creation, publication, and dissemination of literary works overlooked by commercial publishers, including poetry, fiction, drama and theater art, graphic artwork, and collaborative works.” Other collaborators joined around that time, so that within a few years there was a core collective of about a dozen editors.
Tell us a bit about Ugly Duckling. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
Our mission is fairly specific: to publish translations, artist’s books, performance texts, “forgotten” literature, investigative writing, and contemporary poetry that would have a hard time being placed at another publishing house. In short, we publish what we love, and what cannot find a platform elsewhere. Our aesthetic is based on an ongoing romance with the art and history of bookmaking: each work we publish is designed so that the physical form of the book, its page structure, binding, paper texture, etc., makes sense for what that particular work is trying to achieve.
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?
The 2015 season is packed with gems, including books from: Tatsumi Hijikata, Hoa Nguyen, Leslie Allison, Ramsey Scott, Cathy Eisenhower, Jennifer Nelson, Lewis Warsh, Corina Copp, Ben Fama, Alejandra Pizarnik, and Rebecca Wolff.
What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?
The decentralization of media and changing models of publicity and distribution have put everything in flux, but these conditions are favorable to small press publishing, which in our estimation is having a rich moment. Exploration is being built into the everyday.
While we operate through the singular entity of the Presse, our collective has always been decentralized, curious, and open to the radicality of texts. We welcome experimental attempts to redefine what counts as publishing, and we are interested in presses/organizations like New Lights, Belladonna, and ILSSA that are engaging experimentally with production practices, distribution, and community building. These sorts of reconfigurations have substantive effects on distributions of power and voice. We’re excited to see how alternate publishing strategies might support certain redistributions of agency and authorship and make possible different sorts of interactions around books.
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 Ugly Duckling Presse?
Somehow we manage to balance the productive tension of being a volunteer-run collective with the demands of producing an output (24+ books a year) comparable to that of a much larger publishing house. A huge part of it is the fact that we are nonprofit, and therefore don’t define success according to profit margins. Because we have a tiny paid staff and limited financial resources, we are always trying to be more efficient with how we spend money. It’s a question of proper management of our resources, the most valuable of which is the energy of our interns, apprentices, volunteers, and editors.
We often wonder how we stay afloat. Most of our expenses go towards making books: $70,000 in sheer production costs for 2014. Approximately 60% of our annual income is made up of sales of our books and subscriptions (which actually isn’t bad for a nonprofit). The other 40% is made up of about equal parts of grants and individual donations, the latter of which has always been most difficult for us because our supporting base is typically not very wealthy—poets, artists, etc.
UDP sells books through our website, through our distributors (SPD in the US, Inpress in the UK, and Raincoast, via Coach House, in Canada), through direct partnerships with independent bookstores (30+ located throughout the U.S. and in a few other countries), and at book fairs. We receive support from the NEA, NYSCA, and DCA most years, and from a few private foundations through specific grants, and sometimes we receive grants from foreign cultural ministries for translations. We have about 150 full-presse subscribers, some of whom donate above the nearly at-cost price of $185/year (subscriptions are available through March, if you’re interested, more info here). Just keeping tabs on all of this activity takes a lot of work, but all these modes of distribution help us build lines of communication with different organizations and readerships, which are really valuable.
We don’t do contests or ask for reading fees, because we just don’t like the idea.