Note from the Editor: For the 100th (!!!) entry in our Small Press Database, we’re going back in time to the first small press interview we ever conducted, with Writ Large Press out of Los Angeles. In October of 2014, Janice Lee asked Chiwan Choi and Jessica Ceballos an early version of the questions we have used since launching the series in December of that year. They also talked about Facebook, how to plan a book release, and competition versus collaboration in publishing.
In the deluge of interviews that followed, this original interview never got transcribed. Now we’ve finally pulled it together so that you can bask in the first installment in the series—and catch up with Writ Large Press today, in three additional questions we asked Chiwan about what has changed since we first talked to Writ Large a year and a half ago.
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Interview with Chiwan Choi and Jessica Ceballos
Janice: How did Writ Large Press start?
Chiwan: We used to publish a quarterly called Wednesday for a writing workshop me and Judy were in. It was a Wednesday night group, and we just wanted to publish the stuff people were writing during those eight weeks. And so they were all works in progress. We did that for almost two years and as we were putting out that last issue we were like, “Think we could publish books?” For years I’d been thinking I wanted to publish Kim Calder’s book, so when we decided that I contacted her and said, “Let’s work on the book.”
Janice: So, what is the mission of Writ Large press? From then to now.
Chiwan: Judy and I met in New York, and we thought the writing wasn’t as good as it was in LA. I was convinced of this. And when Judy came back to LA she said, “Yeah, New York is sort of done.” So we thought, let’s just publish LA authors. And we did that. But three years ago, randomly, I met this Portuguese author who was in town, José Luís Peixoto, at Glendale at a random open mic—I didn’t know who he was, he just signed up at open mic and read from his book, and I was like, “This guy’s fucking amazing!”—so he gave me his book. And I emailed him and he asked whether I wanted to publish some stuff he had translated. I said, “I’ll publish everything you send me!” So we had to rethink what our mission was.
Janice: A lot of people have been talking about money in terms of small press publishing. Complaining about reading fees, for example. And presses have been saying, “Well, it costs this much money to put together a book…” I think it’s different for every press in terms of how they do their model but because this conversation is happening I’m wondering if you have anything that you want to say or contribute to how publishing works financially. I don’t think a lot of people know, and I think some presses manage finances better than others.
Chiwan: Yeah, we’re terrible at dealing with finances. [Laughs.] One thing we’ve done is with book releases. We really figure out how the event’s going to be, how many people we’re expecting, and only print that many books, so that on book release night we can sell pretty much all the books we printed, get the money back to the author, and then order more like that. We don’t have money for authors up front, so we give them a whole shitload of books, around fifty.
Janice: And you guys are editing the books yourselves? That’s a lot of time you’re putting in. And design—you do all that yourselves?
Chiwan: Yeah. And then we use Lightning Source, which is Print On Demand. The reading stuff—the venue and things—is the big thing we’ve been trying to figure out the last few years. Because we did a book release with our second book, Khadijah Anderson’s book, and the space ended up making the most money out of us, the author, and the space. I’m like, “This is ridiculous. Why do we pay rent for this damn place?” After that night we said, “We’re never doing this again.”
Jessica: Going forward we’re thinking more conceptually. Something that would be a little more sustainable. For the publisher and for the writer and for the book and the venue and the community. Because we’re community-based in a lot of our projects, it’s important to think of how all of those can work together.
Chiwan: Moneywise, we haven’t lost any money. [Laughs.] We make a couple of hundreds bucks a year on books.
Janice: I want to ask you guys about Facebook a little bit. Because I think especially right now, so many people are turned off of social media and Facebook, for all the various reasons. I think it’s so interesting that for a lot of your problem solving in the past, you just turned to Facebook and the community actually answered back and responded. What do you guys think?
Jessica: I couldn’t see being without it. I’d say thirty percent of the attendance at the readings I do, sometimes fifty percent, comes from Facebook. In terms of engagement, there’s not really a better way.
Chiwan: I get it, being turned off by it. But what happened I think for us is we’ve been really aware of making sure it’s not all self-promotion, so we talk about our lives. Not just, “Hey, look at my cute dog,” or “Look at my cute baby,” or “Jesus has blessed me today,” but actually being open about certain things. And I think that has given us a certain amount of wiggle room to promote our events. Because people know it’s not the only way that we’re trying to communicate with them.
Janice: Final question: the importance of small press publishing in (supposedly) an age of dying books, where even mainstream publishers are going out of business, and “people aren’t reading,” and if they are, the only books that are selling are romance novels. Small press is really exciting, right? But why?
Jessica: Because they have control over their product, right?
Chiwan: It’s funny. When we started our publishing project we were like, “A year of underground publishing,” and the joke was, everything outside of the big five is underground publishing. [Laughs.] But it’s exciting because it’s almost like we’ve all become search engines, so we’re the ones pointing at the writers that we found. Saying, “Here, here, here!”
Jessica: We’ve removed the whole money component. The big publishers are constantly thinking about money. And so we’ve taken that out of the equation. Now you just have the art.
Chiwan: That’s why we’re looking at other ways to make money—so the book itself doesn’t have to generate that money that we need.
Jessica: So it’s completely free. The writer’s completely free. It doesn’t matter, because you’re not thinking about making money on the book.
Janice: And it’s collaborative. I feel like with the big five it’s competitive, because they’re in it for the business, and with small presses it’s not like, “Oh no, we publish them,” it’s like “Oh, have you heard of that press? Oh, yeah, and they publish…” Everyone loves each other.
Chiwan: There is no “competition.”
Janice: Yeah, there’s no,”Damn blah blah blah press.” It’s like, “They published that, that’s cool.”
Chiwan: Yeah. We joke about how people are fighting over the biggest slice of a zero pie. [Laughs.] Because collaboration doesn’t have any limits, you can just collaborate with one other small press or a hundred. You can do a lot of stuff.
Dennis: So what has Writ Large Press been up to in the last year and a half?
Chiwan: I guess we did this interview soon after we finished #90for90. Since then, we put out one book, Wendy C. Ortiz’s Hollywood Notebook. We’ve put on two more Grand Park Downtown BookFests. Partnered with Grand Performances this year on Slam in the Stacks, a series of performances, writing workshops, and performance workshops in three different public libraries. But really, we’ve laid pretty low, trying to figure out who we are, what we’re supposed to be doing. Oh, we also launched our chapbook series, small print, which we are super excited about, with Ashaki M. Jackson, Mike Sonksen, and Teka Lark. With Ashaki’s chapbook, Surveillance, she wanted to give all proceeds to various organizations fighting police killings. We’ve kicked in our share too, including all costs, and have raised about $2,000 so far.
Dennis: Has your point of view changed on any of your answers from the original interview?
Chiwan: Man. So much drama in the poetry world since, huh? Goldsmith. Place. Gale. Rattle. LARB. The list goes on. Unfortunately, I think there is competition now, and a fight for prestige and money, in the small press world. Because people are 1) mimicking the big publishers in the way they do business; and 2) because like everything else, there’s elitist, racist, sexist, people up top trying to maintain status quo, meaning marginalizing, silencing, then erasing.
Also, money is crucial, one way or another, because people doing good work with no money will eventually hit a wall, run out of gas. Personal life will catch up. So we have to create a system where there is money for the work we do: writers, publishers, editors, agitators, fighters. All of us. So we can keep doing it.
Dennis: And what’s ahead for Writ Large Press?
Chiwan: We do have a bunch of books lined up, first up being As in the dark, descend, the debut poetry collection from Rachel McLeod Kaminer, due out on June 30, 2016. Followed by Mass, by Jo Scott-Coe and A Child in Ruins, the collected poetry of Jose Luis Peixoto, translated from Portuguese, both due late July 2016. Learnings from Andrew Choate sometime after that in 2016. Hopefully next year, we have books from Traci Akemi Kato-Kiriyama, Mike Sonksen, Ernest Hardy, F Douglas Brown and Geoffrey Davis.
Outside of books, we’re really not sure. Trying to figure it out. Trying to figure out who we are and what is needed of us.