This week on the blog, Dan Cafaro, the founder of Atticus Books, makes a case for recapturing the fiery spirit of small press publishing.
By Dan Cafaro
“No artist tolerates reality.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
I try not to take this thing we do too seriously. I remember starting out in the used book business (1995-1999). I sold secondhand and out-of-print books from a small storefront in a quaint northeast Philadelphia suburb. I romanticized about the stimulating conversations I was bound to have with writers and artists who frequented the shop. I envisioned us talking late into the evening hours about the philosophies of Nietzsche and Sartre, waxing poetically about the nimble acrobatics of Wordsworth and Ferlinghetti, discussing the vulgarity of Bukowski, the elegance of Gwendolyn Brooks …
But no, it hardly ever went down that way. The first thing many people asked me was how much money I made selling books. It was shorthand for “small talk” in the book business. And the question always confounded me. I had left behind a paltry full-time sportswriter’s salary to try my hand at writing and selling literature. I was young and naïve, on a quest for authenticity. I had never asked my newsroom peers how much money they made. It was a rude, baffling non sequitur. Everyone in the arts was broke, weren’t they? Why belabor the point?
I channeled the disgruntled spirit of poet-bookseller Gordon Comstock, the protagonist of George Orwell’s novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying. I sat behind my shop’s long antique oak checkout counter and wrote bad poetry and dialogue on my word processor. I looked at every customer interaction as material for my next poem or play. I saw the inevitable money question posed by proverbial grazing sheeple as a relentless flea on my backside. Who in his right mind squanders an adequate living wage with health benefits and a retirement pension for the uncertainty of a new state and enterprise? A raging idealist and lover of the arts, that’s who.
I was miserable and yet never so unencumbered. Sure, a used bookstore’s income barely kept the lights on, and sure, I grossly underestimated how hard it would be to make ends meet … but I didn’t let the notoriously high percentage of failed startups discourage me.
I subsidized expenses by covering criminal trials at the courthouse up the street. I filed stories three times a week through an assignment editor at the Bucks County Courier Times. It was a decent freelance gig—complemented by the daily nourishment of Italian ices from Nat’s Pizza three doors down—except the courtroom beat reduced open shop hours because I could ill afford a reliable part-timer to watch the all-too-often empty store while I was away.
And so started my pattern of rotating in and out of Corporate America, and so too began my struggle of figuring out how to compensate staff to help me bring literature into the world.
This Thing We Do
When I owned Chapters Revisited, I stayed awake at night thinking about the buying and selling of assorted printed matter including collectible first editions. These days I lose sleep over the purveying and dissemination of new literature produced by writers who solicit my press, Atticus Books (1,000+ full-length manuscript submissions in 2014-2015), and its sister journal, Atticus Review (an average of 2,100 annual submissions for the last three years, excluding writers we solicit).
Moreover, I’m revved by the challenge of educating the public about indie literature and the vibrancy of the small press scene.
It’s a precious gift, this thing we do. And I don’t, for one lousy minute, take it for granted. In fact, I would like nothing better than to talk about the stellar work of our weekly contributors—both editors and writers—at Atticus Review.
The themed issues and departments (e.g., The Feast Issue, The Transit Issue, More Than Sports Talk, Atticus On The Trail, Tales from the VFW) that each journal editor so carefully conceives and compiles and …
Hold on, Dan! We know you want to talk about great literature, but there’s a question hanging over this essay like a black cloud:
How do we monetize this thing … you know, so we can eat, and like, pay our staff and the writers who provide us work?
That’s the question I’m supposed to answer, right?
God, I hope not. I’m seriously finished with trying to somehow economically justify the “how” and “how much” behind what small presses do. I loathe tallying book sales like they’re cans of soup. Andy Warhol certainly was onto something with his “art as commodity” concept.
Independent presses and literary journals exist because many of us desperately desire (and perhaps even need) to be part of something more meaningful than a 9-to-5 for-profit business of widget and service superiority.
Indie presses and lit mags are on their own uneven playing field because most have come to learn that once they attach “commercial product” to a creative project, it no longer feels like art.
Once writers and editors strain to think of the “positioning” and “marketability” of a character or work in progress, it impedes the work’s natural flow. Words dissipate. The work’s original meaning washes away.
The same holds true with the well-meaning press that has one eye on the cash register and the other on Google Analytics. Each decision you make, every move, begins to feel constrained and contrived.
Once you turn your back on art, you risk gutting the words for sport instead of sustenance. The original mission of your press washes away.
We must stop talking about money.
Artfully crafted creations are a kink in the chain of commerce. Big business doesn’t know what the hell to make of us literary types, this thing we do—this living, fire-breathing organism we call “small press.” Whether it’s poetry, flash fiction, long-form narrative, experimental, or creative nonfiction, what we do is purposeful. It is art.
Chains—both physically and metaphorically—may act as a mechanism for connection, but when our small press conversations steer toward “sales projections” and we get hung up on “audience size and demographics,” we’ve tripped the wire and lost our footing. We’ve let the chains of commerce stifle our innovation and redirect our fiery spirit.
Mini-Capitalists Left Holding the Towel
If we are not going to talk about money (thank you), then I’d like to break my self-imposed rule and close with a recollection. Two years ago, I got into a Facebook debate with a seasoned writer and writer’s coach who admonished me for not paying Atticus Review editors or writers. She couldn’t understand how I’d be willing to pay for cover/interior designers, editors, and proofreaders for the books Atticus published, but didn’t pay our free online journal contributors.
She accused me of “screwing writers” and devaluing their words by not paying them. She found it “appalling” and “insulting” that so many journals and magazines don’t pay.
Instead of telling her to take a long, leisurely barefoot stroll off a short, splintered pier, I responded with something like:
It may be hard for a successful writer to remember or relate to how brutally cold it is for unknown, unproven creative writers who can’t get the time of day from mainstream publishers.
Small presses serve this rather large constituency of writers by offering them: (1) moral support; (2) affiliation; (3) credibility; (4) affirmation; and (5) creative latitude in a noisy marketplace that has zero tolerance for writers without a platform or marketable idea that fits neatly into a category so that commercial publishers and booksellers know how to spin and merchandise their work.
A primary mission of Atticus is to discover misfit/debut literary writers whose works cannot be easily classified or placed squarely in a genre. Our goal is to help advance the artful craft by providing a venue for experimentation by bold, distinct voices.
We are enthused by quirky, inventive works and have very little interest in formulaic narrative that does not challenge a reader.
Some may consider this kind of literary publishing as elitist or snobbish or senseless because it typically doesn’t make money or appeal to the mainstream.
I think it’s okay to disagree on this point. Most of us like the view from here and know that we benefit society by elevating the visibility of writers who may have otherwise walked off a ledge or thrown in the towel.
I try my best not to take this thing we do too seriously. After all we’re merely players between the covers of a book imitating life.
Dan Cafaro is the founder and chief imagination officer of Atticus Books, a fiery multimedia press based in Madison, N.J. Dan is a rabble-rousing old swordsman with a penchant for satire and sun-dried tomatoes. Despite his eternal hunt for meticulous prose, he is an untrained metaphor grifter and frequent abuser——Strunk & White, take that——of the closed em dash. Atticus Review is his celestial firstborn. Dan tweets with great inconsistency @AtticusBooks.