Thursday, February 03, 2011

12 or 20 (small press) questions: Jason Dewinetz on Greenboathouse Press;

Greenboathouse Press is a small publishing concern producing short run, limited editions, printed letterpress and bound by hand. As in our previous incarnation (Greenboathouse Books), our mandate is to publish work that is compelling both in its content and its form, and our attention to typography, design and fine-printing is an extension of that interest in form. Greenboathouse publications have received 5 national design awards from the Alcuin Society, and over the past few years Jason Dewinetz has presented talks on typography and design throughout Canada and the US. Greenboathouse authors, over the years, have included Sarah Selecky, Matt Rader, Shane Rhodes, Sina Queyras, Laisha Rosnau, Andy Weaver, Aaron Peck, matt robinson, JonArno Lawson, Jessica Hiemstra van-der Horst and, most recently, Jake Kennedy.

1 – When did Greenboathouse first start? How have your original goals as a publisher shifted since you started, if at all? And what have you learned through the process?
¶Greenboathouse Books started in 1999, and the shift to Greenboathouse Press happened in 2008. The former functioned as a micro-press, meaning that books were produced very inexpensively (computer-designed and laser-printed), while the latter involves books made entirely by hand (hand-set metal type, printed on a hand-fed Vandercook press, and sewn and bound by hand). This shift, though, also meant a change of focus in general. The time and expense involved in letterpress production has meant that our audience has shifted as well, largely due, on the surface, to a steep increase in prices, but beneath that surface are the historical and aesthetic considerations of a 500-year-old means of production. As such, the frequency of projects and the subject of those projects have also changed. This is to say that for the first 10 years, Greenboathouse published almost exclusively contemporary Canadian poetry. With the shift to Greenboathouse Press, the mandate is now split between literary projects and projects focused on the history of typography and printing.

2 – What first brought you to publishing?
¶Letters. Words. Books. Poetry. In the mid- to late-90s I was encountering a lot of micro-press stuff, and I was also cataloguing the University of Alberta’s collection of the Black Sparrow Press Archive. Exposure to 94 boxes of materials from this press (covering the early 70s) was a revelation: each box contained all items relating to each of the press’s first projects, from manuscripts to proofs to design mock-ups to printing plates to final copies of the books. These were beautifully designed letterpress books, and following the stages of each book’s production was a rare and exciting form of education and inspiration. This is where a naïve interest in typography began to grow, and for the past 10 years I’ve spent much of my time studying the history of letterforms and printing. ¶At the same time I was also writing, and was interested in publishing new work by my peers, folks who weren’t quite getting national attention yet, but who were certainly writing the most interesting stuff I could find. In this way, by publishing people like Andy Weaver, Shane Rhodes and Sina Queyras, and more recently with books like Jake Kennedy’s, my goal was to publish books that I wanted to read and hold in my hands. In this sense, the goal is still the same, but my own book interests have become more specialized, and thus so have Greenboathouse Press projects.

3 – What do you consider the role and responsibilities, if any, of small publishing?
¶Like many micro-press publishers, my original goal was to put into the world compelling writing by new(ish) authors, to make the books interesting to both read and hold in your hands, and to get copies out inexpensively. Folks who like chapbooks and poetry tend to be writers themselves, and writers are always broke, so it just makes sense to keep production costs at a minimum and to give most of the stuff away. I don’t know if I considered this approach as a role or responsibility. I think most folks who write and publish micro-press stuff do so because they want to, not because they’re supposed to do things this way or that. Ultimately, at least for me, it’s mainly a selfish preoccupation, with a side-benefit that those who get their hands on the books might enjoy them. To some extent it’s been exciting to gain attention for writers I thought were doing really interesting stuff, but I’ve never had any doubt that our writers would do well, so I don’t think I was egotistical enough to think that Greenboathouse was going to make any major contribution to their “careers.” Ultimately it’s always been about making books that I thought were cool, and any sense of responsibility was to my own sense of the history and aesthetics of the book, and a respect for the author’s work and the reader’s pleasure.

4 – What do you see your press doing that no one else is?
¶Not much. There are a large number of micro-presses now doing what Greenboathouse Books did for the first 10 years, and they’re doing it with passion and enthusiasm. They have filled, 10 times over, any gap left by Greenboathouse’s shift to letterpress production. There are lots of new micro-presses following the tradition of above/ground and house press, and a handful of slightly more design-oriented micro-presses picking up where Greenboathouse Books left off. On the other end of the spectrum, there are small-presses like book thug serving on the border of micro- and trade publishing, and then presses like Gaspereau keeping the trade press tradition rooted in its small press tradition. Further still are the high-end fine presses like Barbarian Press and Heavenly Monkey, but such publishers shift focus from contemporary writing to texts aimed more at a collector’s interests. If Greenboathouse Press is doing anything remotely unique, it is that the projects I’m selecting these days include both contemporary Canadian literary stuff, as well as texts concerned with the history of typography. I don’t know of any Canadian press with these two specific subjects as primary concerns, who are also working in the letterpress tradition, so I suppose there’s a bit of a unique angle there.

5 – What do you see as the most effective way to get new books out into the world?
¶Clearly the most effective method is the large-press model: print 20,000 copies and get them into Chapters and on Amazon. It’s an awful, corporate model, but it gets books out there. The point at question is, I think, the intention behind getting them out there. The Gaspereau nonsense at the end of 2010 was a conflict of basic principles, and one which, in my opinion, showed how sadly the general public have adopted the corporate model. The readership of this (rob’s) blog are mainly writers and micro-press publishers who have as their aim the distribution, in unconventional formats (and in some cases well-designed and produced formats), of contemporary writing. In a nutshell, those are the same aims of Gaspereau. But the general public turned on this approach in favour of rampant consumerism. Give me my product NOW! It was a thoroughly distasteful mess to watch, but I fully admire Andrew Steeves for sticking to his principles. ¶As for the kind of stuff we’re talking about (very small print-runs of micro- or fine-press books), the internet is clearly the tool of choice, along with word-of-mouth. You need the latter for the former to do its job, but this community is small, and if you get involved, it’s fairly easy to get 50 or 100 copies out there. Readings help, I suppose, and I’ve done a fair bit of event organizing in the past to that end, but I find, these days, that event production just takes me away from the printing press, which is where I like to spend my time. ¶For Greenboathouse Press, the process of getting stuff out has shifted due to our shift in production and “market.” The folks that are buying Greenoboathouse Press books now are almost exclusively gathered by word-of-mouth, which brings them to the website. I’ve also been traveling quite a bit over the past few years, presenting talks and displaying the books at fine-press events in Chicago, Buffalo, Philadelphia, New York and San Francisco, and later this year in Belgium and Holland. Lecturing on typography and printing at such events gets the Greenboathouse name out there into the bibliophile community, and while the main goal of this sort of thing is simply to meet interesting people and gain exposure to what they’re doing, the same tends to happen in the other direction as well. We have a subscription list that takes around 35% of our print-runs, another 25% to libraries, and the rest trickle out in website sales. In the Greenboathouse Books days I tended to give or trade away around 30% of the run, but as the production cost of our books is so much higher now, I simply can’t afford to give away as many copies as I’d like to. I still do a handful of trade subscriptions with other publishers, which is a great way to see what folks are up to and to build up a nice collection of great books.

6 – How involved an editor are you? Do you dig deep into line edits, or do you prefer more of a light touch?
¶In the past, Aaron Peck did much of the editing for Greenboathouse projects, but in the last few years I’ve taken on much of that work. With Jake Kennedy’s book there were just a few editorial suggestions, which Jake was very open to putting into place, but generally speaking if I think a manuscript will require significant editing, it simply isn’t taken on. As for the typographic projects, I’m either writing the content for those, or working closely with co-authors, and so it’s more of a simultaneous writing/editing process. As a topic in general, I think publishers should certainly be involved in an editorial process, if for no other reason than to create a consistency in formatting, but also to improve simple issues of style and usage. Publishers who dismiss editing as interference in the writer’s work, to my mind, are misguided: they seem to favour some sort of divine authorial intent over improving the work of a fallible human. Everything can be improved, and the editorial process is both beneficial to a text, and an interesting and important collaborative exchange.

7 – How do your books get distributed? What are your usual print runs?
¶Print-runs vary between 50-126 copies. The first 5 Greenboathouse Press titles (2008-2010) have been runs of 100 + 26, which is to say 100 for sale and 26 for private distribution (author’s copies, review copies, etc.). Distribution is direct mail, normally from website orders. I have a few antiquarian booksellers in the US that carry our books, but as anyone who does this sort of thing knows, bookstores aren’t interested, and I don’t begrudge them that: they’re business is bulk sales, and micro- and fine-press books aren’t meant for that kind of model.

8 – How many other people are involved with editing or production? Do you work with other editors, and if so, how effective do you find it? What are the benefits, drawbacks?
¶I’ve occasionally worked with an illustrator, but for the most part it’s a one-man operation. I make books because I enjoy making them, and handling every part of the production process is what makes it a pleasure. I have had, over the past couple of years, students of mine working as apprentices in the print shop, and that’s been both fruitful and fun, but my last apprentice, Monika Gordon, recently moved to Montreal. I appreciate the benefits of collaboration, but when it comes to the design, printing and binding of books, I just find it easier to work alone.

9 – How has being an editor/publisher changed the way you think about your own writing?
¶Very little.

10 – How do you approach the idea of publishing your own writing? Some, such as Gary Geddes when he still ran Cormorant, refused such, yet various Coach House Press’ editors had titles during their tenures as editors for the press, including Victor Coleman and bpNichol. What do you think of the arguments for or against, or do you see the whole question as irrelevant?
In the past I’ve been dead against self-publishing, because, as a writer, it’s a cop-out. It means either a) your writing isn’t good enough for other publishers to pick it up, or b) you’re too lazy or afraid to jump through the submission hoops. It’s tough to get published at first for good reason, which is that most writers at that stage aren’t ready yet. ¶However, as I’m now writing non-fiction to accompany books on typographic history, I suppose what I’m doing is a form of self-publishing. The object of these books, though, is scholarly writing on a specific subject, and so I see my role as writer in such projects to be one of commentator rather than author. One such project, which is in development, is a bibliography of books designed by the Dutch typographer Jan van Krimpen. I’m collaborating with a Dutch book collector and together we’re compiling and editing the book descriptions, and each of us will then write introductions for the book. Another project is the publication of a 15th-century manuscript which has never been printed, and for this, too, I’ll write an introduction with commentary on the original. ¶I do, however, also have an idea for a new series of my own poems, but I see that project as a complete book experiment, involving hand-made papers, commissioned wood engravings and a specialized sort of typographic treatment, thus it’s not something I could expect another publisher to take on, and so I’ll take a swing at it myself. If I get around to writing the poems, that is.

11 – How do you see Greenboathouse evolving?
¶It’s done a lot of evolving over the past few years, but that will continue. With the shift in 2008 to letterpress printing, the last year or so has also found me with 10,000lbs of casting equipment, which will eventually allow me to design, cut and cast metal type here in the shop. This means that Greenboathouse Press books will be hand-set in type made on-premises, and some of those types will be new, custom designs. As this suggests, the next evolution will be to further push into the traditions and history of bookmaking, moving closer and closer to how it was done 500 years ago.

12 – What, as a publisher, are you most proud of accomplishing? What do you think people have overlooked about your publications? What is your biggest frustration?
¶I still feel good about the Greenboathouse Books chapbooks, especially the last few years before the switch. I really think those books reached a high-point in micro-press design and production, or at least that’s how it felt: I didn’t really feel I could do anything to get closer to the books I wanted to make, without shifting to letterpress. And, in many ways, we lucked out to find fantastic writers with great new manuscripts. Inexpensively produced books serve a very, very important purpose, and those chapbooks were exactly what they were meant to be, but after a point, the papers, bindings, and designs deserve better than laser-printers or off-set ink. ¶More recently I’m most proud of Jake Kennedy’s book. It’s a very simple production, but the paper and binding turned out beautifully, and the book, as a whole, is almost equal to Jake’s fantastic poems. He’s my favourite poet, and so I wanted to do a solid job of the design and printing, and it turned out well. ¶Frustration: time. I need more time.

13 – Who were your early publishing models when starting out?
What Derek beaulieu & you (rob) were doing 10 years ago (and still) was a big source of inspiration, on a number of levels: the DIY approach and the passion about writing and books, the hunger to produce and share. I remember visiting derek in Calgary and wandering around that shop he had in the backyard, absolutely packed with books and paper. And then there was the Black Sparrow Press Archive, which, as I’ve said, had a huge influence on me. The Black Sparrow books spoke both to my literary and aesthetic tastes at the time, and fueled my interest in fine book work. The fine press world also attracted me because, frankly, I’m not a very social person, and the letterpress world is small and the practitioners largely self-isolated. Spending 5 hours setting a single page of type isn’t for everyone, but the quiet pace of this kind of publishing appealed to me, so this has been the direction I’ve followed after the initial few years of fast-paced micro-press stuff.

14 – How does Greenboathouse work to engage with your immediate literary community, and community at large? What journals or presses do you see Greenboathouse in dialogue with? How important do you see those dialogues, those conversations?
¶As the person behind Greenboathouse I’m engaged on a variety of levels. I teach full time, which puts me in touch with other educators (a good number of which are writers) and students (some of them just entering the literary world). Through the college I organize an informal reading series, which connects me with writers and an eager literary audience. I do the occasional thing on CBC, and from time to time I give talks and readings around BC both as a writer and a publisher/printer. As mentioned above, I’ve also been taking part in more conferences and book fairs over the past few years, and research trips also put me in a position to connect and form relationships with other writers and publishers. ¶In terms of dialogue, that’s quite diverse as well. I continue to keep in touch with a range of micro-press folks (derek, rob, kevin mcpherson), and small press people (Jay Millar, Carleton Wilson, Andrew Steeves), but I suppose I’m now mainly in dialogue with a handful of fine presses and designers including Rollin Milroy at Heavenly Monkey, Jan & Crispin Elsted at Barbarian Press, Jerry Kelly in New York, Robert Bringhurst here in BC. These are people I correspond with regularly to exchange ideas, research, books, etc. Because I live in a small town where there isn’t much of a bibliophile community, my “community” is largely over the internet, and in person when I visit friends like those mentioned above. This kind of dialogue is important both for inspiration and a kind of peer editing: I’m constantly sending samples of things to friends for feedback, and their suggestions are always helpful.

15 – Do you hold regular or occasional readings or launches? How important do you see public readings and other events?
¶For years I produced the Greenboathouse Reading Series here in Vernon, and they were all successful events, bringing in writers from all over Canada. Currently I organize a very small series through Okanagan College (4 readings each semester), but these are not focused around Greenboathouse projects. I’m still involved with producing readings because I think they serve an important community purpose, to bring writers and readers together to meet and talk about books, but as promotional opportunities I quickly lose interest in readings. Personally, I’ve always preferred to read a book than have it read to me, so I find standard readings rather dull. Instead, with the readings I organize, I push participants to avoid reading from their books in favour of having a conversation with the audience. In this way the event is more of an occasion than an event, in that the goal is to discuss rather than listen.

16 – How do you utilize the internet, if at all, to further your goals?
¶I spend far too much time on the computer, but it serves its purpose. Because I live in a fairly small town, almost all of my literary and typographic friends and colleagues are hundreds of miles away, so almost all of my interaction is via the internet. Whether it’s discussing a project by email, announcing new projects on the Greenboathouse website, or adding to my book collection via on-line auctions, almost everything I do takes place on-line – except, of course, actually making books, which all take’s place, computer off, here in the shop.

17 – Do you take submissions? If so, what aren’t you looking for?
¶Generally speaking, Greenboathouse no longer accepts manuscripts. For the first 10 years we held an open submission period each year, and from the average of 100 submissions, we’d pick between 1-3 projects. However, with the shift to letterpress production, the time and effort that goes into each project is massive, and so I’ve become extremely picky about the projects I take on. The bottom line is that I have to be grabbed by the throat by a manuscript in order to spend up to 3 months setting and printing it by hand, and so it’s become simpler to approach writers I’m fond of to see if they have anything new that they’d like to submit. Jake Kennedy’s book happened this way, and it was a pleasure to publish. I’ve just taken on a small and quirky manuscript from Robert Kroetsch, which I’ll work on this summer. ¶Because much of my efforts these days are aimed at typographic projects, the content for these is largely research-based and/or graphic in nature, and so submissions don’t come into play: these are all projects I’m developing myself in collaboration with others. ¶Full details on our submission policy is available on the website.

18 – Tell me about three of your most recent titles, and why they’re special.
¶The last four literary titles (I’ll stick to the literary projects as that’s likely what folks here will be interested in) have all been great little books. In 2009 Greenboathouse published This (And That Was That) by JonArno Lawson, a tiny little long poem designed into a tiny little book (which won an Alcuin design award), Against the Hard Angle by Matt Robinson, a poem sequence that, during production, won the Malahat Review long poem contest, and Anatomy for the Artist, a sequence of poems and illustrations by Jessica Hiemstra-van der Horst. Then, late in 2010, we published what I think is the most compelling book of poetry Greenboathouse has produced to date, Jake Kennedy’s Light & Char. Jake’s writing is both formally challenging and lyrically beautiful: his word-play and humility combine into a dynamic and thoroughly engaging suite of poems that, to my mind, position Kennedy at the top of the contemporary Canadian poetry scene. The book itself also turned out very nicely: hand-set in 14pt metal Garamont (with a “t”), and with calligraphy printed from polymer on a handmade-paper cover, the book feels wonderful in the hand. Next to Shane Rhodes’ tengo sed (back in 2006), this is one of the few books that I’ve been able to pick up a few months after publication and still think it kicks ass. Not that the poetry in all of our books doesn’t hold up, but my overly-critical eye tends to tear to shreds my own work as a designer, suddenly seeing things I could have done better. But Shane’s and Jake’s books are, I think, the closest I’ve come to nailing it.

1 comment:

JM said...

What a fantastic interview! Thanks for this exchange, rob & Jason.
~Jonathan Meakin