Thursday, September 26, 2013

12 or 20 (small press) questions with Peter Jelen on BareBack Press

BareBackPress is an independent publisher dedicated to bareback writers, that is, people who aren’t afraid to bare themselves for the world, to give us honesty. Truth we may not like, but are forced to accept, while at the same time entertaining us.

Peter Jelen has spent the last five years living and working in Japan, China, and South Korea, where he now calls his home away from Hamilton. Peter is also the founder and editor of BareBackMagazine and BareBackPress, which is in the application process to become an associate member in the Association of Canadian Publishers.

1 – When did Bareback 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?
BareBack began in February 2012 as an online literary magazine ( and within one year, after getting in touch with so many new and innovative young writers and poets, the press was born. The goal originally was to find poets and writers who weren’t afraid to go bareback ~ meaning that they weren’t afraid to take off their ‘gloves’ and risk it all when creating. To bare themselves in order to give honest, unpretentious writing that would contribute to the evolution of Canadian literature and poetry. Now, a year later, the goal has not changed. Honesty and sincerity is still the key ingredient in BareBack.
2 – What first brought you to publishing?
Rejection and realization. After my inbox became full of rejection letters from those fast-talking Ari from Entourage Manhattan agents, and I was ignored by the people in Toronto I decided to do it myself. That’s when BareBackMagazine was started, and that’s when I realized there are so many other writers in the same raft fighting the literary current. There is so much young talent in Canada, and I feel a lot of the bigger players in the Canadian literary world aren’t in touch with the pulse of the youth, or are too focussed on making money rather than great books. I wanted to challenge traditional ideas of Canadian literature and break away from what’s expected in books made within Canada.

3 – What do you consider the role and responsibilities, if any, of small publishing?
The role and responsibility of a small publisher is to challenge the big guys. We are small because we aren’t putting out genre books for bored housewives and seniors. We’re making books we’re passionate about, giving opportunities to authors who deserve the chance despite how many or how little books they can sell.

4 – What do you see your press doing that no one else is?
Brevity. Flash novels. Collections of flash fiction. Short stories. Personally, I think literature will be moving in that direction. People lead busy lives, and many are intimidated by, or don’t have time to pick up a book as thick as War and Peace. Our focus in the future will be on making books like energy bars, they give you the same nutrients and satisfaction as a meal, but in half the time. Books that can be read in a weekend, not weeks.

5 – What do you see as the most effective way to get new chapbooks out into the world?
We’re not in the chapbook business, but from what I’ve seen and heard I think the best way is to give them away for free through social-media, or websites like Goodreads in order to generate interest for when the big one comes out.

6 – How involved an editor are you? Do you dig deep into line edits, or do you prefer more of a light touch?
Definitely a light touch. Especially with poetry. I feel poetry is a spontaneous art, and if it’s edited too many times I think a lot of the spontaneity of its conception is lost. I know the poets have read through and fixed their work dozens of times, so I try not to reedit what’s already been edited. I respect an author’s creative freedom, I don’t knit pick over their diction or syntax, and I don’t pretend I always know best. The books we’ve published, and are currently putting together, have come very polished and tight.  I’d say the only things I’m picky about are titles, the aesthetic of the formatting, and back cover descriptions. 

7 – How do your books get distributed? What are your usual print runs?

We are distrusted primarily through our presses homepage, and other internet sites like, Barnes and, and a few other smaller online retailers. Currently our authors are going door to door knocking on bookstore counters, asking to carry our titles.  We are very new, only four months old, and it’s a job in itself to get nationwide distribution, and I’m learning much of what I know as I go. I’m not a business person, nor a marketer, but I’m learning. I’ve made heaps of telephone calls, and sent a lot of emails, and the response has been very positive. People are willing to help us, and it’s encouraging. Right now we are making our books by print-on-demand. It’s the most cost effective, low overhead means to publish our books at the moment. It works the same as a print run without the financial risks. Basically, the author and I determine the print run, which is usually 300 to 500, and once those books have sold the P.O.D. stops, and we renegotiate. I’m actually quite thankful for the P.O.D. system, because it gives guys like me a chance to start up a small press like BareBack without sinking every dime he has into.

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?
The authors and I are the editors for BareBack books, and my wife is the graphic designer. We all work very closely together and it works wonderfully. We get to know each other as people, build personal relationships, and ultimately reach our goal, which is creating books we’re proud of. The authors I’ve worked with so far are all easy going people who are open to advice and criticism.  If there’re any drawbacks, it’s that we don’t have staff helping us to put out books every month, instead of every three months.

9– How has being an editor/publisher changed the way you think about your own writing?
It’s made me more critical of my own work, and less critical of other people’s work. I know firsthand how much time, effort, and energy goes into publishing a book and now, whether I enjoy a book or not, I’ve learned to appreciate the process, and the sweat it takes from people in the industry. As well, I feel being an editor/publisher has also broadened me as a writer, given me acid eyes, and the ability to look at myself in the third person. Seeing all of the talent that is out there has inspired me, and forced me to be more creative. 

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?
To be honest, I feel uncomfortable publishing my own work through BareBack, and I fear people will view it as a me using the press as a tool to promote myself, which is why I try to work harder for the other authors than for myself. When it comes to promotions and soliciting reviews my work goes on the backburner. Through BareBackMagazine I’ve gained a lot of contacts, but I don’t use them for my benefit. I put the other authors ahead of me, and work for them.

The argument for or against publishing your own writing is relevant, and an argument I often have with myself. I would love to have my books under the label of another press so I wouldn’t have to struggle with the argument anymore, but that’s not the case. I like what BareBack is doing, and I am proud to be a part of it. And for that reason, I will remain being a BareBack author.

11– How do you see Bareback evolving?
I see us carving out a loyal niche audience that appreciates what we’re doing, and hopefully in the future we’ll make a dent in the mainstream.

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?
As a publisher and as a person I am most proud of how far I’ve taken a small online literary magazine in just over a year. When I started BareBackMagazine I never thought that it would snowball into a small press. Last year I had no idea how to build a website or where to go to get people to submit work and, more importantly, about how to get people to read it. I didn’t even have a facebook page and was stubborn to use social media, and was certainly myopic in my view of its power. I have still refused to insert a “like” button on the homepage, for fear of cheapening the art, but I am chagrined at only having 56 “likes” even though we have nearly a thousand people on our mailing list, so next month I am bowing down to the almighty facebook and adding a “like” button. To make everyone, including myself, feel more at peace. 

This year has been a lot of work, a lot of research, and a lot of learning both professionally and personally, and there’s still so much more learn, which excites me.

I don’t feel people have overlooked anything about our publications. I think they are just not seeing them. And that is probably the biggest frustration. The press doesn’t have thousands of dollars to market our titles, so at this point it’s mostly word of mouth. A lot of people don’t want to risk twenty dollars on a book by an author or a book they’ve never heard of, which is understandable, so it’s my job to at least make the books sound, and look, as appealing as possible.
13– Who were your early publishing models when starting out?

At the beginning I felt like William Blake, doing it all myself with a little help from my wife. I think Blake was a big inspiration in the sense that he was rejection prone, but not discouraged and took it upon himself to get his work out to whoever would take it. 

14– How does Bareback work to engage with your immediate literary community, and community at large? What journals or presses do you see Bareback in dialogue with? How important do you see those dialogues, those conversations?
As of now we’re only in dialogue with online journals, no heavy hitters in the Canadian literary world. We are talking with BookNet Canada and have applied for associate membership in the Association of Canadian Publishers and will also seek membership in the Literary Press Group of Canada in the future once we meet all of their criteria. I would certainly like, and am completely open to establishing relationships with everyone in the literary community, and I encourage all of our authors to keep getting their work into journals and magazines because it is always important to have your work reach different audiences. Mike Algera, author of Old Gods for New, just received the Editor’s Choice Award for Poem of the Year from Arc Magazine for one of the poems in his collection coming out in June. Other authors we’ve published are also keeping up their relationships with magazines and editors who have previously published them in the hopes of getting more exposure and press. The relationships we make with other publications and people in the literary community as a whole are extremely valuable to us, and we are slowly building up our contacts. Although we may be in different boats, we’re all floating in the same water. And just like when you’re at the cottage, you wave when you see another boater.

15– Do you hold regular or occasional readings or launches? How important do you see public readings and other events?
Readings are up to the authors themselves. We’re scattered throughout the country and its best if each author arranges their own readings or book launches. These events, I do feel, are very important. I’ve been to book readings before, and hearing an author read his/her work really makes it come alive. The voice in which they read stays in your mind and makes their work take on an entirely different tone. Connecting with people face to face is a great way to attain readers, and personalize the work for them. I was actually lucky enough while in university to have bill bissett come and read for my class, and it completely changed his work. I can still hear his voice in my mind every time I read his poems.

16– How do you utilize the internet, if at all, to further your goals?
As I mentioned earlier I am learning the value of social media and networking through the internet. I’ve found Goodreads is a useful tool for authors to interact with readers, and for potential readers to get a glimpse into what people think about an author’s work. The internet is great for finding and getting in touch with people in the literary community you may have otherwise never heard of, or had a chance of getting in touch with. The internet is probably the best weapon in a publisher’s or an author’s arsenal to gain readers, which is the goal.

17– Do you take submissions? If so, what aren’t you looking for?
We’re always accepting submissions, and eager to have a look at pretty much anything close to our guidelines. The only thing we aren’t looking for is pretention. Writers who haven’t found their voices yet, and aren’t willing to give us the honesty and sincerity we’re looking for.

18– Tell me about three of your most recent titles, and why they’re special.
Unwrapped: The BareBack Anthology is special to me because it showcases what BareBack is all about. It’s eclectic and quirky, dark, humorous, and sardonic at times. It features not only Canadian talent, but poetry from writers in Europe, the U.S., and India who were willing to bare themselves for our pleasure.

re: verbs by Robert Swereda, which was also released in February is an interesting collection of visual poetry which shows the unlimited creative potential of poetry. It shows that poetry is not dead, that it’s alive and well, and there’s still something to be learned from it.

Old Gods for New by Mike Algera is an amazing collection of poetry that spans nearly ten years. Through his book you essentially get to see Mike grow up. We feel what he went through, and where he hopes to go. I think he’s setting a new standard for what poetry should be doing, which is making people feel welcomed, not stupid because they don’t understand a poem. His writing is simple, and graceful. One poem he’ll have you chuckling, the next giving you chills and making tears well up.

BareBack Press participates in the fall 2013 edition of the ottawa small press book fair on Saturday, October 12, 2013.

12 or 20 (small press) questions;

No comments: