Thursday, December 29, 2016

12 or 20 (small press) questions with C.A. Mullins on Bottlecap Press



Bottlecap Press is an independent publisher of poetry and fiction, chapbooks and full lengths, based in Alton, Illinois, and on the internet. Its goal is the publication of works that strike the reader as alarmingly, frustratingly, artistically human.

C.A. Mullins is the founder and editor in chief of Bottlecap Press and author of a handful of things that don't really matter in the long run, as well as a half-written novel that he swears is going to be good. He tweets as @iseveryonealone, and he also tweets as @BottlecapPress, but those ones are a little more corporate.

1 – When did Bottlecap Press 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?
Bottlecap started in mid-2014 during a period of my life where I was looking for a publisher for some of my own writing, but had trouble finding one whose philosophies aligned with mine. I had a lot of trouble understanding mainstream publishers' royalty rates and strict rules for submission, and I was terrified of editors stripping my intent as an artist. Since then, I've become more acquainted with the thriving community of small press editors, many of whom I've found to have similar goals. I think the biggest change in Bottlecap's philosophy has been that in the beginning, I believed that the key to keeping royalty rates high was trimming fat and cutting out middlemen. Over time, I've become a lot more open to making bigger investments into more of the secondary functions of a publisher (setting up readings, marketing, etc.) where in the beginning, a lot of those aspects were more barebones. At first, our primary service was printing, and that suited our goals at the time. Since then, we've evolved into something much more community oriented. We experiment with a lot of new ideas, but our core philosophy has remained the same: to respect the rights of the artist.

2 – What first brought you to publishing?
For me, it was a eureka moment more than it was something that had ever been a part of my long term plan. I was living in a small town in Alaska, working a summer job, and my landlord raised my rent without my knowledge or consent. I needed then more than ever to become self-sufficient. Because I was having so much trouble finding an appropriate publisher for my own work, it's only natural that the idea of self-publishing would cross my mind. So I learned how to bind books, left Alaska, and blew my last $500 on printing supplies. It was right around then that I started introducing myself to people in writing and publishing communities. Within six months, I started getting involved with other authors, and soon after, I invited my old friend Brendan Kolk to be my co-editor. I haven't looked back since.

3 – What do you consider the role and responsibilities, if any, of small publishing?
In my mind, the biggest role of independent publishing is to be a viable alternative to mainstream publishing. It's important for an independent publisher to take on challenging work and give voices to those who might be taken advantage of by the mainstream system. Being able to keep up with the big fish in publishing and being able to offer the same or equivalent services even when resources are limited. Thriftiness is a big one. Finding creative solutions to problems, and learning from them. Small presses are not just smaller businesses that do the same things in the same ways-- we are the innovators in this industry. You've got to be scrappy, and you've got to find ways to make things work even when they seem impossible. You've got to treat your authors like human beings and prove to them that they made the right decision in publishing through your press. Support them and thank them for supporting you.

4 – What do you see your press doing that no one else is?
Of course, I have to preface this question by saying there are a lot of great indie publishers doing a lot of great things. I can't stress that enough. But I think one thing that makes Bottlecap unique is our experimentation. We're full of ideas, and when we get a new idea, no matter how off-the-wall it may seem, we act on it. This especially comes into play in our marketing. We're not afraid of losing touch with our roots, of changing, of growing, and this gives us a lot of freedom to explore. We have active plans not only to publish books, but publish other types of media as well. When our authors have requests, even if it's not the sort of thing we'd usually do, we figure out how to do it, and we make it work, even when it sounds crazy. Another thing I see in Bottlecap that I don't see in many other presses is a certain level of efficiency. We do have our weak spots as far as efficiency goes (specifically time management, which we're trying to get better at), but we've only got two main editors and we've published more than 40 books in the last two and a half years, each fantastic in its own right. Both our quantity of new releases and our quality of new releases are very high, and it's something we're really proud of. Somehow we're still able to find time to print, to distribute, to market, and to answer interview questions (even if it takes a little longer than we'd want it to.)

5 – What do you see as the most effective way to get new chapbooks out into the world?
From my experience, most certainly performance. Our authors who do the most readings almost always sell the most books. Because of this, one of our biggest goals for 2017 is to become much more active in helping our authors book readings (no pun intended) and find venues. Twitter is great, blogging is great, connecting with reviewers is great, but especially with chapbooks (and still to some degree with full lengths), nothing connects literature to an audience quite like seeing it come from the author's own mouth.

As for how a chapbook might physically come into the world, I am a firm believer that print will always find more readers than digital. There are a lot of amazing things digital distribution can do, but let's put it this way: chapbooks are cool. You see someone reading a chapbook, you think “oh, cool, what's that? I'd like to have one of those.” It's the sort of thing that's a lot more fun to own than it is to download. They make for kind of a social objet d'art, and because of this, I consider print distribution to be a vital part of the chapbook as an art form. Full lengths are a bit trickier in this regard, but I still believe roughly the same thing: that print media is important, and that it continues to be cool.

6 – How involved an editor are you? Do you dig deep into line edits, or do you prefer more of a light touch?
Tying in with Bottlecap's philosophy regarding artists' intent, I prefer the light touch, especially with poetry. Even when we find something like a typo, we usually tend to ask the author if it was intentional, and if it was, we're happy to leave it in. Formatting is a bigger deal. We like our books to be well formatted, and if the author hasn't provided us with a good place to start, we often tear books apart line by line and put them back together in a way that's more pleasing to the eye. Formatting also happens to be one of the things that a lot of writers know very little about, so we tend to be a bit strict over whether it needs to be changed.

7 – How do your books get distributed? What are your usual print runs?
We do all our own distribution, though our books are available at several bookstores (and we're actively working at adding more stores to that list.) We're in a bit of a transitional phase-- until recently, we mostly printed books as they sold as opposed to doing traditional print runs, to ensure that copies didn't stack up in boxes in our closet never to be read. As sales have picked up over time and our catalog has grown, that's gotten harder and harder to do, so we started printing more backstock, keeping copies on hand for when someone throws us a curveball and wants a lot of books all at once. It's been a challenging transition, considering that often, just keeping up with orders is a full time job. We often keep our printers running overnight, and we're finally getting to the point where we can comfortably keep up with bigger orders. Running this press has been a learning experience, and a very challenging exercise in managing and anticipating expectations.

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?
Our main editing team consists of Brendan Kolk and myself, and Erin Taylor is in charge of our blog, which we've begun accepting single-piece submissions for. We each have our own styles and our own tastes, but it's our combined tastes and styles that make Bottlecap what it is. Because our team is small, were able to communicate effectively about our goals, and our visions for the future. We often joke about how, though we're just three people, we're doing the work of a much larger team. We each have our own specialties, and forgive me for using a cheesy corporate buzzword, but there's a lot of synergy in our work. When one of us can't do something, another usually can, and when none of us can, one of us is always willing to learn. Because it's such a small team though, it is sometimes hard to keep up. We've got a million ideas, but we can only work on three ideas at once. It's taught me a lot about growth, and setting realistic goals.

9– How has being an editor/publisher changed the way you think about your own writing?
I think I'm less sloppy as a writer than I used to be, and more willing to cut out ideas that aren't working, even if I really like the ideas. I've always kept meticulous notes about every thought I have that I might be able to integrate into my writing, and in the past, I felt a stronger need to use each and every one of them. I don't have as much trouble getting to the meat and potatoes as I used to. I no longer hold on to bad ideas.

There's also a less straightforward secondary effect that my publishing has had on my writing: I don't have nearly as much time to do it anymore. Bottlecap is often a more-than-full-time job for me, so if I want to get any writing done beyond scribbling down those notes, I have to schedule time in advance for it. Writing used to come to me in bursts, and I felt that I had to be in a certain mood to get it right, but because I have less hours in a day to dedicate to it, I've had to learn how to make those bursts happen whether they felt like they were coming on or not. I went through almost the entirety of 2015 without writing anything at all, because from my perspective, I was just too busy. It took a lot of work to change that perspective, and now I'm finally making a little headway into a novel that I'm pretty proud of so far.

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 very beginning, Bottlecap did have a self-publishing aspect to it, but I don't think I would do it again. It's not that I have any philosophical qualms with it, it's just that publishing has taught me a lot about networking, and how working with different teams can help an author to reach new audiences. I do think, though, that having been a publisher, I would be very selective about the publishers I would choose to submit to. It's more important now than it ever has been that my writing ends up in the hands of someone I respect.

11– How do you see Bottlecap Press evolving?
Goal number one is to provide more services to our authors. When authors ask “can you do this for me,” I want to be able to say yes, no matter what this is, and I want to be able to offer them some cool things they might not have even expected. Goal number two is to widen distribution. I want to have a presence at more bookstores and more festivals. Goal number three, and this is a more ambiguous, long-term one, is to begin connecting communities cross-media. I'd like Bottlecap to act as indie books' cultural ambassador to indie music, art, film, gaming, virtual reality. I want to begin to offer not only books, but also multimedia literary experiences with contributions from artists across the spectrum. I have this vivid idea in my head of an immersive literary work that stimulates all the senses, and I want to take steps toward being able to curate that work. That's my dream, anyway. Literature is too conservative. I want to shake things up and throw more elements into the mix.

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?
Honestly, the thing I'm most proud of is just that people actually want to publish books through Bottlecap Press. We've even had a few authors come back to us because they liked working with us so much. It means everything to me that I've created something people want to be a part of. I think people might not know just how strong a community we've created. We set up readings where a lot of our authors perform together, many of us interact over Facebook and Twitter, we've all become friends. When you publish through Bottlecap, you're becoming part of a big, awesome family, and that might not be something that's quite so obvious from the outside.

My biggest frustration, I think, is how much some books outperform others just based on the size of the author's fanbase. Every one of our books is special for one reason or another, but we sometimes encounter difficulty marketing books that don't have a large built-in audience. I feel like if people gave more of our smaller books a chance, they'd find something to love, and more folks would realize just how expansive Bottlecap's vision is. I am eternally grateful to the cadre of Bottlecap readers who keep coming back, who keep trying out new books, who keep discovering, but it's not enough, and we believe that our lesser known authors deserve the same support our more known authors get.

13– Who were your early publishing models when starting out?
The first publisher to teach me that a publishing company could have a heart was McSweeney's, and I still consider them role models to this day. They have such a clear vision, and they execute it beautifully. They understand that literature is about more than just books, and in that understanding, the books themselves become even more important. My own vision as a publisher is always changing, but there's something at the heart of what they're doing that I agree with, and that I've always agreed with. To throw in a bit of a tongue-twister, their being the best them that they can be inspires me to be the best me that I can be. People know a McSweeney's book when they see one, and I'd like for that to one day be true about Bottlecap. I suppose I have something of a business-to-business crush.

14– How does Bottlecap Press work to engage with your immediate literary community, and community at large? What journals or presses do you see Bottlecap Press in dialogue with? How important do you see those dialogues, those conversations?
Our two biggest allies in the publishing community right now are Nostrovia! Press and Maudlin House. I have personal friends at both, and in Nostrovia!'s case, I've helped them with quite a bit of printing. There are loads of journals and presses we interact with now and then, but as for the community at large, we have a lot of inroads left to build. I'd like to have more of a presence at book fairs, get to know publishers working in other genres, with other core communities. If independent publishing ever wants to stand up proudly beside mainstream publishing, it's important that we foster diplomacy and work together to solve some of the larger problems we face. At their best, I think that's what good publishers are: diplomats. Building a system that works for everyone can not be done by a single publisher working in isolation. Getting to know each other and having each other's backs is a part of the job.

15– Do you hold regular or occasional readings or launches? How important do you see public readings and other events?
Right now, Bottlecap readings are only occasional. We officially sponsored two big ones this year (though our authors have set up dozens for themselves.) Next year, it's very important to me that this changes. Visibility is a major problem for independent literature, and I don't believe that the average reader even knows the difference between small press publishing and self-publishing. I want Bottlecap to be a part of the solution to this by showing its face everywhere. We're already working on a list of venues, organized by location, and I'm dreaming that one day, we'll be able to not only sponsor dozens of large readings every year, but offer personal service to our authors, helping them set up readings and even tours no matter where they live. Readings are the only way to look a mainstream audience in the face and shout we're here.

16– How do you utilize the internet, if at all, to further your goals?
Bottlecap is very active on Twitter and Tumblr, and our biggest sales channel is through our web store. I sometimes like to think of Bottlecap as as much a tech startup as it is publishing house. We believe in further developing literature as a technology as much as an art form, and presence on the internet is integral to those goals. We owe our existence to the internet, and to social networking, but it goes deeper than that. The internet acts as an economy, and as a business on the internet, you deal in terms of fungibility: i.e. presence in one place equating to dollars in another, dollars equating to readership, the relationships between keywords, Twitter followers, page views, and sales. We use a lot of statistics and algorithms in our business. Bottlecap is very much a millennial press, and as millennials, the internet is a part of who we are.

17– Do you take submissions? If so, what aren’t you looking for?
We are always looking for new submissions (our submission guidelines can be found at http://bottlecap.press/subguidelines), and I love this question. We aren't looking for ordinary works. We get way too many submissions with zombies in them. We don't even like zombies. Zombies are boring. We aren't looking for submissions that tread old water, unless they tread old water in a completely new way (although, even the genre-with-a-twist formula rarely, if ever, works on us.) We aren't looking for cliche, but we also aren't looking for stuff that's so far out-of-the-box that it resembles word salad. Word salad is just another box in its own right. We're not looking for stuff that doesn't make us feel anything. If you do something kind of fun with words, but there's no feeling to it, no deeper meaning that makes us contemplate humanity, we probably aren't the press for you. We're not looking for sappy shit either though (can I say shit?) We like our feelings genuine. Laughing counts as feeling something. We love funny books, and people don't submit enough of them. We're generally not looking for religious works, though of course a religious theme isn't a dealbreaker. We're not looking for your sexual fantasies, either. There are a million other presses for that. Like religion, sex isn't a dealbreaker, but we're not a publisher of erotic fiction, and if that's your primary genre, no thanks. We're not looking for fanfiction unless that fanfiction takes place in the Super Mario universe, in which case we might actually consider it. We love Mario. We're not looking for books with long boring stretches. Edit it down to the good parts, and if the good parts alone aren't long enough to be a book, then keep writing before you consider submitting. We're not looking for anything that might infringe copyright, even if it seems plausible that a court might call it fair use (this includes erasure poetry.) We're not looking for books that are formatted in such a way that it looks like they got hit by a hurricane. I liked House of Leaves too, but come on, everyone. It's been done, and it makes for an InDesign nightmare. We'd also prefer not to get submissions in any font color other than black. We are absolutely not looking for anything that degrades anyone because of their gender, sexual preference, or ethnicity, and this includes “subtle” objectification. We reject so many submissions on a basis of objectification, and it's insane that people still think they can get that sort of garbage published. We're not looking for your memoirs unless you're literally the only person in the world to have done something really interesting. We're also not looking for books over about 200 pages due to technical limitations right now. Sorry about that.

18– Tell me about three of your most recent titles, and why they’re special.
Killer, by Kimmy Walters (https://bottlecap-press.myshopify.com/products/killer): This is Kimmy's second Bottlecap book, and it's one of my favorite books we've published for a lot of reasons. Her poems are witty and relatable and thought-provoking. Her first book, Uptalk (https://bottlecap-press.myshopify.com/products/uptalk), helped cement Bottlecap's reputation as a publisher of fresh and original poetry, and remains our biggest seller to this day. Killer feels like such a strong evolution on all the things that made Uptalk great. It's one of those books where you can flip to any page and find something worth sharing with everyone you know. There's not a single line that doesn't leave you amazed. It's also a bit of a technical achievement for Bottlecap Press, as it's our first book with a waterproof matte cover. Flipping through it reminds me of how much better Bottlecap is getting, but also how we haven't lost touch with our roots, or with the people who helped to make us into who we are.

I Am Trying to Fall in Love With Myself But Instead I Keep Falling in Love with Unemployed Noise Musicians Who Do Coke and Believe in the Power of Crystals, by Emma Shepard (https://bottlecap-press.myshopify.com/products/ttfilwm): This book is as brilliant as its title. Its poems are visual and emotional, its two personal essays really cut to the core of what it means to be human, and it's full of really clever illustrations. I love a good illustration. It feels like a book full of memories, all expressing themselves in different ways. You read it, and you think “this feels real.”

a nt, by Elijah Pearson (https://bottlecap-press.myshopify.com/products/ant): Elijah's writing reminds me of my own writing when I'm on a creative high and want to express all the things I've felt over the last year. It's exhilarating and emotional and fluid, and comes in an adorable little 4”x5” package. It's a fun book to print, and it's a fun book to read, and it expresses such a wide array of interesting thoughts, both beautiful and mundane.

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