Friday, October 14, 2011

12 or 20 (small press) questions: Scott Sweeney on Grey Book Press

Grey Book Press has been publishing hand-crafted chapbooks, off and on, since 1996. In addition to their poetry journal, Momoware, recent titles include the work of Elisabeth Workman, Leigh Stein, Brian Ang, Megan Kaminski, and Jordan Stempleman.

1 – When did Grey Book 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?
Grey Book Press started around 1996, when I put together the first issue of bound, which was a very limited-run poetry journal. At the time, that was all I really thought the press would do . . . publish digest-sized poetry journals.

I stopped bound after six issues (spread out over about five years). Life was just complicated at the time (with a new baby), so I had to pull back . . . not really clear whether anything would follow or what it would be. But in 2007, I started to feel the pull again, so—rather than pick up where I left off with bound—I started a new journal (Momoware). It felt nice to get back out there, make something happen.

Then my friend, poet Jay Snodgrass [], convinced me to jump into doing single-author chapbooks. It was something I thought Grey Book Press would eventually evolve toward. And now, just about all I sell are chapbooks.

2 – What first brought you to publishing?
When I was an undergrad at Florida State, I collaborated with a friend on a series of chapbooks called The Night Brings Violets (taken from Plath’s “Paralytic”). He was publishing it under his own imprint, New Apathy Press. We went to readings around town and half-heartedly requested submissions from others (I don’t think we used any).

When I decided to start publishing poetry journals, the original idea was to do a series that would sort-of culminate in a larger “greatest hits” book, which would be titled . . . the Grey Book.

3 – What do you consider the role and responsibilities, if any, of small publishing?
I like the sort-of call to arms presented at the DIY Publishing [] blog: “You are a micropress . . . you just don't know it yet.” I don’t know about responsibility, but everyone could have a role to play. I kind-of imagine it as a global, creative conversation.

4 – What do you see your press doing that no one else is?
Probably nothing. I’m the antithesis of innovation. All my journals and chapbooks are digest-sized, saddle-stapled, and of very similar length (I don’t trust guillotine cutters, so I control “center creep” by limiting page count). But I think the length I’ve settled on is ideal for a chapbook.

5 – What do you see as the most effective way to get new books out into the world?
Giving them away for free, but that’s not a sustainable model when you have limited resources, right? I’m really intrigued by the Dusie Kollektiv [] and the idea of sharing/trading/exchanging work that way. I’ve seen that echoed a few other places.

I wonder, though, about the idea of books. How is that going to evolve? How is what we do going to change in five years? I can’t saddle-staple your Kindle. I keep hearing that books are not going to go away, but the flipside is the expansive potential of manipulating and changing these new distribution/interactive technologies to get work out in a new way.

6 – How involved an editor are you? Do you dig deep into line edits, or do you prefer more of a light touch?
Depends on the project, maybe how well I know the author. If the manuscript is really clean, strong, and arranged thoughtfully, maybe it’s, “Let’s go straight to layout.” But more often than not, I have at least a few minor suggestions. Most people don’t have a huge problem with that. Some writers, like Elisabeth Workman [], have been very open to suggestions on arranging the poems.

The problem is I’m a technical copy editor. That’s what I do for a living. So my biggest editorial weakness is narrative/prose poetry wherein I want to “fix” the grammar.

7 – How do your books get distributed? What are your usual print runs?
Mostly, I sell directly through our website. I do 25 author copies with a handful more to have on hand (initially) and then print another batch to stock the store, and then keep printing batches until the orders slow down or stop. I haven’t reached 100 copies printed of any single title.

Lately, I’ve been doing more “limited” runs, which are 50 copies (the author receives 15). Those are all printed at once and numbered.

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?
Mostly just me and the saddle-stapler. My wife has been known to thumb through things while in proofing and production phases, but not really in an editorial way. I’ve worked on one or two collaborative productions (one with Sandra Simonds’ imprint Wild Life []), and we teamed up on the folding and stapling.

9– How has being an editor/publisher changed the way you think about your own writing?
It’s been making me realize I don’t send my work out nearly as much as I should be. While I should be taking the press a little more seriously, I should be taking my poetry a lot more seriously.

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?
A “rule” I came up with early on (for the journals) was, if I included one of my poems, I wouldn’t list my name with the other contributors for that issue. I was, essentially, using my work to fill space and not as a means of self-promotion. I did a chapbook of my own through the press last year and made sure it was limited edition and promoted no more than any other book.

I can certainly see, and perhaps sympathize more with, the argument that no-one should use his or her own press to promote his or her work. Not that I actively consider the question, but I’ll admit that I have read mastheads of many journals and then seen work from editors featured prominently and I’ve found it a little off-putting. But I don’t think that is necessarily wrong.

11– How do you see Grey Book Press evolving?

I’m going to do some more active promotion and networking. I’d love to reach out to and collaborate with other like-minded and/or activist presses. Perhaps even in the near term.

I honestly don’t see our chapbooks evolving dramatically. But I am interested in, at some point, doing longer projects.

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’m going against type here, but I want to focus on the positive. Actually, almost all of my interactions with authors have been positive, which I consider the biggest accomplishment. I want everyone involved to consider this a rewarding creative exchange. Any shortcomings have been mine, for the most part (e.g., slipping publication targets, lazy marketing practices). Maybe I’m my biggest frustration. I really hope to change that.

Thinking about “overlooked,” I’ve had this ongoing struggle that, perhaps, I’ve been holding back on blanket marketing pushes to avoid becoming too big for one person to essentially handle and maintain a steady stream of titles. As a result, I’m relying on authors to do most of the marketing themselves, which I suppose isn’t entirely fair, so I’m going to change the balance a little to get the word out about the books we’re doing (as opposed to just promoting the press).

13– Who were your early publishing models when starting out?
I think when I started out, I only knew one way of doing it, and didn’t have a lot of imagination to switch it up. And, largely, I’m still doing it that way. The fun is trying to find new ways to tweak the model in small ways.

A few years ago, when I was breathing new life into the press, I did reach out to Kristy Bowen from Dancing Girl Press []. I’d always liked what she was doing and, if I was going to do chapbooks and work with authors on larger projects more directly, I needed some behind-the-scenes tips on how others have made that work. I took what I learned from Kristy and added that to what I was already doing.

14– How does Grey Book Press work to engage with your immediate literary community, and community at large? What journals or presses do you see Grey Book Press in dialogue with? How important do you see those dialogues, those conversations?
I think any literary scene, like any music scene (of which I’m also a part), can be cliquish. Tallahassee is a relatively small town with a literary scene dominated by its universities, with their own publications and their own readings. I’m not complaining, but you have to actively engage local teacher-poets and attend a lot of local literary functions, which I guess is true of any community. But I don’t get out a lot. And I’m horrible at networking.

The importance likely lies in the goals. I think there has to be a unifying “cause” to bring people or groups together, whether it’s activism or entertainment.

15– Do you hold regular or occasional readings or launches? How important do you see public readings and other events?
Not so much. Many of the writers we publish are out-of-towners, and no-one’s doing a chapbook “tour.” Early on, we held readings featuring recent local chapbook poets (Sandra, Jay, and Kristine Snodgrass []). We had a reading to launch our second issue of Momoware (with many of the same poets), and it was like a rock show. But we had a recent reading to benefit Save our Shores [] and sell copies of our oil-spill chapbook, Welcome to the Dark Water. And no-one came. We had Mary Jane Ryals [], the Poet Laureate of the Florida Big Bend, and no-one came. I think the success of the two readings had a lot to do with local universities. Sandra read at the first event and gave her students extra credit for coming. The second event was during the summer, when tens of thousands of students are out of town.

16– How do you utilize the internet, if at all, to further your goals?
I don’t use the internet in any “special” way. I’m not much of a “marketer” and don’t do a lot of networking, but I do try to get the word out with emails and using Facebook. Obviously, I could be doing more which, in fact, is part of why I’m going to lay low this month . . . invest some time in sending out review copies and making some connections.

17– Do you take submissions? If so, what aren’t you looking for?

Yes, although I’ve not settled on a successful strategy for soliciting and gathering them. Which is complicated by my publishing priorities seemingly changing on a whim.

For manuscripts, the focus is currently on chapbooks, so we’re not looking for full-length manuscripts right now. If we did start doing books (or similar longer projects), they would likely be by solicitation only.

Beyond that, it might be easier to focus on what we are looking for. Each issue of Momoware (three so far) have come together under very different circumstances. The last issue was put together rather quickly after I decided to try an issue weighing heavily on erotica and/or Asian forms. It was an experiment in seeing how that would work (both the process and the final product). I’m happy with how the issue turned out, but I had to do more legwork than usual in gathering submissions, so I decided that I would put off doing another issue for an indefinite period. So, of course, submissions have been trickling in, so I think I’m going to do another call and plan an issue around those poems. Maybe a new theme will emerge or maybe I’ll do some more erotica. Who doesn’t like erotica?

18– Tell me about three of your most recent titles, and why they’re special.
The most recent title (finishing up now, actually) is a chapbook of cinquains by Evie Ivy []. I wasn’t sure, initially, how I felt about doing a whole chapbook of one form, but I wanted to do something different, and cinquains are nice in their haiku-like brevity.

Before that, continuing the “something different” theme, was a chapbook of prose poems by Chandra Dickson []. I have a short attention span, so I usually don’t consider publishing anything prose, or prose-ish. But Chandra’s collection stuck with me and it was something I ultimately decided would be an adventure.

This past spring, on the one-year anniversary of the Deep Horizon rig explosion and oil spill in the Gulf, we distributed a chapbook of semi-related poems to Gulf State lawmakers, including all five governors from Gulf-bordering states, U.S. senators, key U.S. House members and state lawmakers, and other government officials (e.g., President Obama). I’m really happy about the poets we got to contribute, like Sharon Mesmer [], Michael Rothenberg [], Denise Duhamel [], and Christine Poreba []. We sent out some press copies, too. I figured it wouldn’t generate a lot of press/interest or outrage, but I felt like we should keep the dialogue going . . . but in a creative way.

12 or 20 (small press) questions;

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