Wednesday, July 29, 2020

12 or 20 (small press) questions with Ashley Miller on Mason Jar Press

Ashley Miller is the Content Editor for Mason Jar Press. She lives in the suburbs of Chicago where she is sometimes writing and sometimes editing, but is almost always reading. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts.

Mason Jar Press has been publishing handmade, limited-run chapbooks and full-length books since 2014. The Press is dedicated to finding new and exciting work by writers that push the bounds of literary norms. While the work Mason Jar seeks to publish is meant to challenge status quos, both literary and culturally, it must also have significant merit in both those realms.

1 – When did Mason Jar 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?
            Mason Jar Press started in 2014 when Michael Tager approached Ian Anderson to design the covers of his chapbooks, collectively called The Pop Culture Collection. Ian had been playing with the idea of starting a small press and he liked the collection so much he asked Michael if he could publish them under the Mason Jar Press name, and voila, the press began.
            In the beginning, MJP put together small, high quality projects that highlighted interesting voices. This goal hasn’t so much shifted as much as our vision for Mason Jar has expanded over the years. Our titles started as limited-run, hand-sewn books and have moved to perfect-bound, full-length projects. We are still on the lookout for interesting voices and projects that challenge the status quo, both in subject matter and genre.
            We’ve learned a lot over the years and continue to learn as we expand our catalogue and tackle new endeavors. The important lessons have basically been be cool, do good, and actively listen.

2 – What first brought you to publishing?
            Our core staff members attended the University of Baltimore’s MFA program in creative writing and publishing arts together. We have always been readers and book people, but the MFA program and our experiences with other writers and presses during that time further developed our interests in indie publishing. I don’t think any of us actually expected to become so passionate about publishing, but we keep finding ourselves fascinated with the process, and we love putting out amazing art that may not have found its way into the world otherwise.

3 – What do you consider the role and responsibilities, if any, of small publishing?
            Small publishing, in our understanding, has a responsibility to create space for underrepresented identities, voices, and causes. Do the interesting, strange, quirky, remarkable thing and do it well, with the finesse the author deserves and with the heart larger publishers may not be able to offer. 

4 – What do you see your press doing that no one else is?
            No one else has our titles. That may sound reductive or cheesy, but it’s true; no one else has had the privilege to work with our authors on the exact titles we’ve produced. Each project is important and has been special to Mason Jar and is something only we can offer.

5 – What do you see as the most effective way to get new books and chapbooks out into the world?
            That’s a difficult and complicated question to answer. The world of publishing is changing, and the way of getting the word out there is too. It seems there’s been a recent shift away from more traditional book reviews and marketing strategies and an expansion into virtual events with an emphasis on social media engagement.  We’ve been finding our way like everyone else and we certainly don’t have the answer as to what’s most effective. We’re very curious how to move forward.

6 – How involved an editor are you? Do you dig deep into line edits, or do you prefer more of a light touch?
            Our team approaches each work differently based on what the project and author need. Sometimes a project calls for deeper edits while others only need a bit of polishing. We see pitches and submissions that run the gamut and are excited to work with authors at both ends of the spectrum, but we do tend to bring on titles that are close(ish) to publishable simply for time’s sake.
            Most crucially, perhaps, is that we view each book as a partnership. While we delve into each aspect of a book, we work closely with our authors on every step, from line edits to cover. We want our authors to feel a real ownership of their book, not just the manuscript the book came from.

7 – How do your books get distributed? What are your usual print runs?
            We’ve started working with Small Press Distribution in the past year for our distribution needs. We used to work directly with local bookstores and we still ship directly through our website. Our initial runs are typically around 300, depending on presales and our discussions with the author. Many of our titles go into second and third printings, with those runs being decided on as needed.

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 staff consists of nine people, but our three lead editors (Editor in Chief, Managing Editor, and Content Editor) handle the majority of production work on our titles. We pull others in as needed, especially during open calls or special events. The benefits of having multiple eyes and brains on a project almost always outweigh any drawbacks, as there’s almost always someone to ask for help or to catch an error.

9 – How has being an editor/publisher changed the way you think about your own writing?
Working in publishing means some of us are writing a lot less, not necessarily because we’re too busy, but because we’ve discovered we’re actually editors, not writers, and that’s where we get our creative joy. I’m not sure being an editor has changed how I think of my writing, more so that it’s shifted my creative priorities to working with authors and their manuscripts.

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?
            We don’t practice pulling from in-house talent. We have brought on authors we’ve worked with as staff (Michael Tager is now Managing Editor, Celeste Doaks reads submissions for us and cohosts the podcast, Tomas Moniz is now our Acquisitions Editor) but we won’t publish active staff members. We don’t particularly like the optics of publishing in-house voices, but each publisher has to do what feels right and good to them.

11– How do you see Mason Jar Press evolving?
            Expanding in the e-pub realm is a current thought as we recently started producing e-books, or maybe we’ll get into publishing radical children’s books, or expanding our ability to print art books or graphic novels. Basically, we have no set plan for how we might grow, which we think is important for organic growth and adaptive exploration, but we hope to continue to chase exciting opportunities. Stagnation would be an ultimate disappointment for us.

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?
            We’re super proud of our growing catalogue and staff, and the fact we’re still kicking 6 years later. Having Tyrese Coleman’s How to Sit as a finalist for the PEN Open Book Award was definitely a thrill. Any time we see positive reactions to the titles we’re helping put into the world is awesome.
Our biggest frustration is always the lack of time and energy. Our staff has full-time day jobs and many of us have children and other big responsibilities. There are only so many hours in a day and many times we need or want more than we’ve got.

13 – Who were your early publishing models when starting out?
            Michael and Ian looked to Barrelhouse, Ink Press Productions, and Publishing Genius for a lot of guidance, particularly with contract questions and operating procedures. The indie publishing community helped us immensely when we were first starting out, and our friends in the business continue to share ideas and support us.
            We’ve tried to give back as well when new presses have asked for advice to the best of our ability. So, if you’re starting a press out there, feel free to shoot us an email!

14 – How does Mason Jar Press work to engage with your immediate literary community, and community at large? What journals or presses do you see Mason Jar Press in dialogue with? How important do you see those dialogues, those conversations?
We think community-building and participation are super important. We’re all in this together and we should all help each other out whether that be through signal boosting or event organization or sharing ideas. We have working relationships and friendships with a good number of literary journals and presses: Writers and Words, The Inner Loop, Barrelhouse, Split Lip Press/Journal, SFWP, Ink Press Productions, Fear No Lit, Little Patuxent Review, Writers in Baltimore Schools, and many others.

15 – Do you hold regular or occasional readings or launches? How important do you see public readings and other events?
            We help coordinate release events and readings with our authors for each project as they see fit. We don’t have the funding or bandwidth to fully coordinate and support book tours, and we don’t require our authors to do anything they don’t feel comfortable with, but we do think it’s important to get our writers in front of audiences. We also participate in local events and public readings for this reason.
            Public events are incredibly important and the virtual ones going on now are filling that void. One of our newest authors, Elizabeth Deanna Morris Lakes, launched her book Ashley Sugarnotch and the Wolf via a live YouTube stream and it was wonderful! Interacting with authors and hearing their words adds a very important layer to a book.

16– How do you utilize the internet, if at all, to further your goals?
            The internet is huge for us. It allows us to have staff in various parts of the country and makes it much easier to work with non-local authors and vendors. We take submissions and pitches through the internet, a vast portion of our communication is via email, we make sales on our website, we utilize social media to connect with others, to promote our work and work we find exciting, and to foster ideas and community. We don’t really know how we’d be able to do anything close to what we currently do without the internet.

17– Do you take submissions? If so, what aren’t you looking for?
Yes! We’re always open for pitches and we have regular reading periods, though what we’re open for changes. We were open for fiction collections this year and we’re getting ready to open a call for pitches, since we don’t know what we want next! Tomas Moniz, who recently joined us as Acquisitions Editor, is running that one.
            We frequently describe what we’re not looking for as the story about a white suburban dude struggling with standard white suburban dude stuff. That is unless it’s handled in a new, intriguing, subversive way. Which we haven’t seen yet.

18– Tell me about three of your most recent titles, and why they’re special.
Danielle Zaccagnino’s forthcoming Suppose Muscle, Suppose Night, Suppose This In August is a strange little gem of a hybrid collection. It contains lyrical essays and poetry that weave through dreams and nightmares, euphoria and fear, intimacy and distance, and examines fears, anxieties, and forms of escape. With dreamlike imagery, a unique inventiveness, and emotional clarity, Zaccagnino dissects that which we are too afraid to consciously touch.
Elizabeth Deanna Morris Lakes’ Ashley Sugarnotch and the Wolf is a sparkling collection that presents a narrative between two cosmically intertwined characters in both syllabic and prose poetry. The commanding and hypnotic voices in this collection examine cycles of violence through a lens of myth and modernity.
Malka Older’s …and Other Disasters consists of short fiction and poems that explore aspects of otherness, identity, and compassion across a spectrum of possible existence. Older’s characters grapple with what it means to belong and be othered, to cling to the past and face the future, all while navigating a world riddled with natural and man-made disasters. The stories are familiar in troublesome ways and scratch at our social consciousness.

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