Joe Pan, better known to the small press world as Brooklyn Arts Press, rarely enters his books into consideration for the big literary awards—one book, once a year, tops. For a one-man publisher with a yearly operating budget of under $20,000, the risk, he said, is rarely worth the rare reward. “When I make a decision to submit a book to a prize like this, it [costs] around $125,” Pan said, referring to the submission fee for the National Book Awards, to which he submitted an uncharacteristic two books this year. “Some of our books cost $800 to produce,” he added. “So it’s the difference between using a quarter of the funds delegated to another book to send a book out for a prize, or just holding onto that money and using it for the next book.”
But in the case of Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Becoming Human, which took home the NBA for Poetry in November, the risk paid off.
Pan founded Brooklyn Arts in his apartment in 2007 as a vehicle for publishing his own first book, Autobiomythography & Gallery, long before self-publishing was in vogue. He was “shocked” when The Performance of Becoming Human was longlisted for the NBA; when it made the shortlist, a representative at his distributor, Small Press Distribution, joked that if the book won, Pan might have to find another distributor to meet demand. Since The Performance of Becoming Human was published on April 1 of this year with a 500-copy printing, Pan has gone back to press six times—including three very small print-on-demand runs and a post-win run, tallied at 5,000 copies, intended to meet a bump in sales—making the collection Brooklyn Arts’ biggest book by far.
“It’s been a wild ride,” Pan said. “When you submit a book for an award like this, you never expect anything. I’m immensely proud of Daniel and the book, and I think it’s really big for small press publishing more than anything.”
This is the first major prize a Brooklyn Arts author has won, putting Pan, in his words, “in new territory.” But thanks to the camaraderie of the indie publishing circuit, he wasn’t left adrift, with both Joseph Bednarik from Copper Canyon and Fiona McCrae from Graywolf, among others, reaching out to provide advice on how to handle meeting the demand for the book without going broke. This sort of mutual support is typical in the small press universe; Borzutzky’s prior publisher, Steven Motika at Nightboat Books, was one of the first people to advise Pan on how to run Brooklyn Arts.
Pan says that the press first caught the eye of the mainstream last year with The Word Kingdom in the Word Kingdom, an experimental-poetry collection by Noah Eli Gordon, which was published in paperback and sold using a pay-what-you-want scheme. “In order to put yourself out there [as a small press], you have to resort to guerilla-marketing strategies and tactics,” Pan said of the approach. “We try to make more money so we can publish more books, but we’re really about getting these books out there.”
That sentiment—books and authors before money—is one Pan prides himself on. “There are a lot of amazing books right now being published out of apartments,” Pan said. “I have a small office with a futon in the back where my friends sleep when they’re in town, which is often. To me, this is the heart of literature. This happens all the time in people’s houses. This is where the writing happens.” He added that many small presses actively depend on each other, often coordinating cosponsored readings and other events: “All of these small presses are my community, and we do try to help each other out.”
“I have a friend who’s a successful writer who told me, ‘All cream rises to the top,’” Pan said. “Well, no it doesn’t, because I’m surrounded by cream.... There’s a huge new wave of small publishers our size that have been working under $20,000 a year to produce what I think of as the poetry of the future.
“We get to take risks that big publishing houses don’t,” he added. “If something is crazy wild and experimental, I don’t have to sell 5,000 copies of it to validate its existence.”
One National Book Award for Poetry later, that strategy seems to be working just fine, but it was a long time coming. Pan began publishing the works of friends and others in 2008 and 2009, when he was also the codirector of a small art gallery. (The press, ever eclectic, also publishes art books and monographs; it will put out a rock album in 2017.) In 2011 and 2012, after the worst of the recession had finally subsided, Brooklyn Arts began ramping up, publishing between six and 12 books per year—fiction, poetry, essays, and anything else Pan wants to publish. Some years, Pan was sifting through 800 submissions, with only his wife, Wendy, and the occasional intern or for-hire reader or publicist to lend a hand. Pan handles publicity, marketing, design—everything—pretty much on his own.
It’s a labor of love, but a full-time one. Pan has no day job, and his work for Brooklyn Arts routinely takes up the bulk of his weekends. “I take on editing gigs when I can,” he said. “I teach a Brooklyn Poets class once a year.” (Brooklyn Arts will publish the forthcoming Brooklyn Poets Anthology, edited by Pan and Brooklyn Poets founder Jason Koo, in 2017.) Some of the struggle has been diminished by digital publishing and by the availability of POD. “Digital publishing has changed publishing,” Pan said. “It allows people like me to exist. I can create something, I can put it into InDesign, I can upload it as a PDF, and suddenly, I can get it to anybody.”
And while Pan still relies on his printer, McNaughton-Gunn, for major print runs, he turned to POD to meet the immediate demand for Performance, and after being sold out the book was up on Amazon again in three days. “If it wasn’t for that, I would have lost thousands of dollars in sales,” he said—although POD’s utility won’t stop Pan from using traditional printers. “It’s important to do both, and it’s important to me that places like SPD , which are helping out small businesses like mine, get their money. It’s important that we utilize these places that want to help us.”
Almost a month after his press’s first National Book Award, the win is still fresh in Pan’s mind. He believes the themes of Performance—immigration and violence—are vital and of the moment. “I think it’s incredible that it won the NBA, not just because it’s from a small press, but because it shows us some really gruesome truths and it refuses to look away,” he said. “It’s an important book.”
Even after winning perhaps the biggest prize in American literature, Joe Pan of Brooklyn Arts Press won’t slow down. “I work,” Pan said. “And I write.”
This story has been updated with new information and for clarity.