With minimal staffs and tiny budgets, independent poetry presses exist on the margins of the publishing world. But that fringe existence allows them to take wild risks and create new models for publishing and promotions. PW spoke with six emerging presses to get an insight into their nimble thinking, and to see which of their strategies might work for mainstream publishers.
Find Paths to New Audiences: Button Poetry
The Minneapolis poets who launched Button Poetry in 2011 were initially interested in capturing readings and performances on video. They began using social media to put these videos in front of nontraditional poetry audiences, to great success. When Button posted a recording of Neil Hilborn performing his poem “OCD” to its burgeoning YouTube channel, the video went viral, drawing comments first on Reddit, then on Huffington Post, Gawker, BuzzFeed, and other sites; the video has garnered more than 11 million views to date.
Button has built on its social media successes and expanded into publishing; titles include two by Hilborn, and Black Movie by Danez Smith, who recently won a Kate Tufts Discovery Award.
Editor Michael Mlekoday says that Button seeks out poets whose work bridges the gaps among performance, page, and academia; taps into conversations already happening inside our culture; and creates “a profound emotional catharsis.” He believes the audience for poetry is much wider than commonly thought—and the more than 500,000 subscribers to Button’s YouTube channel probably agree.
Get Personal: Bloof Books
After a brief stint at Random House and a longer one at Soft Skull Press, Shanna Compton founded Bloof Books in 2006. (The name is an obscure comic book sound effect, which Compton chose for the fact that it had very few associations.)
Bloof is small by design—Compton is a one-woman shop and publishes a few hand-made chapbooks and full-length collections a year, which allows for a focused, personal, and flexible approach. “Every book is a new experiment,” she says. “Each one is a unique thing.”
Compton acknowledges that, as a result, it’s hard to put Bloof’s sensibility into words, though perhaps the through-line is in the poets’ desire to communicate with an actual audience and not be too insular. Poets on the roster include Danielle Pafunda, whose poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, and Jennifer L. Knox, whose poems have appeared in the New York Times and the New Yorker.
Knox is also Bloof’s top seller. Though print runs for Bloof books are small, usually under 500 copies, each of Knox’s books has been reprinted multiple times, except for the most recent, Days of Shame & Failure, which is headed that way, thanks in large part to a December review in the [em]New York Times Book Review.
Bloof’s personal touch means that authors are involved at every stage of the publishing process and have absolute refusal at every level. “That could easily go wrong,” Compton says, “which is why I spend so much time working on those relationships.”
Build Your Community: BAP
In an effort to highlight diverse and emerging voices in the Brooklyn writing scene and beyond, poet and novelist Joe Pan started Brooklyn Arts Press nine years ago, as the self-publishing world was gaining steam and digital printing made smaller-scale publishing more affordable.
BAP, which has a handful of editors and a stable of about a dozen readers, encourages authors to read and promote their work widely, and to explore crowdfunding, which Pan says is not unlike a month-long sale that helps keep a book in front of an audience. That audience, because of its role in bringing the project to life, can ideally evolve into a community.
“It’s not just a business,” Pan says. “You give back as much as you take.” At the end of 2013, he rallied local artists and writers and launched Brooklyn Artists Helping, now an annual initiative to aid the homeless during winter.
BAP also maintains close relationships with other local presses. For instance, Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, who founded the Operating System (see “Open Source the Creative Process,” at right), worked on the interior and cover design of Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Becoming Human, an April release from BAP.
“We’ve many times sat around discussing new avenues of marketing, spitballing ideas, and coming up with ways we might help small presses better benefit their communities,” Pan says of DeSilva, “and have sold each other’s books at conferences when the other couldn’t make it.”
BAP has also experimented with nontraditional pricing models, in order to get more books to more readers. The publisher initially released National Poetry Series–winning poet Noah Eli Gordon’s collection The Word Kingdom in the Word Kingdom as “pay what you want,” an experience Pan describes as “terrifying.” But it worked. The people who paid 50¢, Pan says, were balanced out by the people who paid $20, and the book has gone on to be one of BAP’s bestsellers.
Open Source the Creative Process: The Operating System
In 2013, artist and poet Lynne DeSilva-Johnson brought her background in academia, technology, and business consulting to the founding of the Operating System. Her goal: to apply principles from the design world and the open-source software community to book publishing—and, maybe, to reinvent it.
The Operating System publishes its books with Creative Commons licenses, meaning that authors retain their copyrights while allowing noncommercial copying and distributing of their work by those who couldn’t otherwise afford it.
“It’s part of a desire to teach people to invest in and support the work, people, organizations, and efforts they believe in,” DeSilva-Johnson says.
She wants writers and artists to share their creative processes with one another and the world, and to that end, she and several contributing editors encourage their authors to build their creative processes into their final products. A recent example is There Might Be Others by choreographer Rebecca Lazier and composer Dan Trueman.
The book, which came together in a matter of weeks, documents the creation of a performance piece based on composer Terry Riley’s minimalist masterpiece “In C” and includes the dance and music score, performer instructions, guiding principles, and notes from Lazier, Trueman, and others.
Forge Unusual Alliances: Commune Editions
Commune Editions was formed in 2013 by three poets, Jasper Bernes, Joshua Clover, and Juliana Spahr, who were involved with the Bay Area’s iteration of the Occupy movement, referred to by some as the Oakland Commune. Clover and Spahr were already very well-known in the poetry world, and Bernes had published a well-received book with a small press. All three saw a niche for a new kind of poetry press for the current political moment.
“The poets were hanging out with activists and anarchists and communists, and vice versa,” Bernes says, and he and Clover and Spahr also realized they were all writing about their political experiences. Commune’s first three books were the three editors’ own, which form a kind of poetic and political mission statement. Cheena Marie Lo’s A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters followed, and work by other poets is on the way.
Like Mlekoday at Button, Commune’s editors say there’s a wider readership for poetry out there. “There’s an assumption that most people don’t have the tools to appreciate poetry,” Bernes says, “and that’s not true. Many people are moved and excited by poetry’s use of language.”
To help spread the word, Commune is active on social media, and at readings, political events, and small book fairs, and has begun offering free PDFs of some books.
Though there’s been some pushback from writers worried about the marriage of poetry and politics, Bernes says, “You can have aesthetic value and political import together.”
Publish for Love: Argos Books
Argos Books was founded in 2010 by three poet/translators—E.C. Belli, Iris Cushing, and Elizabeth Clark Wessel—who met in Columbia University’s M.F.A. Program. They starting making chapbooks by hand and now publish full-length collections, with an eye toward unusual voices, projects that don’t fit into traditional genre modes, women writers, and works in translation.
The three editors only publish books that they love, and they take on projects without thinking of the financial bottom line. “Our connections to each book are aesthetic and emotional and intellectual,” Clark Wessel says. But, she adds, they do make money on the books. Not every book pays for itself, but most books do, and those pay for the ones that don’t.
Amber Atiya’s The Fierce Bums of Doo-Wop, a hand-bound chapbook, is a recent critical and commercial success that sold out its print run quickly. Similar to a number of Argos poets, Atiya came with a small following already in place, which was a huge benefit and gave Argos something to build on. “When she reads,” Clark Wessel says, “everyone in the room becomes a big fan.”
Gibson Fay-LeBlanc is the author of Death of a Ventriloquist (Univ. of North Texas) and a freelance writer and teacher living in Maine.