As I wrote in a couple of earlier posts (here and here), I’ve long had an interest in independent publishing. Today I have an interview with an actual owner-operator of one such literary press that I’ve been watching.
David Bowen, with Okla Elliott, runs New American Press, publisher of six chapbooks and the full-length edited collection The Other Chekhov. Three more chapbooks and a book of travel essays are forthcoming.
David is also an adjunct instructor in English at Colorado State University, which automatically endears him to me.
Welcome, David. In a sentence or two, what is New American Press?
We at New American Press hope to carry high the torch of independent publishing, acting as a conduit for the most engaging and innovative writing and writers of the day.
Yes, you’ll need a torch in that conduit; I hear it’s pretty hazardous down there. How and when did you get the idea to start a press?
New American began in 2001 as an arts-support company called American Distractions. There were ten or eleven of us working in fairly haphazard fashion to promote theater, graphic arts, readings, and music in and around Greensboro, North Carolina. We were poised to open a rock-club-slash-lit-hangout under a Mexican restaurant—had just dropped the polished-chrome poles into the stage—when everything fell apart. We had a lot of ideas and energy as a group but lacked the business savvy and financial coordination skills to make such a diverse enterprise work. Okla and I handled the publishing arm of American Distractions, which we recast as New American Press after American Distractions dissolved. Our first choice was to call the press “Kentucky Cyclops Commando Press,” but it turns out there was already a band with that name.
New American is a terrific name—it sounds as dignified and long-running as The Paris Review, and much less French. What sort of time and money did it take to get it up and running?
It’s difficult for me to remember either, but I’d say relatively little money. Maybe two hundred bucks. We still operate on almost no investment cash, though we might be contributing some additional capital later this year to make some improvements as the company gains momentum. We could use new layout and accounting software, and we hope to promote our list more aggressively starting next fall—which means in part more advertising dollars.
What are the costs to keep everything running?
I was going to say that this question is easier for me to answer than the last one—as opposed to starting the thing, keeping it running requires an enormous amount of time and money—but it’s more accurate to say that we’re really just this year constructing our fundamental business apparatus.
So you have a business model?
We had a business model briefly in 2004, but she was wooed back to working boat shows and we never saw her again.
I heard she’s shopping around a manuscript. So how have you been running things?
For the first five years of New American’s life, we were content to run one or two chapbook contests each year—or rather this was about all we had time for. After graduating with my MFA in 2003 from University of North Carolina-Greensboro, I taught writing and lit courses part-time at a couple of campuses in Greensboro, often while waiting tables full-time or writing freelance articles to pay rent. It’s only been the past couple of years that I’ve had the luxury of a teaching contract that promises work for more than a semester at a time, and that’s made some room to work on other projects. Teaching takes an enormous amount of energy by itself, but it’s an even greater demand on one’s stores to be commuting back-and-forth between multiple campuses while preparing fresh job application materials every four months. It’s bad for morale, and it made it hard to focus on developing New American’s potential. At this point, it feels like I work on press stuff almost as much as the teaching—and teaching hours can feel out of control by themselves, as I’m sure you know all too well. It’s been a really busy year.
Are you purposefully moving from chapbooks to full-length books?
We’ve always known we wanted to publish full-length work, but we just didn’t have the means until recently, and there’s still work to do to be sure the books reach the audiences they deserve. We also plan to start an annual full-length contest sometime in the next year or two, but we want to be sure we can offer both cash and promotion enough to do the job right.
Do you have a staff?
The only permanent staff are Okla and myself, though we had an intern come aboard this year from Colorado State’s MFA program. I design the books, and Okla and I share editing responsibilities. A friend of ours designed the website initially, but I hope to overhaul it this summer.
You use offset printing, not print on demand?
We haven’t explored print on demand yet, though it’s on my list. I assume one saves on up-front costs and pays a little more per unit, which would be handy for an independent outfit that operates with such a small volume as ours, but I’ve also heard you sacrifice quality, which New American won’t tolerate. We’ll see.
Our chapbooks have all been printed by Main Street Rag back in Charlotte, North Carolina, and they do great work, but for The Other Chekhov we went with McNaughton & Gunn, largely because we loved the look and feel of The Bitter Oleander, which McNaughton prints.
Does the $12 reading fee for your chapbook contest cover your costs?
The reading fees cover the printing, binding, shipping, and cash awards for the contests, and then there’s usually a couple hundred bucks left over. We squirreled that money away over the years until we finally had enough to do our first full-length, which turned out to be The Other Chekhov. It hasn’t quite paid for itself yet, but it’s created enough revenue that we can move forward with other projects, and it was the catalyst for growth in other ways—we started looking for a distributor in part because we anticipated more sales with Chekhov.
Who’s your distributor?
We’re waiting to hear from Small Press Distribution. We applied to SPD as we were preparing to accommodate Chekhov and the other full-lengths we have planned for the year. We went straight to them because they’re distributing a lot of the books on our personal bookshelves, plus there’s something catchy about their name. It makes them sound friendly to New American’s mission.
How much do you rely on MySpace and other social networking to market the books and establish NAP’s presence? I know I heard of you first through Kyle Minor, The Other Chekhov’s co-editor, who’s a MySpace pal.
That we crossed paths thanks to a MySpace pal is testament to the network’s power to connect people. The essence of MySpace is something we were talking about back when we started American Distractions—the idea of sharing “social space.” You have a friend in a band? I have a friend who paints—let’s have a gallery show with a live band, and that’ll drag in twice as many people and double the audience for both artists. For people working in creative fields, forging active communities is especially important to survival, and MySpace plays a fairly large role in New American’s community-building efforts. Finally, although it’s hard to say exactly how many books have been purchased or how many manuscript submissions have come in thanks to MySpace, being in that sort of environment takes some of the solitude out of work that for years we conducted mainly at a wobbly kitchen table.
How do you decide on your authors?
We read chapbook submissions blind, so the author in those cases just comes with the manuscript we choose. We’re publishing Thomas E. Kennedy’s book of travel essays later this year, Riding the Dog: A Look Back at America, and Miriam Kotzin’s full-length collection of poetry, Reclaiming the Dead, and in both of these cases we were acquainted with the authors and their work, had opportunity to read the manuscripts, and got excited about them. We actually met Miriam through David Slavitt, who was good enough to let us publish a chapbook of his translations, The Phoenix, a few years back, which we’re especially proud of since the publishers for his translations are usually outfits like Harvard, the University of California, Yale. We plan to publish more translations, maybe a series.
In the case of The Other Chekhov, we hunted down the best writers we could find who would also be kind enough to work beneath their usual pay grade—Fred Chappell, Chris Coake, Ben Percy—and we lucked out with a lineup that brings something shiny and new to a horse with some very long teeth.
Now see here, my good man: Dr. Chekhov is one of my primary heroes, so I’m gonna take you to task a little on that book. The Other Chekhov uses the Garnett translations that are nearly 100 years old (and which have come under fire from the likes of Nabokov), the cover is sexed-up, and at least one of the preface writers professes not to have been interested (“Chekhov is one of those writers in whom I have only infrequently found myself…. Everything I read inevitably ends up being about me.”), which sounds like those guys who say they just can’t get into Shakespeare. What’s that book all about?
Chekhov is one of our heroes as well, and as such we believed that the generally accepted view of his short stories—namely, that he wrote nothing but subtle domestic dramas well, and that his other stories were hackwork—was misleading. The Other Chekhov is an attempt to present the grandfather of short fiction in a fuller light. It is taken somewhat for granted that the reader of The Other Chekhov is familiar with the stories more generally considered his best work. We take Pinckney Benedict’s conversion to Chekhov as evidence that our efforts have paid off—he mentions in an interview with Image that he’d indeed like to be the other Chekhov, “the one who wrote those wild stories” about shark attacks, witchcraft. The master of the quotidian is indeed still that, but he’s another kind of master as well, one for which he’s not as well known—and we hope the cover signals that. Plus we enjoyed the reference to “Chekhov’s gun.”
[Chekhov said: “If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act" ( Anton Chekhov: A Life, Donald Rayfield).] You’ve been putting out a chapbook or book every other month. Can you keep up that pace?
We just hit that space on the playing board this year where a lot of options seemed suddenly viable, and we got excited. It’s forced us to learn a lot really fast and work insane hours—our hours are unpaid, I should point out, which makes them all insane—but for the near future we plan to do two chapbooks and a full-length each year, maybe two full-lengths if we reincorporate as a non-profit and start getting grants.
You’re putting out a chapbook soon by this guy I know, Steve Davenport. The essay was in Black Warrior then was shortlisted in the back of the Best American series. I know what the chapbook gets him (believe me, I know and know and know), but what’s it do for you?
Duff Brenna, New American’s final judge in our Fall 2007 chapbook contest, chose Davenport’s "Murder on Gasoline Lake" for publication because he thought it was the best thing in the basket. I’m glad he did on the one hand because the essay’s so good, and on the other because we’ve published mostly poetry in the past four or five years and I want to acquire some prose for our list. Riding the Dog is part of that impulse.
Yes, please tell me about Thomas Kennedy’s new book, which you shared with me in manuscript and I liked very much. Is it a chapbook too or will it be longer than what I saw?
Riding the Dog will be a short full-length essay collection—probably no more than 150 pages—that reflects on the American landscapes of Tom Kennedy’s experience, with a special emphasis on the America in and around New York City, where he grew up. We have one more essay that will probably go in, an account of a cross-country bicycle trip that Tom made back in 1967, but we’re also deliberating whether or not to include some pictures. Tom sent me a portfolio of photographs that he took while visiting America—although he grew up in Queens, he’s been living in Europe since the mid-seventies—but I haven’t had the opportunity yet to scan them in and play with them in a book layout, to see if the pictures still contribute something after they’ve been converted to black-and-white.
Your mission statement on the site says you like “zany,” but I wouldn’t call your books zany. Are you more ambitious than you let on?
If we don’t appear nakedly ambitious, we’re doing something wrong—the first update planned for our new website is a banner announcing our company motto: “MORE FAMOUS THAN OXYGEN.” But I don’t think ambition and zaniness are at cross-purposes. When I think “zany,” I think of Stanley Elkin, Donald Barthelme, John Gardner, Jonathan Franzen, Lee K. Abbott, David Foster Wallace—all writers whose work we should rightly consider ambitious. There’s a zany streak in our first book, David Lloyd’s The Gospel According to Frank—a refiguring of Frank Sinatra’s public persona through Biblical and Celtic myth—but it’s true that so far we’ve published work that is more “intelligent” and “well-crafted” than zany, but this is because 1) zaniness is harder to achieve than craft and intelligence, since to be good it must also have a firm grasp of these other elements, and 2) we’re limited in the chapbook competitions to the manuscripts people submit to us, and it’s evident that folks tend to see the world as tragedy sooner than farce. But for work to be truly zany, it must see the world in both ways at once.
What are you able to offer your authors in terms of exposure, publicity, tours?
We set up a tour for David Lloyd’s book when it came out, but that had mostly to do with certain stars aligning—we were at AWP together in Baltimore, which turned into a couple of reading events, and he was able to secure travel funds through his department to come down to North Carolina to do a lightning tour of the hills and the hollers. The past couple of years we’ve been stirring the online stick and soliciting reviews to generate interest in our authors, but we hope to ramp up our promotion machine next fall to expand New American’s presence and the presence of its authors, in part by engineering a slicker website that invites more traffic. To this end, we’re talking about starting an online magazine, which is a conversation all its own.
A conversation without a whole lot of sleep, I’d guess.
Chekhov once wrote that he thought it’d be easier to live forever than to live deprived of sleep, but since when did we start doing things the easy way?
My thanks to David Bowen. Questions and strong cups of coffee may be directed to NewAmericanPress@gmail.com.
Order these books directly from New American:
David Lloyd’s The Gospel According to Frank
Lorraine Healey’s The Farthest South
David R. Slavitt’s The Phoenix and Other Translations
And be sure to pick up Thomas Kennedy’sRiding the Dog: A Look Back at America, available now at Amazon for pre-order.