Publishing Genius

A graduate student in Baltimore proves that a small press can hit the big time. Scott McLemee investigates.

August 12, 2009

Adam Robinson is a graduate student in the creative writing program at the University of Baltimore. He is a poet, the guitarist for a MySpace-garagist ensemble called Sweatpants, and proprietor of a literary house called Publishing Genius Press – the name of which he admits sounds “bragadocious,” although he stresses that it should be understood as transitive, rather than an advertisement for himself. (In other words, he is publishing works of genius, rather than claiming to be one.) So far, PGP has released 19 digital chapbooks, two stapled pamphlets, and six perfect-bound books, most of them editions of poetry.

This is all impressive enough for someone who is working full time, with another year to go in his MFA program; but it seems fair to say that you would not expect Variety, the trade journal of the American entertainment industry, to take notice of Adam Robinson’s work. But in fact this has happened. Last month, the paper reported that Spike Jonze, the Academy Award-nominated director who is now wrapping up an adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, had acquired the rights to a novella by Shane Jones called Light Boxes, which Publishing Genius brought out in February.

Variety managed to get the name of the publisher wrong, nor did it bother to correct the error when this was pointed out. It might make sense for Robinson to change to the publishing house's telephone listing to “Genius Press” -- at least if it actually had one.

Three or four years ago, not long after he had just arrived in the mid-Atlantic region from Chicago, I met Adam and his girlfriend for lunch to discuss getting started as a writer and publisher. He wanted advice. I am afraid I couldn't give him any. My sense of the publishing world is that there ought to be a sign on the road in saying “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.”

There are certain obvious exceptions – highly specific forms of pornography, political ranting by people already on TV, novels involving vampires, etc. But Adam Robinson's interests were obviously closer to Adrienne Rich than Anne Rice. In any case, thousands of new titles appear each week. The tools needed for this are more widely available than ever before. The challenge involved in publishing now is not to produce books (as such) but to create and sustain a public interested in the fact that you are doing so.

The only possible word of encouragement I could give Adam was that he ought to pursue writing and publishing out of love – and without expecting anything too grandiose, such as breaking even.

A few years and more than two dozen titles later, it seemed time to find out how Adam was managing to do both. Clearly it did not hurt that his creative writing program at the University of Baltimore also encourages students to think about publishing.

“In a first-year class in fall 2006,” he told me, “we were given the assignment to create a non-traditional book, and for that I came up with the idea to hang up poems around the city and call each broadside a ‘page’ of a book that was, itself, Baltimore. The response in the classroom as well as in the city was very good, so I kept it going.”

The result – called “IsReads” – continues with poetry broadsides appearing on public surfaces in Baltimore and Nashville and reprinted in an online journal. A short feature on the project appeared recently in the magazine Poets & Writers.

Adam says he moved on to producing small, hand-made booklets of artwork and poetry that he sold at readings in Baltimore, then produced a combination booklet and DVD of short films by the performance artist Stephanie Barber, which quickly sold its first run of 100 copies, largely via Amazon.

“At the same time as publishing the books and the isReads series,” he says, “I started doing an online chapbook called This PDF Chapbook, which is distinctive, I think, by the fact that readers can read the work online or print the books out and assemble them at home, if they're handy with a printer.”

One of the digital chapbooks is by Blake Butler, a poet who edits the very active literary group blog HTML Giant. It has been downloaded more than 8000 times since Adam published it early last year – another leap in the scale of the audience his publishing enterprise had reached. “Of particular importance with this HTML Giant group,” he says, “is that, since they're writers and publishers themselves, they actually buy a lot of books. I would attribute a vast majority of my sales through this affiliation. Which isn't to say that only people who read that website buy Publishing Genius books. But having that website as a starting point for publicity is an effective tool to reach out into the broader Internet. That's the way it's been working.”

The steady accretion of audience must have reached some kind of critical mass over the past six months, given the response to Light Boxes, the longest volume the press has yet issued. “Written by Shane Jones, a 28-yr-old from Albany who submitted it over the transom,” the publisher says, “the book is about a peculiar community of balloonists who are beset by an extremely long winter. It's about a lot more than that, too, of course. The book came in at a time when I was looking for a 20,000 word story, and it took me a while to read it and get a handle on it and decide to publish it, but I'm really glad I did.”

Following the book’s publication in February, it was selected as a "mover and shaker" at Goodreads and included in their monthly email digest, and also reviewed in Time Out Chicago.

“What happened next still has me reeling,” says Adam. Discussion of Light Boxes in the litblogosphere brought it to the attention of the director of development at Spike Jonze’s production company, and eventually won the enthusiasm of Ray Tintori, a director who has made music videos and a short film that ran at Sundance.

And so now there is big money involved -- or at least big money by a poet’s scale, since I doubt we are talking about anything close to, say, the craft service budged for one day of shooting on a Meryl Streep film. The press is being incorporated as a tax-exempt nonprofit organization with a board of directors. “I've started meeting with four guys who I think are pretty savvy about this stuff,” says Adam. “There's a novelist who is also an editor for a science publisher; a graphic designer who works for the government; a director for a marketing firm and a poet who has been doing small press stuff for 15 years. They guide me in all sorts of decision making, from catalog to brand development. We've also started referring to things like net gain and quarter earnings. Our Q1 started July 1st.”

When people start to discuss “branding,” I always flinch. It calls to mind something out of a Western, or possibly The Story of O. But the press will remain a literary concern – not aiming at Hollywood, since that was a fluke in any case. The publisher says that his next “flagship” book is by Mairéad Byrne, a poet teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design, whose last volume was published by Miami University Press.

Turning the tables a bit, I asked Adam Robinson what advice he would give to anyone who might be thinking of starting a small press.

“The one thing that has made the biggest difference for me,” he said, “has been finding out exactly what kind of stuff I want to do and then finding a network of people who care about those things. Someone just starting out should definitely invest some time in that kind of research and in developing those contacts. For literary publishing, I think the Association of Writers & Writing Programs is a really valuable resource, especially the book fair, where it's possible to make genuine relationships with people from a variety of very specific interests. And then, after finding that group, I think it's vitally important to support the other publishers by buying and promoting their books; it's good karma and it makes them want to return the favor.”

The website for Publishing Genius Press, including a link to This PDF Chapbook, is here.


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