“You’re going to sell books, in this economic climate?”  In This Economic Climate.  In This Economic Climate.  In This Economic Climate. Really, it’s often like a Seinfeld skit.

You hear many disbelieving questions when you decide to leave a steady job and move to the opposite corner of the country to start an independent publishing company.  But, in return, mine were questions like, when did everyone get so fucking timid?  And when has the economy ever been good for working people?  Yes, I started a publishing company in this economic climate.  That is what I did, now almost one year in.  It feels like five now, and I am so unbelievably happy I did.  But if I may, I’d like to take you back before this last year, to my humble beginnings as a lowly editorial assistant (EA) from New Jersey, and how the path lead me to becoming the proud publisher of Dark Coast Press in Seattle.

That groveling EA position was my first in the publishing industry, it was at Pearson Education.  I uncouthly arrived my first day in cargos and a tee, thinking it would be tacky to wear the one suit I owned, because I’d already worn it to the interview.  It was right after college, when my possessions totaled:  what I was wearing, a carload of books, and a biblical amount of wrinkled bar tabs, still appearing months after my departure from Montreal in my life’s smallest corners and cracks.   That, and the one suit.  My boss made sure I understood this was not the way you present yourself. So off I went.  I got geared up at Kohl’s, learned not to laugh too uproariously at a joke (for fear of making the white shirts uncomfortable), not to divulge personal secrets in a corporate environment, and not to discuss my political views or what I actually did the previous weekend.  I made some good friends (supported on the backs of The Wire and Bruce Springsteen).  That boss of mine turned out to be a decent mentor, teaching me the basics of publishing. But the EA position got old after two years of learning the basics and sending out thousands of review copies.  After months of seeking something (anything really) that wasn’t an EA, I left Pearson Education to be an Editorial Project Manager position at Jon Wiley and Sons in Hoboken.

JW&S was one of the best experiences in my professional life.  It made me realize why I couldn’t possibly survive in the corporate structure, and, ironically, it reaffirmed everything I loved about publishing.  JW&S and I quickly parted ways, and I made the abrupt – and by some accounts, insane – leap into indie publishing.  I started Dark Coast Press.

I called my friend hidden up in the forest on the New Hampshire coast, the author Jarret Middleton.  Jarret and I met in the English program at Concordia University in Montreal, and while I stayed, he left to travel and write.  And aside from our long and fruitful friendship, I ended up being one of the editors that worked on his first novel, An Dantomine Eerly, a psychotic little novel about a dying poet.  This conversation about starting a press progressed through the usual about hockey, alcohol, books, and some philosophic issues.  It became a string of conversations.  We had talked about what it might take.  Our experience having punk rock childhoods had us feeling remarkably DIY and self-sufficient.  Pair that with industry experience, extensive literary backgrounds, and Jarret’s recently finished book, the realization hit that “shit, we might actually be able to pull this off.”  After more detailed complaints about the Boston Bruins, and some serious reflections on the state of the book industry, we decided the most rational thing for us to do was to start our own company.

Our logical conclusion was that, no matter what, there will always be a need for good books, even “in this economic climate” people will always need “someone” or some entity to facilitate good books.  The publishing industry as it stood (and currently stands) was in constant fear of the electronic movement which we grew-up with.  The industry itself was stuck in the past and we wanted to take an active role in progressing it forward.  We wanted to bring back the heart which used to be the driving force of the book world.

Bags and dog in the car, I drove to New Hampshire, and lived in Jarret’s basement for one month.  The next month, he lived in mine back in New Jersey.  During that time, we drank and did market research, we drank and actually learned how to start a company.  We wrote and wrote and wrote an incredibly detailed business plan.  The first draft weighed in at nearly 100 pages. What the hell does a 100-page business plan for publishing company cover, you might ask? Well.  How much money do we need? Where the hell are we going to get it?  What are we going to call the company? Where are we going to start the company? Why? What are we actually going to do?  What are we going to sell?  To who, and why would they buy it? The list went on.  Graphs were abundant.  But in the answers to those questions a picture started to form of what we were actually creating.

We knew if we started our company in New York, we would be unnoticed and out of money before we even got rolling.  In Boston, the literary scene was disparate (though with great aspects) and mostly dominated by Universities.  With its obviously literary reputation, my research set on Seattle.  Seattle is one of the most literate cities in the United States.  On average, Seattle has up to five book readings a day.  It has the most independent bookstores per capita.  And the most library card holders per capita, too.  There was no middle-sized, independent fiction publisher.  We love fish, coffee, and beer (although I miss Dunkin Donuts, and good Irish pubs).  Our list narrowed to one.  Seattle it was.

We named the new baby Dark Coast Press, after a line in Ezra Pound’s First Canto (‘Elpenor, how art thou come to this dark coast? Cam’st thou afoot, outstripping seamen?’ And he in heavy speech: ‘Ill fate and abundant wine!’)  Yes, we knew he was talking about Africa.  But Seattle made quite a good stand-in for one shadowy coast for another.  We set out under the banner of literary fiction, fiction, poetry, essays, and experimental works.  But our list will most certainly include every genre under the sun as we continue to grow.  Simply put:  we publish books that we like, period.

And so that was the start of something fun and serious, a devotion to literature that, in desperate times, is just desperate enough to work.  We are here, still at the beginning of a long and crash-ridden road to publishing excellent books.  In our first year, we established our office in Ballard, created the company’s identity/logo (done by the wonderful Rachel Blowen), set-up a web presence, edited/proofed/designed/and printed 3,000 copies of An Dantomine Eerly, shipped off hundreds for review, created new approaches to marketing campaigns, signed a national sales & distribution contract with Ingram Publishing Services (IPS) for all Dark Coast’s titles, made a bad-ass book trailer, and signed (to date) two new titles for Spring of 2011.  We also watched the Bruins suffer one of the most devastating playoff losses in NHL history, and subsequently drank a ton of whiskey.  Now Dark Coast Press is nearing its one-year anniversary.  I imagine this anniversary is the same most start-up independent literary fiction publishers face.  That is:  We’re still here, and hopefully we can stay.  We are learning everything there is to learn about this industry to make it better.  We are becoming relevant.  We are releasing good books, and have our sights set on more.  And we love every single second of everything we do.  Just please, keep reading!

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AARON TALWAR is the publisher and co-owner of Dark Coast Press, a literary fiction publishing house in Seattle (www.darkcoastpress.com). He has been profiled in The Stranger and Shelf Awareness as an exciting, up-and-coming indie publisher. Aaron has an unhealthy exuberance for good books, Guinness, and hockey. The fact that he was born and raised in New Jersey contributes to his foul mouth and obtuse sense of humor. He lives in Seattle, WA.

23 responses to “The Apparent Insanity of Ambition or, How I Started an Indie Press”

  1. You’re making me want to move to Seattle… Sounds like a great place.

    Good for you taking the risk to start an indie publisher. The world really needs more of these for the sake of quality literature.

  2. dwoz says:

    See?

    New Hampshire really is the spiritual birth mother of the whole universe. Too bad everyone leaves home.

    Hey, when you get right down to it, what is publishing anyway? Get some paper. Make it dirty with ink. Find people who will trade cash money for it.

    And what is it today? Move some electrons around! Be a stone blocking the flow of the river of entropy.

    Can’t really be THAT hard, right?

    Best of luck in it!

  3. Art Edwards says:

    As a self-publisher, I quit calling it “this economic climate” years ago. It’s *the* economic climate, and as long as there’s not a lot of cheap money out there, it will always be tough. I don’t care if you’re selling literary fiction or trying to be a plumber.

    Do what you love today, and hope you can do it tomorrow. That’s as good as it gets.

    Art

  4. Inspiring, Aaron. I too believe the death knell is more a self-perpetuating excuse than a reality. I do as much as I can to hold up my end in my little office in Fremont. I’ll keep an eye out for your titles in the local shops.

    • Aaron Talwar says:

      Thanks Sean. Keep an eye out for the book and if it’s not on the local bookshelf it will be. Do you stay in Seattle most of the time or are you in San Fran? If you are around I would love to meet up.

  5. Simon Smithson says:

    Aaron! That’s so badass! I’m hugely impressed by this.

    I didn’t know that about Seattle, but, given my love for all things organised and neatly-set-out, I throw my full faith behind anything that has a one hundred page business plan.

    Rock, man.

    And welcome to TNB!

    • Aaron Talwar says:

      Oh man. You should have seen the look on the investors and bankers faces we gave the business plan to. It was like a deer in the headlights. Thanks for the welcome.

  6. jonathan evison says:

    . . . i met aaron for a beer and we talked business, and i gotta’ say i was really impressed . . . he’s a smart dude with great instincts . . .

  7. […] named the new baby Dark Coast Press, after a line in Ezra Pound’s First Canto (’Elpenor, how art thou come to this dark […]

  8. Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

    Aaron, props to you for take a wild leap “in this economic climate.” This was a well-written read and especially fun for me since you are, apparently, my homeboy. I’m from North Jersey, have lived on the New Hampshire seacoast and, in fact, know the precise location of Pearson Education, where a friend of mine also began her editorial career. And, well, everybody knows Hoboken. (I’m totally confused about how a Jersey native becomes a Bruins fan — LET’S GO DEVILS — but I now live in California and mostly don’t care about sports anyway, so we can be Canadian about it and not go to war.) Very cool news about your new press.

  9. Aaron–hi from one deranged, masochistic indie publisher to another. It’s an oddly great life, isn’t it? I co-founded Other Voices Books in 2004, out of a lit mag I’d been running for years, and I wouldn’t trade it, in any economic climate.

    Hey, do you know Bryan Tomasovich in Seattle? You probably already do. He runs Emergency Press–and is also my editor (for my collection, Slut Lullabies, that just came out in June.) In fact, he’s publishing another TNBer soon, Erika Rae, too. You two should definitely hook up if you haven’t. Evison could set that up, or let me know and I’ll send you Bryan’s email address.

    Rock on.

  10. angela says:

    i didn’t know that about seattle! and having moved from the east coast to the west coast recently, i totally miss dunkin’ donuts coffee.

    congrats on your venture and your escape from the corporate world.

  11. Bryan is at [email protected] and tell him you’re a TNBer and I sent you and you’re in Seattle: you two should definitely sit down together over some scotch.

  12. Deb Devlin says:

    Aaron, you wonderful soul !!
    “De reir a cheile a thogtar na caisleain”
    It takes time to build a castle !!

    The fruitful friendship has turned into a brillant partnership,( Watch out Seattle )

  13. Aaron Dietz says:

    I’m glad you chose Seattle–it’s a good place for some things to happen, and jeez people love their coffee here. It’s practically illegal to separate someone from their coffee, health code be damned–I was shocked, amazed, and happy when I saw several people carry their coffee cups right into a movie theater. Sweet heaven!

    A good place to read books for sure. And do meet up with Bryan Tomasovich–he’s my editor also. Ask him about all the crazy stuff he’s doing–technically impossible for one person to do so much, but he does it somehow.

  14. Aaron Talwar says:

    Aaron. You have such a wonderful name. The coffee culture here is so organic, I love it.

    I am meeting with Bryan today and I am really looking forward to it.

  15. potato butt says:

    This is seriously awful grammar. The phrasing might be even worse.

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