July 16, 2010
“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!