New Directions in Publishing: Victor David Giron and Caroline Picard on Chicago’s Indie Publishing ExplosionBy Gina Frangello
November 19, 2011
Everyone knows something’s afoot in publishing. What that “something” is—Armageddon vs. opportunity; corporatization vs. a leveled playing field brought on by technology—depends on who’s talking. Perhaps these things are all true simultaneously. Nowhere is the change in publishing more evident than with the explosion of the “micropress” over the past decade, especially outside of the traditional hubs like New York or (in the indie arena) Minneapolis. These days, few American cities don’t boast their own independent, micro or DIY book press—or a couple dozen—which are often tied to vibrant reading series or online communities, and only rarely affiliated with universities or other larger institutions.
The upshot of this explosion is myriad and diverse. On the one hand, it is easier than ever before for talented, dedicated writers to find publication, even if their work may not appeal to the trade market of New York. With more and more books coming out from vibrant new presses that have their fingers on the pulse of technology and social networking, “buzz” has certainly become something you no longer need an ad in the New Yorker or a NYTimes book review to achieve, and indie press books can become cultural sensations and attract the kind of press once reserved for those in inner-circle old school publishing. On the other hand, most of these upstart publishers have little-to-no actual funding: with shrinking grants/donations in this catastrophic economy, the resources that kept “the arts” afloat in the 1990s is usually elusive—at least initially—to a spanking new micropress with no conventional distribution. The book industry is moving to further and further extremes of the economy—celebrity writers attract advances in the millions while most fiction, creative nonfiction and journalistic writers (and even editors) work for what would amount to less than minimum wage per hour, or even entirely for free. This widening gulf reflects, of course, much also happening elsewhere in our culture. Consequences of a book industry outside the traditional economic model are both perilous and boisterously beautiful.
My hometown, Chicago, has proven very much a mirror for this nationwide cultural zeitgeist. Once a city of thriving, vibrant newspapers, but with almost no fiction-book-publishing culture, our major papers now downsize and file for bankruptcy (having already all but shuttered book review coverage anyway)—but there is more than one reading series happening every night of the week, and micropresses are taking to farmer’s markets, bars, galleries and storefronts to hand-sell their books as a labor of love that simply can’t be shut down no matter what the economy dishes out. Here, I was able to sit down with two of the young visionaries of Chicago’s indie publishing scene, Victor David Giron of Curbside Splendor, and Caroline Picard of Green Lantern Press, to get their take on how this all started, what it means, and where it’s going.
TNB: Hi Victor and Caroline! I’m so excited to do this with the two of you—you’ve both been so active in the Chicago indie press renaissance that’s revitalized our city’s literary community these past five to seven years. I remember when Other Voices Books [the press I founded out of the longstanding literary magazine, Other Voices] launched in 2004, we were basically the only fiction-focused publisher with a Chicago address. Then featherproof Books burst onto the scene, too, and it seemed suddenly like Chicago caught fire in terms of upstart independent publishing, as well as reading series’ affiliated with different publishing ventures. Would each of you be able to talk about what brought you to publishing—what inspired you to start your own presses, and what, if any, impressions you had of Chicago as a publishing city during your own coming-of-age (which can mean whatever you want it to mean: your childhood, your college years, your formative years as a young writer in your twenties . . .)
Caroline Picard: It’s something I’d always wanted to do, actually but when I finally decided to stay in Chicago for an extended period, the fantasy got some teeth. I had been house sitting in Chicago for about a year already, but when I started looking around for an apartment of my own, I found this Milwaukee Avenue loft, where I still live now. It was the perfect place to open an apartment gallery—something I’d also always wanted to do—and I called up an old friend of mine, Nick Sarno, to asked if he’d want to start the press with me. For me the gallery and the press went hand in hand, and actually I think the affiliate communities bear a number of striking similarities as well. The energy of this city, the incredible wealth of cultural activity that happens, along with its DIY ethos, makes it possible to leap into projects headfirst. It’s a very supportive city. Knowing, for instance, that featherproof and Other Voices, and other apartment or start-up galleries can manage made me more brave than I think I’d felt before.
Victor David Giron: I started Curbside to publish my first novel Sophomoric Philosophy (Nov 2010), when I discovered one could do such a thing, start a small press. My background is not in writing / publishing at all, far from it. I’m a CPA and a bar-owner, but have wanted to write a book for as long as I can remember reading them. I’ve always put that desire second to wanting to be financially secure, for a number of reasons, though I kept on trying to write a book in my 20s while working as a financial consultant. I’ve always been attracted to people that are artistic, and have had many friends that are either musicians or artists, but I never really knew anyone who wrote seriously or was familiar with publishing, so to me writing was a very solitary thing, until I met my editor RA Miller about four years ago. As Miller and I worked on finalizing SP, he suggested I try to write short stories or take excerpts of the book and have them published in literary journals as a way to add credibility to myself as a writer. It was during this process that I discovered the world of literary journals and small presses. I found it all quite daunting, but very exciting, that there were all these entities publishing literature that I never knew existed. It drove me to want to start my own and forget trying to get SP published the ‘traditional’ way. It wasn’t until I started hosting literary events at my bar that I discovered so many great presses and literary journals existed right here in Chicago! I was completely blown away. So much so that I approached the Chamber of Commerce of my neighborhood, Logan Square, about selling books by Chicago presses and authors at the local farmers market, something I’ve now been doing since February. At the market every time I’m there I’m always fascinated when people come and observe the table and are astonished at how beautiful all the books are and that they’re all made by Chicagoans. So my perspective on Chicago publishing is all very new, very now, and I’m still blown away by it all.
TNB: Caroline, Green Lantern Press is dedicated to what you call a “slow media” approach. Can you talk more about that, and the ways in which running a press or supporting literature is also a kind of political endeavor or philosophy for life?
CP: Yea! I make really small editions—usually from 250-500. The editions of 250 I think of like chapbooks; the editions of 500 usually have silk screen covers. I often try and include images from contemporary artists as well—one or two color plates of an artist’s work that somehow complement the text—so like I’m about to publish a book that investigates the relationship between sound and language by Gretchen E. Henderson. I sent Gretchen some images of Carrie Gundersdorf’s work—Carrie makes these amazing paintings and drawings of light frequencies. And then the three of us talked about how sound waves and light waves might resonate (i.e. how Carrie’s image might influence the experience of the Gretchen’s text). I think about the book as a curatorial site in a way, like how can it be an intimate and portable gallery space? What does an aesthetic experience mean if it’s created by the culmination of different visual, textural (i.e. different kinds of paper) and textual elements? How do you make the cumulative experience seamless, so that no one element of the design is announcing itself? That’s what I go for. I also commission screen printers to make the covers. They almost always have free reign with cover design. That’s another aspect of the project that is really exciting for me, perhaps especially in the way it illustrates a necessary dialogue between the printers and the author’s work. Suddenly one book starts to represent a whole ecology of independent (and often local) effort. Of course this does relate to a personal philosophy, though I’m not sure how I’d codify or describe it except to say that I love having this personal relationship with culture and because I’m so small, I look for projects that wouldn’t make sense on a grand scale—like I love detective murder mysteries, but if one of those crossed my desk (unless it was really weird) I probably wouldn’t publish it: in that instance, it’s likely a bigger publishing house would do better by that book. I try to focus on idiosyncratic texts, albatross projects that resist a definite category. Books that might blow you away if you found them in a thrift store, or an occult shop, or a hostel because they’re unexpected. Like I published an old newspaper from 1821 that had been made by Arctic sailors who were icebound for 8 months. That’s like a crazy (to me) awesome project, but there’s no way we’re going to sell 10,000 copies of it. And maybe it’s more exciting if it’s this quiet little secret?
TNB: Victor, I mentioned featherproof earlier, and it suddenly strikes me that Curbside Splendor is reminiscent of the way those guys—Jonathan Messinger and Zach Dodson—exploded onto the Chicago lit scene in a myriad of ways, with their book press, through reading series’ and Jonathan’s role at Time Out Chicago . . . you seem like a similarly busy and multi-faceted guy! Curbside is simultaneously running an online magazine, a book press, and you’re hosting so many literary events at your bar, The Beauty Bar, that it’s quickly becoming “the” destination for events-lit in the city . . . plus you’re heavily involved with the music scene. It’s interesting because you’re very “indie” but very ambitious at the same time. Talk more about your goals, and what you hope to achieve, either in Chicago or in general.
VDG: I’m a hard-working guy, most certainly to a fault. I remember before my first day at work after college, going downtown in my suit, and my dad was like “hey, remember, show them you’re Mexican.” I find that sort of attitude driving everything I do and has thus far resulted in my having a fairly successful career in business. And I’m trying to bring that sort of attitude toward what I’m doing with Curbside. In the beginning, when I didn’t really know what I was doing (not that I totally do now, there’s still a ton I’m learning) Curbside was just something I was doing on my own. But as I started publishing work by others I quickly realized I needed to bring on staff to help develop and fulfill this vision that I started having for CS. At first my friend Stephanie Waite Witherspoon was helping me out, but she unfortunately had to step aside. Recently I’ve been able to bring on Jacob S. Knabb, Editor-in-Chief of Another Chicago Magazine, as a partner in charge for developing our book catalog, along with editors Lauryn Allison and Leah Tallon, and I feel like we have a nucleus of a strong like-minded team now. My friend Garett Holden, a multi-media artist based in New York, has been helping CS by making reading videos and curating the art we’re publishing, and my other friend Karolina Faber has been doing some great design work. Like featherproof, which does such an amazing job at what they do, I see one of CS’ goals to make beautiful printed books. However, I’m interested in making it be a multi-media experience, online and in print, and a place that publishes art and literature that’s accessible, easy for non-literary types to get into, and ultimately celebrates this idea of urbanism, of lives intersecting lives, and reflection. I’m also very interested in utilizing contemporary publishing tools like print on demand, e-books, and paying artists on a royalty structure to make the business profitable and sustainable, making it be so that those involved are rewarded if the projects are successful. Though I’m excited with what we’ve done thus far and the projects we have in store, we’re very young and have a long way to go.
TNB: Would each of you tell me about a specific project you’re working on, and how it exemplifies the mission of your press?
CP: I’m still super excited about this new collection of short stories I published by Erica Adams—they’re sort of like this sexy, almost Victorian fairy tales. Each one is quite short and in each piece, the first person protagonist has to negotiate some new trial. But you know, it’s like everything’s a little bit off—like there are twin sisters the protagonist hangs out with who keep monkey doubles in cages in the basement. Or the creepy man who comes to dinner and give the little girl dolls in front of her parents. Sometimes the protagonist becomes an animal because she doesn’t want to get married. In other instances her father cuts off her hands, in another story she tries to drown her brother—it’s awesome. Super creepy, really beautiful imagery. On top of which Erica is this incredible collage artist, so we were able to integrate some of her visual work throughout the book. Ach! I could talk about it forever, but really it just comes down to me loving my job.
VDG: Ok, but I need to tell you about two. First, we just published Piano Rats, a debut collection of delectable prose poetry by a 20-something Chicagoan that calls herself Franki Elliot. She’s not from a writing background, in fact up until this book has never been published before, but her work is strikingly accessible and real, awkwardly reflective, and I loved it immediately. The book was designed by a fantastic Chicago artist Shawn Stucky and thus meets the idea we have of combining art and writing. The second is Chicago Stories : 40 Dramatic Vignettes by Michael Czyzniejewski, coming out in April 2012. It’s 40 short fictions told in the persona of a famous Chicagoan, from Barack Obama to John Hughes. It’s designed and illustrated by another great Chicago artist Rob Funderburk. Stories of the city, lives intersecting lives, art, all very Curbside. We have a few more projects lined up that I’ll keep to myself for now. I’d love to work on a slam poetry compilation at some point. Also, an urban, techno-themed adventure or surrealistic novel, something like that.
TNB: How necessary is it for literary writers and publishers these days to be involved in multi-media or cross-arts collaborations? For example, Caroline, you’ve partnered with radio programs via your reading series, and talked about how most of your audience actually came to you via those podcasts rather than the (smaller number of) bodies in the gallery attending events in person. Are we in a literary age where some way of “broadcasting” one’s words out into a wider, non-local community is simply a must?
CP: It probably just depends on your goal. I think in general there is a great push for collaborative efforts. It’s sort of like an ethical pill that dropped in our water supply—and I don’t think it’s just in writing. I think it’s probably prevalent in most types of work, certainly it’s present in the art world and I have heard it’s in the world of philosophy too—probably medecine and probably science: we are encouraged to work and think in groups; while I hadn’t thought about it before, incorporating a range of mediums is probably another extension of that same line of thought—and, I’ll be honest, I love it! I love that I live in a time where people are collectively inspired. Just as I love that I different forms of low-impact self-publishing (twitter, facebook, ebooks, blogs) are such a vibrant part of life right now. As you pointed out it’s something we’ve all benefitted from tremendously, i.e. the more people are engaged in a thing together, the bigger the audience, the more that audience is then likely to grow, splinter and form other flanking groups: suddenly we have a big and vibrant Chicago literary scene. It’s awesome! And at the same time, I don’t think it has to be necessary. Maybe it’s just fashionable right now—I mean, I could imagine trends shifting in another direction…I like the way collaboration can help mediate self-interest, just as I like the way it facilitates relationships, but I also think that independent thinking and aesthetic freedom are important. While I’ve always had a hard time defining my goal before I got there, I can imagine someone being interested in a very rarefied aspect of writing or art—say oil painting (what do they call them, “Painter’s painters”?) and all they do is make oil paintings and no one who doesn’t know about painting has any clue why this dumb thing is of value, but the people who do know painting, they’re like, “O my. Wet on wet paint! What a sexy paint maneuver!” And then they fan their faces like children caught with a dirty magazine.
VDG: Cross-collaboration makes sense to me, I think it’s necessary, and I just find it very interesting from an artistic point of view. I love the idea of combining art forms, love seeing how an artist interprets a written work with an illustration or a video. I view writing as not just a form of communicating stories, emotions, or histories, but as a way of documenting them. And the way this is done is obviously changing and though I’m used to and prefer printed books and CDs / albums, I realize that the way we absorb all this information is rapidly changing. I’m excited about how with technology the doors of expression are opening, allowing for some pretty dynamic collaboration of different art forms. Sure some things are lost in the process, but as artists I think we need to figure out how to use these forms to our advantage.
TNB: The term “micropress” is thrown around a lot about independent presses that are largely run by only one or two people, or that aren’t distributed in a conventional manner (i.e. Consortium, PGW) and instead have smaller print runs that are sold mainly through events or online. While the vast majority of micropresses are not earning money and remain “labors of love,” this form of publishing also seems to be flourishing—exploding—in an age when big chain stores and distributors are going bankrupt, and high profile editors, publicists and even entire imprints in corporate publishing are being pushed out. Sometimes I wonder—with some joy but also a fair amount of trepidation and anxiety—if publishing is ceasing to be an “economic” model and if the future of publishing is entirely grassroots, DIY. This might mean good things artistically and in terms of community-forming, but it could also mean that writers, editors, publicists, copy-editors, and everyone else who has managed to broker literature into a living would be out of a “salaried” job, and it would become completely impossible to make, publish or promote literature as a primary occupation. What do you think of that imagined future? Will it ever play that way? And if it did, would that be a loss, or a cause for celebration?
CP: It just seems like the system as we knew it wasn’t working. It also seems like that system hadn’t really been working for a while—I have a friend who used to work at a Barnes&Nobles in 2003 and he used to come from work talking about how the company was cutting corners. Even then!(There is a great project around those empty stores, actually, called Fleeting Pages . I don’t think the closing of Barnes&Nobles is due to the failure of the book. I think it has more to do with an endless appetite for more and more. It’s impossible to create and maintain a business if you have to each year generate more revenue than you did the year before. While I think of that impulse as part of our cultural make up, to some extent that impulse is creating so many problems—even environmentally. As a die-hard optimist, I think of this time now as being one of transition and change, not necessarily demise. We have an opportunity to navigate this unstable ground and redefine what we need from the book, how we want to create and (even) sell it. The world of publishing has seen other types of change in other decades, like I came across this article ages ago and it’s hilarious how excited everyone is to make a sexy and (kind of) outlandish office. They had tons of money back then! Now we like don’t have any, so we’re in a different situation. What happens now is very much up to us—the people who are working within the book world and those who support us. I like it because I feel like it means we get to make up at least some of our own rules. Speaking of the future, though, I really love this post about our future– even if it is a little depressing.
VDG: My sense is that publishing is going through the normal pains of evolution from a “business meets technology” point of view. Big companies that have established business models get comfortable and only focus on maximizing investor or shareholder wealth. Thus when new forms of doing business arise through technology or other means, their natural instinct is to resist instead of spending and time and money into new unproven business models, so they tend to ignore or even stifle new models that are arising around them, until its too late and, sadly, fall apart. So I think that’s what’s happening now in publishing. I find it fascinating that even websites like Newpages.com that claim to support independent publishing scoff so at ‘micro’ or ‘print-on-demand’ presses. You have a lot more tools now so someone like me, who has no clue what publishing is all about but is motivated, can in a relatively brief period figure things out and start a small press, and because of that there feels like there’s an explosion of it. But over time as these new business models are evolved, you’ll probably see a contraction of these micro presses, though it does seem like there will now be more opportunities for creative folks who want to share their art to connect with others, and that I think is a very good thing. I terms of current professional being fearful of not having a job in this new paradigm, skills like editing, communicating and branding, reaching a certain audience, are going to be needed. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to deploy them in this new way of publishing.
TNB: Tying into the last question—how do you make it fly? Where do you get the money you need to do what you do? Grants? Parties with a cover charge? Donations? A day job whose salary you channel in towards publishing endeavors? In this economy, what on earth would possess anyone to be a micropublisher? (And if you can answer that one, I may give you a prize, since I’ve been asking myself the same question for more than 15 years, as a small publisher myself!)
CP: The nice thing about making small editions is that the overhead is significantly less. And to be honest, when I started I didn’t make any money. None. Now, seven years later, the first 2 books I published have paid for themselves. The third one is a close follower-up. So it’s a long game, and the sales are slow, but if you make a good book, especially with such great readers out there—people who are dedicated to independent presses—it works out OK. I work off of grants (The Green Lantern Press is non-profit) and private donations and book sales. Most recently I also started an on-line book store, The Paper Cave, where I sell other indie press titles in addition to Green Lantern titles. It’s another mechanism to try and gain more financial independence in the distribution game. And, man, every six months or so SPD, (my main distributor) mails me a check and that is a really fucking sweet day.
VDG: For me, as I have no clue how the NFP business model works, I’ve financed it myself through my day job as an accountant. I have though found that using tools such as pre-orders are helpful to ease the financial burden, and I’m working towards a model where publications pay for themselves, and also trying to incorporate designers and artists into the royalty-like structure, in cases where it makes sense. And also, with the added staff to Curbside, I definitely see party / event promotion as a way to generate revenue—plus it’s a fun way to do so. I love seeing people get together and mutually enjoy an event.
TNB: On a closing note, let’s talk Chicago. With Nelson Algren and even, to some extent, Hemingway claimed as “local” writers, we’re a city with an illustrious literary history . . . but for many, many years, Chicago seemed dormant as a book city. We’ve long been passed over on many corporate-publishing-sponsored book tours, and the mainstream coverage of books in our print media/newspapers has been radically downsized in recent years. Ten years ago, I often felt a little depressed that even much smaller cities like Minneapolis seemed to have a far more vibrant book culture than Chicago. I feel like this has really changed, and that Chicago now has some of the most exciting literary series and small publishers in the country—we also have many thriving writing programs (I think Columbia College Chicago’s may be the largest in the country), and some pretty damn high profile writers living and working here, like Sasha Hemon, Audrey Niffenegger, Joe Meno. Yet we remain a city that is largely “off the radar” of mainstream/corporate publishing. What do you, as Chicagoans, wish other people knew about Chicago as a literary city, and what makes you excited to be here?
CP: O man! It’s cheap! It’s awesome—there are tons of people working on tons of very cool projects. I think because it has been overlooked for so long, and maybe too because of its industrial working class roots, combined with a colorful activist past there is a really interesting DIY spirit. People are compelled to make their own culture here. No one is waiting to be discovered. I think that sort of thing is happening in other easily overlooked cities as well (I was in Providence this summer and it has a pretty vibrant, idiosyncratic art scene, as I’ve also heard does Detroit) but the incredible thing about Chicago is that there is an audience! And many of the cultural producers in the city have ties to academic institutions, so I think there are some institutional threads woven throughout the every day grass roots dialogue. Because of the overall (and relative) affordability of the city, people can take risks to explore the consequences of those institutional voices in their own way. And suddenly you have a great music scene, a dynamic literary scene, an art scene, an experimental theater scene—all within the guise of our shared, Midwestern, concrete jungle. It’s so so cool. I love it here.
VDG: Well, as a life long Chicagoan who has travelled quite a bit but always felt most comfortable calling this place my home, I do like to think that Chicago is welcoming. It’s liberal, and as Caroline says, there’s a loyal audience here whether it be in music, art, sports, literature. People who live here and practice artistic disciplines are hard working, usually balance it all with a life full of responsibilities, and I think it shows in the work that’s produced and the events. Before writing and publishing my thing was music. Back in the early 00’s I just remember how many shows and bands there were all the time, so many great venues to enjoy indie music at, and there still are. Now with writing I realize the same sort of thing’s going on where there’s all these events and people attend and get into them. I’ve been to a few events outside of Chicago and they pale in comparison. So it’s fun if you’re a writer or lover of words, it’s great, and it’s here now.