Cary Fagan on what sort of chapbook house you want to be

You are the part of part of the editorial collective behind Espresso which publishes limited edition chapbooks. Espresso has released ten chapbooks and uses both modern technology and traditional practices—hand sewn and bound with french flaps or hand-sewn into paper covers. What have you learned in the first seventeen years of running a chapbook press? Talk about the learning curve in chapbook art and publishing. What’s next for Espresso?

Is it really that long?  It doesn’t seem so, because although it’s true we published our first chapbook in 2001, it wasn’t until 2010 that we started to become more active.

espresso came out of an indie book publisher that I was running with my partner, Bernard Kelly called paperplates books.  We published four books over several years but frankly we weren’t very good at running a business.  You know—marketing, selling, distributing.   And the press just sort of ran out of steam.  But Bernard and I would still get together and come up with schemes that were really just castles in the air.

Photo Credit Josh Levine

One day I suggested we try a more modest chapbook.  I’d read a story of Bernard’s and suggested that we publish it.   We’d be able to use our abilities to better advantage, Bernard’s as a book designer and mine as a bookbinder.  (I began to bind books when I was sixteen years old by dismantling a hardcover and trying to reproduce it.  Later I took some lessons from a fine binder in Toronto, but I found that I like the simplest forms best.)  So that’s what we did.  It cost very little compared to publishing a book and instead of ending up with boxes of unsold books, we soon sold out of the 50-copy run.

Since then we have published a total of ten chapbooks and we always have a couple in the works.  What have I learned?  First, chapbook publishing is a lot more fun than book publishing.  You can control things more easily, you can do more yourself, you don’t have to worry about losing a lot of money, and you can spend most of your time on the more interesting aspects of publishing—acquiring and editing manuscripts and producing the chapbooks.

At the same time, I quickly realized that a chapbook publisher is like a regular one in miniature.  We still create a press release, send out review copies.  We often have a launch, where we get to create a memorable literary event that brims with good feeling and a sense that we’re all doing something valuable together.  We keep the website up-to-date, we take in orders, etc.  And we have editorial meetings where we make decisions about manuscripts and talk about authors we might want to approach.

Something else I’ve learned is that a chapbook, published in an edition of 50, 100, or 150 copies, can travel surprisingly far.  As an author, I’ve always known that we win our readers one at a time.  A handsome, well-made chapbook will be carefully read and appreciated by a reader.  It will probably end up in the hands of someone who has a keen desire to experience it.  The size of the readership isn’t always important.

Some work really lends itself to the chapbook form.  A suite of connected poems or a long poem, a series of translations, a story, a short memoir—these work very well as chapbooks.  They might get lost in a larger collection, or might never find the proper format.  And sometimes a writer will be inspired by an approach from us to write something new.  This was the case for the poet Maureen Scott Harris.

Another thing that we’ve all learned is that good manuscripts just don’t appear through our virtual mail slot that often.  We have to beat the bushes.  Sandra Alland, JonArno Lawson, and Don Domanski were all approached because one of us admired the work.  Other manuscripts have come to us, such as Fan Wu’s free translations from the Tang poets, but they are the exception.  And this means that we have to think about what sort of house we want to be.  For example, we like experimental work that plays with language.  But we also like new takes on nonfiction forms.  Who we are, or want to be, is certainly an evolving thing.

You are the author of six novels, three short-story collections, 24 children’s books, and the chapbook of essays What I Learned in Florida published by espresso. I understand that one of the ways you got your start as a writer was self-publishing your work, something that continues with Big Wheel Books, your press that has released electronic versions of your earlier novels. You also work with publishers such as Tundra Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House Canada, and the independent publisher Groundwood Books in Toronto. Talk about your start in publishing and the changes you’ve seen in publishing since. As a prolific writer, what methods help you navigate creative output and the business side of writing?

I was a fortunate and rather protected child growing up in the suburbs of Toronto and I stayed at home for most of my undergraduate years.  But I became aware of the small press scene—little mags, chapbooks, and the independent publishers founded in the sixties and publishing people like Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje—from what I discovered in a couple of downtown bookshops.  At the age of 18, I began to send stories and poems to the journals without any luck and so in the summer of 1977 I decided to start a little magazine of my own.  Not just to publish my own work, but to participate in what looked like a pretty exciting activity.  (I’d also read Bill Henderson’s inspiring The Publish-It-Yourself Handbook and Hugh Ford’s fine study, Published in Paris.)  I chose the unfortunate-in-retrospect name of Harvest, used an IBM Selectric from my father’s office to type the pages, had it fast printed, and even sold it door-to-door in my neighbourhood.  (Sure enough, as soon as I published my own work acceptances came in from other journals.)

My first experience as a publisher of chapbooks came out of the journal.  I became friends with a contributor, the poet Bruce Whiteman, and asked him for a manuscript.  The result was The Sun at Your Thighs, the Moon at Your Lips (Piraeus Press 1978).   Harvest lasted for several years and 13 issues.

In my late twenties I worked as a magazine editor and as a pretty active freelance writer, but my fiction was still being published only occasionally in small journals.  So I decided to publish a modest chapbook (Two Stories, Piraeus Press 1985) I had no philosophy of chapbook publishing; this was simple practicality, for I wanted a sampler to show what I was capable of.   I typeset it myself on a machine at the university newspaper, pasted it up, then folded and stapled and trimmed it.  I sent a couple of dozen copies to writers and editors I had met, gave a bunch away to friends (who were, to my surprise, glad to have something of mine to read), and found someone to take some copies to the independent bookstores.  So already it was a very positive experience.  And then something unlikely happened.  A much-loved Canadian author, Timothy Findley, called me on the phone.  I had met Tiff (as he was called) when he was writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto and so had put him on my mailing list.  On the phone he told me that he was going to mention my chapbook during an interview on CBC television.  Sure enough, the interviewer asked him to name a promising young writer and he spoke for a moment about me.

Later I used the quote on my first books, but in the short term nothing in my writing life really changed.  A year later I was feeling the same frustration and produced a second chapbook, Let’s Not Remember Everything (Piraeus Press 1986)By then I had more experience with magazine design and took more care.  This time I got my first review in a literary journal.

I should mention that all this time I also occasionally published under another imprint, Flying Man Press.  These were always spur-of-the moment publications, printed in no more than 25 copies at the local copy shop and given away to friends.  They were an outlet for my childhood liking for making things and a way of sharing work with an intimate circle.

Some time after that my partner of the time and I started what we called not a chapbook publisher but a limited-edition house, Shaw Street Press. Perhaps that seemed classier, the publications more collectable.  We had a fine letterpress operator and designer, Glenn Golouska, print our first two books, which we hand bound in hardcover and also paper wrappers (which was a lot of work). The authors were very well-known and the books were very handsome although I eventually came to think that they were too much like precious art objects and that my preference was for something that looked more as if it wanted to be read rather than displayed.

At around this time my frustration and gloom reached a peak when a major publisher, after dithering over a novel manuscript of mine for a year, finally turned it down.  I was thirty-one years old with very little to show for my literary ambitions.  But in the last year I had written several stories that I believed were far more sophisticated and mature than my earlier work.  It was my partner who suggested that we published one of them with Shaw Street Press.  And so we did, although we gave up the hand printing except for the cover which I pulled myself at the printer’s, Coach House Press.  And here, once again, I had luck.  Or perhaps it was because I’d been around the literary community as an editor, reviewer, and freelancer.  The chapbook, Nora By the Sea (Shaw Street Press 1988), was reviewed on the front page of the arts section of The Globe and Mail, our national newspaper.

It was a positive if mixed review, but the attention it brought resulted in my first two book contracts.  I’ve always been proud of having published myself first.  Of course, things have changed a lot since then.  No newspaper these days would even consider the novel idea of reviewing a chapbook, not when there’s hardly room for real books anymore.  But on the other hand it’s easier to self-publish, even if there is a glut out there and book culture has faded in importance.   Of course some few authors have used Twitter and epublishing to become bestsellers.  But my goal back then was more modest: to begin a career devoted to writing and publishing fiction.

As for managing a career, it doesn’t feel as if I’ve managed anything.  All I’ve done is to keep writing and then sending the work out, happy when things go well, refusing to get too discouraged when they’re not. I’ve just never given up.  I began writing for kids because I loved children’s books and had a feeling that I’d be good at it.  I didn’t know that I’d turn out to be far more prolific than I was as an adult writer, or that the work would bring in more income than the adult books.

Another bonus of writing for kids and adults is that I always have a number of manuscripts on the go—a novel, some stories, one or more kids novels, picture books.  I can work on one for a few weeks or months, put it down and immediately refresh myself with another.  This is what keeps work alive and interesting for me.  If I feel stale I just switch.  It’s a lifesaver.  Perhaps this has even become more important, with the changes in the industry.  Advances are down, especially for adult work (kids publishing remains somewhat more stable).   The bigger houses are shedding authors.  My last couple of adult books were with one of the rare remaining midsized firms in the country, House of Anansi.   But my next novel will be published in 2019 by a small house, Freehand Books.  But Freehand is a terrific publisher and I admire their books.  For a literary writer, the most important thing is to have a publisher who believes in the work.

Talking with Timothy Green in the interview published in this issue, Meena Alexander says, “So I think the use of poetry is that it’s totally useless. [Green laughs] But it helps us live our lives. It has no use; it has no function except to allow us to live and clarify our lives, if only briefly” (76), and later says, “It’s an art to which you sort of have to give your life” (84). Here Tama Kieves urges the importance of listening to your call to write, noting, “Then work like mad on your craft. Submit. Speak. Grow. And never give up.” Here Melissa Fraterrigo describes what she has learned about writing, including the practice of writing, but also cultivating literature around us. She writes, “If you love literature, you must find a way to keep it alive in your community.” Talk about the call of writing, the practice of writing, and fostering writing where we live.

That’s an awfully big question but I’ll answer some of it, anyway.  Perhaps I’ll focus on fostering writing, which feels most relevant to our conversation.

Just the other day as I was reading about some Norwegian writers a thought I’ve often had came back to me—that the best writers in other countries may never be translated.  Perhaps their work is so centered in place, so referential, that readers who live elsewhere, who don’t read the language, just wouldn’t get it.  Some years ago I read an excellent biography of Chekhov and was amazed by how he used situations, events, and people that he—and his readers—knew in order to create many of his stories.  All of that is lost on us and of course they are still great, but what must they have meant to that first generation of Russian readers!

The point, I suppose, that writing doesn’t have to be ‘universal’ or ‘transcend’ its origins to be great.  And that it’s fine if the best audience for a particular writer isn’t large.  Reading is a solitary, individual experience anyway, not a collective one.  And as a writer, I know that I win readers one at a time.  That’s why I enjoy being part of a community of small press people and why I think that what we do has significance and meaning, even if the audience for our publications is small.  We publish work by well-known writers that might not find the proper form, or by writers who have not been much published.  We might be reaching the perfect readers for them.   I get the same feeling—sometimes anyway—at an intimate reading, sometimes one of ours, in which a poet, say, really reaches the handful of listeners in the room.  I know that I’ve been part of something special.  Perhaps the smallness of the event actually contributed to that feeling.

Now, that’s not to say that having a bigger audience isn’t great, or that we shouldn’t read authors from other countries.  Just today I started Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s The Last Wolf (it’s hard to put down, consisting of a 70-page long sentence) and it’s pretty amazing.  He’s Hungarian, the setting is Berlin, so what am I not getting?  Quite a lot, no doubt.  But somehow I make it my own as I read.  I’m not someone who looks down on larger publishers or big, successful books.  Sure, lots of them are just entertainments but some of them are great.  I once knew a bookseller who thought that my little Flying Man Press chapbooks were the most important thing I would ever do and to be honest I thought he was a little crazy.  There’s no need to excessively romanticize what we do, either.

Photo Credit Mark Reynes Roberts

I’ve been reading some of the chapbooks that Espresso Press has published such as Waters Remembered (2015) by Maureen Scott Harris, Fetishes of the Floating World (2015) by Don Domanski, Hoarfrost & Solace (2016) by Fan Wu, Cold House (2017) by Jon Cone, Naturally Speaking (2012) by Sandra Alland, I Regret Everything (2017) by JonArno Lawson, and your What I learned in Florida (2016). I adore the made quality of these chapbooks—design, layout, covers, illustrations, paper, font, binding—and the writing within each collection. For someone who might be considering starting a chapbook press, would you be able to walk us through, from start to finish, the process of releasing a chapbook? And once it’s released, what happens next? You could talk generally, about one of your recent titles, or one that’s forthcoming.

Our house, espresso, is lucky in that there are three of us involved—myself, Bernard Kelly, and Rebecca Comay.  Most chapbook houses are, I think, one-person operations.  I suppose there’s something to be said for being able to make all the decisions.  And every chapbook begins, naturally, with the manuscript.

Let’s take the one we’re currently working on, Jane Munro’s A Sally Port, a memoir of her father and the house he built for the family in British Columbia after WW II.  A few years ago I bought a poetry book of Jane’s, Active Pass (Pedlar Press, 2010). I’m embarrassed to say that I hadn’t heard of her, in spite of her being an acclaimed poet and winner of the Griffin Prize.  But I loved the poems and so suggested in a meeting that we solicit a manuscript from her.  This is common practice for us; we’re all expected to bring names to the table.

In my email, I always make it clear that we’re not just looking for poetry.  Perhaps the writer has some text that she hasn’t figured out what to do with that might be perfect for us.  Jane wrote quickly back but it was several months before she had the manuscript in shape to send to us.  All three of us have to agree to publish any manuscript, although we are willing to hear a passionate argument from one of us on behalf of something that the others are less sure of.  In this case, we quickly agreed that Jane’s manuscript was a fine fit.  Usually we don’t do any heavy editing but in this case Rebecca felt that the manuscript would be strengthened by dropping the last few pages.   Bernard and I agreed, and so did Jane.

Months later, when it was time to get working on it, I had Jane send us her own final version.  That copy is now in the hands of Bernard, who is both the copy-editor and the designer.  Bernard, who pretty much makes all the design decisions except for the cover stock, will put the manuscript into type and send it to us to approve of.  Of course we can make suggestions.  Bernard also takes it to the printer (the Kinko’s we’ve used for some time has just closed, so we need to find a new place) and when it’s ready I’ll pick it up, being the one with the car.

All our books are sewn and handbound in card-stock covers with flaps.  Unlike a lot of chapbooks, we put a ‘spine’ in our cover by folding—the most annoying part of the binding process but worth it, I think.  Rebecca and I choose the cover stock, which for the last few has been a wonderful Japanese linen available at a paper store here in Toronto.  (Want an attractive book?  Use quality materials.)   Rebecca does the sewing while I cut, fold, and glue the covers on, a process that takes a few weeks of evening and weekend hours.   By now Bernard has come up with several possibilities for the cover label.  That label is what makes our book distinctive and traditional (as opposed to modern or radical, other interesting possibilities).  I cut the labels out by hand but they’re usually self-sticking, which saves me the trouble of applying glue.

It’s also my job to write some copy for the website and for the press release that will go with the ten or so review copies that I will send out.  Reviews are few and far between these days, whereas I used to be able to count on four or five for Shaw Street Books.   But still we try.

Our best opportunity for selling books is at the launch.  Usually we hold them at a local café called Field Trip, sending out email and Facebook invitations.  We always make sure that the book is up on our website for ordering before the invitations go out, in case someone who can’t come wants to buy a copy.  Some launches have been crowded, some not, but all have been lovely, celebratory events.

Some authors don’t live here and can’t come for a visit, and then the title sells more slowly.  Some do a lot of readings and order multiple copies of the book to sell themselves—those are the ones that usually sell out.  Toronto has an annual small press book fair, called Meet the Presses, and we generally sell about 20 copies there (and have a good time schmoozing with our fellow writers and publishers).  And we now have a dedicated poetry and small press bookshop in Toronto, knife/fork/book, which carries and sells our titles, too.  But one way or another our micro-economic model works.  Each title usually pays for itself.  It’s a good thing we don’t have salaries!

I like our way, but I like the way other chapbook houses operate, too.  That is, I like scrappier looking publications, odd formats, etc.  Bernard uses a publishing design program but the person who runs one press I really admire (baseline press) does hers with Word, printing all the copies on her own printer.  I would encourage anyone thinking of starting a chapbook house to plunge in.  Keep your goals realistic, don’t empty your bank account, and you’ll do fine.

Chapbook Bio: Cary Fagan is part of the editorial collective behind Espresso, a publisher of limited edition chapbooks, and the author of numerous books, including the chapbook of essays What I Learned in Florida.


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