Publishing in the Hudson Valley is a creative act

I started this piece about book publishing in the Hudson Valley a year ago this week. I wanted to interview a young man who had started a business in my town, publishing books. I had spent an evening talking with Patrick Kiley of Publication Studio, wrote a long profile about him, and submitted it with photos.

“It’s about a guy with a copy machine,” said my editor. “What does this have to do with publishing?”

After an attempt to defend myself, my story, and what I found interesting about the pile of books Kiley was publishing, I realized I had to take a closer look at this industry in its smaller forms.

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Publication Studio is indeed what my editor said it was: a storefront operation where Kiley makes books one at a time using a computer design program, a copy machine, a paper cutter, and a hot-glue binder. But it’s also part of a larger idea.

At first the idea was a consortium of publication studios around the world, currently numbering eleven, that would each publish books and then sell them through a joint website, as well as 60 bookstores around the globe. Now it’s morphed. The studios share books with each other by uploading them to a book cloud available in common to all Publication Studios. Any studio then makes and sells any book from that cloud, charging prices set by the studio that originated the book and agreeing, each time, to give half the revenue from each sale to the book’s author.

“A Publication Studio is a workplace where publication happens,” reads the PS website for its studios in Oakland, Portland, OR, Minneapolis, Canada, the Netherlands, London, Glasgow and Sao Paolo, Brazil. “Conversations, socializing, and physical labor lead to books that are available in all forms, material and digital.  The social life of the book is hosted there.”

The guy who founded the PS movement, Matthew Stadler, had run a subscription-based publishing venture for a while. He started noticing the many previously published authors who couldn’t find publishers any more. He didn’t like the idea of self-publishing under the aegis of the large corporations who’ve come to dominate that side of the book industry.  “Stadler’s idea was to make the book when it’s paid for and sold,” Kiley told me. “It’s a lean process, and it’s author-based. I work with the writer to get a book ready, make a digital file and PDF final. Then we print.”

He held up a copy of the first book he published, a novel by Maine-based Douglas Milliken. “It cost about $10 to make the book, taking in costs of paper, glue and a little bit for my time,” he explained. “We charge $20, which gives $5 to Doug and $5 for the studio. We write checks to our authors every quarter.”

I looked through works he’s published by Hudson Valley authors and artists Peter Lamborn Wilson, Matt Bua, Dina Bursztyn and Maximilian Goldfarb.

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What does this have to do with publishing, I asked myself. I contacted people I knew publishing works throughout the region, from the regional presses once focused mainly on local histories and memoirs (Black Dome Press, Hope Farm Press and Purple Mountain Press) to more idiosyncratic publishers working with poetry and art such as Codfish Press, Mayapple, Monkfish, and McPherson & Company. I started meeting with publishers and writers, some of whom had tried self-publishing at times. Eventually, a pattern emerged.

“There is no more important function of writing at this time than to call us to awaken. The state of siege under which human consciousness — human conscience — is living has not abated in the time since Blake wrote,” wrote Codhill founder David Appelbaum back in 1998. “The seriousness of the situation has only intensified. To serve our memory of what is truly important: to that the writer should be a guide.”

Poet Shiv Mirabato of Woodstock’s Shivastan Press, told me how he’d been inspired by the fabled Hanuman Books started by Raymond Foye (another Woodstocker), who got books made in Nepal on handmade paper. Shivastan Press eventually succeeded, drawing some top authors.

“Basically, I do what I can afford,” Mirabito explained. He covers all but the printing costs for most of the works in runs of between 250 and 350. “I want the books to cost the poet $3 or $4 apiece, so they can make lunch every time they sell one.”

Judith Kerman moved her Mayapple Press from Michigan to the Hudson Valley in 2010, 30 years after its founding. Mayapple “focuses on literature not often celebrated by either the mainstream or the avant-garde.” That includes “poetry which is both challenging and accessible, women’s writing, the rustbelt/rural culture that stretches from the Hudson Valley to the Great Lakes, the recent immigrant experience, contemporary Jewish literature, science-fiction poetry, and poetry in translation.”

Poet Sam Truitt, director at George and Susan Quasha’s Station Hill Press, created near Bard College as part of a rambling arts center when a National Endowment of the Arts grant helped the couple buy a rambling old property in the late 1970s. “Susan as a visual artist learned the exigencies of making first-rate books and has remained our designer,” said Truitt. “The early rationale for Station Hill was to publish the poetry of friends, which happened to be the work they liked, and that’s been consistent 250 books later, though with a broader definition of ‘friend’ to include Gertrude Stein, Federico Garcia Lorca and Maurice Blanchot.”

At its most active in the 1980s, Station Hill “had a loose crew of about 40 people producing primo American and European literature via a slew of printing presses,” said Truitt. “Today we publish about five books annually.”

From a business standpoint, these enormous books aren’t immediately profitable. Because they are necessary foundation work on American poetry, they have long-term prospects.

“We are mostly using print-on-demand (POD) printing via Ingram’s Lightning Source, which lowers our going-in cost and risks as well as reducing our in-house storage,” explains Truitt. “but our per-unit revenue takes a hit.”

Truitt quotes Black Mountain College poet Robert Creeley’s statement, “Every poet should have a mimeograph machine.”

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Kingston’s McPherson & Company, which started as Treacle Press over 40 years ago when Bruce McPherson published his Brown University friend Jaimy Gordon’s first novel (she would later win the National Book Award with her third collaboration with McPherson), still follows the more established small-press model, publishing editions in the thousands and continuing its longstanding relationships with key independent bookstores around the nation. Its sole operator notes that his authors are aging as he does, and yet he and they keep winning awards for their high-style literary work.

“It may sound pretentious to say that I simply publish books that seem to me important and worth sharing. But as an independent publisher, without directors and shareholders, I’m free to take risks that others perhaps can’t,” McPherson told the literary journal Ploughshares a few years ago. “I go for the best I can find — or who find me — and throw everything I’ve got behind the books I choose to do. It’s not really all that hard these days to find material of the highest quality. The Big Six still publish excellent books, of course, but seem to have relinquished entire provinces of literature to smaller publishers.”

At lunch in Kingston last winter, the erudite and still-enthusiastic publisher talk about when students in the 1970s published works using mimeograph machines, and then advanced to chapbooks in editions of 300 or 400 copies of their poetry and prose. The small presses began to compete with the larger companies that had dominated literature for the previous half century.

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“Clearly to many of us, the economics of book publishing were no longer working as they had,” McPherson explained. “I held other jobs to make it work, but then in 1984 decided I’d have to take it more seriously and publish more books…I screwed up my courage and went to The New York Times and ended up getting what we published reviewed.”

Over the years, though, McPherson and other small publishers have all noted how their markets and the outlets available to them for getting books out to a reading public have shrunk. He spoke about “always swimming upstream,” and learning “not to expect being in the mainstream any more.”  McPherson & Company, partly fueled by the numbers of writing programs proliferating these days, keeps finding its niche.

“Writing well is much more difficult than basketball,” he told Ploughshares. “Writing exceptionally well is a gift, a curse, a freakish genetic accident, an unimaginable capacity for grace and clarity and vision and imagination and je ne sais quoi.”

Good writing and publishing, McPherson told me, meant “engaging with the culture in a way that means you’re part of an ongoing dialogue where the work stays alive. I’ve always addressed that area of writing and reading. The purpose of literature is to change someone or something in our society. I consider that of the highest value.”

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Each publisher, independent bookstore owner and author I spoke with inevitably pointed to the fact that Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and James Joyce’s Ulysses, D.H. and T.E. Lawrence, Henry Miller, the Beats, and even the monumental Leo Tolstoy all wrote books published in editions of 100 or less, often through presses stashed at the back of enterprising bookstores. Maverick founder Hervey White’s economic lifeblood ran through the publishing endeavors that supported his utopian art-colony dreams.

Self-published have an enthusiasm and adventurousness that many of the works from the major publishers lack. But by and large they don’t engage on deeper levels as consistently, by and large, as the well-curated and cared-for offerings from our small publishers.

“It was only after I flunked out of Cornell University in 1973 that I began to consider myself a poet. Five years later, I published my first collection: Sparrow’s Poetry Coloring Book, a manuscript I hand-printed and illustrated. My friend Belmont Crocodile [I’m using a pseudonym] who worked at a xerox shop, produced the book at night, illegally, while his boss wasn’t looking. Belmont used thick card stock, and bound the pages with Elmer’s Glue. Thus began my career in guerrilla publishing,” recalled the Phoenicia author Sparrow, who also mimeographed a journal for several years and has since worked through several small presses. “No matter how many major publishers retrench, there’s always room on the bottom. And the bottom is where I feel comfortable.”

Kiley’s Publication Studio, which moved to a Troy storefront several months after starting my profile on its maverick operation, had new books to show me each time I visited this year, as well as an evolving series of literary events featuring his authors and the region’s literary crowd. He was sharing his space with his girlfriend’s flower business; it was always cheery, welcoming. He seemed to be managing well, if not on any fast train to riches.

I recall him telling me about growing up in a literary household in MIchigan, where his father taught. He explained his erratic career path.

He’d started off as an English major, dreamed of getting an MFA, or possibly teaching. “My talents ending up bending in some other directions. They were more social,” he told me, trying to explain how he’d become a radical publisher pioneering a new business model, yet also fitting into the legacy of the small presses.

He worked with the Yale University library’s rare-book collection, and later curated exhibitions at the New York Public Library. “Finally I said, ‘Well, I’ve had all these experiences and jobs, some out of the ordinary.’ I think it took me that much time to meet enough artists to understand that publishing is a living activity. It’s something that happens because people want it to. You have a book put in front of you and it feels like it should be there,” he said during a recent visit, his presses running and flowers all around him.

“What I do is not the same as printing 1000 copies and sending them out to some stores as a commodity,” Patrick Kiley told me. “I have to think of relationships and connections. I have to get the book to the right people almost one by one…What we’re trying to prove is that publishing is not just a commercial business but a political act. It’s about the creation of a public for things that one cares about. It’s about using simple tools and your skills as a book maker to make a book happen.”