Small Press Is Beautiful

BükAmerica If Thomas Paine were to publish Common Sense today (assuming such sedition would be permitted), where would he distribute it? Car washes, hotels and coffeehouses, say Gary Kornblau and Lisa Lyons. The co-publishers of L.A.’s newest press, Bük, are relying on those unlikely literary venues to revive Paine’s unlikely literary form, the pamphlet. Neither a book nor a magazine, Bük comes in 16- and 32-page formats that showcase exactly one piece of writing: an Edith Wharton short story, a Jonathan Swift essay or a collection of Lynn Davis photographs, for instance. “We’re trying to give a great piece of writing its own venue,” says Lyons, an independent art curator married to experimental novelist Richard Grossman. Having organized shows at the Getty and directed the Lannan Art Program, Lyons is accustomed to dealing high art; she’ll now broaden her efforts by peddling great works of literature for $1.49 a pop. At that price, Lyons hopes enough readers will pay at the car wash for what they might download for free at home. Bük’s first-edition print runs are in the tens of thousands, unthinkable figures to most book publishers.


Much more on L.A.'s indie press:

Doug Harvey on Feral and Process

Kristine McKenna on Tosh Berman

Josh Kun on 826LA

Anthony Miller on bridging continentsand Ethiopian dreams


Pursuing such a broad audience means that Bük’s content probably won’t spark many tea parties, but former Art Issues publisher Kornblau says his industry needs a new model to engage readers. A model like Hollywood’s, let’s say. “Bük is not L.A.-centric,” says Kornblau. “Bük is a national publication, but the idea of bringing great material to a mass audience is very much in the spirit of Los Angeles.”

Perceval Press Maybe we’ve just got one too many trilogies on the brain, but the name of this Santa Monica–based art, criticism and poetry press (and the best-known role of its founder, Lord of the Rings star Viggo Mortensen) suggests an urgent heroic quest. Still, of the dozen handsomely designed books Perceval has published since its 2002 founding (which include Weekly contributor Anne Fishbein’s Russian photographs, On the Way Home), fewer document epic journeys than whimsical career divagations: a planned trio of kids’ books by sociologist Mike Davis, a first book of paintings by poet Rene Ricard, a collection of urban photos by Dennis Hopper, a few avant-garde noise CDs, a book of horse photography from Mortensen himself. There may be a higher political purpose to Pirates, Bats and Dragons, Mike Davis’ tale of three kids who join a U.N. research mission to a magical land suffering under a war on terrorism, but its polymath publisher (who, besides battling for Middle-earth, is a poet, painter and experimental musician) denies any agenda but quality publishing. “Perhaps the attention derived from the publication of Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation has given some people the mistaken impression that we concentrate on overtly ‘political’ or ‘progressive’ material,” Mortensen tells me via e-mail, referring to Perceval’s recent collection of anti-Iraq-invasion essays. Though Twilight’s contributors are all heroes of the progressive Round Table — anti-corporate activist and journalist Naomi Klein, historian Howard Zinn, and former diplomat and Bush administration critic Joseph Wilson — Mortensen promises that Perceval “will remain open to publishing new and different material as well as points of view.”

Santa Monica Press For independent publishers of any medium, struggling to carve out a reputation for themselves, niche marketing may be the only safe approach. But don’t tell that to Santa Monica Press publisher Jeffrey Goldman. “I once sat in a seminar by somebody who only published books on eating disorders,” recalls Goldman. “I said, put a gun in my mouth if I ever have to publish just books on eating disorders.” A brief glance at Santa Monica’s catalog, which ranges from the prank manual Atomic Wedgies, Wet Willies, & Other Acts of Roguery to Loving Through Bars: Children With Parents in Prison, to Redneck Haiku (“Wedding night fireworks/as Flo’s ex-husband threatens/to bring back the kids”), reveals a definite eclecticism, if no books on bulimia. “I publish whatever I want to publish,” says Goldman. “That’s the beauty of being an independent press.”

TOKYOPOP's publisher and editor-in-chief, Mike Kiley TOKYOPOP Manga may be an acquired taste for American adults, but for many preteens and adolescents, it’s more like crack. With nearly 28 million Japanese-style comic books in print, TOKYOPOP is hooking them early, all because of an accident of publishing. Back when TOKYOPOP rival and Japan’s largest manga publisher, Viz, began translating its titles and importing them to the U.S., it flipped its look, fearing American kids wouldn’t go for the traditional Japanese right-to-left layout. When he founded TOKYOPOP in 1997, CEO Stuart Levy decided to save on the costs of producing new artwork and kept his manga in the traditional format. The gamble paid off, and the result is a Marvel in the making: Manga is publishing’s fastest-growing category, and TOKYOPOP has too many merchandising tie-ins to list: T-shirts, dolls, cell-phone wallpapers. It helped, says TOKYOPOP publicist Susan Hale, that Levy distributed his manga in malls, where the comics found their way to some of their most fervent admirers, teenage girls. “American comics are a dying breed for geeky guys,” says Hale. “Manga stories are very emotional — a girl’s parents got divorced and she doesn’t know how to cope with the separation. The characters may have superpowers, but they use them to help with a crush on a boy, not save the world.” Hence TOKYOPOP’s most popular title, Princess Ai, a manga serial co-written by Courtney Love, who, like Levy, fell in love with manga while living in Japan. Hollywood is next, Hale predicts. “Manga is nothing but storyboards,” she argues. “Manga stories are adaptations waiting to happen.”

Equator Books Other local indie presses may aspire to be the City Lights of Los Angeles, but Venice’s Equator Books is one of the few that operate, like the beatnik mecca, as a bookstore-cum-publisher. “It’s a throwback, because all the old great bookstores in Los Angeles published,” says publisher Michael Deyermond, who adds that former Black Sparrow publisher John Martin provided advice and encouragement. With only three titles in print — novel The Egotist, story collection Happy Holly by Equator co-publisher Philip Fracassi, and a novel by New Orleans journalist Michael Patrick Welch — the press’s literary-fiction catalog is in its infancy. Still, the 3,500-square-foot bookstore-gallery-reading space is just begging for a few good writers to “Howl” about.

Red Hen's Kate Gale Red Hen Press If poetry is dead, it’s certainly leading an active afterlife. “We felt L.A. needed more of a literary voice,” says Kate Gale, explaining the inspiration for Red Hen, the city’s most active poetry press (offering 20 titles a year). “As a publisher you can complain about what your city doesn’t do for you, or you can decide what to do for it.” Hence, the nonprofit press’s contribution to L.A.’s poetry culture: awarding $10,000 annually in literary prizes, producing a heavy schedule of writing workshops and publishing the estimable Los Angeles Review. Like many poetry publishers, Gale is hunting that elusive game, a more mainstream readership. Unlike many poetry publishers, she’s finding poets who just might have the right stuff, such as African-American poet Doug Kearney. “His work has mythic underpinnings, but it’s somewhat ghetto. So when he gets up, he’s got music in there, opera and hip-hop and rap,” says Gale, who believes publishers need to support, not impede, a new crop of less-academic poets. Regarding this generation gap, Gale quotes her favorite lines of her favorite poem, by Philip Larkin: “ ‘They fucked you up your mum and dad/They may not mean to but they do;/ They give you all the faults they had/And add some new ones just for you.’ That works for families and communities, literary and otherwise,” she says.

Gorsky Press At the next Gorsky Press reading you attend, beware the flying bottles and chairs. The publisher, which culls many of its authors from the zine world, often holds readings at the most seemingly unliterary of venues, punk rock shows. “A big brawl erupted at one of them in Texas,” recalls Gorsky’s gleefully anti-establishment editor in chief, Sean Carswell. “Well, it’s not like Barnes & Noble is opening its doors for us.” Oblivious to the indifference of chain bookstores, the press treads where larger publishers might not, such as the juvenile corporate prank letters of Rev. Richard J. Mackin’s Dear Mr. Mackin. That Gorsky author and former zine writer Jim Ruland managed to win an NEA fellowship last year for his forthcoming short-story collection only serves to prove Carswell’s thesis: Books are really just glorified zines, anyway. Green Integer Green Integer sounds like a superhero, and is, to those who lament the disappearance of foreign poets from their bookstore’s shelves. Douglas Messerli operated the highly regarded Sun and Moon Press for 35 years, publishing Paul Auster’s and Russell Banks’ first novels. After Sun and Moon closed because of financial difficulties, Messerli started Green Integer in 1997 and puts out 30 to 40 titles a year. Why then focus on unprofitable poetry translations? “It’s important for Americans to understand what’s happening outside the confines of their own culture, through the perceptions of other writers,” says Messerli.

He recently published a trio of new Paul Celan translations, an anthology of international poetry translations, and plans on bringing forth an untranslated Balzac novel. Balzac may not save the world, but as novelist Jonathan Safran Foer recently opined on KCRW’s Bookworm, apropos the war in Iraq, “I wish we would send fewer diplomats and fewer soldiers and more translators.” Seismicity's Guy Bennett and Paul Vangelisti

Otis Books / Seismicity Editors With their independent funding, university presses are an ideal venue for avant-garde fiction — or would be, says Seismicity publisher Paul Vangelisti, if enough funding were there. “In the last 20 years, literature has been suffering greatly,” says Vangelisti. “There was interesting publishing being supported by the NEA, but when Reaganomics took hold, it suddenly started drying up.” Fortunately, Seismicity Editions, a project of Otis College of Art and Design’s graduate writing program, has located an unlikely source of capital: the French government, which has paid for the publication and translation of several works by French authors. But the press, which Vangelisti says serves as “a suitable and dignified form of publicity” distinguishing Otis from myriad other MFA writing programs, isn’t neglecting American writers. Seismicity recently published Ken McCullough’s story collection Left Hand, which won a Minnesota Writers award, and is co-publishing urban theorist Norman Klein’s Freud, Coney Island, and Other Essays with UC Irvine. Baby Tattoo The plot of Baby Tattoo’s forthcoming kids’ book, Gris Grimly’s Lemony Snicket–esque Little Jordan Ray’s Muddy Spud, might seem based on the challenges of starting a small press. A boy tries to sell his family’s last possession, a dirty potato, only to find himself forced to trade it for an old sock and a host of other useless items, never quite managing a profit. But for the publishers of Baby Tattoo, husband and wife Bob and Rani Self, business hasn’t been quite that tough. “I’ve been able to build a successful publishing company by treating L.A. like it’s a small neighborhood,” Bob Self says. “If you look at Grimly’s Wicked Nursery Rhymes, I found a noteworthy illustrator here in L.A., got a blurb from Clive Barker and found a distributor just up the street. It’s interesting that people see L.A. as unnavigable, when it’s all here.” The challenge, according to Self, is having the persistence of Little Jordan Ray. “Big publishers can afford to do some books they don’t believe in. Small publishers have to believe in their books,” he says. To that end, Baby Tattoo isn’t overly obsessed with genre. In addition to three children’s books already in print, the press has published Justin Jorgensen’s Obscene Interiors, an art book offering satirical commentary on the sometimes unfashionable background décor of online personals ads. “All our books are of strong artistic merit,” Self sums up his catalog — not referring, we hope, to the rubber plants and Naugahyde couches. Angel City Press For a town as obsessed with images as L.A. is, classic urban histories such as Mike Davis’ City of Quartz or Robert Fogelson’s The Fragmented Metropolis tend to be short on pictures. Fortunately, the catalog of the 13-year-old Angel City Press supplies the missing visual aids. Titles like Santa Monica Beach: A Collector’s Pictorial History and Wilshire Boulevard: The Grand Concourse of Los Angeles belong as much on the coffee tables of dedicated L.A. historians as on those of their California-dreaming friends back East. That’s no accident, according to publisher and ex–L.A. Times reporter Paddy Calistro. “The press came out of the realization that New York publishers give short shrift to Southern California,” says Calistro, who thanks local organizations such as the L.A. Conservancy and the L.A. Public Library for availing their rare-photo collections to her authors’ cleverly packaged scholarship. Who was Gaylord Wilshire? What was the District Attorney’s Office like in 1850, back when it was a one-man operation? If you give these “high-quality nonfiction gift books” away as suggested, you’ll never find out.

Dan Cullinane

Alysonbooks Even after 25 years of operation, the queer press’s most famous title may still be Heather Has Two Mommies, the 1989 Alyson children’s book that helped satisfy Jesse Helms’ curiosity about gay families. (Helms denounced it from the Senate floor.) Despite the widespread vandalism and theft of library copies, Heather still managed to sell over 35,000 units. The real happy ending for Alyson marketing manager Dan Cullinane, however, is that “the world is so different now — there’s so nothing controversial about being gay anymore.” Times have changed. Original publisher Sasha Alyson, who sold the company to Out and The Advocate publisher LPI Media in 1995, now leads adventure hiking tours. Barnes & Noble now carries such racy Alyson titles as the forthcoming how-to orgy manual, Sex Parties 101. The press, which now puts out a formidable 50 titles a year, is also moving into the mainstream with such hetero-friendly titles as Party Like a Rock Star (Even When You’re Poor as Dirt), written by a fired dot-commer who managed to do just that, journalist Camper English. (“ ‘A great place to score cash and loose change is under the bar,’ ” Cullinane says, excerpting from the book.) But Alyson is and always will be a queer press. Says Cullinane, “We’ll always do fiction, history and erotica, though how and what we publish will reflect changes in the community.” Cloverfield Press Given the inherent difficulty of establishing a new novelist or short-story writer’s reputation, few small presses dare to take fiction as their métier, at least at first. Newcomer Cloverfield is throwing caution to the wind by inaugurating its catalog with a New Writers’ Series of short fiction. Cloverfield markets its limited-edition books as objets d’art, pairing works by emerging writers (Miranda July, Carol Treadwell) with handsome illustrations from artists at similar stages of their careers. “My wife and I started Cloverfield for the same reasons that drew me to independent film,” says Matthew Greenfield, producer of indie films Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl and Star Maps, and husband to writer and Cloverfield co-publisher Laurence Dumortier. “There’s a lot of incredible work that wasn’t getting out there. We’ve always believed in the single short story as its own medium, and now we’re getting a chance to test that out.”

Tom Fassbender and Jim Pascoe live in UglyTown. UglyTown Crime pays. That’s the lesson to be learned from the success of crime-fiction publisher UglyTown, which, after a decade of publishing mysteries and thrillers, has two dozen titles in print — no small number for a small fiction press — and is launching a new kids’ imprint, UglyKids. (The imprint will specialize in G-rated kids’ stories, not self-esteem books as the name might suggest.)

UglyTown began humbly, as many small presses do, with a vanity project. Back in the Internet boom days, when companies needed “content,” UglyTown publishers and former Hollywood freelance writers Tom Fassbender and Jim Pascoe decided to create themselves the ultimate business card, By the Balls: A Novel, publishing under the pen name Dashiell Loveless. “We had this notion that as long as we’re making this business card, writing and printing it, we might as well publish and distribute it,” says Fassbender. The team, who subsequently collaborated on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic books, decided to forgo the “content providers” title for something more archaic, “book publishers.” “We thought what we’d like to do is offer the wisdom and knowledge we’ve learned over the first two years to like-minded writers,” adds Fassbender, who, in his quest for books that have “a higher purpose than straight mysteries,” looks to greats like Raymond Chandler. “She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket,” he quotes. Maybe Chandler’s narrator was just feeling the spine of an UglyTown mystery.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories