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Remarkable Times: An interview with a ‘glass half-full dinosaur’

What takes place within the inner workings of an independent press? And how and why would anyone ever become the publisher of one? In the following interview, Atticus Books publisher Dan Cafaro describes the experience of publishing exciting, quirky books with an overflowing abundance of passion and less than ample funds.

 
 
I understand that, before you started up Atticus Books, you were an independent bookstore owner. What prompted you to make the leap from selling to publishing?  

I’ve been a vagabond bookman for about 18 years now. I first learned the bookselling trade as a matter of survival, both creatively and professionally speaking. I left my first newspaper job (as a sportswriter with The Record in New Jersey) when I was 27 because my newlywed bride’s job brought us to Pennsylvania. Out of sheer impulsiveness and utterly blind initiative, I decided to try my hand at entrepreneurship. As an undisciplined man of letters, I mostly wanted to follow my muse, but I knew that I also needed to make a buck. Along the road to cultural enlightenment, I kept writing (freelance courthouse gigs, bad poetry, one-act plays, rambling essays) because it was all I really knew how to do.

 I elected to thumb my crooked nose at reality…

Words, of course, are nothing but nourishment to writers, so I inevitably developed an insatiable appetite for books. Being outbid on an unprofitable used bookstore was what first prompted me to explore opening my own bookshop. A more sensible person would have taken one look at the financial books of the business for sale, crossed himself in gratitude for the appearance of a stooge with deeper pockets, and gone on to pursue gainful employment! I elected to thumb my crooked nose at reality and began acquiring used books in droves.

After experiencing firsthand how intrinsically rewarding but insanely hard it is to make a living hand-selling books, I returned to my editorial roots with an HR trade association. When the publisher asked if anyone on staff was interested in spearheading a books program, I leapt at the chance. Once I observed how the sausage got made from a technical and due diligence standpoint, I was on my way to understanding how to run a publishing operation. It was like falling head-over-loafers in love.

 
 
It states many times over on the Atticus website what sorts of things you’re looking for in a potential publication. After reading The Law of Strings, as well as all of the descriptions of your books, the stories you select appear to be diverse and innovative in their own ways. I was wondering, though, if there is any common thematic thread that connects the books you choose for publication. How did The Law of Strings match your sensibility?

There are many reasons that I quickly scooped up this collection before another press claimed rightful co-ownership. Steve Gillis is a writer’s writer with a magnanimous spirit and a bloodied lip. He’s a magician with words and his narratives are fluid and unconventional. His approach to storytelling is both twisted and endearing. What I like most about his writing, I think, is that when you’re immersed in the literature, it truly feels like the world has been turned upside down and he—ever the bohemian alchemist—is omnisciently present at your side to help you find your footing. And then he playfully shoves you off the ledge with nary a safety net in sight.
 
In an interview with annarbor.com, Steven Gillis is asked why he didn’t publish The Law of Strings through his own press, Dzanc Books. He answers that he wanted to avoid self-publishing and that, luckily, he received many offers upon the completion of his collection. Do you often solicit writers you like for their manuscripts, or was this an exception?

As a person who bends rules after he breaks them, I very rarely solicit writers for fear that they may accept. In the case of Steve’s book, he sent the manuscript unsolicited with a very personable and clever query. Unlike most manuscripts with which I sit on for several months, I immediately grabbed a spade and dug into his collection. A couple of weeks later I sent Steve a book contract. The rest is left for a jury of our peers to decide.

 

Do you pay advances?

Unfortunately for starving writers worldwide, no.  This indie publishing environment, compounded by a dysfunctional book distribution system in which everyone gets an increasingly smaller piece of the pie crust, makes it extremely difficult to stay afloat. It’s a credit to the deep, dark allure of literature’s mistress that so many presses persevere. The intermittent cash flow alone is enough to make one wince at his own, personal fiscal cliff.
 
Can you describe the process/steps a book undergoes, from acceptance to publication?

Once a book is accepted for publication, we create a delivery timeline and begin planning for its birth. If it’s a boy, we paint the room hot pink and if it’s a girl, we paint it sapphire blue.  Oh, you mean you really want to know the step-by-step mechanics of our publishing process? Without boring you to tears, I’ll say it follows mostly the same rules of any creative project parameters. At Atticus, there’s a Project Editor who is accountable for hitting deadlines and making sure the book gets into production after it has gone through edits and refinements. The Project Editor works directly with a team of skilled specialists, including the author, copyeditor, graphic designer, compositor (or typesetter), proofreader, marketer, publicist, and printer. At some small presses, the publisher does all or most of the heavy lifting because there is little to no budget to assign these tasks to others. At places like Atticus Books, we rely on professionals to concentrate on their areas of expertise because our publisher is a jack of all trades but a master of none.

 

 We’re all about grooming fiercely loyal and passionate small press advocates.

 

And how were the responsibilities divided between you and Steven in the marketing of The Law of Strings? What gives you the most bang for your buck: events, advertising, conferences, etc?

Steve sent us a clean and glowing manuscript and we did our best to do the rest. Like all published Atticus authors, Steve also was responsible for making himself available for interviews, readings, book signings, and spreading the word through his own channels.

I’m a big believer in doing a little bit of everything to advertise your book. As a press with a growing portfolio of quirky titles, our greatest challenge is to keep our backlist vibrant and visible while rotating our frontlist titles in the spotlight. No matter how much we do to bang the drum, the clatter of the major publishing houses invariably tempers the buzz on the street of a small press title. Our goal with each book is to attract new readers who learn about our tribe and want to join in the fun. We’re all about grooming fiercely loyal and passionate small press advocates.

 

photo credit: John Minichillo

 

What is the average print run?

Our average first-print run is 500 to 1,500 copies because we operate in a hybrid print-on-demand environment. What that means is essentially we print as many copies as we think will eventually sell without inflating runs just to satisfy author egos or old-school expectations. Even our worst-selling titles experience second and third runs. With the playing field leveled (and economies of scale no longer driving print decisions), it affords independent publishers like us to take a chance on and produce more titles. We also have the capacity to fulfill large orders from Barnes & Noble. But what excites us more is forming long-lasting relationships with independent booksellers and readers. These folks are the lifeblood of a battle-worn industry.

 

I don’t want there to be any surprises or disappointments for the author.

 
How closely do you work with the author throughout the editing process? Specifically with The Law of Strings, did you have any influence over the titles or order of the stories? How close is the finished product to that which was first considered for publication?

The original title of The Law of Strings was Falling. I suggested the title change to Steve because as much as I like the story, “Falling,” it seemed too generic as a book title. The Law of Strings also serendipitously (it seems) worked out to be more thematically in tune with the whole quantum physics and cosmic law themes that Steve brilliantly threads throughout the collection.

Steve took care of the order of his universe, but on past books, I have suggested rearranging stories and in a few instances, I’ve even asked authors to consider drafting a different ending. I am very light-handed in my line editing so the greatest influence I can have on their work is bigger picture stuff.

Title, cover design (working hand-in-hand with ultra-gifted designers (Amanda Jane Jones, Jamie Keenan, Nuno Moreira, and Anton Khodakovsky), and marketing: those are my main areas of interest and contribution. We don’t sign contracts unless we’re either satisfied with the book’s end or have worked it out. Once the book is in edit, I don’t want there to be any surprises or disappointments for the author. Many of the individuals we sign are debut authors so I would much rather their first experience be magical rather than god-awful.

I think most publishers would agree that a good rapport with your author is critical. The entire process is collaborative so if you don’t get along from the onset, then it becomes like a lousy Vegas marriage. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but now that the lights are on and the booze has worn off…
 
I was intrigued by Atticus Books in part by the number of short story collections you choose to publish. In a market that seems to condemn story collections, stating that they are far less popular and profitable than full-length novels, what gives you the confidence to continue putting your time and investments into collections like The Law of Strings?

I am not brazen enough to think that the story collections we produce will beat the odds. They only are worth the time and investment that we dedicate because we believe in their artful purpose. We publish story collections mostly as a hat tip to word craftsman and as a service to readers who appreciate the form. Besides that, I have an eternal weakness for them.
 
 
Recently, you have also started curating an online literary journal called Atticus Review. What are the differences you’ve encountered between running a small press and a journal? How do you find time to do both?

Running a small press is a business and the decisions you make each day have an impact on everything from the number of titles you’ll be able to produce next year to the number of employees and contractors you can afford to pay to keep the press humming.

Running a journal is like being the president of a fraternity. It is a unique honor. My No. 1 priority is to not embarrass my brotherhood (and sisterhood). My second job (unwritten but most definitely required) is to buy at least one round of drinks at AWP.

I started the journal because I want to give back something of cultural relevance to society.

When you’re working on a journal, you don’t count the minutes, nor consider it labor. I know that may sound syrupy, but it’s true: those who participate in literary journals (be they readers, writers or editors) do it because they respect their literary forefathers and they admire the writing efforts of their peers so much that they want to recognize them. Recognition is manna for writers. I started the journal because I want to give back something of cultural relevance to society. It helps too that I have a terrific staff that does most of the work: Editor-in-Chief Joe Gross, Managing Editor Libby O’Neill, Fiction Editor Jamie Iredell, Poetry Editor Michael Meyerhofer, Mixed Media Editor Matt Mullins, and Book Review Editor Joseph Wood.

In August we published our first non-fiction title, a book about literary magazines (Paper Dreams: Writers and Editors on the American Literary Magazine). I didn’t accept the proposal by Editor Travis Kurowski because I thought it would make a bucketload of money for Atticus Books. I took on the challenge because I am turned on by the thought of fulfilling a vision that salutes our literary heritage and features insider conversations about where we’ve been and where we’re going.

 

Are your guidelines for publishing short fiction in the journal any different from those you follow for publishing a book?

Journal submissions are routed to different editors through our Submittable account while book submissions are sent via e-mail to submissions@atticusbooks.net. We tend to be more open-minded to wildly inventive works for the journal.

While we enjoy unconventional narratives, our primary interest with books these days is to find novels that fall between the crevices of literary and commercial fiction.
 
 
Having worked in the past for an exclusively online journal about mindful living, I was intrigued by the section of your website that details your environmental objectives. Have these goals been in place since the origin of Atticus Books? If not, how has the implementation of these goals changed the day-to-day operations of your press? Have you considered going as far as offering your books solely for e-readers?

The environmental commitment has been in place since Day 1. It’s not that hard to achieve, really, given all the options that printers offer, and just because you’re publishing on recycled paper doesn’t mean you’ve tossed profit margins to the wind.

I’m not of the mindset to offer our books solely for e-readers. I believe in the power of multiple methods of delivery and I’m too much of a glass half-full dinosaur to think that print is dead. It is alive and well, as is the state of literature. We are living in remarkable times. We’re in the midst of a second Renaissance and we don’t even know it.
 
 
 

Dan Cafaro is the founder and chief imagination officer of Atticus Books, a small, independent publishing house that started in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., and is now based in Madison, N.J., where Dan resides. He also is the founder and publisher of Atticus Review, a weekly online journal, where he sporadically writes about modern man for the column, “From the Attic.”

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About René Cousineau

René Cousineau is a Fiction Writing student at Columbia College Chicago. She hails from the majestic Colorado Rocky Mountains where she was raised on a steady diet of venison, Fleetwood Mac, and Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey. Her work has appeared in Columbia College Chicago’s Hair Trigger.

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