Thursday, August 4, 2011

August 10th Book Party: Chicago Center for Literature and Photography Celebrates Four Years

Jason Pettus is a writer, photographer, and founder of the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography. CCLaP has been an unique kind of cyber-center for the small press since 2007, offering a number of amenities to the literary community of Chicago and beyond. CCLaP is a publisher of e-books by emerging authors; a blogger of book reviews, movie reviews, and essays; a creator of podcasts with authors a few times each month; and a host of Chicago reading events. They have published four e-books thus far: Life After Sleep by Mark Brand, Salt Creek Anthology by Jason Fisk, 99 Problems by Ben Tanzer, and Too Young to Fall Asleep by Sally Weigel. In honor of the upcoming fourth anniversary book party (August 10th at Chicago's Beauty Bar), the books are now available as hand-bound editions as well, something Jason calls "Hypermodern Editions."

As the Center's anniversary approached, Jason answered some questions for me on building a readership, the state of the book review, and the Chicago lit scene.

What led you to start CCLaP?

I was a working author myself for about ten years in Chicago, then back in Missouri was a working photographer for around five years previous to that; and coming from the punk/zine community of the 1980s when I was a teen, I've been doing fun little DIY creative projects for a long before either of those. So when I first entered middle age in the mid-2000s, and started becoming more and more dissatisfied with trying to continue pursuing a career as a creative writer, something like CCLaP was just naturally one of the first things that popped into my mind as something to do next with my life. Although truthfully, I came very close to opening an internet startup company instead (that's what a lot of my day jobs in Chicago have involved), in which case CCLaP wouldn't actually exist right now.

How has the reception been for the e-books you’ve published so far? I’m not trying to single out your authors, but more to ask how you reached out and found an audience, and what you learned about how to find your readers in between Book #1 and Book #4.

When I talk to my friends who run more traditional basement presses about this subject, it looks pretty certain that in general terms, CCLaP is generating the same amount of paying customers from the ebooks as they are from their paper books, which as most people know is nothing to sneeze at but no great shakes either. The nice thing, though, is that since the ebooks are released under a "pay what you want" scheme, it means that our paying customers only make up around 25 percent of the book's total readership; and so if you're talking just about how many eyeballs the center's books are getting in front of, you can think of it in general terms of about three to four times the amount of a typical basement press. The biggest lesson I've learned so far about gathering an audience is that this stuff really does fall along traditional age lines to a great extent; so that is, whenever I publish a middle-aged author with a middle-aged audience, downloads of the electronic version are always smaller than a title by a twentysomething with a college-aged audience, even when that book will often generate the same amount of press and interest away from the internet. The adoption of ebooks is truly a generational issue, I'm slowly learning.

What do you look for in a writer you’re deciding to publish?

Oh, it's a whole complicated host of factors, actually. Obviously the first and main issue is simply the quality of the actual manuscript; but then whether or not they're in Chicago comes into play as well, since that's so much more a convenient option for things like getting them to sign books, etc. And since part of CCLaP's mission as a more general overall arts organization is to help nurture artists over the course of their careers, part of what I look at when examining submissions is where that author is in their career, and how much a CCLaP book would be able to help with the long-term picture; so if someone like Ben Tanzer comes to me, for example, who now has a number of successful commercial novels under his belt, but is sitting on something more experimental or personal that will make his audience think of him in a new way if someone were to publish it, that counts for extra in my mind when making decisions about what to put out.

I think it’s great that you’re making handmade books out of CCLaP e-book releases. Will you continue to do this, or do you think it’s more of a special event for the 4-year anniversary?

The paper versions of CCLaP's books have actually always been a part of the plan, since starting up the publishing program in 2008; it's just that it's only now that I've actually been able to afford it. In general I'm trying to take my cues off how many musicians now do things, which is to entirely skip the middle step of distribution altogether; so in my case, the plan has always been to release an electronic version that people can download for free if they want, and a handmade, hardback paper version that costs a little more than a paper version normally would, and that can be directly purchased at the website much like how an Etsy store works, and then just skip the trade paperback version and the bookstores and Amazon and the traditional distributors altogether. It's my opinion that this is where most small presses are bleeding the most money these days, so my hope is to keep costs under control by simply eliminating this option entirely.

I’m so glad you’re running frequent book reviews on your blog. In a time when newspapers are downsizing their book review sections and laying off reviewers, can you speak to the importance of book reviews in our culture?

Well, I'm just amazed that more people don't do the same thing! I think that blogs got saddled at the beginning of their existence with this bad reputation, as if they were some form of literary genre unto themselves and with their own artistic pluses and minuses; but really, a blog is actually just more a type of technology, a specific kind of medium for delivering whatever you want, good or bad, just like it would be ridiculous to say that a piece of content is somehow artistically better when read on a piece of ivory-colored paper versus cream-colored paper. In this sense, then, a blog is nothing more than a giant unending sheet of paper that's given to you completely for free, and so makes it the best medium in human history for long-form, thoughtful essays. I think once we get to the next generation of online users, the ones who don't automatically equate blogs with unthinking idiocy, we're going to see a flowering again of long-form critical thought that could scarcely be imagined by previous generations.

Do book reviews become even more important in a moment of so many publishers, underground publishers, self-publishers, and varied formats? Do book reviewers help hold The Book together as hyperlinks and e-readers try to morph it?

That's a good question, and I confess one I've never really contemplated before. Certainly you paint a vivid mental picture of "artistic thought" being some kind of runny goo, and that different conventions like "novels" and "feature films" are differently shaped boxes that we put around this goo to try to contain and shape it, so that we can then put two of them side-by-side and compare them. Does our society need this in order to even understand the arts, and for it to be of any practical help in our day-to-day lives? And is it important for critics to continue holding up the "novel-shaped" box, when things like narrative videogames and hyperlinked stories create little holes in the corners for that goo to ooze out? I think those are more philosophical questions than practical ones, and probably better debated at dinner parties after a few drinks than a declarative answer given here.

If the big newspapers were considered reliable sources who often had the last or loudest word on book reviews, what should a reader look for in seeking trustworthy reviews in the blogosphere? Is the dismantling of the newspaper reviews a good thing or a bad thing for the small press?

Deciding which critics to trust has always boiled down to some simple criteria in my opinion, and I'm always surprised that so many people have a hard time with this, which is merely trust plus time. Too many people, I think, have this attitude towards critical thought that's similar to God speaking to His minions, that it's this booming random opinion coming in out of nowhere that we should blindly trust merely because someone in a position of authority is telling us to; but finding a good critic is actually much more similar to paying attention to the opinions to a good friend, in that the entire reason we even trust what they're saying is because they've proven over and over again that they CAN be trusted, precisely because they have very similar opinions to our own. That's always the best way to get good recommendations, I've found, is simply to find people whose tastes closely match your own, then pay attention anytime they rave about something you've never heard about, or argue for a project that you may have not cared for at first.

I think a big part of the problem occurred during the big Hollywood boom of the 1980s, when newspapers suddenly found themselves with an opportunity to sell many more pages of movie ads if they simply had an excuse to actually print those pages; that forced every newspaper in the country to hire their own staff of reviewers, who were basically no more than an excuse to even have a pullout movie section every Friday and sell a thousand percent more ads than they were before. That's when you really saw the first big proliferation of this "From God's Mouth" attitude about criticism, where critics became an endless series of faceless anonymous shills, and the only reason you would put stock in any of their opinions is because this big expensive newspaper was telling you to; and then when this became a successful paradigm, it of course bled over into things like book reviews as well. So in that sense, the dismantling of the newspaper review system is the best thing that could've happened to both readers and small presses; because what's rising in its wake is both the much more reliable crowd-sourcing process at places like Amazon (which, let's face it, is a HIGHLY trustworthy way of learning simply about any particular book's general strengths and weaknesses), combined with long-form critics like myself who take our cues off the old masters like Pauline Kael, who people trust in the same way they trust their friends, and who can recommend unknown things in a way that Amazon crowd-sourcing never could, no matter how sophisticated their algorithms get.

What have you learned about small press publishing since setting up shop in 2007?

Oh, dear, we could be here all day if I started to answer this, so perhaps I'll just skip this question altogether. The short answer is that I've learned hundreds of things, and that the very best advice I can give a person who's interested in the subject is to simply go out and start a small press themselves, to learn all the hard lessons they never will simply by reading about other people's experiences.

Chicago has a thriving small press scene: From afar, I know about Quimby’s, the Orange Alert Reading Series, the Chicago Underground Library, Another Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Zine Fest, the “Quickies” Reading Series, MAKE, Featherproof Books. Have you paired up with any of these folks in your events or in other ways?

I have yet to formally partner with any of these groups, but you could absolutely say that an informal network of support exists here in Chicago within this community: we all tend to go to each other's events, buy each other's books, provide publicity for each other's big things, recommend artists to each other, send submitting authors each other's ways, etc. In fact, back when I quit writing myself in 2004 and was first coming up with the idea for CCLaP, this is one of the main reasons I decided to follow through with the particular plan I did, was knowing what a strong and longstanding literary community there actually is here in Chicago, which now that I've traveled a bit I can confidently state as one of the largest and most tight-knit ones in the world.

What’s on the horizon for CCLaP?

Well, more books for a start -- another three before this year is through, then another five in 2012. And more live events, more podcast episodes, and the same 150 book reviews at the blog next year as I publish every year. Plus it's looking likely that we'll finally be offering our first classes and workshops next year as well; because I have to say, the requests never stop coming in from people wanting to learn how to make the kind of handmade books I do for CCLaP, so I'm thinking strongly of just charging a fee and teaching the people who really do want to sit down and learn. Then of course the center has a long-term vision as well, for those who don't know; everything being done right now, for example, is in service of hopefully one day finally opening a permanent physical space somewhere here in the city, at which point CCLaP will morph more into the traditional community center that I've always envisioned it as.


Find the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography online here.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Under the Volcano Books Opens October 15th, Mexico City

Grant Cogswell hanging shelves at Under the Volcano Books, July 2011.

The last time I saw Grant Cogswell, he was making me laugh hysterically in Austin, Texas. Seventeen years and a few cities later, this filmwriter/ activist/ longtime Seattle resident is gearing up to open an expat English-language bookstore and gathering place in the Roma District of Mexico City (D.F.). The store will be named Under the Volcano Books after the Mexico-set novel by expat writer Malcolm Lowry. The grand opening is set for Saturday October 15th, 2011.

Yesterday Grant was kind enough to answer some interview questions in between constructing a bookstore interior at Cerrada Chiapas 40-C, Colonia Roma Norte.

What led you to want to open a bookstore? Was this a life-long dream, or did it have more to do with timing and opportunity?

Not a lifelong dream. I'd worked in bookstores stateside, and it never really occurred to me until I came to D.F. and saw there wasn't really anything for readers of English - and began to imagine what was also missing, which was the kind of semi-public community that might grow around such an institution. After I decided to move here in 2006, my imagination of what kind of life I wanted here just kind of grew the store within itself, like a pearl, becoming the center of the impulse. By the time I was here full-time in late 2009 it was what I was doing.

I understand that you have a particular vision for this English-language bookstore in a world-class city, in a neighborhood with a long history of artists and expats. Knowing you, it will be much more than just a store. Tell us what you hope for the bookstore to be, and what steps you will take to see that vision through?

Well, I think it will be a place of a very particular kind. I'm very insistent that there won't be wi-fi available, even when we have coffee and tables and who knows maybe even some kind of food. There's a kind of psychic silence that to me is very much associated with reading - I think a lot of people go camping to find it, or hell, I don't know, have sex with strangers-- so that's the first thing: analog. I'll often be playing Coltrane, or The Band, or KEXP (ironically) online - there's also an amazing station here at 105.7 that has its finger on the pulse of whateveryouwanttocallit Indie rock from the US just as firmly as anything on the internet. Our location is at the end of an alley in a hundred-year-old working neighborhood, but we have this lovely little tiled back garden. I'd like it to be a place that a large assemblage of travellers and residents and even people in the English-speaking world who'll never go to Mexico recognize as an outpost of, I don't know, the examined life? That sounds so hard. The life of books, thought, self-education, art. Once my Spanish is good enough to read at a decent enough speed for literature (I can get through the newspaper fairly quick, but am constantly resorting to a dictionary) I just have to make sure I don't end up spending my off hours hanging out at El Pendulo or Conejo Blanco. I love those places. We could do a lot worse than just be an English version of them. There will at some point be a literary journal based in the store called Mexico Review focusing on translations from contemporary Mexican writers and Americans writing about Mexico, in the very most expansive sense. We'll be open every day, because a 24-hour-layover on a NY-Buenos Aires flight happens at its own convenience, and I am counting on those people coming to the store.

What kind of books will you feature?

Used contemporary and classic fiction and poetry, translations from the Spanish, politics, history, philosophy, urban planning and architecture, lit crit, interesting nonfiction, art books, punk culture, comics, travel books, language aids, 'expat lit'.

Matthew Stadler of Publication Studio recently read in the space that will be Under the Volcano Books. Do you plan to hold readings frequently? What types of writers will you court? From how far away?

I'll have visiting writers, obviously drawing for reasons of airfare and my personal connections far heavier from the West Coast of the US than the East. But a lot of people come through here. Not too often - I want to maintain the sense of them as an event, and the bar will be high, nobody without a published book at the very least. I can't see flying anyone over from Australia, but otherwise the sky's the limit.

What has been the most challenging aspect of opening the bookstore so far? What has been the most unexpected challenge?

Finding a space; finding a space. By custom here you need to have a property-owner guarantee your lease when you rent, and that goes for residential as well as commercial property. Arriving here as an immigrant without particularly deep local roots this was looking almost impossible - years off. Then my good friend and roommate bought a house in Roma Norte for his recording business and it was kind of the Hand of God.

You’re opening a brick and mortar bookstore in 2011. You’ve been blogging about the store, keeping far-flung friends updated on Facebook, and you’ve created a catalog of your store’s inventory on LibraryThing. How do you see the relationship between your bookstore and the digital world? Are you interested in selling books online, or just getting people into your space?

I'm going to do what I enjoy: I think going outside of that would be to the detriment of my pleasure in the store and thereby bring it down. There are people who want to see this become an emporium for the materials they use in their English classes here: that's not going to happen, nor am I going to become an online dealer. My skills are choosing the inventory very carefully based on a knowledge of the literature of the English language and contemporary culture, and curating a place for people to come to in a splendidly comfortable and affordable neighborhood. I will also make coffee.

One plan you had was to sell books on the street while waiting to find the right space for the store. Have you done much of that? How have sales been? Have you liked the feeling of selling literature on the streets of Mexico City?

I haven't sold anything on the streets. I soon found out those street markets are a web of old relationships and there's a reason you don't see foreigners working in them. I was about to get a permit from the Delegacion to sell in Coyoacan when Sylvain bought the house where the store will go and it just wasn't worth doing at that point.

I’ve been noticing a new business model among bookstores being opened by working artists and writers: The kind of bookstore that is not required to sustain itself. The owners’ income/s from art and writing jobs help to supplement the bookstore, which they choose to open because they passionately want a bookstore in their city. Will Under the Volcano Books be required to sustain itself?

Yes, but there are lots of ways we can make that happen if things get tight. I see the store over time becoming a magnet for people who want to practice their English. If there's a store full of people four nights a week at 50 pesos a head chatting away because that's what's needed to keep us afloat, that's perfectly fine with me. I think our overhead is a fraction of what it would be in the US. You see a lot of places here you wonder, how the hell does that store stay open? Things are just a lot cheaper in general here is how, and I am counting on them staying that way. I can't imagine the brass it would take to do this in the States, and don't want to.

On a Youtube video that seems to have vanished since I saw it, you made a very provocative statement that you hoped the bookstore would introduce both Mexicans and Americans the better sides of themselves to each other. That [currently] Mexicans know too much American scorn and Americans hear too much about Mexican crime. Tell us more about your hope and how literature sheds light on our better angels.

Well, most Americans simply have hardly the faintest idea about this country: what it contains, what its 'normal setting' is, the daily life of the majority of people. Now that the drug killings have reached around 50,000, people throw around the statistic that the narco wars have killed as many people as Americans died in Vietnam, so people think there is a war going on here. (There is in some places near the US border, specifically Ciudad Juarez, and in some of rural Tamaulipas where it could be classified at that level.) Well, that's true. But two million Vietnamese died in that war. Nothing like the same scale. Don't get me wrong, the situation is an enormous and terrible tragedy and I think most people here believe we have further to go with it than we have come yet, and who knows what it will lead to. But this is a nation of 100 million people most of whom have no connection with or direct experience of any of that world. And their lives go on, day to day. Americans sense not the least texture of that reality for the most part, or the nature of life here in DF, which is now one of the safest places in the country and a magnet again for that reason. Nor the particular and complex past and the nature of the national identity it produced, which I think may be a healthier approach to being of the New World than I have seen come to fruition in the U.S.

On the other side, American mass-culture floods the airwaves and the video stalls here, and it is usually the movies and music with the most money behind them, which are not always the worst, but very often. I've run into smart, worldly people here who were totally unaware the US has a culture of art cinema, for example. Mexicans in general are not big readers - which is okay for me, because Mexicans in general are not my target audience. But I'd like to at least get the very privileged cultural class here to be aware of Whitman, of Keats, or Cormac McCarthy and Virginia Woolf. I think there's room to create that awareness, and a hunger for it, because contact with American culture is seen from the very least on an economic plane as sophistication, as self-development. And I'm sitting here with the literary aspect being almost entirely absent from that conversation wanting to lean over and say "There's something pretty wide here you missed..."

Visit the Under the Volcano Books website here.