In 2012 Joe Ponepinto, former book review editor of the LA Review of Books, asked me some interview questions for an article he was working on. Since it’s all about Publishing Genius, I thought I’d post it, unedited, here (with Joe’s permission). We talk about the history of PGP, the publishing business, and what I look for in a manuscript.
How long have you been a publisher?
I started Publishing Genius in the fall of 2006. But I’ve been pretty consistently working on publishing projects since the late 90s, even though none of those projects really took off.
Approximately how many books has your company published in that time?
About 30. A few of these are chapbooks and many are quite short. For three years the PGP slogan was “Short, massive books since 2006.”
What percentage of your published books are fiction? Poetry? Nonfiction?
I break it down by fiction, poetry, and “other”—nothing in “other” is standard non-fiction. PGP hardly publishes anything that’s standard, and some books, like Joseph Young’s Easter Rabbit could as easily be considered poetry but we somewhat insistently catalog it as fiction. Anyway, it breaks down with almost 50 percent poetry, 45 percent fiction, and 5 percent is “other,” which includes the experimental films of Stephanie Barber, the joke poems of Mike Topp, Andy Devine’s alphabetical novel, things like that.
What is your mission statement and/or philosophy?
Our mission statement is probably unhelpfully obtuse. It’s just a quote from Novalis, an early philosopher of German romanticism, that explains that language is at its best when it’s speaking for itself. I recognize that hardly means anything, put like that. It’s something to talk about late at night. Honestly, I love it. I’ve read it dozens of times and I find something new in it, and that nicely represents what I want to do with literature. The problem is that it doesn’t also point out that a large portion of the books are from Baltimore writers, where I live, which means I don’t have the state of Maryland throwing grants at me like I dream of. Also, it maybe doesn’t indicate how important it is to me that reading a PGP book will be fun and exciting, not just esoteric proto-structuralist theory.
What’s your business model: is everything done in house or do you contract work such as copyediting, proofreading, cover design, etc?
I usually edit the books with the writers, which involves a lot of discussion, then have a professional copyeditor proofread it. I work with a variety of people on cover design, depending on what’s best for the book and what the author wants. Many of the people I’ve published are so tied into their community that they’ll often have someone in mind for the art. Then I print the books through a printer in Pennsylvania and use SPD as a distributor. About half the sales are through them, but much more than half the profits come through the website and direct sales at festivals and conferences and readings.
Do you have previous editing/publishing experience?
Not professionally, but as I noted in the first question, for six years I failed, and that was helpful. I’ve now been doing Publishing Genius for as long as I failed at other publishing projects. In another 6 years I’ll have a better sense of what I’m doing.
What made you decide to get into publishing in the first place?
I’ve loved book and magazines (and plays, too) more than anything for longer than anything. I had a Mad Magazine knockoff when I was in 5th grade. It’s just something I’ve always done.
What were some of the hurdles you encountered, particularly those you didn’t expect? How did you overcome them?
The biggest hurdle I face, without a doubt, is trying to understand growth and have reasonable expectations and perspective on what PGP is. Left unchecked, either I project myself being bigger than Google by the next election or I have the same business habits I had in 5th grade. I prefer to manage everything myself (with the help of amazing interns), but this means I don’t have anyone to report to, show metrics to and develop projects with or whatever, so it’s hard to grow meaningfully. I haven’t overcome this yet. In comparison, nothing about Publishing Genius has been even a little bit difficult.
How has publishing interfaced with your writing? Do you write more? Less? How do you balance the demands of each discipline?
I think I write the same amount. I’ve never been consistent. The best thing about running the press, though, is that even when I’m not writing, I’m still actively participating in literature. That’s all I want to do, ever. Also, the amount of exposure I have as a publisher—to other writers, to publishers, to academics and journalists and sales people—gives me a broad perspective that is very valuable for a writer.
Have you been strongly influenced by the writers you decide to publish? For example, do you find you’ve opened your own writing to new styles and techniques you’ve encountered through publishing others?
I’m not sure there is a direct influence, but that is part of what I mean above. The short stories of Rachel Glaser don’t change the way I write a single poem, but I think working with her book affects my sensibilities in a general way. But I could never write like her. A Mark Neely poem I put out through PGP’s online Journal, Everyday Genius, reminded me of what can be done with sharply crafted narration in poetry and that opened me up a bit. Also, through submissions I see writers coming from all disciplines and influences. I’ll see trends developing and going away. This makes for a helpful, vague list of Do’s-and-Don’ts.
How has your artistic vision been affected by your publishing experience? Are you more attuned to the commercial aspects of writing?
Whoa, good question. I think it’s interesting that eBook devices are tracking reader habits now and people are thinking this is going to provide relevant data for what readers like and accordingly how authors should write. I would be interested in those statistics as a media scholar, but they won’t change me as a writer. Writing, for me, is turning inward to find out and remember what’s most important to me. When I write, that’s when I ignore all the business stuff.
Joe Ponepinto is a principal with Woodward Press, an alternative publishing company in southeast Michigan. He was formerly the Book Review Editor for The Los Angeles Review. His short stories, articles and reviews have been published in dozens of literary journals, most recently Lumina, BULL, Passager, Fiction Southeast, and Prime Mincer. His collection of short stories, The Face Maker, is available on amazon.com. A New York native, he spent 28 years in LA, and currently lives in Michigan with his wife, Dona, and Henry, the coffee drinking dog. His blog on the writing life, called The Saturday Morning Post, is at http://joeponepinto.com.