Pulp! An interview with Greying Ghost Press.
Over the past few years or so, the term ‘small press’ has seen its share of redefinition and evolution, especially in the miniscule world of poetry. Some still consider presses with endowments, university backing and full national distribution ‘small,’ but I can’t hold them in as high a regard as those who know their way around a stapler and paper trimmer. The DIY small press art form is coming back big, and with its resurgence there are definitely a few leaders, those not only focusing on the actual quality of the writing they’re putting out, but on the craft of incorporating eloquent design and materials. That’s where Greying Ghost Press comes in. The independent operation edits, designs, produces and distributes its own catalog at a ridiculously quick and efficient pace for a two person staff. Though they’ve been producing books for more than two years, they’ve just recently come into a spotlight of sorts, and right now seem to be the toast of the DIY poetry world. At least, that’s what the cool kids are saying. But, you know. Whatever.
I corresponded with GG’s head honcho Carl about some specifics of the operation, how Facebook and digital publishing play a role in small press life, and how music can influence not only the stapling and folding, but in the way small press authors take to the road and peddle their words and wares:
DJ: So who are the people behind the curtain? For a small press, you sure are putting out a good number of titles. Surely this kind of dedication takes a few hands and minds, no?
GG: there are but two people behind the scenes: my wife and i. my wife is sort of the art director. i’ll come up with a design and run it past her and she either adds something to it idea-wise or shakes her head disapprovingly. she came up with the incredible setup for the Chapbook Festival. i do all the folding and stapling and trimming and mailing and the editorial work.
I read you guys have been around since 2007, but why the “sudden” onslaught of titles in the past year? Did you actively decide to kick it into high gear? What prompted this?
first let me say that i love, i love, i love running a press.
we’ve always tried to have a pretty consistent outpouring of titles. i like the idea of releasing a title or two a month. the reason for this is sort of hard to explain. the easy answer is that i love what i’m doing. i love books and printed matter and getting books into people’s hands and mailing books all over the world. its exciting. its a thrill. and usually once i’ve finished with a project there’s this initial rush of wanting everyone to read this great piece of writing that i’m such a huge fan of. also, our print runs are (to me) on the small side. the average is between 75-100 copies. things tend to move pretty fast. usually the first week after a book is released is the most hectic. that’s when the majority of the orders come in. after that initial week, things slow down and i’m not one to just sit around so its back to the office for the next book. i don’t consider it a job (yet). its just something i do and love doing. so i wouldn’t say there’s been a “sudden” onslaught but rather, a consistent onslaught.
What kind of machines are you running in your workshop, if you don’t mind letting us in?
here’s a list of what we generally use: one laser jet printer, one ink jet printer, mounted rubber stamps, modified wood type, various paper trimmers, & our trusty mac. we’ve recently bought an actual table-top letterpress, a kelsey 6×10, which we’re restoring. hopefully in the future we’ll be able to do letterpress covers.
In terms of design, what kind of responsibility do you feel towards your authors and their work? Is there a collaboration or does the press usually handle the design and artwork? How do you go about fitting the presentation with the work?
i think at this point, an author who works with us knows what we’re about design-wise. there really isn’t any collaboration. the author shouldn’t have to worry about the design. though if they have input for specific ideas i’ll incorporate them. but for the most part, i think the author understands our general aesthetic going in. we suggest to people submitting to get their hands on our catalog.
since we do almost everything ourselves we have to work with what we have (see tool list above). more of our recent covers are hand stamped. printed covers are great but when you hand stamp them, each one truly becomes unique. if you took an entire print run and laid them out one next to each other in a line you’d see a series of gentle shifts in the nature of the artwork. like a wave. things get moved around or taken away. i think Bob Ross called those happy accidents. i’ve gone the printed covers route and something felt odd. like an assembly line. i don’t know where i’m going with that.
my general rule for greying ghost is not get in the way of the writing. like an actual ghost, there should be a presence, but its off in the corner. we just try to present the work in a simple and straightforward manner. keep it legible and uniform.
I’ve noticed you keep a pretty strong presence on Facebook, posting about the music you’re listening to at the office, keeping announcements flowing, etc. What place do you think Facebook and other social networking sites have in the small press world? There’s an obvious podium for releases and correspondence, but do you also think these devices have a greater influence and function among the literary and/or small press community?
facebook provides instant feedback. instant communication with the author and the consumer. for some reason i’m terrible at replying to emails but if there’s a facebook post i can post a quick sentence in a matter of seconds. it all depends on personal preferences. some are online marketing wizards. they can sell internet fire to a burning man. the internet still genuinely frightens me. i’m addicted to watching terrible public access shows on youtube.
do i think online sites are important? yes and no. there’re so many small presses and writers and artists and only so many dollars. and they’re all vying for airtime. its a catch-22. they’re and indispensable asset for promoting your products but in the end you’re still a part of the bloodsport that is online marketing. and its not just small presses. big publishing houses are fighting shoulder to shoulder with the small press folk. i think what separates the two is that the small presses are earnestly trying to distribute the writing they believe in and the big publishers are simply hopping on the bandwagon and trying to move an extra 500 copies of the new Ian Mcewan novel.
more to the point, i have to be careful. because of the size of our output, we can’t flood everyone’s mailbox with notices and announcements. we’re pretty much only on facebook. sometimes goodreads though i’ve become reticent with that site. we won’t join twitter. there’s a fine line between getting the word out and over-exposing your product. people get turned off when they feel bombarded by messages. it goes back to the ghost image. we’re there on facebook. we pop up once in awhile to let you know where there. but we’re not spooking the hell out of you… hopefully.
Do you think we’re seeing yet another resurrection of the small DIY press? Not that the art ever really died, but do you think the digital world is both destroying print publication while simultaneously creating a stronger market for the artifact only a small press can provide?
its very easy to start a bare bones diy press these days. i started with a desktop printer and some stamps. anyone can do it. computers are getting better. there’s easier access to desktop publishing software. sites like issuu will help you make beautiful online books. more people are starting their own presses which is great. the danger i see is that there just aren’t enough places to display and sell the books. and i’m talking about physical stores. more specifically, independent bookstores. so the online route is the route most choose to go. that’s the route i’m on right now. i think the days of walking into a store and finding a small press section are gone. unless you live in portland oregon or seattle or new york or chicago and a handful of other major cities. at best the small press stuff is pushed in with the magazine section or reduced to a bin somewhere.
as far as the digital world destroying print media (i assume you’re talking about e-books?) i honestly don’t think printed matter will completely cease to exist. the only ones who will destroy print publication are the people who run the presses. when a small press chapbook costs the same as or close to a full length book, to the consumer, it doesn’t look good. if its a matter of finances, people will go to the best bargain. i think to blame the digital world on the plight of print is lazy. the way print can overcome the digital is by highlighting the fact that with print you get added experiences. if we sold our books in a strictly digital format you wouldn’t get our awesome packages in the mail! you can smell the end papers. you can run your fingertips over the ink on the cover. you can hand it to someone in a pinch. i think more presses are believing in this which in turn is helping them raise their game.
like most things in life, its all cyclical.
I think a lot of this is true, but I’m unsure of two things: one, that the people who run the major presses will be the ones to destroy print publication. (And by ‘destroy’ I mean drastically reduce sales.) Books themselves haven’t changed much at all, and perhaps this inactivity or unresponsiveness is the problem. As for keeping up with the shift in technology, I think the best they could come up with was e-books and e-readers and such, almost abandoning the actual paper book. I think people, who are inherently migratory when it comes to media, haven’t seen much of a change in print but are in need of a reinvention to keep them interested. Therefore, although there is some heavy resistance to the e-format in general, ultimately, it will prevail over the average perfect-bound novel or poetry collection unless we start reinforcing design and production value.
i would say this is a fair statement. the book industry will have to change but it’ll have to start on the ground floor, i.e. the small press. if you make the technology easily accessible for the folks running the small press i think you’d see some pretty creative and imaginative output. better design and production value should be reinforced as well as better content. i think that’s where the majors are off. they invest in all this technology and have these interesting design elements and a hefty budget for writing that doesn’t inspire or sit like a weight on your sternum. design is only half the battle.
Two, I don’t think most people will automatically go to the best bargain, but the easiest and most efficient access. Unfortunately, not everyone cares enough about getting ephemera and short-run pamphlets in the mail with their orders, smelling the paper and feeling the sliced pulp. I want to stress ‘unfortunately’ because I myself care very much and wish most people felt the same. I also find a similar battle going on in music right now, with vinyl vs. cd’s vs. digital downloading. I think one of the best concepts I’ve seen is the recent inclusion of the free download with the purchase of the vinyl album. It bridges the two worlds by giving us convenience and efficiency, while reinforcing the artwork and tactile matter. The mediocre middle man of cd’s is out. Do you think a vaguely similar model could be possible and desirable in literature?
no. well maybe between e-readers and audio books. i think if people are downloading a book on their ipad or whatever they are making a specific choice to not have the print version. i don’t see people wanting both. the same is true if we’re talking about people getting a .pdf copy with the same print book. it works for the music and film industry because those two are much more secondary. they are less intimate than literature. i’m sure many will disagree and make a valid case that the three are basically the same. i guess greying ghost, as a printer of chapbooks is geared toward a very specific audience. obviously we’d love to keep increasing readership. we’d love to build it up and get the writing we believe in out there into the ether. and though we firmly believe in the sustainability of the print medium, we’re not trying to fight any print v digital war. there’s a place for both. whatever keep people reading.
What can you say about the crossroads of music and independent literature? What role does music play in your process as a press?
we’ve always tried to run greying ghost as if it were a record label. i grew up on fanzines and music mags printed on newspaper and sold for $1.50. i grew up reading the backs of those magazines and seeing all the weird cassettes and 7″s. seeing their odd packaging and design. i would say that has been the main influence on greying ghost.
i would love to see more young writers or small presses tour like a band would. the logistics of this would be difficult as most have day jobs and families. but if i could take greying ghost on the road and do readings at small venues or galleries or living rooms i’d do it in a heartbeat. maybe even a tour with authors and actual bands. imagine the merch tables! this reminds me of when i was younger, before buying stuff online became huge, i’d go to rock shows for the sole purpose of hitting up the merch tables. especially when the band was relatively unknown. it was my only chance to buy it direct from the artist, usually at a cheaper price then what i’d find at the record store, if i could find it at the record store.
as far as music and greying ghost, i can’t work in silence. there’s a certain rhythm one has to be in to fold and assemble hundreds of sheets of paper. maybe even a certain type of mood. when i’m in the office, and i’m assembling a book, the music tends to be on the aggressive side. if i’m reading submissions or editing, i’ll listen to something more subdued. the aggressive stuff keeps me moving and the mellow stuff keeps me focused.
Well that touring idea sounds like a pretty audacious and valiant project, to whatever degree it could be done. I know many poets get out there and tour to the best of their ability, depending on family and funding, and I know tours and readings like this build and strengthen a community as well, much like bands of the same label touring together for stretches of time. How vital do you think it is for there to be a community that supports itself? And do you ever get the feeling like we’re selling and preaching to ourselves, or do you think this active promotion cultivates a new audience?
for the most part i would say that presses in small press community has been very supportive of one another. for it to survive, the community has to be supportive. and the support doesn’t always have to be positive. i think criticism plays a major role as well. a healthy back and forth dialogue is a must. its important to hold people’s asses to the fire once in awhile.
the last question i’m really stumped on. a lot of our orders go to complete strangers. that’s not to say our friends aren’t supportive. our friends in the print community do a tremendous job of getting the word out on not only greying ghost titles but other titles from other presses as well. We need to keep preaching to each other as a way to spread the word to new audiences. you tell a friend about a release or a new author. that friend blogs about it or contacts said author. and so on. i love it when friends email me and say “have you read this kid’s stuff?”. usually i haven’t so i’ll search the kid out and check out his or her writing and the next think i know we’re working on a chapbook or a pamphlet together. that type of support is crucial.
SPD is also as “small” as it’s going to get in terms of distribution. I know you’ve had success with GG to the extent of your small print runs, but what do you think the audience limit is for a small DIY press? I suppose, rather grudgingly, it keeps coming back to money. How do we support the tour, or the next publication? Because no one’s really looking for the big payout or contract, do you think money keeps the small press community honest in a way?
its only as limited as you make it. small presses support the tours and the releases by being smart with their money. plan a budget and stick to it. be creative in finding materials. we scour yardsales and flea markets all the time. for kristen orser’s book, we found the cover paper at a flea market for $2.00. our model is to keep production costs down, keep the price of books down, and stick to a budget. we’ve been successful and extremely lucky. we’re able to maintain a certain quality without going broke doing this. it takes a lot of hard work but we’ve been able to turn a small profit on every book which in turn goes into the next release. hell, we’ve been super lucky in that regards. i can’t really comment on other press’ money matters as its none of my business. but it is possible to have a sustainable press as long as you’re willing to bust your hump.
another point is that while we do make a small profit on the books, i would say we’ve [hopefully] been generous to our authors. and if we’re talking about money, while we don’t pay our authors, we do send them a fair number of artist copies which they can then sell or distribute on their own. hopefully this resonates with the authors. that there can still be a small/miniscule “payoff” with a small press.
What other presses have inspired you, or which publications do you make it a point to pick up? (This is the shout-out opportunity.)
jesus, too many to name. ugly duckling is the top. brave men press, octopus, warm milk press will be a contender, cold green tea put a great book called Flying Objects by Andrew Nye, cannibal books, i just discovered open thread from pittsburgh, and bookthug. factory hollow press put out one of my favorites called “a plan on how to catch amanda” by james haug, there’s really so, so many. at the risk of forgetting a few, i’ll forget many.