An interview with Jason Cook, publisher of Ampersand Books.
D.W. Lichtenberg put out a call for indie press publishers to share their tales of empire building–both creative and financial. In response I’ve interviewed my publisher at Ampersand Books, ponytailed conjurer Jason Cook.
Me: So, are you rich yet?
Cook: Ha. By Somali standards I’m fabulously wealthy.
M: Why did you decide to start a publishing house now?
C: Of course, on the one hand, it’s a terrible time to be selling books. The world’s a-changin’, or so they keep telling us. On the other hand, it’s always a terrible time to be selling books, but a great time if your interest is personal and not financial. The major book companies were used to raking in tons of dough– well, that’s great, but if you’re selling that many units of “art,” then the “art” is probably dogs playing poker. It’s exciting, because now all of the felt Elvis portrait lovers are hanging something else up on their walls, which just leaves those of us who love books. The competitive edge of books now is that they may return to the province of people who like to do the American equivalent of Iranian women showing their hair: think.
M: How did you get the cheddar to start Ampersand Review and Ampersand Books? Did you pay out of pocket? Investors?
C: I tricked Uncle Sam into thinking I was a college student, so he gave me lots of money I didn’t really need.
M: Does Ampersand have a business model?
C: Buy low, sell high. Patent pending.
M: In your experience, what sells books?
C: The same thing that sells books now is the same thing that’s always sold books — word of mouth. Excitement.
M: What generates excitement?
C: Could be something as dumb as a book printed sideways. Could be something as ground-breaking as crafted writing without an academic stick in its ass. But there’s no telling. It’s like setting out to make a viral video. You can’t. They just do.
M: What doesn’t sell books?
C: Whatever is the “wave of the future.” The future doesn’t wave.
M: Last year I asked you if I should go to AWP in Denver. I believe your exact words were: “That money might be better spent on hookers and blow.” I went anyway. Will we see you in a booth in DC this February?
C: No. Booths are for interns. Drunk under a table somewhere with someone else’s interns is for editors.
M: Ampersand published its first book, Joseph Riippi’s Do Something! Do Something! Do Something! just over a year ago. Since then you’ve published four full-length books, plus a chapbook, and you have four more on deck. How did you get so much done in a year?
M: I’ve noticed a trend amongst Ampersand authors. Aside from Jesse Bradley, who is neatly shorn, we all have a lot of hair. What do you look for in a potential Ampersand book besides a hairy author?
C: As lame and obvious as it sounds, the first thing I look for is something I like. If it surprises me, is intelligent without flashing allusions and credentials, eloquent without grandiosity. If someone really dumps themselves into something, it’ll show. Then I look for those books that wouldn’t have a home anywhere else. A great book that really speaks to something can be doomed by a marketing guy’s shrug. Fuck that marketing guy. Hemingway’s readers didn’t go anywhere; the major publishers just stopped publishing books for us.
And then I look for an author I can work with, someone obsessive and willing to sacrifice nights and weekends and travel across the county with a 4% chance of financial reward. Basically, I wind up only publishing my friends, but I’m a pretty friendly guy.
Of course, having a lot of hair helps. Writers should look like grizzly bears. Or at least like they’ve slept under a bridge or two.
M: Currently I’m the only woman published by Ampersand. Is it a boy’s club?
C: Maybe. There is a certain amount of aggression involved in getting my attention. I don’t, personally, give a shit because the mainstream publishing world is dominated by women, there are a billion prizes open only to women (in an industry dominated by women – I find that silly in a not-terribly-amusing kind of way), and a pre-requisite to being an academic press these days is to focus on female writers. So fuck it. We kick it old school.
M: Yes, there are many women working in the field of publishing. But one could argue that texts themselves are inherently imbued with gender hierarchy. One could argue that up until the last few hundred years, women were relegated to writing only certain genres, such as letters, with the more prestigious genres of poetry, drama and epic reserved for men. So what many of us consider powerful, or even expect in a novel–perhaps the aggression you are drawn to– is historically born out of an entirely male field. One could probably argue that if one were so inclined.
C: Perhaps. But that doesn’t mean it’s my problem.
M: Do you write?
C: I used to. Then I started a publishing company.
M: What would you be doing if you weren’t manning the helm?
C: Probably trying to teach Amis to a bunch of droolmonkey college freshmen, then tying a rock around my waist and jumping into the Bay.
M: Sounds promising. Do you own a Kindle?
C: Dear Fucking God No!! Since I’m a publisher now, which means I’ve invested every dime I’ve got, along with all my free time and my fiance’s happiness into the pursuit of reading, I’m bound by oath to promote reading. If it has hyperlinks, then it isn’t real reading. Ask Nicholas Carr.
M: But I think some of the best work I’ve read this year is published online in places like The Collagist and Octopus. Also, online mags like Coconut and Jacket were pretty renegade when they started. Any thoughts on that?
C: It is true that online markets publish a lot of great stuff, but that doesn’t mean that you’re reading it. Reading on a screen is different from reading on a page, and that’s a fact. The Collagist makes its pages resemble, as much as possible, a page, which is good. But with Kindle and the hyperlinks taking you out of the book, and now with the social networking they’re talking about building in–thanks, but I’d rather eat a bucket of razor blades.
M: Tell me about your life before you became a publisher? Where have you lived and why did you move around so much?
C: I grew up in the Air Force, so I’ve lived in Korea, Germany, Italy, some other places. After a year or two in a place, I get itchy feet. I feel like I’ve been living in this goddamn sauna forever.
M: You live in St. Pete now. Why Florida?
C: Same way I wound up everywhere else. The whirlwind calms, the dust settles, I look around. This time it was palm trees and fucking relentless heat.
M: How are the beaches looking post-oil-spill?
C: Nice for now, until the animals poisoned by the dispersant start washing up on St. Pete Beach. Mass kills are awesome, let me tell you.
M: Heh. Love you.
C: I do too.