Several weeks before your first birthday is not the traditional time to start writing your memoirs, but at Some of Us Press we've already had enough experiences, if not Experience, to contribute to the thinking of others contemplating a small press venture. If nothing else, we can at least exude the confidence that you can publish and distribute a lot of poetry in a year's time that would otherwise never see print.
The press was organized by six Washington, DC, poets who collectively embodied several attributes which proved pivotal in launching and sustaining Some of Us Press. These were: 1) a disillusionment with "straight publishing", 2) regular participation in local poetry readings and the "alternative community", 3) knowledge of printing methods, pricing and rudimentary editorial and layout skills, 4) willingness to keep meticulous records, 5) knowledge of bookstore buying habits and needs, and 6) the audacity to assume that people who know something you need will probably help you out.
Choosing at random from any field of people interested in poetry and other literature, you could probably come up with such a combination of traits in any number of groups of five or six poets each. But why do it?
We organized because we believe institutional commercial publishing does not serve poetry, but that poetry shouldn't lie down and die. Not that six of us would save American poetry; only that we would do what we could to give what we could reach of it a kick in the ass. While the nation's capital is not a small community by any means, it is not a literary center, and what we've gotten under our belts this year could be socked away in other, smaller communities. Frankly, our first boot was a shaky one-footed nudge which wouldn't have left a toe-mark in warm butter. But it started something. Other groups here in DC have since taken publishing into their own hands, and that's all we meant to accomplish in the first place. Poetry in Washington, D.C., is off and running. It still pops some pep pills near the worst hurdles, but it will now pass the pee test.
Regular Monday night "Mass Transit Poetry Readings" at Washington's anti-profit Community Bookshop near Dupont Circle brought the six of us together. The overwhelming realization from these readings was that hundreds of people in our area alone--and passers-through--were writing, and that some produced interesting and skillful poetry. Typically, a new face would shyly appear one week, two weeks. . . three weeks just listening and watching. Eventually the person would show up with a notebook or folder and maybe after three weeks of this paper Linus-blanket routine would read some stuff. This is still happening: check it out any Monday night you're in DC.
Independently two or three of us had at one time or another considered publishing by guerilla means just to encourage the poets we'd come in contact with. This individual smoldering finally sparked the group effort.
None of us had any money, of course. Between us we could scrape up money to cover aspects of producing one book that we couldn't hustle. We started with Michael Lally's South Orange Sonnets because they had already gotten good notice from Rolling Stone and some little mags after their complete appearance in Jim Haining's Salt Lick magazine (PO Box 1064, Quincy, IL 62301). We decided on a community benefit dance to try to meet the printing bills, but first we made some decisions which, in retrospect, almost appear arbitrary, but which were to make life much easier.
All our books would be in a standard format, all priced at one dollar, authors could design their own covers, manuscript selection would be by unanimous vote and we would produce a book a month. That these decisions are easily listed above masks the great deliberation involved. It was time well spent for problems ahead, however, and for collectively surfacing individual strengths and interests of the press members. The book-a-month decision was pure pie in the sky back then--you should have seen the wry smiles all around when we "decided" that one! Ten months later, however, we're still one book ahead of schedule.
Standard format: Terry Winch does small press buying for a local bookstore and pushed for a standard 5½ x 8½ saddle-stitched size with a durable cover stock, fully trimmed and with the price clearly marked on the back. (We've screwed this up a couple of times, but written the price by hand on all bookstore copies.) This later proved invaluable in dealing with bookstores and, eventually, a distributor. You can choose many ways to be zany, but this shouldn't be one of them if you want to reach a maximum audience with minimal money.
Price: Our choice of one dollar is not necessarily definitive. But a standard price has appealed to those who buy our books. In effect, we opted for the quasi-public service route, because you can't make money at this price--frankly that appeals to our supporters too. Additionally, it makes record keeping and dealing with bookstores easier. It also makes the poetry available at a damned reasonable price and from the start it set the scene for appealing for contributions to the press above and beyond the book orders. That, friends, is what keeps us going.
Author-designed Covers: Frankly this one scared me. We could have some horrendous uglies here, but it has worked out to our advantage. Our books have generally been received as strongly expressive of the poet and distinctively different from title to title. It has helped discourage the "More of the same old. . ." routine which seems to turn off many supporters of small press publishing. The poets have each put tremendous energy and deliberation into their books, largely because of this design decision, and it helped us to know them personally, an important concern of ours from the outset. By contrast, if you've dealt with commercial institutions, you know what anonymity is, what a drag it is, how it erodes your enjoyment of writing.
A Book A Month: This should come under the category of faith and/or unrealistic planning. We smiled a lot, but we also busted our asses so we wouldn't look like asses. It forced us to sit down and grapple with financing. But with gaps and gluts in our "schedule" we managed to average one per month.
Our books run from 28-50 pages in length and we pay about $165-$170 in printing bills on each. Multiply that by 12 months and add even modest promotional, postage, supply and miscellaneous small expenses and you're talking $2,300 to $2,500 per year, minimum.
Notes from our early meetings betray some pretty weird ideas for scrounging money that would make even Watergate bagmen blush. The first solid idea we pursued was a community benefit. We were lucky: it raised well over $200 and brought $50 in retail booksales. With a few modest contributions and some other booksales, that put us in the black with an inventory of books to sell toward a third printing. It also gave us the impetus to work even harder--the community support was overwhelming. It was the first DC benefit in years that turned into a genuine community happening.
A whole article needs to be written on producing and promoting benefits, but here let's just deal with what we did to make it work and the factors beyond our control which made it work.
Three musical acts came to our air, a theater group, a group of natural foods freaks and a local church. That was the setting and "program", along with short readings by four local poets. We turned every stone in the community for publicity. DC's alternative newspaper The Daily Rag (someone donated $15 for an ad there), a free ad in Woodwind music and arts paper, posters, handbills and free community announcements airtime on local (mostly alternative) radio stations. We expected less than one hundred people, if anyone but us and the acts showed. About 200 people showed up, many of whom didn't have the two dollar donation we asked, but everybody had a good time and free food. The benefit's success led to a community meeting on benefits three weeks later.
Obviously we couldn't have a benefit every month for Some of Us Press, so we had to scratch heads again. Direct mail (horrors, you cringe) seemed most within our means. It would broaden attention to the poets' work, lead to book sales and provide a vehicle for soliciting contributions based on something to show for what we asked more money for.
Our "mailing list" was formed from friends, relatives, other poets we knew, friends of friends and others who could conceivably be interested in sending us a dollar for at least one book--and maybe a little contribution. These were all typed on 3" x 5" index cards so that responses could be recorded--this is no place to cover your tracks. You want clear readings so you can remove names which don't respond and follow up those that do. We racked our brains and those of friends for an initial mailing of nearly 300. That's not a bundle of names, but that mailing returned a little over a dollar per name in book sales and contributions. The slick, four-color crap that clogs your mailbox doesn't do that well.
And our first mailing certainly wasn't a four-color slickie. It consisted of a 3&5/8" x 6&1/2" white return envelope with the press name and address rubber-stamped on the front, a prospectus of books to be published (if only we could get the money) and a simple black-ink-on-white letterhead (pressure transfer lettering with typewritten copy, printed offset). Letters were individually signed by the person who added the name. The prospectus was dignified but cheaply produced: hustled typesetting printed copy offset in black ink on a legal size yellow sheet folded to no. 10 envelope size with a tear-off coupon for book orders and contributions. The letter's tone was personal, reeking of more faith, hope and good intentions than sophistication. However, the complete package did convey a serious effort on behalf of poets and poetry--probably its key to success. The money went right into new books.
Now we began to get manuscripts from poets who evidently decided we would stay in business and were serious about getting the books we published out where people could read them. It is my feeling that the manuscript flow only began when other poets perceived that we weren't just in it to publish five or six poets who started the press. This was a bill of health. Don't knock those manuscripts. You get a flood you can't use, but the good ones are your only reason for being. (Set up a workable process for receiving, recording, reading, responding to and returning them to prevent embarrassment and to protect your own sanity.)
This is now five months after we published the first book and we get a few reviews in little mags and alternative newspapers. Reviews probably don't sell many books, but they help the poets with a sense of their work and, most importantly, are visible signs of activity to encourage contributions. They are also needed morale builders to keep you humping at the, by now, tedious process of keeping tack of money, bookstore orders and dealing with a bundle of mss. Copies of our books sent to newspapers and a couple of sheer-chance meetings led to a good write-up in the Washington Post. That led to the later interest and stories by other papers and inquiries from freelance writers, which may lead to stories on both the press and the DC poetry scene as a whole early in 1974. (They are calling it a "revival" and "renaissance".)
The Tedious Process: By virtue of daily proximity to the mailbox, Lee Lally accepted responsibility for keeping track of mail and money. Lee's meticulous attention to this critical function is the single most important reason why Some of Us Press is still alive and doing. None of us knew book-keeping, but Lee approached record keeping with the proper amount of paranoia to keep us above water. She recorded each and every transaction which took place as it took place. When finally we got an assistant book-keeper friend to help us set up press "books", all he had to do was buy us a ledger, show us what columns to put where, which transactions Lee had recorded went into which columns, the relationship of the different columns, and when to total them. Book-keeping is simple if you get someone competent to show you, even if you can't follow a newsstand manual. I can't.
Ed Cox took over our review copies handling and organized files which have made our functions flow more smoothly. Keep in mind that this whole small press world is a set of free-time functions which, 99 times out of a 100, has no central office and meeting space given over to your routines. These "shit-work" functions described in deadly detail above help you to 1) stay alive, and 2) do things in an orderly manner that is possible to program into a schedule of publishing and promoting. You can even enjoy them if you divide them equitably, pursue them collectively, have a few informal parties and keep telling yourselves the whole routine is not only worthwhile but also a bit gratifying.
Distribution is still the major small press problem. It's the old marketing thing. There are products, including poetry books, which you can afford to produce but not to market. We began "distribution" by personally hustling our books around to local bookstores. Two were receptive, and others carried a few books off and on. Some were impossible to deal with. A trip to New York for other reasons led to placement of copies in a couple of bookstores there. A feminist bookstore picked up Lee Lally's These Days for a helpful large order. Eventually we were approached by a distributor, RPM of Rockville, Md., whom we had come to know personally through the DC community. That came as a relief to us, but it's no financial panacea.
We've talked over our use of a distributor at Some of Us Press and feel it amounts to another quasi-public service routine, considering we price out books at one dollar. We pay 30¢+/book to print a 500-copy run and sell to a distributor for a maximum of 45¢. You can see that if we turned all 500 copies over to the distributor we'd get about $75 back on the $170 printing cost. But RPM helps get books out where poets can be experienced by a wider audience, part of our goal. Hustling bookstores outside DC is impossible for us on an orderly basis because we have fairly limited time since we lead normal personal lives outside the press.
COSMEP periodically lists distributors you could contact. When you do, a regular publishing schedule and a format which considers the needs of the bookstore will help you. With more money than we have you could get more from your distributor relationship by supplying advance book covers with promotional information about your press printed inside. You could also place cooperative ads with your distributor. The economics of our one dollar pricing commitment preclude our doing this.
Last but not least, we come to the clincher--Some of Us Press is a non-profit corporation, complete with corporations seal, chartered in the District of Columbia. That tickles the hell out of some friends. Some members of the press have been in the movement, GI resistance, etc., and now "sit on the board" of a corporate entity! Chalk it up to survival.
I don't know why we rushed to incorporate. We asked a legal-beagle friend and that was the first suggestion. We got free help on the papers, were frightened by the fact we had to buy a seal, but got one when we found it only cost $12.00.
Has it made life easier for us? Not yet, particularly, but it may pay off because we are now pursuing a tax-deductible status with the Internal Revenue Service through ¢pro bono legal aid from the Lawyers Committee on the Arts. Out non-profit status will probably be a plus factor in our request. Otherwise it has no real benefit for a group which turns over little money.
What excites me about tax-deductible status is that people could get tax relief by supporting poetry as well as fighting cancer and heart disease, supporting religionists and non-lobbyist public interest groups. The immediate value is for fund raising, which it would make easier. To date, for example, we have received few contributions of $25-$50, but if we could offer tax relief, many more people would not hesitate to come through in these amounts. One reason is that Some of Us Press has no overhead--when somebody gives us $25 they know it goes into poetry, not carpets and draperies for offices, administration that outweighs the program two-to-one, or to pay a professional fund raiser. Well, there's hoping.
I've left a lot of things out here. E.g., always stick to standard paper and envelope sizes. That seems elemental, but many people ante up huge production bills because they opt for weird effects. Our rule: only that weirdo which pays its freight.
If you know zilch about printing processes and how to prepare for them, the best book I've seen is the Pocket Pal (International Paper co., 220 East 42nd St., NYC 10017), which gives you 180 pages of complete and understandable information on every printing process you'll run across except sliced potato block printing-all for only one dollar (Sound familiar?). Or get something like Edmund Arnold's Ink on Paper from your library. Don't but any books on printing or graphics. Libraries have them.
You can also learn some fundamentals of direct mail and direct mail letter writing from library books-professional books of this type are very expensive because those who buy them write off the expense for taxes: a couple would eat all your profits for three years. But don't take all the direct mail hype seriously. Just adopt some techniques and age-old routines like making the most of every postage stamp. How? Every time you mail something make sure the envelope contains a potential for a return sale--e.g. your book list. Member of your press can even mail your list with their personal correspondence. The object is to reach people, and develop a responsive list of people who will buy poetry and, hopefully, contribute modest sums.
I've suggested to Tom Montag that he might want to print this article on perforated paper suitable for rolling on facilities near toilets. It contains some plodding information, but that has been our experience at Some of Us Press. It's the plodding that makes it possible to publish and promote on a regular schedule "good poetry at a low price", our motto. Our private motto is "have fun doing it". We have, and hope you do.
[Text reprinted here by kind permission of the author.]