Go Forth is a series curated by Nicolle Elizabeth and Brandon Hobson that offers a look into the publishing industry and contemporary small-press literature. See more of the series.
There are many literary journals and publishing houses in the indie realm. This year’s Pushcart Prize had eight-thousand nominations from journals, which means that if each journal sends four nominations, that’s at least two-thousand journals that participate. And considering not every journal participates in the competition, that’s a lot of journals. Rescue Press is one of them.
We do these interviews because sometimes readers say, “I keep reading the same people and the same journals” and while we are very pro reading what one just plain likes, we are also very pro the outside guy. Also, I think it’s really important that people who want to participate can read and say, “Well that’s how that guy did it and maybe even so can I.” Believe in yourselves, and add positively to the craft of writing, ok?
Love, Nicolle Elizabeth
NICOLLE ELIZABETH: Hi Danny. What is Rescue Press?
DANIEL KHALASTSCHI: Hi Nicole! Rescue Press is an independent publisher of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and hybrid texts. As our mission states, we are “a library of chaotic and investigative work,” and we aim to publish books that transform us. Together with my co-editor, the talented poet and essayist Caryl Pagel, we have spent the last five years seeking out manuscripts that haunt our brains completely. The collections, novellas, anthologies, experiments, and genre-bending projects we share with the world are not only books we emphatically believe in, but they are also books we feel showcase the wild possibilities of contemporary literature. With that, it’s important to note that both Caryl and I are writers and readers first. Even if I didn’t co-own/manage Rescue Press, I’d still want these beautiful books on my shelf. Is that a nerdy thing to say?
NE: Define haunt.
DK: Gladly. When I say we seek out manuscripts that “haunt” us I mean we look for books that refuse to leave us alone. In other words, Rescue Press produces books the reader can’t shake; the authors we work with shock, surprise, confuse, bewilder, entertain, and recalibrate us in astonishing ways, and that’s exactly what good literature should do. I mean, doesn’t that sound like a lovely kind of haunting? Who wouldn’t want ghosts like that in their lives?
NE: And what is Rescue Press’ manuscript acquisition process? i.e., do you seek out authors?
DK: That’s a great question. Though we continue to solicit work from writers we admire, we also publish manuscripts that come to us through our Open Prose reading period and our annual Black Box Poetry Prize. The Open Prose Series is edited by the phenomenal writers Zach Savich and Hilary Plum, and our goal is to support the wider discussion of contemporary literary prose. Submissions are open each year during the month of January, and the first book in the series (Anne Germanacos’s Tribute) was just released May 1st. The Black Box Poetry Prize is entering its fourth year, and writers can submit full-length poetry collections to the contest during the month of June (there’s no singular aesthetic here—we’re interested in all forms, styles, and voices). Past winners of the contest include Blueberry Morningsnow (Whale in the Woods), Todd Melicker (Rendezvous), and Bridgette Bates (whose debut collection will be released next fall). Oh, and I should mention that we are very excited to announce that this year’s Black Box Prize will be judged by Maggie Nelson. More information can be found here.
Really: we want to read everything we can get our hands on. So tell your friends and submit.
NE: Why does Rescue Press exist?
DK: In the end, Rescue Press exists to make books and share literature with the world. At a time when traditional book sales are in steep decline, Rescue Press is committed to producing work that physically (in terms of design) and imaginatively (in terms of content) reestablishes the joys and challenges of reading. Thanks in large part to our creative director, the outrageously inspiring Sevy Perez, Rescue Press makes beautiful books that in and of themselves are objects of art. Because we admire the physical properties of a book—the smell of the paper, its weight in our hands, the way the jacket covers create staggered mosaics on the bookshelves of our homes—we choose not to create electronic versions of the manuscripts we publish. These books deserve ample room to breathe, stretch, and shake (as Ma$e would say), and that’s what we provide them with. There are so many wonderful writers in the world whose work (for a variety of reasons) simply won’t find its way to large-scale publishing houses. Rescue Press (along with other hardworking independent publishers like Factory Hollow Press, Octopus Books, Sarabande Books, Canarium, Black Ocean, and so many more) is part of a larger community of small presses that simply want to call attention to the art we can’t believe isn’t already in the spotlight.
NE: What’s a print run look like number-wise for an RP book and who does the art and the binding etc?
DK: Our print runs depend on the project, but the average initial run for a Rescue Press book is between 500 and 1,000 copies. That said, we are committed to keeping our books in print, and many of our titles are already on their third or fourth reprinting. As for book design, we’ve been fortunate to work with a number of gifted artists over the years. The cover for our first book (Marc Rahe’s The Smaller Half) was designed by Chicago graphic artist, copywriter, and vinyl-spinning DJ Andy Masur (who also created the initial concept of our logo). After that, our next few covers were designed by a fantastic Portland-based artist named Skye McNeill. While we loved working with both Andy and Skye, since 2012 our books have been the visionary work of Sevy Perez. Oh, and the books themselves are currently printed and bound by a wonderful company in Illinois (the closest local printer we could find when we began the press in Milwaukee in 2009).
NE: Ok. So if someone reading this wants to start their own independent press…
DK: While there are plenty of things a person should do before actually starting a small press (ie: read often and widely, participate in local/national writing communities, support other small presses by purchasing books/hosting readings/encouraging local bookstores and libraries to carry books produced independently, etc.), anyone who is seriously considering working in this field must remember three things: stay organized, keep good records, and be patient. What I mean to say is that in order for a small press to be successful the editors not only need good work to publish, but they also must be prepared to design, edit, print, promote, release, support, and continue to care for the books once they are actually in the world. Though it would be nice, a publisher can’t always rely on word of mouth to carry a book into the hands of readers or onto the shelves of independent bookstores across the globe. In actuality, for that to happen publishers and editors must always be thinking ahead, and the best way to do that is to be organized from the start (create a mission statement, draft contracts, delegate responsibility, generate production schedules, and stick to your calendars), keep good records (know where the product and the money will go/are going), and remain patient every step of the way (there will always be delays—plan ahead and don’t rush the release of a book just to meet a deadline; it’s always better to have the product you want rather than want the product you wish you had). In the end, being an independent publisher (at least for me) can be stressful and time consuming and (true fact) absolutely frustrating (no one should talk to me during tax season). That said, even in those less-than-cheery moments, I remain hyper-aware of how great an honor it is to be entrusted with the work of such talented artists. I can’t imagine ever giving up the work I do for Rescue. Well, except the taxes. That part I could surely do without.
NE: What would you say to those who are concerned with small press longevity?
DK: I guess I would say that for every small press forced to suddenly close up shop in the night, a hundred other presses are finding a way to survive. While book sales aren’t what they used to be, the actual cost of printing/promoting/sharing work is more manageable now than ever. With the increase of digital/short-run printing options, general production costs have come down a bit over the years and it’s becoming easier and easier for a press to call attention to/distribute the work they create (thank you, social media). This means that if managed correctly, a small press can operate on a relatively small budget (and if funding does become an issue—which it likely will—there are crowd-sourcing options like Kickstarter and Indiegogo that allow small presses to fund-raise quickly and efficiently). All this is to say that if the editors of a small press are committed to the books they produce, and if they approach the endeavor with an entrepreneurial spirit (which includes recognizing the importance of learning business practices like basic accounting, inventory management, etc.) an independent publisher can last a very long time. Maybe it’s weird to hear a poet be this optimistic, but I truly believe it.
NE: You are the associate director of the University of Iowa’s Magid Center for Undergraduate Writing; what is your advice to writers who want to start their own indie press?
DK: That’s interesting. I think I’d give the same advice to a student as I would to anyone else who expresses interest in starting a small press. As mentioned above, I think a good place to begin is by going to various independent bookstores and reading as many small press publications as possible as a way of surveying the scene. After that, I think figuring out your mission (what you want to do as a publisher) is important as this will help guide the type of manuscripts you publish and allow future writers and readers to understand your creative vision. There is no shortage of small press publishers in the world today, and figuring out a way to set yourself apart—to find your niche and consider what your work/output will contribute to the larger literary conversation—seems to me to be a crucial part of the process.
Aside from all that though (and, you know, aside from making sure you have fantastic work to publish that you can really stand behind), I think the less glamorous stuff can’t be overlooked. I’m talking here about creating a business plan, understanding your finances, securing a name/logo, registering the business, setting up your tax information, applying for sales and use licenses, building a website, keeping good records, etc. Although running a press is an exciting endeavor, it’s also a business. To be around for the long haul, editors and publishers will be more successful if they look ahead, communicate effectively and professionally, keep to deadlines, and find a way to balance their creative interests with strong business practices. Maybe that’s not what young, excited, eager students want to hear, but it’s the truth.
Oh, and one more thing: other presses (Rescue included!) will likely be willing to talk and share valuable information if you have questions—all you have to do is reach out. We’re all in this together.
Daniel Khalastchi is the author of two books of poetry, Manoleria (Tupelo Press, 2011) and Tradition (McSweeney’s, 2015). A former fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, he lives in Iowa City where he is the Associate Director of the University of Iowa’s Frank N. Magid Center for Undergraduate Writing. He is also the co-founder and managing editor of Rescue Press.