The Art of Commerce sits on the corner of literature & the marketplace, asking the age old question: Who's got the right of way?
We talk with writers, editors & entrepreneurs about, really, anything. All conversations are 'manuscript-first', meaning they were typed as you see them. Small edits have been made for structure.
Episode XXII: "You don't need to be literate to dance (and thank god for that)"
In this installment, I speak with Ken Baumann, the Publisher at Sator Press. Topics include mislabeling alt-lit, classics and the canon, the one man advantage, the great egalitarian leveler, the “indie moment”, the five strata of film & more.
I’m here with Ken Baumann, a writer, publisher and book designer. He’s written three books, all published under small indie presses (Tyrant Books, Boss Flight Books & Blue Square Press), and he runs one himself, Sator Press. We’ll be discussing, you guessed it, small publishing houses. First things first: where are you, what do you see?
I'm sitting at my tall, tiny dining room table—my wife and I don't really have a dining room, but it's a space far enough away from our cat's litterbox and near enough to our kitchen to be sort of conducive to food and work. I see three of my bookshelves, two cats, and errant stuff that needs to be taken to our recycling bins. Glamor!
And they said the romantic period of literature is over. Can you construct a pseudo-linear telling of your path into writing and then publishing?
Hah! Sure: I started writing when I was a kid, took it seriously then, and didn't stop taking it seriously. When I was maybe 16, I discovered Tao Lin's blog, and then Blake Butler's blog, and then roped myself into a budding and Blogger-based community of writers. That was the wormhole through which I severely and happily fell, and many of the people I met online would wind up becoming close friends and collaborators offline, as well.
Publishing: I started an online literary journal called NO POSIT, built and ran it myself for a few years, then Blake Butler and I decided to put out a paperback literary journal called NO COLONY. We ran that for a few years, and I'd expressed to Blake that I wanted to publish full-length debuts—novels, poetry collections—and shortly thereafter he passed me the manuscript to The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney. After reading that within about 30 hours, I emailed Chris with an on-the-fly business plan for a publishing company, Sator Press. He said yes, and I found that I felt most creatively satisfied via publishing, so I kept doing it. And now I'm working on Sator's fifth title, Salt Is For Curing, the debut full-length poetry collection by Sonya Vatomsky.
Getting into books through alt-lit is quite different than the more popular route: the books they feed you during your secondary education. To boil a complex issue down, what's the main difference between the "classics" and something hypercontemporary like alt-lit, and how might that change a burgeoning writer's education?
Well, when I discovered a dozen or so of the writers now sloppily labeled under the same umbrella, alt-lit, I was also reading classic literature, stuff considered canonical, whatever. But I definitely was more energized by the literature being written by people who were, you know, alive and willing to email. But I've strangely turned back to a devoted study of old challenging books—I enrolled as an undergrad at St. John's College in Santa Fe over a year ago (at 25)—and so your question is a good one that's been on my mind. The label alt-lit to me is a bit useless, only because much of the work being associated with alt-lit now is aesthetically all over the place, informed by widely varied work and authors. That said, a lot of the new and self-labeled alt-lit work that I've read is boring to me, primarily because the work isn't animated by the itchy urge to find a new aesthetic, to take stylistic risks—much of the happily alt is also lazily homogenous. Another dumb facet of alt-lit culture is that there's a general disregard for old tough books—"classics", the canon, whatever you want to call that supremely dense collection of works that have deeply influenced our culture, and are, on the whole, fucking tough to parse. I think this disregard arises out of laziness, even though it's often claimed to be a punk-like disrespect for or critique of classic literature. There's some Nietzsche line that's good here: he posits a principle where he lacks a capacity. I didn't want to do that, so I made myself pay a bunch of tuition to go to a school in which diving directly into a good chunk of the world's toughest and most influential books is required and enjoyed. That said, a good and hard-working artist will forge into new territory one way or another—though I think it's easier to locate the unmapped space in which that territory might reside if you know the terrain you're already in.
Wonderful answer. Any artist quits when they stop searching, and falling into labels is a very quick path there. Alt-lit is about as useful as saying "indie rock" or "mumblecore". Once we're at a stage of having a name come into mainstream consciousness, it's likely it's already lost all use. Having the space to avoid quick-hit genre labels, how would you describe what Sator publishes against other presses?
That's well-said. Well, I aim to find and publish challenging work. I realized that innovation doesn't necessarily have to reside within the book's structure—I think the searing critique of great satire feels perpetually new, for example, and I think Eric Raymond's Confessions from a Dark Wood is just that: great satire. But all of the books I've put out through Sator have challenged me. That said, publishing challenging work isn't unique to Sator—I think that all of the presses at the bottom of sator.press also publish challenging work. It's kinda tough for me to describe Sator's aesthetic, though, because it's a one man operation, and my aesthetic is mutative and errant.
Ideally, I'd like other people to say that Sator takes more risks than many publishers. That's the goal.
I want to move on to the one man operation theme, but first: by saying you publish books that challenge, you're implicitly bringing up the fact not all publishers do this. And let's cut right past genre lines: there are literary publishers who, through success, have had to hedge risk by putting out less challenging but readily buyable books. Of course the big publishers are also putting out brilliant work each and every season. What's your take on the literary landscape of more corporate houses?
Corporate publishing's bread and butter is, sadly, dogshit. Or more precisely: corporate publishing's bread and butter are books sold in pharmacies. Self-help, CEO-schlock, autobiographies by war criminals, etc. That said, corporate publishers and their numerous subsidiaries also publish books like 300,000,000 by Blake Butler, a brave and shocking book that is undeniably innovative. Which is to say that corporate publishers occasionally employ wonderful, bold editors like Cal Morgan, or like Michael Signorelli. I also like the fact that corporate publishers pay their employees living wages—corporate publishers keep talented book designers on staff, and in the day of an endless ocean of freelancers, that is miraculous. But even considering those exceptional imprints like Harper Perennial, I think that most of the bold work that is being published today is being published by houses like Graywolf, like New Directions, like Dalkey and Coffee House and Soho and Two Dollar Radio. These are the independent but well-funded presses that are the arteries of great literature. And then much of the most exciting and most daring work is coming from the small and always-in-the-red presses. So yeah: the bigger the entity, the more fragile it is to risk. No surprise there, and so no unique crime of irresponsibility that's being perpetrated by corporate publishing companies.
There's small and then there's small. Sator Press is one man. What are the unique advantages and disadvantages that you've been surprised by?
I can move very, very, very fast. That's the most immediate advantage that a one-man publishing operation has. I also can promise an absurd amount of attention to each Sator author—they don't have to wade and argue their way through middlemen, so if a Sator author has a question, problem, or criticism, it goes directly to the person with the money and the power to make a decision. This is why I tell all my Sator authors: I want to produce the exact book that you want produced. This means that every step in the book's production process—its cover design, its interior layout, font choices, paper stock choices, people being sought for blurbs, the copy on the Sator website—all of that gets run by the author, who ultimately has the strongest sway. Corporate houses can't provide this level of attention to and respect for an author's desires because of market pressures. Which leads me to Sator's biggest disadvantage: the market. Sator is tiny—our first print runs average 500 copies, for example—and that means that I can't find decent distribution. Small Press Distribution is okay at placing Sator books in indie bookstores, but I still lose money every year via their annual distribution fee. Amazon's cut is horrendous; I clear about ten cents to a dollar on each copy sold through Amazon. But, the freedom and independence afforded to me by Sator's scale greatly outweighs my concerns over audience. And, ultimately, if a Sator book were to hit the Black Swan lottery and attract 100,000 eyes, I could handle the attention and orders—the internet is a great egalitarian leveler.
Try to forget who's asking this question (in other words, honesty over all), but where do you see ebooks in the future of small presses? How much of it does play into your operation?
I don't have a persuasive answer to that question, only because what technologies get widely adopted is a mystery to me, and unpredictable. I know that paperback and hardback books aren't going anywhere for a very, very long time—the Lindy effect guarantees that. A paperback book is a durable, portable, and cost-efficient technology for conveying information—a Kindle is a fragile, portable (if you're near a power outlet when its battery dies), and expensive technology for conveying information. That said, ebook sales have been good for Sator—Gumroad, my payment platform, has a fantastic UI for both sellers and customers alike—and I don't begrudge any reader who wants to buy a book from a small press, no matter the medium or delivery system. Small and independent press readers are curious, adventurous readers, and are therefore my favorite people. So I bet that ebook sales will grow, but I also bet that paperback/physical sales will not stagnate.
Part of me truly believes we're on the cusp of an "indie moment" in books (for lack of a less wince-worthy phrase), similar to what music went through a decade or two ago. That is, more "challenging" music reaching a larger audience and a larger population genuinely seeking out new artists all the time. Am I too far in to the game to realize this is overly hopeful? On one hand, since the middle of the twentieth century, both music and books have becoming less "monopolized" by certain titles (the variety of books has increased), but on the other, musical originality has increased in all realms, whereas in books, it seems we're regressing (commercially). Pick apart and disagree with one of the many half-ideas I've just thrown at you.
The comparison between the music industry and the publishing industry is often made, but I'm still unconvinced by its precision. Music has, and always will have, a bigger audience than literature. You don't need to be literate to dance (and thank god for that). And music is also inherently social: live performances are hugely important to the experience of music, whereas readings of literature are not important to the experience of literature. So music is a bigger, messier, more accommodating sandbox that contains basically every human on earth. Literature, on the other hand, is smaller, neater, and has a barrier to entry (namely, literacy). There is also the massive difference in money: the music industry makes more money, and music superstars make more money than literary superstars; this difference encourages experimentation, encourages developing new technologies and modes of distribution and experience. That said, I've definitely witnessed—and hopefully participated in—a growth in the landscape of small press and indie press publishing. There are more readers, but they're more diffusely distributed. That might be the case with music, as well, but when I glance over the shoulder of my wife as she clicks through Spotify, I notice that there are an awful lot of songs that have been played well over a five million times—name five books published in the last year that have been read by over 500,000 people (factoring in the huge difference between the time it takes to read a book and the time it takes to listen to a song, or even album). So I don't think you're wrong, but I don't believe that comparing literature and publishing to music and the music industry is that helpful.
I guess a simple point that I missed is that listening to a new weird song is much easier than reading (and finishing) a new weird book. The scale greatly impacts the consumer experience, and therefore renders the comparison imprecise.
Also, buying a new weird song is significantly cheaper than buying a new weird book. If you've got Spotify, it's free. So literature and publishing precludes the intensity of risk-taking that music producers and listeners are used to.
And what of film?
Whoo boy. I'll try to keep this brief, because film and TV is the world I lived and breathed for over a decade, and as a result of that strange life, I have A Lot of Opinions®. Film seems to exist in these strata:
1. Studio movies (analogous to Patterson blockbusters, or Hilary Clinton's autobiography, or whatever other piece of ubiquitous garbage that comes screaming to mind)
2. Studio movies with mid-to-low range budgets, which are often thrillers, dramas, and Oscar bait (analogous to literary fiction as published by big corporate publishers)
3. Indie films with studio distribution (analogous to indie presses with great distribution, like New Directions)
4. Scrappy indie films that circuit film festivals (analogous to indie presses that often get great press, like Two Dollar Radio)
5. Microbudget stuff distributed online (analogous to small presses)
The film marketplace is still dominated by strata 1, 2, and 3. That said, the occasional film from stratum 4 will make its way into people's televisions and browsers and blow minds. Upstream Color comes to mind. But most film viewers do not dig beneath the layer of the studio movies, as most readers don't dig beneath the layers of literature published by corporate houses.
Love those buckets. We're getting severely off topic here, but we're almost out of time anyway: what is your background in film and TV? I noticed it was left off your path to books.
Off-topic = fertile ground (or so I hope). I started acting professionally when I was a kid, did it for about 12 years, then quit about two years ago. I worked mostly in TV in Los Angeles. My work in TV paid for Sator (and still does), and that same work also allowed me to accumulate way too many fucking books that dominate/colonize my and my wife's 600 sq. ft. apartment in Santa Fe. The novelty of an actor who also wrote and published books also got Sator a decent amount of attention, and I'm grateful for that. And, most importantly, I met my wife on the set of a film, so I owe the film & TV industry much blood.
Start personal, end personal, with lots of abstract conversation in the middle. What better formula for an interview? Thanks for your time and your words, Ken.
Hah! Thank you so much for the excellent questions, the curiosity, and the space. I greatly appreciate all that you do for literature, Andrew.