Thinking of starting your own small press? There is lots of PEE YOUR PANTS EXCITEMENT AND ANXIETY, plus material, financial, and good business issues to think about when starting out. The ladies of Gap Riot Press are here with some helpful tips, some loving caution, and some gentle reminders to keep us all woke.
Aside from learning the craft of the chapbook, learning the business side of publishing has been a twisting and winding ride. Other small presses, poets, and printers have been very generous and super helpful, and have created an integrated community thinktank that has been invaluable. These fabulous people include Will and Nicole at words(on)pages, Catriona at Desert Pets Press, Cameron at Apt. 9 Press, the very patient and understanding Sebastian Frye at Swimmer’s Group, and the excellent members of the Meet the Presses collective. But for some things, we’ve been on our own trying to figure out the lay of the land.
Among the things we’ve never asked ourselves before now: How does one register a business name to accept grant monies? And, do we even have to do that? What the hell is a master page in InDesign? How do we begin to think about royalties? Since we are academics ourselves, we know well the culture of unpaid labour that runs rampant in cultural circles, so we made it a mandate to pay our authors. But how much? How much do we need to pay our designers? And what does that leave for us?
But please remember: we are not the experts; we are the adventurers. We’re learning every day, and we’re failing too. We’d love to share some of our story, but you’ve got to clear your own path. And for cat’s sake, please be kind to yourself throughout your journey. Ask for help when you need it. And hike up your knickers – you’re in for a wild one.
To encourage other riotous word-lovers to do it themselves, we’ve worked with Hook & Eye to put together this helpful (hopefully) how-to guide to start you off, inspired by the collective that continues to inspire us, the incomparable New Kids on the Block.
Step 1: We can have lots of fun
One of the first things Dani was asked when she sat down for coffee with Will and Nicole from words(on)pages was, “So, why chapbooks?” It was a fun question, and although we thought we had an answer, it was something we had to think about for a while. We realized that we needed to spend more time at the beginning conceptualizing our press and our mandate. So, our first piece of advice is that before you start up your small or micro-press, you need to take some real time, right off the bat, to conceptualize a larger poetics, mandate, or vision for your project. Remember, your press should be fun for you and for others, and it should highlight the kind of work you want to amplify.
This process starts with deciding on a name, logo, and general design theme or concept that conveys the message you have decided on. In our case, we developed the name Gap Riot Press for a few reasons, first and foremost because both founding editors have gaps in their front teeth, and we live this truth everyday. We also wanted to convey an acknowledgment of gaps in publishing standards, in the gender and race of editors, in the voices heard in the avant-garde and in visual poetics, and in the persistent gendered wage gap in the Western world. The riot came next, a clear homage to our Riot Grrrl predecessors, and a reminder that resistance is always a collective space, a physical and a psychic space, and a volatile space. Gap Riot is in flux.
For logos, we enlisted our friend, local artist and graphic designer Stace Schmidt to develop a logo that brought gap teeth to the forefront, making beautiful our “imperfections” and channeling our femme power. Stace developed a set of beautiful graphic logos that we use on all our print and digital media. We did our own website design to start, but as we grow we are working with local web designer and IT professional Jordan Doucet to create a dynamic website that has room to grow and expand with us.
Having a clear vision for your small press is important, but it’s also good to keep reminding yourself that a vision does not have to be a limitation. Kate is always reminding us that while we want to prioritize femme, queer, and PoC voices in our press, we also don’t want to cut off conversations or limit participation in our collective vision. We have had to be very careful about our language, always being clear that what we seek is focus and not another form of tokenism, exploitation, or exclusivity.
Having fun with your press also means carefully considering what your role in the press entails, and who else is on your team. The both of us wanted to share, as equally as possible, the requirements of a small press editor. Stace handles all the visuals, including book cover and illustrations, and helps with general book design. Different small presses organize this work differently. You need to figure out what works for you based on your print runs, your finances, and your abilities. Some small presses bring in a copyeditor or proofreader for the final stages. Some editors do all the design work themselves. Some presses solicit photographs or illustrations. Some presses contract out their PR and marketing.
The moral of this story is that this is absolutely too much work to take on as one person, particularly because as much as we love small press publishing, it’s not likely to become your full-time job, and certainly not from the beginning. Kate has a full-time job with a company. Dani works as a sessional instructor at two post-secondary institutions with typist work on the side. Stace works as a freelance graphic designer. None of us can put off paid labour to do Gap Riot work. It’s a really important thing that you need to remember: at best, you can hope with the start of a small press to break even. Do not try to do it all yourself, unless you are independently wealthy and have decided to spend all your time spreading the good literary word. If that’s you, power to you. But, I’m guessing it’s not, which brings us to the issue of funding.
Step 2: There’s so much we can do (once we have some funds)
Getting initial funding for a small (especially niche) literary press in Canada can be really difficult. That said, we were really lucky. Some full disclosure: Kate’s work, the fabulous Ian Martin Group, supported our press from the start with a donation, and continues to emotionally support our work. It’s fabulous that they helped us, but it’s also pretty rare and carries some hefty privilege. We don’t point this out to discourage others starting out, but to point to the fact that to start off our press, we looked in a pretty unconventional place. In other words, don’t just limit yourself to major funding bodies (Toronto Arts Council [TAC], Ontario Arts Council [OAC], Canada Council [CC]). First of all, it can be limiting to have to abide by the rules that come with using government monies to support your press. Second of all, most of those funding agencies don’t even support purely publishing projects anyway (see step four). But, there are funding opportunities there if you look. There are plenty of guides to getting funding, so we won’t spend too long on that. What we found we needed most guidance on was what to do after you have some cash flow (from grants, donations, a crowdfunding campaign, sales [from books, tickets, drinks at events, or PWYC at the door], or whatever method or combination you choose).
If you are accepting grant or donation monies for your organization, you’re going to need a business bank account. This is where the most confusion came up for us. Most other small presses in Toronto have a business account, but have not incorporated, enlisted as a partnership, or registered as a non-profit.
For tax purposes (blame it on the man), both major banks we consulted required that we actually BE a business before we registered for a business account. So, we registered as a 50/50 partnership and chose an account with low fees if we do most of our banking online. Whatever you choose to do in this situation is largely dependent on what kind of runs you’re doing, how well you think you’ll be selling, how much money you’re dealing with, and so on. Alongside this, it’s worth noting that you don’t need an HST number for your press right off the bat. According to the wonderful woman who set up our account at the bank, this is really only necessary if you’re going to be making over $30,000 per year with your press. But, if you’re there already, you’re likely not reading this.
This is also a good opportunity to add a quick note on paying your authors/artists: try to! Please! Have guidelines for royalties, speakers’ fees, honorariums, or whatever you decide, outlined clearly in your author contract. Not only is this good practice (in business and in ethics), but many larger funding bodies require that you pay your authors/artists (and that those authors/artists have receipts for their income) so having good documentation is useful. Royalty payment for authors varies greatly between presses: most offer a certain number of comped copies of the book to the author alongside a percentage of sales; most offer the author discounted copies above the comped copies; some offer the percentage of sales after a certain amount to ensure they cover costs, while others offer a smaller percentage off in-person sales and a larger percentage off online ones. Your author contract/royalties plan might change depending on the size of the run (and if it goes into more than one run), size of the book, cost to produce, notoriety of the author, and other factors. It’s important to craft a clearly defined author contract, but remember that the Press is a fluid business; don’t be afraid to talk about payment with your authors/artists and negotiate the contract together.
Step 3: It’s just you and me (and that’s it?)
One of the most important things to remember when you’re running a small press is that you’re not making books in a vacuum. LISTEN, THINK, REPEAT. This means three things:
- Listen to and Think about your authors: engage them on whatever level they feel comfortable and consult them about design, run, and so on. Also, don’t be SHADY. In our opinion, a Press should never be a Best Friends Club – this is one of the ways in which Press culture becomes self-replicating and impenetrable. Support your community, but be generous – open your eyes and ears, and consider submissions (and even solicitations) of works outside of your circle, and your comfort zone. And, again, if you can, PAY THEM for cat’s sake.
- Listen to and Think about your readers: make books they want to read at prices they can afford; offer some samples for free online; make it easy to purchase online and have a clear digital presence while at the same time having launches, readings, events, and attending markets to make yourself physically accessible.
- Listen to and Think about your community: as we have said over and over, the community of small press publishers, DIY collectives and spaces, and so on, has been invaluable. We learned A LOT from simply listening to our peers, and hearing their concerns about publishing and how to make this process better. This works both ways. Other presses can, and will, help you, but you need to also support them. Go to other events for other presses. Buy other chapbooks. Support other presses and others through hyperlinks, sharing on social media, and promoting other works. You may consider doing this through the Meet the Presses Literary Market, happening this year on November 18, 2017. Meet the Presses is a collective that works to actively support small press publishing in Canada. Other organizations, like the League of Canadian Poets & Diaspora Dialogues are also places to look to join, build, and support the small press literary community in Toronto, and other versions of these organizations are all over the country.
Step 4: I can give you more (than just a few books)
As we mentioned in Step 2, most funding bodies do not offer funding opportunities for presses who just make books. This is absolutely true of TAC and OAC grants for literary organizations. But, that’s not the only reason to expand your literary praxis beyond making books. The truth is, we have tons of poetry by white people, and not nearly enough from others. But beyond poetry, what we need is more active conversation, more inclusive communities, and more opportunities for writers, readers, artists, editors, and other people involved in literary communities to come together, to share, teach, and learn.
Alongside your small press, you might consider the role of a reading series or other type of reading/gathering to complement the work you publish. Not only will this make it possible to apply for other funding you wouldn’t be eligible for otherwise, but it also provides space to sell your books, meet new potential authors, and engage physically with your community. Gap Riot is in the process of organizing a reading series which we aim to begin in the fall. You might also want to consider having your organization run workshops (writing, bookbinding or design, printmaking, &c). You can also, once you have some real funding supporting you (never stop dreaming), envision your collective as a space where you invite others in the literary scene to come in as apprentice editors, as curators of a series or an anthology, etc.
Step 5: Don’t you know that the time has arrived (to make a book)
When you get to the point where you have all your ducks in a row and you’re reading to make a book, our best advice is to jump right in. The best way to get started is by trial and error. We typeset and design our chapbooks in InDesign. Other people were really helpful when we started to figure that out (Nicole, Sebastian, and Stace in particular). One thing Nicole pointed out to us that I think bears repeating is that you can find SO MANY fonts available for free online that you can use to make your book cover and design unique. But, you should be careful that you’re not stealing someone else’s font design. Be sure that any font you download and use for your books is free for all uses, and not simply free for personal use. That is, if you care about paying artists and designers, you’ll keep in mind that a font is their art product. When/if you have enough money, donate to a font designer or buy a fancy font. There are a lot of free tutorials on YouTube and elsewhere about using InDesign and we recommend using all those resources, as well as just playing around, to get you started.
Also, don’t forget that the best way to make your chapbook more serious is to get an ISBN for each book. This will help your authors when they try to get writers’ grants, and it will help preserve your work for posterity (if that’s a thing you care about). When you get an ISBN, which is hella easy, you need to remember to save copies of your chapbook to send to the Library of Congress.
Once you’ve created your masterpiece, you need to think about how you are going to print your books. The way we see it, you have three options:
- Get all the materials and print it yo’ damn self: expensive to start but will save money in the long run; much more time-consuming; you have complete creative control; there’s a real learning-curve here, unless you already know what you’re doing. You will need a quality printer, a guillotine or excellent exact-o knife, a large stapler and/or awl, needle, and binding thread (I have been advised that embroidery cotton also works well and is cheaper). You may want to invest in a paper folder. You can get adventurous about paper.
- Go to a chain store (like Staples, FedEx, TPH): obviously the cheapest option, and usually the fastest; very limited control/engagement; supporting big bad industries who do not care about small presses, or poetry, or art, or…people.
- Go to a small printing studio (we use Swimmer’s Group and they are amazing, but there are others): the most beautiful end-products; smaller studios will engage you in the printing process and advise you about design issues, paper and binding options, and ways to experiment with the book; plus, you are supporting a small, local company.
Don’t forget that one of the bonuses of small press is that you’re not stuck with the boring standards of popular/mainstream publication, so for cat’s sake have fun with the material components of your books. Make something beautiful, weird, fascinating, or terrifying. But, make a statement for real.
So, that’s our advice, for now. Take it with a heaping spoonful of salt. If you’d like to ask us questions, give us feedback, or see copies of our contracts, etc., please feel free to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sashay, Shanté, and don’t forget to WERK IT, gurrrl.
dani & kate xo
Kate Siklosi lives, writes, and thinks in Toronto. She holds a PhD in English Literature and has defenestrated from the academic ivory tower in search of warmer climes. She is a writer by day and a poet by night. She is the cofounding editor of Gap Riot Press and is currently working on a manuscript of experimental petro-poetry, Love Songs for Hibernia.
Dani Spinosa is a poet of digital and print media, an on-again-off-again precarious professor, and the Managing Editor of the Electronic Literature Directory. Her first chapbook, Glosas for Tired Eyes, was published in 2017 with No Press and her first scholarly manuscript, Anarchists in the Academy: Machines and Free Readers in Experimental Poetry is forthcoming from University of Alberta Press (Spring 2018).