Interview with Tod Thilleman, 11 August 2001, The Olive Vine, 131 6th Avenue, Brooklyn.

 

 

OB: I seem to remember that the name Spuyten Duyvil was connected to a group of writers in the 70's and 80's…

TT: Yes, it was a group of writers living on the Upper West Side: Michael Stephens, Richard Pevear and Mark Rudman, who was the editor of Pequod. Richard Pevear is the translator of Dostoyevsky and Yves Bonnefoy. Michael Stephens wrote The Brooklyn Book of the Dead and is also known for his first novel, Season at Cool. Paul Auster was also going to be involved. It was basically whoever was living in the neighbourhood. It was a poetry press for a long time. A couple of years ago, Michael Stephens said, "You know, I'm very busy, I have a job teaching at Emerson College, do you want to take over?" And I said, well, I have some ISBN numbers… and I wanted to start a publishing company anyway. I loved the name Spuyten Duyvil, too, so I took it over.

OB: What kind of poetry books were published originally?

TT: Those of Michael Stephens, Mark Rudman, and Richard Pevear: they were the three initial books. Then, over the years, there were books by other people, although not very many, as it was all very sporadic…

OB: Spuyten Duyvil is actually the name of the area, right?

TT: Yes, it is just outside of Manhattan on the other side of the Harlem River. It's the first stop on the Metro North train, a promontory, a place around which the boats used to have to navigate. I think that is where the name comes from. It's an old Dutch name… Robert Kelly said that when he was in Holland he noticed the different streets would be called spuyten in Dutch. So he thought that it meant devil's way. A lot of people think it means devil's spit but I think it is just devil's place because it used to be difficult to navigate there.

OB: The work published by SD is very varied, you have poets, novelists, playwrights and artists, all coming from different aesthetic backgrounds. Is there a unifying feature, a specific publishing line behind SD?

TT: The feature is that I can relate to all these people. I do not have any kind of agenda to go on. I was not trying to do one specific thing, the only thing I was really trying to do is just start a publishing business. I knew painters, I knew playwrights, I knew poets simply because I started writing poetry. Those were the people that I knew and when I started producing my own books, I just showed people that it was something you could do, you know. It does not matter what the book is, I think, because I'm kind of going at it quantatively. The more diverse the titles are, the better: it does not pinpoint the press itself, it does not pinpoint the authors themselves. The book can then become its own mouthpiece for whatever its agenda is.

OB: So you relate to each book on an individual basis…

TT: Totally individual, and also I can relate to all those people in ways that maybe other people cannot necessarily. I like to talk to people that are completely different. I like Charles Borkhuis's poetry, but I also think his plays are really great although they do not get the attention they deserve. All you have to do is read one play and it becomes obvious that the plays are like these master works, so obviously why do a book of poetry, even though I did a small book of his poems. It makes more sense to me to do the plays because that's his masterwork. So I went to talk to him about it, and we published his plays. There was no agenda like I want to present Charles Borkhuis to readers because he's kind of hot right now or whatever, I was more interested in the work itself, in the plays.

OB: Are you sent a lot of manuscripts?

TT: More manuscripts come in now. At the moment I have this very interesting manuscript from Laynie Brown, a poet, who wrote this prose manuscript which is absolutely terrific. I want to talk to her about turning that into a book because it is basically prose vignettes, dreamscapes circulating around the work of the photographer Francesca Woodman. I would say that during the course of the year I get ten manuscripts, some of them poetry, some of them plays or fiction. I think there will be more ficton coming in.

OB: You published the books of people who are both writers and publishers (Ed Foster, Joanna Gunderson). You are also a writer yourself. How do you see the relationships between writing and publishing ?

TT: Well, we can do what a bigger publisher can't do. I mean I feel like I can also do what a small publisher can't really do if they don't have diverse interests in literature and art and are not actively involved in both art and literature. I'm actively involved in both, so when I edit a manuscript, for instance, I can make suggestions that have some kind of artistic relevance because I can understand where the writer is coming from. So right there the direction of the piece and the whole project become completely different: the cover art, the whole way of laying the book out and putting it all together… I am intimately involved with the writing itself, or the drawings, or whatever is at stake.

OB: When there is an editorial collaboration between yourself and the writer you are publishing, how long can the process take? How does it all work?

TT: Sometimes not very long at all if the manuscript is ready to go. Maybe it will imply tweaking it here and there… Sometimes the manuscript is not finished, like now, with some of these prose vignettes that I am going to publish. In which case, it's just a matter of making suggestions as to how to finish it. Often what it's all about is just how to present what the writer's intentions are because he might be caught up too much in some exercise that he has been doing for years. You know, he might not see the forest for the trees.

OB: Do you feel that SD and yourself are part of a publishing community in New York?

TT: I think so, more and more, but I also really feel that I am not part of any group except for people that I have already met, like Joanna Gunderson of Red Dust or Ed Foster of Talisman. Some of the other poetry publishers I have not really had any contact with nor have they tried to have any contact with me per se. I pretty much started the whole thing with my own agenda, meaning my own poetry to do, and maybe it was perceived as having a certain bias or slant or something. But that's not the case. I'm trying to bust out of this really small poetry world. It was a similar situation when I met Joanna Gunderson, I wanted to talk to her about doing some of my own work, and then I realized that some of the books that she had of Pinget hadn't really had the exposure that they needed. I remember mentioning to her the idea of a copublication, trying to bring the book out. She recently agreed to do it, so we are now going to do the three novels by Pinget in one volume…

OB: So you are republishing the titles that she has already published?

TT: In a single volume with an introduction by J. Updike, actually with some excerpts from reviews that he had done of Pinget's work back in the 70's or in the 80's, when those came out. There is also an afterword by Barbara Wright on translating him, so it will be a rather comprehensive volume. Maybe we will do that again with some other writers. I would like to do stuff like that too, you know, finding things that do not have the exposure they need. You know, it's not like Pinget's totally isolated, the book should be in the bookstores, it should be on the shelves of Barnes and Noble and all these places. So it's just a matter of repackaging it, and no bigger publisher is going to do that, they are just not interested. They're also not interested in a book like this novel by Laynie Brown, they are not going to be interested in The Desire Notebooks by John High. You know John got laughed at from many different editors he sent his book to, they said "you're wasting your time, what is this bullshit," you know. All I did was make some editorial suggestions like "clean up this section" or "the layout should be this way," "we'll put some pictures in it," and "it should be published as one novel, not three prose poems" etcetera…

In publishing, most people are chasing after money like they are in any manufacturing business. What's more, they do not have the time to take into account the smaller factors like what the book IS actually, what genre the book fits in, or if it's inventing its own genre. Therefore there is no way they can find out how to just quickly and inexpensively produce the book to create some kind of hoopla within that genre…

OB: As an independent publisher, what is your position towards the "mainstream" and how do you approach it?

TT: It's there ! It's there ! I was just reading an article in Publishers Weekly a couple of minutes ago about something that seems obvious to me. Why do big publishers start with hardcovers before they move to paperback ? They had a big article about this new trend to publish paperbacks first and hardcovers later. You know, it just makes sense ! I mean, obviously, if you are a small publisher and you have no budget like me, it's cheaper to do paperbacks! You can't even begin to do hardcovers: who do you sell them to after you spent thousands and thousands of dollars on really really small print runs? It's just common sense to do the paperbacks first, it's cheaper to produce, especially now with the technology the way it is. You can do real low print runs, the books look great, and you can keep them in print for a really long time. So in some way when you're small, you see things that really seem obvious, things that the mainstream might not see at all.

OB: You were saying 'printing on demand' helps you keep the books in print, right?

TT: Well I call it 'print on demand' but it's really a virtual 'print on demand'. I do use technically what they call 'print on demand' technology, where there's a printer and you upload the book file over the internet and they print out fifty or how many copies you want, just to get the title started. Then they bill you and you pay it off every twenty days or thirty days…

The technique I'm most often using is that I have a printer that does the covers and then I have another printer that does the text and binding. Both their printing and pricing schedules make sense when you're doing really low runs. Combined together, it's still very cheap per book and so it's a virtual 'print on demand'.

OB: Tell me about Maarri Press. Is Maarri a series within SD?

TT: Maarri was this Tenth Century Persian poet who was very influential to Dante when Dante was writing The Divine Comedy. Nobody really knows his work in English. Technically, Maarri Press is an imprint.

OB: It's interesting that you should start publishing Arabic writers.

TT: That was supposed to develop between my friend Ziad Naji and myself. He was a social worker here in the neighbourhood for three or four years and he also owned a bookshop before that in Manhattan. So he's very much into publishing and we had talked about doing these Arabic old Persian literature books. If you go to the New York Public Library, Maarri's books are there but their translations are really old and nobody's translated that stuff anew. And then we'd be able to move into Palestinian literature and things from the Middle East.

OB: Would you consider publishing contemporary Arabic poetry?

TT: Yes, definitely. It's a whole body of work that not many people here know a lot about.

OB: Do you feel that the media have a lot of power and influence on book sales ?

TT: I think they do affect the sales because, even with the independent chains, the retail world is not set up to order or find or stock a book that has not received some kind of media attention. So if it gets any media attention, then they'll order it and then it goes into the machinery…

OB: Do you think the media have a bias in favor of bigger publishing houses ?

TT: I don't think so. The review magazines review a lot of our titles, Library Journal has, The Kirkus Review has, Forward Magazine which services the library book buying industry did review Barbara Henler's book. So small press books are reviewed all the time. You send the books out to as many people as you can. Literary publishers or bigger publishers do not tend to really do advanced promotion on a lot of their authors, especially if it's their first books or if they're unknown, unless that's the one book that they are going to hit on. I send out fifty review copies for the book with other promotion material and follow up with a phonecall. It takes a lot of time but once it's worked in the schedule, it just becomes something that you are doing as part of your job.

OB: How many titles do you publish ?

TT: I can do ten titles a year, of pretty substantial size, and then I can always sneak in slim volumes of poetry here and there.

OB: Does SD support itself ?

TT: Not yet. I have an operating budget just to get by during the course of the year and to sell enough books to do that, but mainly everything centers around some kind of cooperative creative funding for each project, whether it be a foundation, another person, the author himself, the author's family, extended relations, people that want to underwrite the book… It does not really cost so much to produce these books because we're not doing big elaborate print runs nor investing so much into an inventory, which is what happens a lot of times because people think they're going to immediately sell a lot of books. There was this show on the radio this morning about this new database set up to track how many books sell for every published title for a fiscal year. People were saying that at first, people are going to be shocked at how few books sell from these big houses with their big name authors. Everybody always assumes that publishing is like the movie industry, like an entertainment industry where millions and millions of copies are sold! No, no, we're talking hundreds of copies usually over a given two or three months period! People will become a little more sobered to the realities of publishing, which probably is what's happening a lot more and more in this country: publishing expectations are starting to be a little bit more realistic. I think they are starting to realize what they're really paying money for and what their bottom line really is. If you look at most big publishers, they don't really have a business model that they strictly follow. Most often they have a parent company that underwrites the whole thing, and so they can lose money here and there and not really have a real tight business model. Although they may be getting one more and more… the fact that paperbacks should supersede hardcovers makes perfect sense. Usually, the business enters the market at the lowest possible price. Then they figure out how to manufacture it, and they have all their price structure accordingly figured out. Why does publishing have to operate that way? There's no reason for it, just like there's little reason why the literary lists are no longer edited the same way as they used to be. There is really no time for an editor to say " these are my authors and I'm working with them, to help them nurse their creative literary talents. " Editors today may think that is what they're doing, but they're not doing it the way that they did fifty, sixty years ago.

OB: So what was the way then? There would be one editor working with four or five writers and helping them to…

TT: Well, yes, editors were not merely editing the text and saying "I'm going to get you a book deal, we're going to do this we're going to do that," or "I'm going to make you a star, this is what I think your next book should be about." Editors were interested in the literary craft from a purely altruistic and aesthetic point of view. Nobody does that anymore, because why would you?

OB: Except editors at small presses?

TT: Except the small presses who can afford to do that because they technically have more time.

OB: I thought that publishers like Random House had a basic economic model, whereby you just have to make money. You certainly cannot afford to lose money on a book.

TT: Right, you try not to, and obviously, the people who make all the money are textbooks publishers, because they are charging too much money for the textbooks sold to universities. As to the general retail market, you can make anything a bestseller if you throw enough money at it. If it's in every bookstore you walk into for the next six months, chances are everybody is going to buy a copy. So it's brainwashing in a way: just monopolize someone's view of that section of the retail world!

OB: It's slightly paradoxical. Big stores like Barnes and Noble have twenty copies of the same book in their shop windows, and I thought mass marketing and capitalism were supposed to maintain diversity, or so they say… The bottom line is that you only have a few titles because shelf space is expensive and…

TT: And also they are not utilizing capital to produce the books, they are using profits to produce them and they are chasing after profit. So if they don't turn a profit in three months, they have to figure out a way to get profit in the next three months. They don't have cash reserves that they are going off of. Capitalism is, in theory, supposed to be how to utilize the money over a long period of time, and it is also supposed to create diversity. Instead, what they do is plummet the cash reserves to create short term profit, and then you're left with having to get another short term profit, and another short term profit, etc., so you're always chasing after short term profit. So you can only say "God! we can't diversify and we have to keep producing the same item because we have no cash reserves…" The ideal scenario would be that you're selling enough books so that your cost per is so low, but obviously for small presses the cost per book is much higher: instead of spending a dollar and a half per book, you're spending four or five, so that every return knocks the wind out of you. The only way to survive that I can see is to keep producing a lot of titles and to keep a low inventory on everything. Should book distributors and bookstores run short on books, should your inventory be very low, there is enough time usually for you to turn around and print more copies, usually it takes about a month and a half to print a book that's already laid out and ready to go.

Inventory is really the thing that's killing everybody, and that's why when the new technology came out, everybody was trying to push for the low inventory model. In fact, reverse inventory is what it's called.

OB: this question is a cliché, I suppose. But let's go for it. You published a part of Robert Creeley's email correspondence. Given the fact that you published internet correspondence in book form, I was wondering what your take on the internet and its relationship with publishing is.

TT: The internet itself is just a form of publishing, even though a lot of companies are trying to use it as a way to sell stuff. Basically, it's just a different arm of publishing. Whether it's internal internet information or internet information, it's all a form of publishing, that's all it is. Nobody knew about those dispatches that Creeley had done online, I never heard about them, I never saw them on the internet and they're still up somewhere on the internet! But obviously a book form makes more sense. If you have a book, they're all collected together and you can carry the book around… When I went to him, I said "I would like to publish some poems of yours, do you have some poems that are not published and that I could do?", and he said "Well, I have this book that a lot of people don't really like, but I think it's a great book," and that was The Daybook of a Virtual Poet, and it made perfect sense to publish it. Then, when it came out in book form, people said, " Well, this is great, this is terrific… " They could have seen it online but they did not! I guess the internet is just a weird arm, or leg, or appendage of what publishing is, anyway.

OB: thank you for your time, Tod.



Interview edited by Max Winter & Olivier Brossard.