July 16, 2011
If you email Dan Wickett and don’t hear back in fifteen minutes, you immediately assume he’s dead in a ditch. This guy—founder of one of the early online literary communities, The Emerging Writers Network, and co-founder of the vibrant and multi-pronged Dzanc Books—has got his fingers in so many literary pots that he has to put out an automated reply if he’ll be away from his computer long enough to attend a soccer game or waves of desperation start to ripple across a growing faction of the indie publishing community. (Full disclaimer: I’m guilty of emailing Dan pretty much daily with some minor emergency or urgent brainstorm.) Dzanc now even has its own literary conference abroad, the Portugal-based DISQUIET, run by Jeff Parker. In short, this little indie publisher that could has taken the world by storm, and this shows no signs of stopping now.
How, then, can it be that Dzanc Books started almost on a dare? It was 2004 and I’d known Dan for years through EWN, as well as through Other Voices magazine, where I was then the editor and Dan one of our most loyal readers. I was in the process of launching Other Voices Books, our book publishing imprint, and we’d held a national contest to find our debut title—but when the writer Allison Amend was announced as a “finalist” rather than the winner, Dan quickly emailed me to chide me for not publishing Allison’s book. As with so many great young writers frequently appearing in the lit mags, Dan knew her work well and was a fan. This quickly led to a lengthy email discussion of Allison’s talent, of how many worthy writers out there who could not seem to find book deals, and the usual laments of too little money and time to do justice to all such writers. “Why don’t you start your own press and publish her yourself?” I challenged at one point in the discussion. And Dan said something to the effect of, “Well, maybe I will.”
Flash forward, and not only is Other Voices Books now an imprint Dzanc Books, but the very first book Dzanc and OVB partnered on was Allison Amend’s stunning debut collection, Things That Pass for Love, which went on to win an IPPY bronze that year. What can I say other than that far too few stories in the perilous world of publishing end so well? Not only is it a privilege to work with Dzanc, but today, when I emailed Dan, instead of my usual tendency to nag him to go to the post office to mail me one of the millions of things I seem to require of him, I was thrilled to instead be able to invite him to share Dzanc’s story with TNB’s readership.
TNB: So a few years in, the Dzanc model still doesn’t make sense to some people: a nonprofit publisher that has “imprints,” some of which are also nonprofit presses and magazines and which therefore technically can’t be “owned” by a parent company. When people ask me about this, I’ve always referred to the Dzanc umbrella as a conceptual conglomerate, wherein Dzanc acquires imprints basically via the honor system rather than through something like buying up a desperate business that’s going bankrupt, the way things are often done in the corporate world. Dzanc, essentially, approaches publishing entities it already admires and offers support through a cooperative relationship involving one distribution umbrella, marketing support, a higher profile as a group than each publisher could attain solo, and, in some cases, varying levels of financial assistance. When I try to explain this, though, the inevitable next question is, “Wait—what’s in it for Dzanc?” Can you please illuminate everyone on exactly what possesses you and Dzanc’s co-founder, Steve Gillis, to take on so much responsibility, especially when everyone seems to believe we’re in a state of publishing Armageddon?
DW: To be very honest, the original idea [for taking on imprints] started with Other Voices and you telling me that the magazine was shutting down for numerous reasons, and you were really disappointed as it probably meant the fairly new book division would be shutting down as well. The thing was, both Steve and I loved Tod Goldberg’s Simplify, your debut book, and I had enjoyed O Street by Corinna Wycoff as well. We loved Other Voices magazine and your taste and we saw a way of following our mission to publish and promote great writing by suggesting to you that we bring Other Voices Books in as an imprint of Dzanc.
And your description is perfect—it’s truly an honor-based system that is more conceptual than concrete. We do not own any of our imprints. We have annual agreements that we obviously believe are win-win to the point that they will be long-term agreements between the parties involved.
Each agreement is different—each publisher that we admired has different needs that we can help with—some involve financial help, others are strictly to help them get distribution for their titles. In each case however, we’re working with a publishing house or journal that we greatly admired prior to their joining forces with us.
TNB: Dzanc does more than publish books and magazines–it’s also active in an array of literary philanthropy. Can you break down the business for me? What all is Dzanc up to on its own, what are its imprints, and what do each of the imprints do? (Here I have a weird feeling we may need a diagram!)
DW: Well, each imprint does have their own area of concentration, to use just a few examples, Black Lawrence Press adds poetry publishing to our line-up and The Collagist brings online publishing to the table. So, in terms of publishing, between Dzanc and our imprints, we publish journals, both online and print, we publish poetry, short story collections, novellas, novels, and translated literature. We’ve published paperbacks, hardcovers, eBooks, and chapbooks.
In regard to non-publishing, we have our DWIRPs (Dzanc Writer in Residence Programs) where we send a writer or editor into a single classroom for a day per week for the entire school year to help the teacher with creative writing—resulting in an anthology of student work printed at the end of the year; we have the Dzanc Prize for the best combination of a literary community service and a literary work in progress—this has led to us sponsoring workshops in prisons, in cancer hospitals and with a large African immigrant population in Central Pennsylvania; we have our Dzanc Creative Writing Sessions which brings very inexpensive workshopping availability to writers without a group of writers to bounce their work off of; and continue to look for more ways of promoting the written word.
TNB: Right now the big buzz at Dzanc is the eBook imprint. You were just in New York meeting with agents—essentially Dzanc isn’t just doing eBooks for its own titles, but also acquiring rights to a shitload of literary titles that have never been released as eBooks by their original publishers. Explain why you’re doing this and where you’re going with it.
DW: There are so many fantastic works that were published, had their quick buzz, and then lingered just a little too long on the store shelves and were returned, remaindered, and are now out of print. These titles that a new writing and reading generation may be discovering, slowly, passing worn copies hand-to-hand, imploring, You have to read this. With the rEprint series, we can bring these books back to print, as eBooks, and hopefully both generate a second wind of conversation about them, and get the authors back into a little royalty money, which obviously doesn’t happen when we buy books from used stores or share them with each other.
Some big aspects to our rEprint series—we hand code each eBook we publish. We have all seen eBooks that have some sort of problem, be it turning a hyphens into em dashes, or adding spaces to the middle of random words. By doing our own coding, we avoid these issues, creating books that look the way they are supposed to. We offer 50% royalties. We promote some of the titles via our eBook Club, and do believe that the inclusion within the rEprint series is ultimately going to be seen in very positive light by readers.
TNB: Speaking of trips to New York: Dzanc . . . by which I mean you (and now Matt Bell), since most people on earth have never actually met Steve Gillis), has also made occasional trips to Manhattan to hand deliver books to top media venues and pitch forthcoming titles. This is, to put it mildly, unusual behavior in an independent publisher. Is this something you’re still doing, and what level of success have you had with it? What can you tell us about your marketing efforts that have really paid off, and helped distinguish Dzanc from the vast number of indie publishers?
DW: If there is one negative to not being in New York, it’s just that—the non-ability to meet people. Phones, email, Facebook, etc. are all great tools, but there is something slightly different when it comes to seeing the person that is talking to you, shaking their hand, and being an actual human being. Face to face meetings might lend more to being a bit more personable—you remember to ask how the family is doing and things like that.
I can say that with at least one fairly major review outlet we saw two titles of our first ten or so reviewed, and to be honest I think it had more to do with the author’s agents than with us, and then I visited their office, put a face to my packages and books and then we saw a string of 6 to 8 books in a row being reviewed. That’s obviously at the very least a bit anecdotal, but it does seem to follow a bit of a pattern when it comes to reviews. It helps when there’s something of a relationship developed between the publisher and the reviewing outlet (and no, this does not guarantee all positive reviews).
The recent trip, to visit ten different agencies over two days, was also very positive. Some were agencies we’ve worked with via email and phone in the past on a single book, but this allowed Matt and I to explain Dzanc and our rEprint series in great detail, to answer any questions immediately, and to give everybody a good understanding of what we were all about. In two rather hectic days, we probably accomplished more in terms of how we’ll be able to work with these agencies than the previous four months worth of emails and phone calls had done.
TNB: Between Dzanc and its imprints, your books have garnered quite a lot of critical acclaim, including prizes. Give us some of the highlights.
DW: I’m doing this on a tightrope, no net so if I skip over somebody, I apologize for my frazzled mind. Laura van den Berg’s short story collection comes to mind immediately. It was a B&N Discover Great Writers selection, it was long-listed for The Story Prize, it was a finalist for the Frank O’Connor Short Fiction Prize (simply the biggest short story collection prize in the world), and received many great reviews.
Early on, seeing three of our short story collections find their way to the KC Star’s top ten published in 2008 was very cool—especially seeing that at the time, it included one from each of our imprints: Based on a True Story by Hesh Kestin (Dzanc), Things That Pass for Love by Allison Amend (Other Voices Books), and Unending Rooms by Daniel Chacon (Black Lawrence Press).
Hesh Kestin’s novel, The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats, just won the IPPY Gold Medal for Literary Fiction (and Steven Gillis’ The Consequence of Skating from Black Lawrence Press won the Silver). It also just received a great post-publishing blurb from Stephen King, and was on the Hudson Booksellers books of the year list after starting off its existence with a starred PW review.
TNB: Dan, exactly how busy are you? I mean, let me be blunt: I have three kids, sometimes am teaching at two different universities, run Other Voices Books, edit TNB’s fiction section and am editing a novel for their imprint, write my own fiction, and was recently on a sporadic book tour that lasted an entire year . . . yet you have the capacity to make me feel like a slacker who sits around on my ass all day eating bon-bons. Seriously, what does a typical day look like in the life of Dan Wickett: busiest man in publishing?
DW: Ha! You obviously are overlooking Steve Gillis and Matt Bell! I will admit to being very busy though—fortunately the things that keep me busy, Dzanc and my three kids, are things that I love spending as much time as possible with. I have also been blessed with the need for very little sleep—something between 4 and 6 hours daily. The bulk of my day is either spent at my computer, or in doing something (feeding, cleaning up after, or driving) for my kids. I think one big thing is that I rarely write—once each year for our Write-a-Thon, but that’s it. I don’t have those couple of 6-hours-a-day on my own work stretches that many in the industry have time to squeeze in . . .
TNB: Tell us more about the man behind the curtain, Steve Gillis. Steve is also an award-winning fiction writer and a former attorney, but most people in publishing have never met him in person. (I’m thrilled to count myself among the handful who have had the honor.) He’s notoriously shy and occasionally even prickly–but those of us who realize what he’s done for books, writers and readers are pretty much flabbergasted and awed by his generous spirit. What should everyone at TNB understand about why Steve Gillis is the bomb?
DW: I don’t think I can properly convey just how much Steve has done. Actually I know that I can’t. In trying though, all I can say is that Steve Gillis is the most generous person I’ve ever met. While a great portion of his generosity obviously has gone toward the world of literature, he’s not limited it to that. Dzanc is the 2nd non-profit that Steve started for the benefit of others. He has come up with 95% of the ideas that people come up to the Dzanc table at places like AWP and tell me they think are genius. His eye has found the majority of the titles we’ve published. His own books are fantastic (I think if you google Dan Wickett and The Consequence of Skating, I may have expounded some very positive thoughts about his latest).
Aside from coming up with an idea and the funding that has given me a position that I absolutely love, Steve has also allowed me to be the front man, the person that receives the love that you see shown in the questions you’re asking, that many people have shown at the past few AWP’s, etc. While I do my best to give him as much credit as possible when I’m hit up with comments and praise, I really don’t, actually can’t, give him enough.
Go back and read the answer that he gave to Jeremy Chamberlin in another interview earlier this year:
“There’s really no purpose in life except helping other people. That’s the bottom line. I mean, there really isn’t. That’s how I look at it. I don’t understand when people don’t think that way. You know, I got lucky early on with investments. I live in a comfortable house. I could live in a mansion, but I don’t. I save my pennies and I do charitable work instead.”
I think that probably is the best example I can give you of why Steve Gillis is da bomb.
TNB: What have the difficulties in the publishing industry and the economy in general meant for Dzanc, and what is the future of the printed book within literary culture?
DW: The difficulties in the economy mean the same for us as everybody else—try to be leaner, try to be more efficient, and be as creative as possible when it comes to fund raising. I think most big foundations that grant money have tightened their own belts the past few years and in doing so have tightened the circle of places they’ll donate to—if you weren’t inside that circle before the tightening, it’s really difficult to get inside it.
I personally don’t think the printed book is leaving. I don’t think anybody that says that they know what is going to happen is speaking the truth. Any numbers being thrown around as where the eBook percentage of sales wall is at are simply guesses. I do think there will be printed books for the long haul though.
TNB: Thanks for talking with TNB, Dan–I have one more question. “Distribution” can be a loaded word in indie publishing–Dzanc and its imprints are fortunate to have Consortium, but can you walk us through the benefits and perils of working with big distributors, and how can smaller indies attract distributors without being crushed?
DW: The benefits are the usual dealings with distributors—not having to make your own sales calls, not doing the accounting and collection calls, warehousing the stock, etc.
I’m not sure what perils there are—you do lose some of your own autonomy I guess—I don’t necessarily decide who will be talking to what indie store or how Barnes & Noble will be talked to about our titles. That’s to say, that getting larger distribution doesn’t mean you can sit on your butt all day and assume thousands and thousands of your books will fly off the shelf. You still need to promote, still need to develop relationships with stores and libraries and reviewers.
Garnering their interest levels in your publishing house? Publish great books, get them some publicity, continue to do it over and over again and make sure that the distributor(s) you are interested in working with hear about every single positive thing that you do.