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Read Harder 2017: It’s Time To Talk About Micro Presses

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Tara Cheesman

Staff Writer

Tara Cheesman reads books. Sometimes she writes about the books she reads. It's all a bit arbitrary. Most of this reading and writing happens in a small brick house in the Pennsylvania city where she lives with her husband, two dogs and an ever-expanding library of books translated from languages she doesn’t speak or understand. She's currently considering getting a tortoise, because tortoises seem like good company. When not reading, writing or tending to her extensive collection of wooden pencils, Tara spends her time exploring cities in search of bookshops and art exhibits. She was a panelist at the 2015 PEN World Voices Festival and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Since 2009 she’s written the blog BookSexy Review. You can find her on Twitter @BookSexyReview. (Please feel free to tweet her your opinions on both books and pencils).

Trying to figure out what, exactly, is a micro press? Don’t worry – you’re not alone. By their nature – small, indie, low-budget – micro presses don’t get as much press or attention as they deserve. What information is available can be vague at best and contradictory at worst (particularly when you’re trying to find the difference between a micro- and a chapbook press).  The whole thing will lead you down a bottomless internet rabbit hole.  AND I LOVE INTERNET RABBIT HOLES!  Here are some of the things most people seem to agree on:

  • The main criteria is that the books are published in limited releases – no more than 300 copies for handmade chapbooks and 500 for spine bound (glued).
  • They are run by one-two people, usually out of their homes
  • University Presses are not micro presses
  • Chapbook Presses are closely associated with poetry, but they also publish all kinds of fiction, essays and even comics.
  • OH! And did you know that Roxane Gay – friend of the site, Goddess of Twitter and the author who set this task – founded her own micropress? It’s called Tiny Hardcore Press.
  • Still have questions? I definitely did – so I reached out to the booksellers responsible for curating the chapbook section at one of my favorite independent bookstores: McNally Jackson on Prince Street in Manhattan (If you’re in the area, you really need to check it out in person. Photographs don’t always do chapbooks justice). Laurel and Julia were nice enough to answer all my questions.

    The Read Harder task is: Read a book published by a micro press. There’s a lot of information on chapbooks online, but not as much about micro presses.  I was wondering what is the difference (if there is one) between a micro press and a chapbook publisher?

    In my understanding a micro press will publish mostly or only chapbooks in very limited runs, and rarely have any full time staff. But I’m not sure that there is a big difference between a small press, a chapbook publisher and a micro press. Or a lot of definitive rules.

    How long has McNally Jackson had a chapbook section? And what goes into it?

    The chapbook section was started in 2013, after McNally alum Sarah Gerard had the idea. She asked Landon Mitchell who manages the literature section today to help her set it up. For the most part it has been under Landon and the poetry and art manager, Carly Dashiell’s care, and they made it what it is today in terms of the presses we carry and all the unique stuff you can find.

    Usually we will put the book in the chapbook section if it is handmade, stitched or shorter than a typical book of poetry, chapbooks are usually around 15 to 30 pages. Of course, we have fiction in the chapbook section as well, those usually contain a couple of stories. Sometimes literary magazines end up in the chapbook section, especially if they have been made in a limited run and visually fit in with the chapbooks. Some examples are No, Dear, Bone Bouquet and Ugly Duckling’s 6×6.

    How do you find new titles and publishers?

    I had a lot of favorite presses that I wanted to bring in when I began managing the chapbook section this fall. Beyond that I would look online for new presses. I’d check places like Entropy’s where to submit list, interviews with small presses by friends and colleagues, and I’d look up poets whose work I admire and find out what presses have published their work.

    Can you tell us some of  your favorite things about working with chapbooks and micro presses? And what you think they offer readers that is different from larger, mainstream publishers?

    I think the more personal relationships you build with the editors of these presses is really lovely, and having worked for a small press myself, I know that the people who work there really care about the work they do and the beautiful books they are putting into the world. I am also so charmed by the design and visual aspect of chapbooks, each time we get some new ones in there is something exciting and unique to discover, and some books it can be difficult to decide if they belong in art, chapbooks or graphic novels. I think that ambiguity is exciting and it usually means that the book has been very carefully created and is intended to be a precious object.

    You mentioned the design and visual aspects of the books – are there any presses that stand out to you in terms of quality and/or being beautifully/artistically made?

    Greying Ghost, Double Cross, and Slope Editions all make high quality books with great details. Please Light Up by Ted Powers from Slope Editions is a serial poem created as a group of little cards that come in a cylindrical box, meant to be read a new way each time. Greying Ghost has a very cool book made entirely out of recycled comics from the 50’s and 80’s that I am a big fan of, it’s called Grit Lords Vol 1. Double Cross uses the most fantastic paper and has lovely designs. One of their books, I Only Thought of the Farm by Lisa Ciccarello, can be folded out and hung on the wall as a poster. Swimming Pool by Jennifer Firestone has the most fitting pool colored turquoise cover with this intricate imprinted design in lighter blue.

    Is there an author you discovered in a chapbook who later went on to a bigger publisher?

    I know Sarah Gerard, who I mentioned started the chapbook section at McNally, published a chapbook with Guillotine, and later she went on to publish a novel (Binary Star) with Two Dollar Radio and this spring she has a collection of essays (Sunshine State: Essays) with Harper Perennial. In general I think it’s pretty typical to publish a chapbook or two first, and then go on to publish something full length, especially if you’re a poet. Belladonna*, which I mentioned earlier, is great at publishing fresh voices, they make chaplets (a simple chapbook, made from folded and stapled paper) for all of their readings, featuring what the poets are planning to read. The chaplets are a way for poets to have a publication early in their career or while they’re working on a manuscript.

    My last question – one of the things that makes McNally Jackson so unique is their commitment to international and translated books. With that in mind, can you recommend any micro presses which publish translations? Does such a thing exist?

    Yes! One of the translated chapbooks we’ve sold at McNally that I love is His Days Go By the way Her Years by Ye Mimi, translated by Steve Bradbury from Anamalous Press (poetry). Ugly Duckling and Belladonna* also do translated chapbooks, and I’m sure a few of the other presses I mentioned do as well.

    Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions.

    Thanks for asking us to do this, I’m excited about your project!

    So now that you have some background on micro presses and an idea of what to expect – below are some recommendations:

    Laurel and Julia recommend Dancing Girl, Belladonna*, Ink Press Productions, Greying Ghost, Double Cross, Bateau Press, Bottlecap Press, Guillotine.

    Roxane Gay recommends Jellyfish Highway, Civil Coping Mechanisms, Dancing Girl Press, Tyrant Books, Publishing Genius, Big Lucks

    Tara’s  recommends Future Tense Books, Yeti Press (comics!), Ugly Duckling, Rose Metal Press, Tyrant Books