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Interview Mon Nov 05 2012
by Emily Schultze
Jotham Burello is the man behind the machine that is the humbly sized, award-winning independent press, Elephant Rock Books. On Nov. 12, the press is set to release an anthology of essays, Briefly Knocked Unconscious By A Low Flying Duck, unearthed from the archives of Chicago's 2nd Story. This live-lit performance group has been connecting with audiences with honest, inspiring, reach-into-your-gut-because-they-are-so-damn-good, personal narratives for over ten years.
Burello lets us in on the indie publishing game, how Chicago ranks as a player, what you might consider if deciding to go indie or go big, and what it was like to put together a book with 23 different writers.
What suggestions might you have for new indie publishers, or someone thinking about starting their own press?
Don't do it. But if you're stubborn like me, pick reliable and smart partners, and the partners are the writers. I mean, you're going into business with this person. You want to have good work, but who are the people you're going to work with? They have to want to promote their work. You cannot sit back and just expect your publishing company, or publicist to run it for you. You have to have a public face. So back to you're original question; picking the right partners is vital, but so is having a little luck. And take stock in utilizing your community. I think that's really important. In Chicago there are a lot of resources.
What is your definition of success as an independent publisher?
Recently we went to the Brooklyn Book Festival. Unlike some other conferences we've done in the past, the Brooklyn Book Fest--which was enormous--had something we don't always see at academic book fairs, and that is readers. At academic book everyone has a manuscript they want to sell you, but at the Brooklyn Book Fest you had people who just liked to read. I asked everyone who approached our table, "Are you a writer or a reader?" And most kinda looked at me funny and said, "Oh I just like to read," or "I just like books." So one measure of success for me is just connecting with those readers and getting them excited about our books.
You know, as a publisher, no one wants to see me at a reading--I don't sign anyone's books. That's all the writers' stuff. It happened on an airplane just last week. I sold a copy of our new anthology to the guy sitting next to me. He logged onto Amazon and bought it right there. Then of course there's financial success. You have to have your eyes wide open as you go into it. The rewards sometimes are a little elusive when it's not measured right away in dollars and cents.
What are some advantages to publishing with an indie press versus a big house?
I think the real advantage to publishing with an indie press is attention. We're pretty small at Elephant Rock Books. I have four writers right now, so we're in constant contact. I got a text last night from California at 11:30pm. I was in bed, and it was my writer coming back from an event in Santa Cruz saying it was pretty successful. You know, I don't think she's gonna send a text to her publicist or someone at Random House on a Sunday night. Writers can submit directly to most small publishers whereas large houses only take agented material. In fact, we're opening up our submissions for novels in a few weeks. Also, with smaller publishers the writers are involved in the entire process: editing, art selection, event booking, etc. Everyone wants to be involved now, and they can be.
Elephant Rock has a new book coming out in November: Briefly Knocked Unconscious By A Low-Flying Duck. Can you tell us what the editorial process was like for you, working with twenty-three different contributors rather than a single author?
They came to me about doing the book and I was excited about it, but I knew 23 people was a lot to interact with. Every essay was edited and re-engineered from the oral presentation back to a written manuscript. Our deal was that I would read them all, take detailed notes and track changes, and then send them back to the literary director, Megan Stielstra. She and Andrew Reilly were the liaisons between me and twenty-three writers, and they did a stellar job.
What makes this new anthology stand out in today's market
The anthology calls attention to the great tradition of literary essays, of the short personal story. There's not so much of that in book publishing today. The other thing that's interesting about it is where the essays all came from; they were all performed on a stage. They have this unifying principle of being heavily work shopped before I ever saw them, and before they were ever performed. So they're really polished, I think--very to the point. They all have a moment in them where this vertical drop of meaning comes into the story and the subtext becomes apparent. There's a certain power in every one of them, where this very personal decision was made by a writer about something; about their sexuality, their familiar relations, about the tragedy of a loved one. Those are universal themes. But here they're presented in a very voice-driven, detailed way that I think makes the collection terrific. And there's some humor, and humor is always great.
I know some of the books contributors will be reading at the Book Cellar on Nov. 17. Any other upcoming Chicago events you'd like to let readers know about?
We have events for the writers starting with the RUI series on Nov. 7, and just booked an event at Quimby's, one of the best bookstores in the city, for Feb. 22. Pretty much every week from between now and then we have events scheduled and more to plan. With 23 writers to book, we've been busy. It's really an exciting time for ERB.
For more of this live-lit print project, check out the full listing of author events and watch the book trailer for Briefly Knocked Unconscious By A Low-Flying Duck.