Catalyst Book Press

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Borders to sell?

Holy canolli, Borders Bookstore may be selling itself…to B&N no less!


April 27, 2008 Posted by | bookstores | , , | Leave a comment

The Writer-Publisher’s Manifesto

So on Friday, I was on the Cal-train to Stanford reading Poets & Writers when I should have been memorizing  Portuguese vocabulary words for a test which I subsequently failed. (I was studying the wrong list anyway. This is what happens when you combine too many activities all at once.) Anyhoo, the article that pressed my panic button was an interview with Rebecca Wolff, the editor of Fence Magazine. The interviewer asked her a fairly inoccuous question, “Think fast: poet or editor?” to which she replied, “[Laughs.] That is a fucked-up question right now. That is like the worst. I would have to say, right now, I have been demoted to editor, but I’m working hard at figuring out how to become a poet again. ”

There is a real simple reason why this made me panic: the last thing I want publishing to do is subsume or overwhelm my art. My friends Bobby and Lee Byrd have certainly made similar comments (e.g., “You know what publishing has done to our ability to pursue our own writing, right?”), not to mention comments by some of my own writers for Labor Pains and Birth Stories. I tried to calm myself by reminding myself that I’m not embarking on something that I can’t, to some extent, control or contain–that I can keep the publishing load light by not publishing too many books, that I can stop at any time if my writing is adversely affected (this is the same thing I told myself when starting a Ph.D. in African History at Stanford), that I’m not doing this to make a living but just to get books out that I want to see published. Okay, most of that is bullshit even while it’s true. But nevertheless, I started desperately and mechanically writing in my journal (instead of memorizing Portuguese vocabulary words) and here are some of the things I promised myself. I’m sure that those who are more experienced than I am will perhaps laugh at these promises and think to themselves, “Just wait. She’ll see.” Maybe they’re right. But I’m a pretty determined gal when I need to be.

Manifesto or, more appropriate, Promises I Have Made To Myself During Weak Moments When I Panicked About My New Business and Wondered To Myself, “What The F*** Am I Getting Myself Into?”

#1 Write First Thing Every Morning Before You Start The Business Day

I’ve actually been pretty successful at this for a number of years now, though there have been stretches in grad school where even an hour or two every morning has been impossible.

#2 Don’t get Too Caught Up In the Book Business.

Okay, yes, books are my life and they will soon be even more of my life. But why should I panic every time I open Poets and Writers Magazine? In fact, why the hell should I even read Publisher’s Weekly? Ha-ha, okay, I’m just kidding about the last one, but I think the general point is that I shouldn’t spend everlasting moments on everlasting details that will never be finished anyway so at some point, one needs to say, “Enough. Time to break open that bottle of wine.”

#3 Learn Balance. Getting Into This Racket Was About the Creative Life To Begin With.

This one is key and reflects the truth I mentioned above. I’m not doing this to make a living, though I hope that will be a side benefit. I’m doing this, in part, because my own creativity demands a greater involvement with books and the book business, an outlet that isn’t satisfied just by writing.

#4 Slow Down and Start Small.

I mean, it’s impossible for me (financially or otherwise) to do anything BUT start small. But sometimes I forget that and I feel like there are one hundred million books-to-be-published screaming for my attention, all of them which should have been published two months ago. Maybe I’m building an empire or maybe I’m just building a little sand castle, but either way, it’s gonna take awhile…By the way, sand is awfully slippery and it gets everywhere and then it’s impossible to get rid of…

#5 Forget all the piddly little things.

Actually, sometimes the piddly little things count, like the moment this afternoon when I discovered that I had listed the wrong ISBN numbers on the thousands of postcards I printed and have been handing out to bookstores, publicity people, strangers, friends, you name it. There’s just one little number wrong but damn it, that hurts. Still….There are little things that maybe don’t matter. Like reading PW, ha-ha!

#6 Make the ezine manageable…an organic part of the whole.

Actually, this is critical. I want the family and fertility ezine to be a natural extension of the publishing company and to actually feed the publishing company…

I’m going to stop before I prove that yes, I should have been diagnosed with OCD, like most artists…


April 27, 2008 Posted by | Catalyst Book Press, independent book publishers, literary presses, publishing, the artist's life, the writer's life, writing & publishing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Book Design

Ken Waldman was here last weekend, and we copy-edited the designed version of Are You Famous? We’ve upped the publication date to, we hope with fingers crossed, August 15. We’re basing the new pub date on the fact that this week, we’re finalizing cover and design issues and hope to get Advance Reader Copies printed by mid-May and out to reviewers. That will also be in time for Ken’s trips to Washington state and Alaska and my own trip south to Book Expo America in L.A.

Now: if we can just agree on the cover! Our book designer, Kathy McInnis, has created two wonderful book cover designs. I like one, Ken likes the other. I’ve asked 3 other opinions, and two side with Ken and only one with me. Help, I need more friends with opinions! 🙂 I’m not going to post the covers here, however, because they’re unfinished and two people named Ken and Kathy would probably kill me if I did. The finished cover, however, will be ready and posted here–and on Catalyst’s regular website–later this week.

I went to join CLMP  today and discovered I’m not eligible until I’ve published at least one book. Phooey. I can, however, join the Small Publishers Association of North America. Both promise all sorts of benefits and resources and they don’t seem to overlap. It is yet another excuse, however, to spend money! It seems publishing is all about spending money….

April 27, 2008 Posted by | Catalyst Book Press, independent publishing culture, small press, traditional publishing | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Problem With Professionalization

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the problems with professionalization or the problems that institutionalization brings to professions. Although I’ve been thinking about this problem for several years, it has really come to the forefront of my mind because I’m teaching a class on Health & Healing in Sub-Saharan Africa at Stanford this spring. The first week of school, I had my students read an essay by Steve Feierman and an excerpt from a book by John M. Janzen. Both scholars touch on the medical “pluralism” that exists in African today: though colonial states and missionaries brought biomedical health systems to the continent, they never replaced indigenous healing systems. Today, Africans (educated and uneducated, Christian or Muslim or other) access both systems for different illnesses, recognizing the legitimacy of both systems. Some of my students really struggled with this, inherently believing that biomedicine is superior because it’s based on empirical evidence. Both Feierman and Janzen attempt to disprove this assumption, arguing that indigenous healing systems are also based on empirical evidence and long periods of testing different treatments. They also point out that just as indigenous health systems offer cures that are based outside of this western scientific paradigm, western science is also based on unexamined assumptions that sometimes limit its effectiveness or its ability to recognize the validity of certain cures because they are untestable. Healing, Feierman pointed out, is mysterious.

One of my students proffered the idea that perhaps somebody should make indigenous medicine “official” by  introducing education, programs, certificates–a way to weed out those who haven’t undergone sufficient training. And this is what got me thinking about professionalization and institutionialization. Of course, indigenous healers do have a system of training, and the people of Africa have methods of legitmizing healers–but the comment betrayed a strong belief that if something is credentialed, it is “better” than something that is non-credentialed.

Later that week, I was talking to a fellow graduate student in the history department. She commented that when she was teaching a course last quarter, her students kept wanting her to give them a “narrative” so that the history she was teaching them would make sense. They wanted a context, a story, a way for it all to fit together. She resisted, she said, but had to provide something because they seemed to need something so bad. All my frustrations with professional history came out with my sudden and rather warm comment, “This is just the problem with professional historians. We’ve come to embrace the belief that narrative is bad because it’s privileging one version of the story over another–and as a result, we’ve made history inaccessible and incomprehensible. We’ve completely abdicated our responsibility to communicate with the public, or to educate.”

I’ve made comments elsewhere that I don’t believe credentialing somebody in education makes them a better teacher. In fact, I think sometimes it makes them a worse teacher–but may make them a better teacher within the public school system as it stands, which all too often isn’t really about teaching but about controlling a too-large-group-of-kids and somehow teaching them the memorization skills they need to do well on tests. I’ve begun to realize that credentialing historians makes us feel smug and superior to people who write popular history, which isn’t “real” history. Likewise, I’ve long felt that the institutionalization of art through the widespread and popular M.F.A. program is a tragedy because of what it means for the connection between art and real people.

I’m not against standards–and God forbid that I would be against standards in medicine! But I do think some careers and professions don’t need certificates, diplomas, degrees. For example, art: The insitutionalization of art frequently makes it inaccessible and irrelevant to people outside of the academy. Why should art, any art, be contained within an elitist system? What good is it? And if someone protests that someone needs to protect art from being dumbed down, well–such comments echo/smack of the idea that the “unwashed masses” have such plebian tastes, they can’t be trusted to know what is good. I can’t stand that attitude.  When I went to the AWP, I saw many fine and wonderful small presses whose books I love–Milkweed Press comes to mind. But I also saw so many journals and books that I found so incredibly dull, I’d rather chew off my toes than read them! And this from a woman who loves books, who loves the arts, who loves nothing more than to read.

Also, I’m not against training, or mentoring–but those don’t carry with it the baggage of THE DEGREE. Gaining knowledge is one thing–but the piece of paper calling you an official, credentialed artist or brain is yet another. A while back, I read an Economist article profiling Evan Williams, the founder of Blogger. They pointed out that his stint at Google was short: “Google values official brains—the credentialled, academic sort—whereas Mr Williams dropped out of university in Nebraska because he found the concept somewhat silly. He left Google after less than a year.” As someone who was homeschooled and then entered a typical state college (NMSU) and now am “learning” at an elite institution (Stanford), I can see Williams’s reasoning all too clearly.

Of course, this is about more than art. It is about the Ph.D. I’ve come to accept that like everybody else, I have a problem with pride. It’s felt good saying, “I’m getting a Ph.D. from Stanford.” I’ve always felt apologetic about my M.F.A. from humble UTEP. Maybe if I’d gone to Iowa, I’d feel just as proud. But I think underneath it all, I’d have this niggling thought that I’d bought into the propaganda that what makes something “good,” what legitimizes art or history, is an official paper, a stamp of approval from those who have power. It’s certainly been my problem with professional history despite my pride in saying, “I’m going to Stanford.” I get offended when my professors distinguish their own history as “real” history, as opposed to the kinds of history that non-educated Africans gather in their villages, without the tools, money, fears, standards, and narrow assumptions that guide so-called “real” history.

I guess I don’t have any real conclusion to this–only that I think it’s a tragedy to see art corralled into the academy. History lost touch with the people a long time ago; I hope art doesn’t do the same. Perhaps there will always be twin tracks–those who slowly filter out of the insular world of the academy to affect the people, and those who refuse social legitimacy in favor of their art.



April 10, 2008 Posted by | art, the artist's life | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment