Both Augury Books and Brooklyn Arts Press (BAP) are based in New York City. Kate Angus is the founding editor of Augury Books, started in 2010, and Joe Pan, publisher and editor-in-chief of Brooklyn Arts Press, founded in 2007. Both presses publish innovative work from a range of established and emerging writers and artists. Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Becoming Human, published by BAP, won the 2016 National Book Prize in Poetry, and Augury Books authors have received the O. Henry Prize for short fiction, the Great Lakes Colleges Association’s “Discover” Award for creative nonfiction, and the Tony Quagliano International Poetry Award.
When I asked Angus and Pan what defines success for an independent press, their responses were: “To keep publishing work that you believe in and love” and “Success is either the ability to keep going, or the ability to find talented writers and project their work into larger spaces, while both adding to and creating communities evolving from the relationships between writers and readers.”
The Rumpus: Why did you start your own independent press?
Kate Angus: I started Augury Books out of selfishness, really. I wanted there to be more books that I wanted to read. It was 2010 and I felt there were certain voices (narratives, images, twists and turns of phrase) that I wanted to hear more of. So it made sense to try to find those books and publish them myself.
In terms of the literary landscape, I hoped Augury would be a home for quality work; that authors would feel nurtured and supported by us, and that readers would trust our aesthetic.
Joe Pan: With Brooklyn Arts Press, I just wanted to publish my first book and have full artistic control over it, from creation to layout and design to marketing. I consider small presses to be enterprises akin to modern dance companies, in that it’s possible to start your own from scratch. You can be a performer, and be responsible only to the performance, which a select few get to do, or you can start your own company. To do it well, of course, you need to learn the ropes, bust ass, make your mistakes. I was lucky enough to have had artist friends who started DIY businesses in their respective fields—film, visual art, dance, even sand sculpting—and felt inspired to make my own thing happen. This meant tackling the important business aspects of my creative venture with a healthy dose of fearless ignorance.
Rumpus: One thing that appealed to me about Augury is that women run it. Was that an important identity brand for Augury?
Angus: The VIDA Count was at the time, as it is now, something I think about a great deal—especially now that it has opened up into more intersectional analysis, and recent statistics confirm that many editors are white women. Parity in publishing is incredibly important, and I try to make sure that I actively work to be a staunch ally and support writers and editors who come from more marginalized positions than my own. My feminism prioritizes intersectionality.
I cherish knowing that many of Augury’s authors have been drawn to the press because it is woman-run, but I don’t think it was a conscious decision to structure Augury that way. This happened organically and unconsciously, both because of the women I was friends with and wanted to work with—Christine Kanownik when Augury began, and Kimberly Steele, who joined Augury when Christine left after our first year—but also because of who had mentored me. I came to editing through experiences I gained by being mentored and inspired by other women. Meghan O’Rourke, who was one of my MFA teachers at The New School, brought me on as one of her poetry readers at the Paris Review, and I also spent a year or two as a fiction reader for A Public Space, which Brigid Hughes founded and runs. What they taught me helped give me the confidence to see myself as an editor.
Rumpus: What or who were your business models?
Angus: I’m afraid we didn’t exactly have one. In many ways, we were flying blind. There were absolutely indie presses we loved and wanted to emulate in terms of quality of work and distribution reach—presses like Wave Books, Milkweed Editions, Slope Editions, Octopus Books, Alice James Books—but we didn’t have any idea how to match the quality of the books they published, the depth of their catalogs, and their wide distribution. I’d also been a slush pile reader for two great literary journals, so I had models of how to delve into submissions and thoughtfully find work that I would respond to. Christine, my Augury partner at the time, had worked at Litmus Press so she had a better sense of the overall ins and outs of the indie press publishing world than I did, but there was still so much we didn’t know and resources we didn’t have.
Pan: Flying blind, yes, or severely myopic. In addition to the presses Kate mentioned, I liked what Ugly Duckling, Nightboat Books, Hanging Loose, and Four Way were doing. Dave Eggers was symbolically my high bar—to somehow exist and excel as both a publisher and writer. A few years after I founded BAP in 2007, and following the market crash, when digital printing became inexpensive and Lightning Source and Createspace opened the doors to print-on-demand books that could also be purchased through bookstores, a whole slew of new small presses began appearing. I would often write publishers or just meet them at readings, and began sharing notes and learning from them what I could. We’d discuss stuff like guerilla marketing, or basic but weirdly complicated things like how to get a book reviewed. Sharing information helps all boats rise.
Rumpus: What are your successes and your challenges?
Angus: The challenges have been numerous. Running a press means running a business, and there’s a skill set—accounting and organizing and networking—that I don’t naturally have. There’s so much to do, and I just constantly felt like I, and the rest of Augury’s editorial board, were desperately trying to catch up. We didn’t have a template or experience so we had to learn on the job. And we had to balance all that mostly unpaid labor with our paying jobs, and trying to find time for our own writing, and maintaining some semblance of a social life and taking care of the basics of being a functional person in the world.
But it’s also completely been worth it. The successes are the twelve books we’ve published. I am so proud of them and so happy that we were instrumental in bringing this work to a wider audience.
Pan: There were too many challenges and mini-successes to name. Certainly, publishing the National Book Award winner in Poetry for 2016 was significant to both Daniel Borzutzky and to our press. But the most defining successes were smaller moments, when I figured something important out, like if you let people pay whatever they want for a paperback, they felt comfortable spending between $8 and $10, and I could still turn a profit off that. Or teaching myself InDesign, which aided in every single book I’ve ever made. Or when you hand a high school kid who can’t afford a book a free copy, and knowing your author is being actually read by a true fan of their poetry. Intergenerational sharing is not just important but imperative to art’s survival. The challenges, of course, are daily and numerous, and mostly have to do with money and personal health and family and responsibility fatigue and human error.
Rumpus: How did the conversation about Augury Books joining Brooklyn Arts Press begin?
Angus: I think Joe approached me. But I had been thinking about what to do with Augury for a while, as Joe knew from previous conversations with me. I was just genuinely not sure how sustainable Augury was in the future—in part because, for both personal and writerly reasons, I felt that I needed to have the option to step down from the press if a situation warranted that. And with Kimberly, Augury’s associate editor, on an indefinite leave of absence, the press was really just being run by me and my assistant editor, Nick. We didn’t have the staff for Augury Books to stay viable if I did need to step down—and once I recognized that Augury’s future sustainability was so dependent on me, I knew we needed to find more structure and support.
I’d been batting around ideas, and planning to approach a few institutions that I have connections to and history with, but as soon as Joe raised the idea of us becoming an imprint of BAP, that was absolutely my first choice.
Pan: Basically, I’d read some Augury books I’d enjoyed and was friends with the publishers, so when Kate told me they were going on indefinite hiatus, I was hoping to help out in some way. My initial thought was to try and help them find an MFA-slash-writing program in New York that might be interested in picking up a back catalogue to help launch a small press run by students—it happens with lit journals, and Augury may actually cost less to run than the average lit journal. But I also knew the team wanted to remain actively involved in the publishing and editing of Augury Books, which an academic situation might preclude. The NBA win, for all its enormous upfront costs, actually put some cash back in our coffers, so I asked Kate what it might cost to keep Augury running.
It turned out that Augury Books, in addition to publishing well-written works of literature, actually turned a profit most years, a rarity among small presses, and so the yearly operating budget would be within a range I could support. Everyone would get to keep doing what they were doing and I’d stay out of their editorial hair to focus on publishing and marketing—hiring designers, compiling teacher lists, brainstorming promotions and the like. Having Augury become an imprint was more or less a way of solidifying a relationship and divvying tasks while identifying a long-term funding source that could help out if a book wasn’t able to turn a profit.
Rumpus: What you all are doing seems to be in alignment with the times—this political climate, this administration, the cuts in funding, the attacks on language. As poets and publishers, what do you think about these times? What are your actionable ideas and responses to it?
Pan: Any change in NEA/NEH funding directly affects small publishing and the literary community at large. We’re not a nonprofit ourselves, but have both personal and professional relationships with many nonprofits. We buy books from publishers and journals, attend the readings/exhibitions of grant-funded authors and artists—some of whom we’ve published—and support community writing-programs that subsist at least partially on governmental resources. All of which is under attack, and why it’s especially important now for folks to throw their monetary support behind small lit businesses when they can. Support your local presses, buy books, go to readings, find ways to volunteer. Support people who understand the value and importance of deep engagement with language. The current administration is a much-maligned-for-good-reason dumpster fire that has, personally, increased my daily anxiety tenfold, and provided a great source of aggravation and tension and which has in turn paralyzed or fueled my own writing. It’s also affected my publishing efforts: some BAP deadlines in late 2016-early 2017 had to be restructured because myself and others felt the need to engage in more direct street-level political action, which itself became a part-time job. Since around last April, though, I’ve managed to find a way to balance this engagement with writing and publishing, each their own political activity, requiring different forms of energy.
Angus: The literary community comprises many groups this trash fire of an administration seems to be directly targeting: LGBTQ folks, immigrants, people of color, the incarcerated, women, Muslims, the poor, the disabled, the elderly, those with chronic health concerns, all of us who live on this planet, which is rapidly become more and more polluted and threatened. I do feel a need for direct action, and have on a personal level been clocking a lot of time calling senators and representatives and writing letters, as well as donating money, and showing up on the ground to be physically present at protests, marches, and rallies.
From the stance of a publisher, I continue to feel actively engaged in championing writers whose work I believe in, but I admit this year has involved some restructuring as I’ve tried to find new ways to balance the work and energy that publishing entails with that required by activism.
Rumpus: What are your plans moving forward?
Angus: We plan on publishing two books each year, selected through a combination of solicitation and slush pile reading. For instance, this fall we’ll be publishing Alicia Jo Rabins’s second collection of poetry, Fruit Geode, a gorgeous book of poems about motherhood and witchery. And we’ll also be publishing a book that I’ll select from our Open Reading period in January. I love that with BAP’s help we have the support to solicit work from people whose writing I already know and love, but my heart also belongs to the slush pile—it’s such a thrill to be reading submissions from strangers and find a voice among them that speaks to my heart, that resonates and makes me say, Yes, absolutely yes—this manuscript.
Pan: Well, I’m definitely looking forward to a poetry collection from Sheila Maldonado and a book of horror-slash-terror poems from Joe Fletcher, both due out from BAP this year. Last summer we launched Tuff Sunshine’s debut album, Fire in the Hero Building, our first foray into music, and I’m interested in doing more audio, maybe poetry audiobooks, or setting up an online digital performance, or building out an online game. BAP has always been about finding and celebrating interesting art in whatever form it takes and helping it find its viewers.
Rumpus: In addition to being publishers, you are both also poets.
Pan: I came to poetry really early on, when I was five or six years old. I mean, who wasn’t well versed in the poetry of comic genius Shel Silverstein and the inimitable Dr. Seuss? For me, poetry was just another form of storytelling, a way to show moving from here to there. I remember finishing two hand-sewn picture chapbooks in kindergarten, Tom the Alley Cat and Zap. (Zap was a robot; Tom was an alley cat, and my alter ego.) These books danced between poetry and prose, which is where my work still lives.
My mother and grandmother are avid storytellers, and so learning how to bend language, test it and play with it and manipulate it, withholding elements from one character while signaling to another something of valuable import, was part of my upbringing. Nobody in my family, like I later did, went to school for writing. We were just poor and liked to impress each other, and stories were magic. Poetry was private magic. I remember reading William Carlos Williams in high school and hating him for not rhyming. I remember falling in love with the dry, stark, but somehow sumptuous imagery of Eliot. Falling in love, abandoning one for another, returning later to check in.
Angus: I was very lucky to be born into a family where poetry was part of our everyday experience. My mother used to read to my sibling and me every night—The Chronicles of Narnia and Sherlock Holmes, but also poetry like William Blake’s “The Tyger” and Alfred Noyes’s “The Highwayman.” My father also used to (and still does!) recite Theodore Roethke’s “The Kitty-Cat Bird” to us at the drop of a hat. Reading and hearing poetry was an important part of my childhood and so, as I grew older, it felt like a natural movement to begin writing it myself.
Photograph of Kate Angus © Dave West.