Monday, March 01, 2010

Questions for John Martin


In 2007, while we were waiting for our new distribution contract with Consortium to take effect, I spent some time researching older presses and publishers because I found it both interesting and inspiring. I read about Noel Young of Capra Press "69ing" books by featuring an experienced author on one side and a debut writer on the opposite, which is where I got the idea to flip the two autonomous Wurlitzer novels Flats and Quake. Around this time I was also fortunate enough to meet Barney Rosset (twice!) and hold his Hedada Award (which was extremely heavy).

From my internet scrounging, Young appeared to be a part of a vibrant West Coast publishing scene that included City Lights and John Martin's Black Sparrow Press. Black Sparrow, to me, felt like a working-man's Grove Press. While the two don't necessarily feel comparable other than that to my impressionable mind, they were two of the vital independent presses of the mid-century that truly pushed literary culture forward. But where Grove seemed attracted to the spectacle of the obscenity trials and the opportunity to publish work that intentionally frayed nerves, Black Sparrow seemed to embody a more hard-nosed literary idealism.

I mailed John Martin a letter and he sent me an email in response. He was very encouraging, and said:

"There really is no sure-fire 'formula' for first establishing a publishing company and then making it successful. But you have to be smart enough and lucky enough to attract and choose authors whose books will actually sell. (Publishing only your friends or yourself will lead to disappointment.) Then there's the matter of sufficient capital. I started Black Sparrow in 1966 with a cushion of ca. $30K which both kept me in groceries for 2-3 years and also paid off the cost of the books as I published them. I also kept my day job. And by the time that money was gone Black Sparrow had begun to turn a tiny profit. Not to scare you off, but to start Black Sparrow again in 2007, and to publish the kind of literary books I was interested in, I think I'd need a cushion of at least $300,000 to pull it off. ($300,000 in today's money just about equals $30K in 1966 money.) At the same time hard work can overcome almost any obstacle and I wish you all the best!"

Martin had sold his collection of rare first-editions in order to strum up that initial $30K.

Over the past couple months I've been exchanging emails with Martin, with the intentions of interviewing him. I'm not certain it will pan out, thanks largely to scheduling and finding the time, but I did scribble down a number of questions that I would have liked to ask the man:

What was the atmosphere of the time like in the ‘60s when you decided to start publishing?

Was there some kind of specific impetus you can pinpoint?

Was it hard for you to part with the copies of your rare first-edition books?

Did you feel as though you were part of a community in Santa Barbara?

Your books have a very particular, intentional aesthetic – what was your inspiration?

I read in a previous interview you gave that a press from the ‘20s, Black Sun, was your guiding light so to speak – can you tell me about your attraction?

What was it that drew you to Bukowski initially?

You offered him a monthly advance to publish with you, which was part of your monthly salary at an office supply company?

Your meeting with Bukowski has been romanticized throughout the years – who were some of the other authors that you published who made an impression on you? Or make for a good story?

Thanks to your particular taste and publishing choices, you were envisioned as a champion of the undercurrent, the counterculture. What were a couple of books that you published that you feel exemplify this reputation, that you think maybe if you hadn’t taken them on they may not have been published?

Noel Young printed some of your books, as well as ran his own press. I’ve heard he was a character. What was your relationship like with him?

Did you have any relationship with Lawrence Ferlinghetti or Barney Rosset?

What was your reception like among New York City’s literary elite?

You’re well known for bringing the work of Paul Bowles back into print, and your correspondence is archived at the University of Delaware. What was your relationship like with him?

I’ve heard people say really complimentary things about Jane Bowles’ novel, Two Serious Ladies, which I see is now published by Ecco – was this one of those books you sold the rights to Ecco?

Were there any other authors whose work you tried to bring back into print but couldn’t for one reason or another, or someone else beat you to the punch?

Who were some of the contemporary presses who you considered allies or peers who may have drifted into obscurity now or ceased publishing altogether?

You operated through a period of encroachment from box stores on neighborhood bookstores – nowadays, these box stores are the ones struggling, with Barnes & Noble executives anticipating half of their mega-stores closing in the next year or so. What’s your take?

What do you make of all the fuss being made about e-readers and print-on-demand book machines? And of software like the “Vook”?

The last two years, the writer who has won the Nobel Prize has been published in the U.S. solely through university or independent presses before receiving the award – is this a recent trend? Does it surprise you?

Are there any contemporary writers you would have liked to publish?

A friend who is a publisher mentioned to me that he doesn’t read as many actual books as he used to, which is something I’ve begun to notice as well. Did you have a similar experience? Did you ever feel that you were missing out on contemporary literature, especially in the late ‘60s or ‘70s when there seemed to be a period of greater experimentation or risk in publishing?