Featherproof Books publishes idiosyncratic books that are an experience to read, as well as downloadable mini-books the reader must fold and construct. Zach Dodson is co-publisher (with Jonathan Messinger) and Creative Director of Featherproof: he spoke to Danielle of Side B Magazine about the act of reading, running an independent press, and the current state of the industry.
Tell me a little about the history of Featherproof Press
Jonathan and I started the press in 2005 in Chicago, when he was then the book editor at Time Out Chicago, and I was a designer. He had a reading series at the time, and we talked about what it would be like to start a small press.
You design the books?
Yes, I design all of our books. It’s an advantage because I’m a graphic designer, so we don’t have to hire someone else to do design.
The design of Featherproof books is obviously important, what do you think about e-books?
There is a lot of hand-wringing in the industry that I don’t find all that necessary. Maybe it just isn’t for us because we were born in a digital age, but I guess I never really worried about e-books too much. There is a different audience for both, and [Featherproof] is happy to put our stories out in whatever format people want to read them. We love physical books and we put the time in to make our paper books look as much like art objects as possible, but most of our books are also available as e-books you can buy online.
You guys have free mini-books for download too?
Those are completely different, they’re like little books you can download on your home computer and fold into your own little book, using the internet as distribution of the paper form.
What has it been like working in both print and electronic publishing?
E-books are a small percentage of our sales, and they are a small percentage of overall publishing sales, although that is growing and pretty quickly. But it’s not the sort of sea change we saw with music, where one minute it was CDs and the next CDs were irrelevant and everyone was buying digital. That hasn’t happened with books, and there is still a fear among some people that it will, but I think if that was going to happen, it would have happened by now. The fact that a radical quick shift hasn’t happened to books makes sense if you know readers. People who are the biggest readers covet books; they display their books on bookshelves and they like having physical objects.
Also, the Ipod was such a clear advantage over the Walkman; you don’t have to carry that around. There are some advantages to e-readers, they hold more, but how many people really read more than one book at a time? They’re more expensive, and paperbacks are still cheaper. The technical advantages to paper books are that they are cheap and don’t require batteries. They’ve stood the test of time.
What do you look for in a book for Featherproof?
That’s hard to say—I’m looking to be surprised, really. Most of the time the books we end up with are ones I’d classify as idiosyncratic, in that only one person could have written it, and it has a unique voice. Jonathan tends to like well-crafted, I like the super weird, and obviously we look for content and style, and that makes a Venn diagram of well-crafted weird stuff in the middle.
What’s the advantage for writers working with an independent publisher.
The advantage to writers, if I can just speak for ourselves, is that we really try to view the relationship with the author as a partnership, a team project, and really have the authors involved in every step of the process of the book finding its way out into the world. Covers are obviously a big part of that; bigger presses sometimes have a lot of say in the cover, and we work very closely with the author on book design to make sure they are happy with how the book looks and functions. Plus everything that goes along with promoting a book, like touring and press releases, we work together with each author on that.
I don’t know that any kinds of presses are important. I would say that it’s all about storytelling, the connection between an author and a reader. Everything else is just a conduit or middle man: it’s helpful for that connection to happen. If anything a good role for a small press to play would be as that middle man between author and reader. There are sometimes bad roles publishers can play—being more interested in readers’ dollars than their experience. The role of the press, if there should be a press at all, is connecting authors and readers. But authors and readers are finding each other on their own, more and more.
You’re talking about the internet?
Yes, online, people self-publish, or put out e-books on their own websites… it’s a direct author-to-reader connection, without a middleman. And that can be a great thing sometimes.
What is the next book Featherproof is publishing?
The next book out in the fall is called The Minus Times. The Minus Times was a lit mag that Drag City Records put out, and we’re doing this book in conjunction Drag City Records, to put out a complete Minus Times anthology. It was a pretty obscure literary magazine, and has been around for 20 years, but not many people know about it. I’m actually really excited about it, and this week I’ve been hand letter-pressing the covers: all of the covers are done by hand-letter press. It is taking longer than I would have guessed.
Were you a fan of the magazine, or did Drag City contact Featherproof for this anthology?
No I was a fan; I’ve been calling it my “fanboy project.” I discovered the Minus Times when I was 18 and living in Austin, Texas, and just thought it was the coolest thing I’d run across. It was kind of like the literary equivalent to all of the indie rock albums I was listening to at the time, and it was very exciting to find. Since then I’ve been trying to collect all of the issues, but I could find very few because not many were made and it was not widely distributed. Part of putting out the book is so that I can have all of the issues in one place.
What is the best (and most difficult) part of being a publisher of a small press?
The best part is getting to work with authors and putting out books you really care about, and watching them go out into the world. Each book kind of has its own strange path once it is released into the world, and it is truly fun to watch. But if the books are the best part, the worst part is the business end. Neither Jonathon nor I are businessmen, so keeping the books, and doing finances, and figuring out distribution is sort of the least-fun, while necessary.
How do you predict the publishing landscape will change in the next five to ten years?
I don’t even know, I’m just trying to publish books right now. 10 years into the future, who knows. It is an interesting time in publishing, and the old model is clearly broken, and it’s not e-books that really broke it, or at least I don’t feel that it is. When Borders collapsed, it was bad for us and bad for the entire industry, and people said it was e-books, but that wasn’t really it. The distribution model industry-wide doesn’t work well, and no other industry works like it. The internet had more to do with Borders’ collapse, Amazon especially, where people buy physical books online. But of course it was hard to sympathize with Borders because they were a corporate big-box model that killed smaller independent bookstores, so it was bittersweet to see it killed by the net model.
E-books are sort of like the Wild West and everyone is jockeying for control, and there is clearly money to be made, so it’s kind of unclear how big that industry is going to be or how it will take form.
Find a list of Featherproof titles here.
This article is part of a series of interviews with the editors and publishers of small presses. Read others here and here.