Has Shane Jones Sold Out? PGP’s Adam Robinson on the Beauty and Burden of Light Boxes
When news broke that Shane Jones was being picked up by Penguin, my first question to Jones was, How does your publisher feel about this? To my surprise, Jones said, “He’s involved in the whole process—absolutely.” Adam Robinson, aka Publishing Genius Press, nurtured Jones and Light Boxes and helped make it what it is today, not only a work of great heart and craftsmanship, but a book that’s been optioned by Spike Jonze, picked up by Penguin and the first print run of which is already sold out. Jones is also now represented by bigwig agent Bill Clegg (who counts among his clients Rivka Galchen and Nick Flynn). On the heels of Shane’s string of successes, there have been the unsurprising and unimaginative slurs that Jones is “selling out.” Are writers drawn to indie publishers for the so-called benefit of “nurturing,” for the preservation of literary integrity, freedom and expression unalloyed by market demands? Or are those elements an illusion that masks a deeper, less noble reality that a writer goes with an indie publisher because at this point in his career no one bigger will take him on? What better person to get to the heart of the matter with than Robinson, the man behind PGP who discovered Jones and who was the cornerstone without which Jones’s rise wouldn’t have been possible.
THE FASTER TIMES: Are you Publishing Genius Press?
ADAM ROBINSON: Yep, all along I have been PG. I started the press in the fall of 2006 when I started my MFA at the University of Baltimore, which sort of has a focus on publishing. The focus is actually on the value of the creative mindset over “cred.” I was assigned to stretch the concept of a book for a class, so I made an outdoor poetry journal, which I have kept doing. It’s now in its sixth issue, and it’s called isReads. I had always wanted to publish “actual” books too (which is what drew me to the program at UB), so I started doing that at about the same time, in staple-stitch chapbooks.
TFT: How did you discover Shane? How did the two of you get into contact?
ADAM ROBINSON: Shane submitted LB to me “over the transom” in the early summer of 2008, after I had done two staple-stitch chapbooks and two perfect bound collections. I think what probably brought his attention to Publishing Genius was my chapbook series, called This PDF Chapbook (now called A Genius Chapbook). I had published Blake Butler in the series by then, and I think it was Blake who suggested Shane send his manuscript to me. Actually, now that I think of it, Shane said in his query that Joseph, from Caketrain, recommended he send it to Publishing Genius. But at the time I was gratified by the thought. Still, it went into the slush pile for a couple months.
I told Shane I really liked his story, but no thanks, because I wanted to do a book by a woman…. He wrote back saying that he isn’t a big jock and he doesn’t “go around punching people in the face.”
TFT: Light Boxes was the first novel published by PGP. Why did you decide to go with Light Boxes for your first novel? As you only publish one book per year (to my understanding), it must have been a big decision on your part. Had you envisioned making the foray into novels at some point?
ADAM ROBINSON: The cool thing about LB was that it came in at a time when I was looking to do a longer book. In fact, I was looking to do a twenty-thousand word story, which is pretty much dead on what LB is, but the reason Shane’s manuscript went into the slush pile was because I also wanted to publish a woman. I told Shane I really liked his story, but no thanks, because I wanted to do a book by a woman (because most of what I had on my calendar was men). He wrote back saying that he isn’t a big jock and he doesn’t “go around punching people in the face,” and that he thought there were some really strong female characters in the book. So — since I didn’t have a bunch of other twenty-thousand word manuscripts at the time — I gave LB a closer look. I didn’t know him at all then, but a little research showed that he’d published in some places I respected, like Greying Ghost, and he did a good job promoting that work, so I accepted Light Boxes.
To be clear, I was aiming to publish about four paperback books a year. Still from the first few email exchanges with Shane, I knew I wanted to make LB the “flagship” book. His ambition was really evident, our aesthetics were really aligned, and I knew I could count on him to be diligent in working with me on the editing and promotion. He was easy to work with at every step and he motivated me to work hard for the sake of LB.
TFT: The layout and design of Light Boxes is unique. The fonts are gigantic and small, serif and sans serif. One page might have on it nothing but three tiny words that you can only read by pressing your face up to the book. Can you explain a little about the process of designing the book and why you made some of the decisions you made?
ADAM ROBINSON: As for creating the look of the book, that was one of the first things Shane wanted to talk about. He was very driven about having a nice cover, and of course the design is always really important to me. I got the sense that Shane wasn’t afraid to ask for anything, and because we communicated so much (sometimes dozens of emails a day) I wanted to do whatever I could to make great things happen. (As an aside, I discovered today that this excited communication is really what drives me: I’m working on the next book, Easter Rabbit by Joe Young, and he and I have been writing back and forth and that has directly contributed to my level of excitement.)
So anyway, the process for Light Boxes was kind of ludicrous. Shane and I would just send pictures back and forth to each other of artists we liked, like baseball cards or something. Eventually I asked an old friend, a very successful painter, if we could use on of her images. She said yes, but then Shane found a young guy whose drawings he loved and so we signed him on. Then we decided his work was too spare for the lushness of the book, so we paid that young guy a kill fee and approached another designer who was really responsive but ultimately was way off target and, since he was a big name, I had to pay him the entire fee. Man, he was cool but he was pissed. We asked Jeff Clark, the guy behind pretty much every poetry book you look at and want to die for, and he was willing to negotiate but by that time I felt like it would have broke the bank.
Ultimately it came down to the fact that I had found a picture, I think on Chris Higgs’s site “Bright Stupid Confetti,” by an artist in the UK and was able to make it work. I had to pay that dude in pounds sterling, via wire transfer. This whole cover thing was really costly considering in the end I did it myself, with the help of Stephanie Barber, for free.
I remember when I showed Shane my idea for the cover and he said, “That’s the cover of my book.” Then I did the page layout and was really happy that Shane was happy. He had put in colored type for the words he wanted big and small, and I made some suggestions for that, and the page design went really smoothly. Thank goodness. That was a really long answer, but I think you’re the first one who asked so I was glad to get it out.
TFT: You’re an indie publisher, and you shelled out all this cash, in one case pounds sterling, for images that you never used. May I ask how you funded this exercise in overscrupulous taste?
ADAM ROBINSON: Well, to clarify, I did use the image that I paid pounds sterling for, but that is because I saw it before buying it. I bought the image but then changed it and did the layout stuff myself (with my friend Stephanie). But sure enough, Nicholas Huge took the picture. Isn’t it crazy that it’s a photograph? If you look at the native file, and blow it up really big, you can see detail in the snow in those branches.
Anyway, more to your question, I have always been advancing money for Publishing Genius from my day job. Thankfully, with every book I’ve been able to pay myself back, or at least get close. With LB it’s been difficult, but it’s amazing how close we came, given how much money went into it. It’s like the summer blockbuster of small press books. I’m still paying off Shane’s caterer from that third week of rewrites.
It might make sense if Shane was, like, a Christian band and got an offer to be Sepultura’s road manager or something, but I never thought that small press writers published with small presses for some nebulous ethical reason.
TFT: How did you learn the news about Penguin wanting to pick up Shane’s book? And what did you think about it?
ADAM ROBINSON: So right after the news exploded about Spike Jonze picking up the book, I got an email from someone at Penguin asking if I wanted to sell the rights to the “movie tie-in edition.” That was awesome and made me giddy. At the same time, though, I felt really incapable of actually dealing with it because, well for one thing, Shane and I never had a contract so I was pretty sure I didn’t own the rights to sell. I mean, geez, six months ago we were talking about how six hundred copies might have been too many to print. So legal stuff, logistics, I felt unprepared. My hands trembled a lot when I read the Penguin email, and I felt kind of small telling the acquisitions editor there that I didn’t know how it worked but he should contact Shane because he owned everything that we didn’t sell to Spike Jonze. That was another thing. I signed something with the movie people that said I didn’t have any interest in all these things, like theme park rides and video games and fast food promos or whatever, so I still don’t even really know what I’m allowed to do. Can I make a t-shirt that says, “I read Light Boxes before you?”
Soon after Penguin came knocking, an agent approached Shane. I just figured that’s perfect, he’ll look out for things. I had already told Shane that I wanted all good things to happen as smoothly as possible. I definitely did not want to stand in the way or make things difficult. This wasn’t just, like, complete generosity or naivete on my part, though. Over the course of the last year working with him on the book, I felt very clearly that I could trust Shane to look out for me, too. And he has, I think. More than whatever money and attention this brings to Genius, I’m honestly most gratified by the coolness that is possible in people.
TFT: You and shane didn’t have a contract? Do you mean you didn’t have a written contract, or you hadn’t come to an agreement at all on details like how you’d divide profits?
ADAM ROBINSON: We actually had a signed agreement that I wrote, which I thought covered all the possible situations. It said things like, “Art direction is the purview of the publisher but Shane can get a say in stuff too,” and “Anything that isn’t described here will be settled at the discretion of the publisher so as not to be a jerk.” And yeah, we had agreed to splitting profits evenly. I keep really good books and it’s clear that, thanks largely to selling through Amazon’s consignment system, we’ll be splitting $0 right down the middle.
TFT: Jones has been clear that you’ve been very supportive of his move to Penguin. This is great to hear. But I’m wondering if there’s any part of you that believes he should have stuck with you, because you stuck with him and worked so hard for him? Or that somehow he’s giving up the integrity or sold out on the ideal that made him seek out an indie publisher to begin with.
ADAM ROBINSON: I do think that Shane has stuck with me. I mean, like, we did talk about whether or not I should reprint but before we got far into that conversation I made it clear that I didn’t necessarily want to. LB is a beast, it’s more than I can handle, and I know that. It was driving me crazy, working to fulfill orders and track Paypal sales and everything. I don’t have the infrastructure set up to handle the attention LB was bringing in during its last weeks in stock here. I’m really enjoying the attention I get, and I’m working hard to be able to parlay it into something I can build on for the future of Publishing Genius. But I’m relieved to be out from under Light Boxes. I can spend some time now paying attention to the rest of my catalog and getting new books made, which is what I really love.
And plus, if Shane stuck with Publishing Genius, you probably wouldn’t be interviewing me right now, and what good would that do me? I’d still have a hundred copies of the book in my tiny apartment. I don’t know if that sounds phony, though. There is absolutely a part of me that is jealous that Shane gets to keep the attention and after a few months only the same twenty people who already cared will pay any attention to Publishing Genius.
As for the integrity issue, I don’t really understand that. I don’t know what integrity comes from only working with small presses. The idea of Shane selling out never occurred to me. Now that a few people have joked about it I have thought about it a (very) little, and it doesn’t make any sense. It might make sense if Shane was, like, a Christian band and got an offer to be Sepultura’s road manager or something, but I never thought that small press writers published with small presses for some nebulous ethical reason. I can’t think of a coherent argument that can be made for that, unless a writer is forced somehow to compromise his work when signing on with a big house. But does that happen? It’s not like Josie and the Pussycats, where Shane writes a nice story and then the publisher puts it through a machine to insert a bunch of hooks in order to commodify it. The commodity that Shane gives the publisher is the product that the publisher gives the world. If there are people who are only buying small press books because they think that there’s some value to it aside from the quality of the writing, they’re mistaken. People should read the best books, always, regardless of who publishes them.
So at the same time that I was thrilled, I was also thinking, “There’s no way this can happen.”
TFT: I’m aware from my correspondence with Shane that you did nurture his career quite a bit, in the editing and promotion. Do you think that writers seek out indie publishers for the benefit of this type of nurturing?
ADAM ROBINSON: I’m grateful that Shane credits me with the editing part of my work, because that was where I contributed the most of myself in this project. But I think people seek out indie publishers, first of all, because the mainstream houses are so unapproachable, especially for new writers. I know that if I submit a story to the New Yorker, all I’m going to get is a form rejection letter. But if I submit it to New York Tyrant or something, there’s a chance I’ll get a letter back from Gian saying, “Nice story, I really liked how the guy killed that dog at the end, but it doesn’t work for me right now.”
TFT: What was it like for you when Spike Jonze contacted you and Shane? It seems from your earlier response that it was something you didn’t have a whole lot of experience with. What was the most important thing you learned from your dealings with selling the film rights?
ADAM ROBINSON: By the time I got an email from an intern at the production company saying that they were interested and they wanted my phone number, LB had already received some pretty good attention and wild offers. Someone from Kunstmann, a big German press, was reading it in consideration of a translation, and there was a Croatian offer too. So I wasn’t like, “This is clearly a joke” — except for the fact that it was Spike Jonze. I mean, given the way that LB works, so clearly influenced by the metafictive elements in Jonze’s work, I couldn’t imagine a better person to be interested. So at the same time that I was thrilled, I was also thinking, “There’s no way this can happen.”
Aside from “forget about your expectations, just work hard,” I would advise any indie publisher to be clear at the beginning of every project exactly what rights the press owns and what the author owns. It’s amazing how complicated this can be. There are standards in place that I’m still not entirely clear on, but I’m grateful to Peter Cole, who runs Keyhole, for letting me crib his standard contract, and to Michael Kimball, an author who’s very familiar with intellectual property contracts, for advising me on a lot of this. The way I worked with this movie deal, just like the Penguin deal, was very naive — thinking, “Don’t let me be an obstacle, if there’s any chance this deal can get done, I want to do it” — and now that I’ve had a chance to look at some contract issues, I feel like there’s a whole business side to things that is in place to take some of that naive anxiety away. You know, like, in the business world people are more inclined to relax a bit, get things done by 5 or by Friday, whatevs, whereas I’m always like, “I’ve only got an hour before band practice, if this thing doesn’t happen now it’s not going to happen at all.” In actuality, I missed a phone call from the Director of Development at the film company and didn’t call her back for three days and it was no big deal. People are awesome.
TFT: How much of your decision to go with a book, let’s say Shane’s, is based on the hope of discovering an obscure masterpiece, as opposed to a desire to attain a work that will actually sell? How much of each factors into your decision–if you can estimate a percentage?
ADAM ROBINSON: When I love a writer’s work, it doesn’t matter to me that much whether or not it will sell. This sounds crazy or whatever but really, since I’ve been doing most of the work myself and only printing a couple hundred copies to start, there’s no way I’m losing more money than I do in a month of Saturday nights. In 2010 I’m putting out a book by Mairéad Byrne — in an amazing interview with Kent Johnson that isn’t online anymore she’s talking about the book sales for an Alan Dugan book. She says something like only 200 people are buying Dugan’s book, and she wishes she knew who they were. But then she says, “Well, actually, I bet I do know who they are.” That’s kind of the beauty of publishing books the way I do. Ultimately, the investment is small but the community is giant.
So I would estimate that 95% is based on the work and 5% is hope that it will sell. Actually, 75% is based on the work, 5% is hope that it will sell, 10% is because of some unquantifiable sense, and 10% is based on awesome.
TFT: There’s a rumor that some copies of Light Boxes will be made available through Small Press Distribution. True?
ADAM ROBINSON: Ha, there were some at SPD, but they sold in one day. I think they sold sixty or something in a day. There are some at BN.com, I think, and there are some at bookstores scattered across the country.
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