Poetry News

Janaka Stucky Talks Black Ocean, Feng Sun Chen, Financials, Chapbooks, and Arms

By Harriet Staff

Black Ocean publisher Janaka Stucky is interviewed over at Blood Lotus Journal (yeah! we did say Blood Lotus, why?). Stucky talks some about Feng Sun Chen's new book, Butcher's Tree, which we pointed you to the other day; as well as the history of the press, their cartload of beautiful chapbooks and, interestingly, the financials behind the small-press publishing venture:

SMF: You spoke importantly earlier about the role that finances have played in your experiences as both a writer and publisher. Of course it isn’t all about the money. But in terms of sales numbers, some of your authors are seeing great “success.” For example: Who says poetry doesn’t sell? And who says no one wants to read tangible, physical books anymore? Not Black Ocean, that’s for sure, who this month are celebrating the 10,000th printed copy of a Zachary Schomburg book. (from the Black Ocean blog, fall 2011). Since you don’t charge fees and are still afloat, would it be wrong to assume that the press itself is doing well as a business? And if that is the case, what advice do you have for other publishers committed to recession-proofing their projects? (We can talk later about how no one should say “recession-proof.” Ugh.)

JS: I think what you’re trying to get at is the nuts and bolts of the business. Reb Livingston started a great mini-trend on transparency for small presses, and I could talk at length about this. To be concise, you and your readers will just have to take me at my word about a few things.

The first thing that everyone should understand is that when they buy a $14.95 book from a bookstore the profit that a press makes on that book is usually around $1. When you buy a book from our website, even after we give you free shipping, our profit on that same book is around $10. So one initiative I’ve really pressed is having an attractive and accessible way for readers to buy books directly from us, and to forge a relationship with our readers that keeps the coming back to our website (rather than, say, Amazon).

Additionally, old adages like “you have to spend money to make money” are adages for a reason. I could print 200 copies of a book digitally, and only spend $800 on printing it, but my profit margin would evaporate entirely. Indie publishing is a long-term investment and you have to assume that by shelling out $2,500 to print 2,000 copies today, you will see a return on that investment over a year or two.

In short, I’ve tried to apply conventional entrepreneurial wisdom to the spirit and ethic of small press publishing. So is Black Ocean doing well as a business? If a business’ purpose is to make its owner and employees money—then no. If the purpose of the business is to grow, be self-sustaining, and stay true to its core values—then absolutely we are thriving.

SMF: So that was finger-quote “success,” the financial gain kind of success. To re-romanticize it a bit: in the "staying true to its core values" sense, to what do you attribute your and/or your authors’ success?

JS: When I was a young child, maybe four or five, I found a shriveled human arm while walking on the beach....

We just wanted to end there. Read the full interview here.

Originally Published: July 24th, 2012