Cobalt: Tell us a little bit about Publishing Genius. How did you get started? What do you publish?
Adam Robinson: I started Publishing Genius in 2006, after months and months of interviewing other small presses — none of whom I can even remember, actually, because they aren’t the small presses I associate with today. I didn’t know anything at the time. Then I saw Stephanie Barber’s really cool and great chapbook, poems, which is just a saddle-stitched, half-letter style book, but also very lovely looking. I decided then that I was making too big of deal out of the whole thing, and set out to make similar short and simple books, then grow from there. Now there is an online journal called Everyday Genius, a chapbook series, and of course the regular books, which are poetry and literary fiction. I have a definite preference for unusual writing, things that I don’t immediately understand but that make me want to spend more time understanding what they’re about, what they’re doing.
Cobalt: How do you obtain the manuscripts that you publish?
Robinson: About 65% are from submissions.
Cobalt: How many books have come from previously unpublished authors?
Robinson: Of the 19 books that I consider to be not chapbooks, meaning longer than chapbooks somehow, 8 of them were by people who didn’t have any sort of book before. But even most of them had a chapbook of some sort.
Cobalt: You employ a lot of electronic media in your publishing business. What do you consider some of the most important tools for book publishers? How do you think social media has changed the landscape for book promotion?
Robinson: Well, I’ve been blogging since NPR was trying to figure out what blogging was, but it wasn’t until I connected with what you might call the “small press milieu” that I found the community necessary to keep PG afloat. Nowadays, though, blogging is “micro-blogging,” and I’m a little mystified by that. And as “the community” grows it also gets thinner because people who used to keep cool blogs, sites that allowed you to get to know them a bit, now just write for HTMLGiant or whatever. It feels a little less personal, and I really require personality to connect, and I require connection to promote books. I hate, hate, hate using Facebook as a “platform.” I hate sending out mass emails. I can’t get into Twitter. Everything makes me feel like I’m at the bookfair at AWP with 1000s of people walking past my table, and we’re all afraid to engage each other. A combination of Twitter, Facebook, and HTMLGiant is the cause of all this. For a lot of people it’s also the solution, and I get that, but I think I’ve lost all my angles.
Cobalt: In the early stages of publishing a book from a new author, what are some of the first steps that you take as the publisher, and what are some of the responsibilities that you ask of the author?
Robinson: First I email them and say I like their book and want to publish it, and I say “it will probably come out in the spring next year” or something, like 12 months away. I am not like some other small presses that plan a few years ahead. I’ve done that and when it comes time to start working on a book I’m like, “what the heck is this book?” I have to find my way into what I was thinking when I had accepted it 18 months earlier. So then we start working on it loosely. I build a timeline that inevitably falls apart, sometimes sooner than later. There are about 35 things on the timeline, like, “Assign ISBN” which is easy — there’s a column that says that’s my job — and “Make decisions about book size, format, blurbs, print qty” and that’s the job of both me and the author, and it’s fun. It’s the Dream Big stage. Then we do a contract, a standard thing, totally boring and confusing. There’s a line called “Initial review list complete,” which is something that the author and I both work on, listing people we think might be interested in the book. There are a lot of things that are just for me, like get the books listed with the distributor and various things about the printing. The things that are just for the author are like, “Signoff on layout.”
And after I accept a book the author usually works on the manuscript for a couple weeks or a month, tidying it up because it might have been a while since they looked at it, then I give my official editorial feedback. Sometimes one of my friends like Michael Kimball or Stephanie Barber or Joe Young will talk to me about the book for a while and I’ll include those thoughts in my notes. Then the author and I sit down and talk about it a lot. Like Rachel Glaser came to Baltimore a couple times and I’ve gone to NYC to meet people, or like Melissa Broder, we g-chatted for hours. Shane Jones and I sent thousands of emails — literally thousands, usually short — about what’s what. I went up to Providence, RI to sit down with Mairéad Byrne and go over her book, pretty much line by line. Then the author takes my notes and sends back a final manuscript. Often, when it’s poetry, Chris Toll will take his red pencil to it. Chris has an eagle eye, and a discerning one, so he’ll not just proofread but offer feedback and disagreements (“I’m just trying to help,” he says) which I’ll filter back to the author, who then sends another final manuscript. Then I’ll do the page layout. Someone else usually does the cover. Stephanie Barber’s been doing them a lot lately. I’ve got the editorial and production process down pretty well. I don’t think anyone has a system that would be better for me.
Cobalt: What’s one book that you’ve published that really stands out? Was there something different about the process of publishing it?
Robinson: Every book stands out to me. Every one is different. Maybe I liked the process of publishing Chris Toll’s book the best because we talked about it all the time, often over dinner. We’d be at some dim restaurant, hunched over a version of the manuscript, using his iPhone as a flashlight. Maybe my favorite story is Matthew Simmons’s A Jello Horse, because it was a total breeze. He sent it as a chapbook, I think, but it’s about 10,000 words, which I thought was too long, but I loved it and wanted to publish it somehow, so we did it anyway. It just happened, almost completely outside of me somehow, like the Lord reached down and there it was. And it sold like crazy, got reviewed in The Stranger and The Believer, I had to keep printing more of them.
About Adam: Adam Robinson’s first book, Adam Robison and Other Poems, was nominated for the 2010 Goodreads Reader’s Choice award. He self-published his second book, Say Poem, and self-awarded it second place in The Stupid River Prize. He was raised in Upstate New York.