I’ve been chatting with Jason Cook — who heads up Ampersand Books — since around the time that Cobalt got started last summer. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about him, it’s that he never pulls his punches. That said, I decided to interview Jason for the first installment of the Cobalt Publisher Series.
Since Cobalt launched last year, I’ve found that many of the authors we’re working with are either young, or are in the early stages of their literary careers. One of my goals for this publication is to turn it into a resource for the writers who submit, who visit our site regularly. This interview series is designed to shed light on the relationship between authors and publishers in a way that prepares writers for taking the next step. —Andrew
Keating: How many books do you publish each year, and what types of books interest Ampersand?
Cook: We do about six books a year, plus as many editions of The Ampersand Review as we can manage and some chapbooks. I don’t normally know what I’m after until I see it, but the books we’ve done are always love at first sight.
Keating: What was your last experience of “love at first sight?” (And don’t say me, because we technically haven’t met.)
Cook: As cliche as it is to fall in love with a stripper, katstories.tumblr.com is pretty wonderful and makes me feel all warm and magical inside. There’s also this 68 Impala that sold before I could buy it but still dream about. Corey Mesler’s upcoming novel, Diddy Wah Diddy, is the kind of thing that makes you think the sky is made of unicorn wishes and the world might not be an awful place. And I didn’t even really finish reading our next chapbook, Ear to the Wall, by Carrie Causey before I accepted it.
Keating: How much does a cover letter matter in your selection process, and what are some of the things that work for you/completely turn you off in a cover letter?
Cook: Since we don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, I guess anything that shows up with a cover letter is probably going to get deleted unread. Do your research, Keating. Jesus.
The Ampersand Review takes unsolicited work, but I don’t read cover letters until after I’ve read the work, and even then I just scan for a name to respond to if it looks like a form letter. If there’s a note directly to us about work we’ve previously published or one of the jokes on the website, then I’ll give a personal response, but by the time I get to the cover letter I’ve already made up my mind about publishing the piece.
Keating: How does the manuscript solicitation process work for Ampersand? That is to say, who do you solicit, and how do you typically find them?
Cook: We don’t have what you’d call an official process; it’s much looser and chaotic than that. Processes with steps and procedures make me think of the week I spent working the graveyard shift in a plastics plant. There’s a very large human component to running a small press, which makes it more like midnight in a gas station: you show up and see what happens.
The quality of the writing is a big part of who I consider for publication, but I have to get along with the writer, too. Publishing a book, you’re exchanging a dozen emails a day, arguing over the manuscript, calling each other names, phone calls, putting out fires, planning shit – I prefer to keep the murderous urges to a minimum. Most of our writers come to us through The Ampersand Review, Corey Mesler was in our Re:Telling anthology, one or two others walked up to me in a bar. Causey’s boyfriend stole her poems for me. We’ve got transoms all over the place.
Keating: You’ve shared some rather unpleasant experiences with me — particularly in working with first-time published authors. What are a few of the biggest peeves you have when working with an author?
Cook: How much server space do you have? Jesus, I’ve had some of the stupidest shit happen. One first-time author was being good, taking my advice until, just before contract time, she hired a publicist who probably wanted a cut of the royalties because suddenly she wanted 40% royalties! And a Failure to Publish after 3 months! I said, “lol wut?” or something to that effect. She took the hint and never wrote back. I had another author get an agent just before she was going to sign the contract – her agent called and wanted to put a bunch of limitations on sales territories and asked that I communicate with the author through her. If an agent or a publicist gets involved, I’ll usually walk. I’ve got a hair trigger on my “Fuck It” button anyway – it just isn’t worth the headache.
Book covers are a recurring source of artery-exploding, author-punching rage. Sometimes authors have a very specific idea of what they want their book to look like, saying their idea “draws on the themes of the book” or “reflects me as a person.” A book cover’s job isn’t to do either of those things; a book cover is a sales pitch. The book cover’s job is to sell the book. Authors also try to get involved with making press releases and things, even though those are not covered under the “author” job title. Basically, authors, don’t help unless you’re asked to. Stumbling into someone’s workflow and playing with stuff can be the cause of a lot of, frankly, unnecessary bloodshed.
Should I stop? I’m going to stop. I can bitch for hours.
Andrew Keating: Okay then. What about good experiences? What are some of the things you value most in a relationship with an author? Or, if you could go back and tell an author to do something different to make your experience more rewarding/beneficial/pleasant, what would you tell them?
Jason Cook: Most of the authors with whom I’ve worked have been delightful, especially the ones whose books we’re putting together now. It helps if an author shares my sense of humour, taste in music, or something else over which we can bond. I’ve become friends with most of the authors I work with, which I think is pretty common in the indie publishing world. It helps the business relationship, too. There are a couple of authors I wish I’d told, “No, we are not doing that” when I saw their book covers or they argued over edits that I let them have. There’s one phrase in one book in particular I still cringe over.
Keating: You mentioned working the graveyard shift in a plastics plant. What’s the biggest difference between that work and the work you are currently doing? The biggest similarity?
Cook: Obviously, the biggest difference is that I don’t sit around smelling like molten plastic. Working from home, I usually wind up smelling like my dogs instead.
Keating: Let’s get back to task briefly. Say you’ve come to an agreement with an author and you’re going to publish their book. No, say it, to me. ‘Andrew, I’m going to publish your book.’ What are the next steps? What do you typically expect of the authors you are working with?
Cook: If I were to, say, agree to publish the work of this hypothetical Andrew of whom you speak, I would expect there would be an initial period of sparklers of cartwheels and congratulatory notes on Facebook. Author’s depression usually sets in when I start nit-picking the manuscript, calling at all hours of the night to demand rewrites, softening the blow of harsh criticism with pictures of my dogs, changing the book’s title. Then my team of literary minions get to have their turn. And then it gets send to Pequod Book Design where it is made awesome and beautiful so that, when this Andrew person gets the proof, they forget how much they hate me. And then we’re friends again. Something like that, usually.
Keating: What should the authors expect from you in the process?
Cook: Every Andrew and Andrea has a right to expect an editor who cares about his or her book as much as the author.
Keating: It says on your website (There, research. Happy?) that you accept bribes for publication. Is that true?
Cook: Of course. Advertising that you’re open to bribery and then not accepting bribes offered in good faith would be unethical. False advertising or something.
About Jason: Jason Cook is Chief Mastermind of Ampersand Books. His stories and reviews have appeared (or will soon) in The Collagist, American Book Review, Keyhole, Underground Voices, and Creative Loafing. He is generally grumpy.