July 2016. I was at The Brass Lamp, a smoky downtown Long Beach spot with bookshelves along the back wall, where I discovered and ended up buying a collection of poetry by Derrick C. Brown. It was called I Love You Is Back.
This is the sort of serendipitous, old-world book discovery that helps keep many a small press alive, and it’s what Derrick and his own press, Write Bloody Publishing, have weaponized to combat the influence of Amazon and public apathy on new poetry. Write Bloody takes its authors on extensive tours of the country, turning performances into promotion and putting more money in the writers’ and publisher’s pockets than online sales ever would. The people on its roster are often larger-than-life, and Derrick is no exception, so when I found out that he used to work at Gondola Getaway in Long Beach, where I currently work, I felt excited and weird and proud. Recently, he started picking up shifts there again, so I was able to get his number and schedule an interview about his journey with Write Bloody. 

It’s been years since I was naive enough to think that starting an independent press, or creating print publications of any kind, would be a viable way to make money and live comfortably. I’ve always thought of it as one of the most noble pursuits, since books are how we receive the wisdom of the ancients, which almost always surpasses that which we possess in our strange and overwhelming present. But from a business perspective, it’s disillusionment all the way. It’s  very tricky to connect with and make sales to an audience who, by and large, couldn’t care less about writing from peers who see fit to fashion a high-tech soapbox for their views. But wisdom and strength do come from others, if they don’t come from your own mistakes and experiences. For this reason, it’s imperative that entrepreneurs like Derrick fashion a platform to spread their work and open hearts and ears to things that are worth knowing. There’s also something to be said for the durability of the printed page, if the contents are worth a damn. Books from ancient civilizations are still in circulation. The university plays a role in the production and dissemination of books, as it always has (more on that later), but entrepreneurs can package and market the works of writers who function on the margins of the literary scene, and these marginal voices gain more attention and appreciation with each passing year. 

There were five problems that Derrick wished he had solved earlier in his business journey. I’m a big believer in reverse role models/advice after reading some of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s work, so regardless of who I’m in conversation with, I pay close attention to what they have to say about their mistakes and regrets. These were Derrick’s. 

1. Don’t be looking out just for writers who are talented

When it’s your press, you should be looking for writers who are talented but also non-volatile and easy to work with. If you sign someone difficult, the sales (if they’re able to pull them) will not make up for the headache they cause you over the nine or so preceding months before the book’s rollout.

2. Streamline your finances

Cut your expenses down as much as possible, and know where every dollar goes. While this might manifest in something as dry as finding the right office space, it will also help orient a businessman toward playing the “long game” and not going in on, say, short-run printing, choosing instead to place a single order for more copies, thus getting a better rate and minimizing the number of orders and inventory journal entries during the year. 

If you can’t do it yourself, find an accountant who will do it and do it well.

3. Don’t open a brick and mortar location until you ask more questions.

When you do, you have to prioritize the things that will sell, that will gratify both you and the wider audience you have in your corner. In Derrick’s case, that would’ve meant splitting his real estate between a poetry bookstore and a coffee shop, and saving until he had the funds to lease a property close to the university in Austin. 

4. Don’t give authors or clients too much control over the minutiae of business operations

Make sure they understand the limitations they face. Make sure they understand that anything beyond those limitations will require them to cover the expenses out-of-pocket. There’s a dimension to the business that’s geared toward generosity and, to a lesser extent, royalties, which cannot subsist in a vacuum. If your revenues don’t allow for all the books to be printed in America, then don’t print in America. If you can’t pay your artists the royalties they deserve because your profit margin on sales from Amazon is too low, be upfront with them about it and get them to agree that the business model where they thrive is one where they’re toiling in specific, diligent, and proactive ways. There are specific things that people care about that will result in sales. It’s not how the product is made that makes them feel. It’s the product itself. 

5. Keep the staff small

And you’ll never have to break hearts by cutting staff down when times are tough. Don’t hire interns if you don’t need them or don’t have the time to train them thoroughly.  

Derrick C. Brown was a paratrooper and singing gondolier in a once and future life. He started to rewrite psalms from his military-issued Bible while hunkered down in a foxhole, which he didn’t share wih anyone until he returned to the United States. Open mics and living room gatherings became the forum where he’d share his work night after night, often reciting isolated one-liners, and people enjoyed it. 

He saw an opportunity to start a publishing company when he saw the publications being shared at these gatherings. They were flimsy, homemade zines, small-batch labors of love, and if they were selling at all, it was because people felt a connection to the performance, not to any characteristic of the product itself. Derrick knew that most poets were getting their undergrad and MFA at liberal arts schools, receiving glowing endorsements (or not) from the faculty they worked under there, and seeing their volumes published by the university press after graduation.

Derrick began coordinating with Bucky Sinister and, in his words, got naive. In order to get distribution, they were going to need to show three years of growth, and the only way to pull this off would be to hit the road and cultivate a fan base, as if their cadre of authors was a touring band. So in 2004, Write Bloody Publishing was born, and its writers were contractually obligated to tour twenty shows a year. But the company was born from a lie. At the time, many small presses were folding because printing costs were too high. Derrick found a cost-effective way to go about printing through a company in Ohio, which offered a discount if they claimed they were printing ten titles a year. The next day, Derrick had formed Write Bloody, coronated himself president, and created a makeshift website to prove its legitimacy. 

The more you print, the deeper the discount. Obtain things in bulk. 

A discussion of risk in the poetry sector of the publishing industry is almost laughable – of course the odds are stacked against you. Derrick was in an advantageous position, since he was friends with a successful actress who lended money at competitive rates, but the profit margins were thin enough to carry considerable uncertainty. This is worsened by Amazon’s dominant position in the book sales market, since they keep 50% of sales revenue (a higher percentage than most independent booksellers, and a much higher percentage than sales that take place following a performance) and are able to set prices lower than usual. 

An issue that Derrick and company encountered in their first years was finding writers who could sell and who would perform with vigor. Several years in, their press was in a position to conduct submission contests where writers send both their written work and a video clip of them performing this work, in order to prove their magnetism before an audience. In the beginning, a handful of connections that Derrick had forged on the open mic scene resulted in bestsellers, including Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, who championed both Write Bloody as well as her own work (a natural saleswoman, says Derrick), and Buddy Wakefield, who holds the Wikipedia-verified distinction of the most tours of any slam poet in history. Their published books, along with those of a handful of other authors and Derrick’s own, helped Write Bloody to expand and attract an audience. Risk is overcome if one has a naturally magnetic personality and knows how to convince others of the legitimacy of their operation. 

Being a sole proprietor, according to Derrick, is tricky. Between 2004 and 2018, he held sole proprietorship over Write Bloody Publishing, and while that allowed him to circumvent a steep filing fee of $700, it lashed his own finances to those of Write Bloody, making it difficult to get personal loans. And though litigation was never a problem for him, encountering it as a sole proprietor would carry its own set of issues. Derrick now enjoys Write Bloody as an LLC, which gives him a degree of distance and protection from his business operation. 

This interview was an interesting experience. At this time, I have no burning desire to start a small press. But two years ago my friend Dan and I toyed with the idea of starting one, which we would’ve called Alley Cat Publishing, and attempting to print a volume of my poetry and whatever amount of zines Dan had bouncing around at the time. I can see now the disaster this would’ve been. There were a few things we had going for us – for one, Dan has a very good network of artist and musician friends, as do I, to a lesser extent. But we weren’t acting like we had skin in the game, and we weren’t behaving like salespeople, much less performers. Though we were going to gallery openings and readings and other LA art events, we weren’t being proactive and networking with the people we met there. I definitely wasn’t, because I’m shy! I see now that an entrepreneur needs to be able to wear many hats, and one of these is extreme enthusiasm for the sphere you operate in. Our tentativeness and self-consciousness prevented us from play-acting the confidence in our product until we received validation from paying customers. Derrick had experimented and received positive feedback from audiences – he knew his work was worth something, that the work of his friends was worth something.

Amazon has a stranglehold on book sales today, and distributors will also skim a considerable percentage off the top. Nothing beats establishing an emotional connection with people and making the sale without any intermediaries, which is why creatives need to perform like salespeople and set their egos aside. If you aren’t feeling earnest, fake it. We will need to keep our team small and tight-knit, while also seeking out a rich and far-reaching network of mentors and wise old people.

Derrick isn’t that old, but he is older than me, and wise.

                Luke Van Lant

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