Indie Spotlight: Ampersand Books

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imgresFounded by Jason Cook, Ampersand Books is the epitome of publishing in the twenty-first century—brash, fresh, and aggressive. Ampersand, and its imprint Bloody Fine Chapbooks, have moved at a breakneck pace on a shoestring budget to produce a list of books thick with dark wordplay and wry humor. From the haunting (and haunted) poetry chapbook Ear to the Wall by Carrie Causey, to the clever collection When You Say One Thing But Mean Your Mother by Melissa Broder, to Roberto Montes’ funny and frightening I Don’t Know Do You (just named one of the “best, most original poetry books of the year” by NPR), Ampersand hit the ground running in 2009 and hasn’t looked back. For Ploughshares, Jason Cook divulges a secret or two of Ampersand’s success and what he sees as Ampersand’s place in the literary landscape of the future.

Kate Flaherty: Ampersand’s manuscript submission process—where you only consider manuscripts from authors whose work has appeared in your magazine, Ampersand Review—seems supremely practical. What were the grounds for this process? Does it make Ampersand’s inbox slightly more manageable?

Jason Cook: The inspiration for that process is, essentially, laziness. I knew that if I wound up in a staring match with a stack of unread manuscripts, I’d almost immediately surrender and go play on Facebook for 3 hours. Engaging in a conversation with a writer whose poem or story you just published is a whole different thing than reading yet another query letter, and usually you can give a “nay” or “maybay” before seeing it.

I think it also makes writers feel a little more comfortable about pitching me books that don’t exist yet. I don’t think many indie publishers do that, but I’m having fun shaping these books as they emerge.

KF: While distinctive from one another, Ampersand titles share a certain air of cynicism tinged with nostalgia for a world that never was. Ampersand’s fiction titles are particularly melancholy—for example the wistful snapshots that make up Joseph Riippi’s The Orange Suitcase or the exhausting psychological paralysis of Spencer Dew’s Here Is How It Happens. Explain this Ampersand worldview.

JC: Since the editorial staff is composed of exactly me, I guess that’s just what I like. I like books with a broken heart, but with enough self-awareness to wonder whether it matters.

KF: The polished look of Ampersand titles goes beyond careful choice of typeface and a picture for the cover. Describe the design process for creating a visually arresting and evocative design for an Ampersand manuscript.

JC: Our designer Matthew Revert is a wizard. Either that or he’s a sentient piece of Adobe software that spits out brilliance. He and I talk about the mood of the book, pick out specific images that can be expanded into a theme for the cover, talk about where the book has been. After which, about half the time, he discards our ideas completely and comes back with a finished, completely different design that fits perfectly, usually about thirty minutes later. Sometimes I just spit adjectives at him and a beautiful design comes out.

Ashley Inguanta’s chapbook For the Woman Alone was the most intensive design work we’ve done. We wanted to make it look like a scrapbook that a teenage girl might have made 15 years ago about the end of the relationship. The edges of the photos had to look real, the damage to the pages had to look real, the random ephemera taped around the poems had to look real. Every page also had to have some story behind it, so the ink splatters and scribbles had to be a part of some scene we could imagine. “What was this scrapbook maker doing when the nail polish spilled? Would it have spilled like that?” It was an intense collaboration process between Revert, Ashley, and me, and in the end we got a book that no one else could have done.

KF: Ampersand titles have been well-reviewed in online publications like Pank and by heavy-hitters like NPR and Publishers Weekly, yet it’s your website and book jacket blurbs—by Bobbie Ann Mason or Michael Musto or Andrei Codrescu—that provide far more entertaining assessments of Ampersand books. What kind of exposure do you see as more valuable to Ampersand? How much energy do you devote to various kinds of marketing?

JC: Big magazines and NPR are great, of course (LOVE YOU, NPR!!), but word-of-mouth is still the best, and probably the only really meaningful marketing tool there is. It really isn’t a puzzle. Why do you buy books? I buy them because of pretty covers and because someone I respect told me to. Blurbs are nice, and Publishers Weekly seems to care an awful lot, but I really don’t think they actually put books in people’s hands or dollars in my pocket.

KF: Ampersand has published one anthology—Re:Telling, edited by William Walsh—in which writers recycle plots, settings, and/or characters in a variety of ways—like rejiggering Alias or Super Mario Brothers or the Mona Lisa with curiously entertaining results. Any plans for a future anthology? What else is in store for Ampersand readers?

JC: No, no more anthologies. Too many cooks, little kitchens, collapsed soufflés, fire departments. I don’t know how that applies, but essentially I mean that anthologies are too much of one thing and not enough of the other.

I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that most of the books going forward are being custom-written for Ampersand, so readers can expect more of what they like, only more so.

KF: From Ampersand’s website, it looks as though you and your skeleton staff do as much as possible with as few resources as possible. Is this business model sustainable, or will Ampersand need to evolve to stay viable?

JC: Sure, it’s sustainable. If x units of resources (these units are infinitesimally small) makes 4 books, then 2x makes 8 books. Or a weekend in New Orleans. Perhaps you mean whether the character of the press will have to change. As in, as I narrow down a more precise typology of the author I am looking for, will I have to allocate more funds toward bailing poets out of jail? Yes, probably.

We also might also start a record label, but that’s mostly out of boredom, I think.