Our second “innovators in literature” brings us into the world of Vouched Books, an organization devoted to promoting small press literature. I deeply admire founder Christopher Newgent’s proactive, passionate approach to spreading the word about books, the way he talks about the possibility of “setting up on the main party stretch here in Indy on a Friday night, just to see what can happen when you believe people want to read” and the importance of bringing the book to the reader. Read on and be inspired.
Laura: Vouched “exists to promote small press literature,” a decidedly awesome mission. Could you break down the different ways Vouched does this?
Christopher: The primary way Vouched exists to get books into people’s hands is our Guerrilla Bookstores, started first in Indianapolis, one in Atlanta that Laura Straub launched in July, and I was just approached by a couple people wanting to start one in Philadelphia. We basically have a folding table that we stock with our favorite small press books, and we take them to public events, and sell. We typically go where we know there’s an audience, like art or literary events, but I’ve been toying with the notion of setting up on the main party stretch here in Indy on a Friday night, just to see what can happen when you believe people want to read.
We also maintain Vouched Online where I and my awesome contributors post links and excerpts of our favorite pieces from online journals. And of course, Laura and I post there about where we are setting up our tables and about different literary events around Indy and Atlanta. Which brings me to the 3rd way: the Vouched Presents reading series now in both Indy and Atlanta, both of which have been really well-received and have stirred up a lot of excitement.
Laura: How did Vouched get started?
Christopher: Every time I get this question, I always default the credit to Chris Heavener, editor of Annalemma Magazine. Last summer at the Annalemma blog, he posted about community-building beyond who we typically consider “readers” and reaching out to uncharacteristic audiences, and if you go back to the comment sections, you can actually see Chris and me building the idea of the guerrilla bookstore, which I just kind of took off with and created Vouched. Great dude, that Heavener character, and if you’ve not held an Annalemma in your hands, you are lacking. It’s one of, if not the, most beautiful lit journal I’ve ever seen.
Laura: Can we talk a little about the idea of “micro-selling?” Do you think we’ll see more of this approach, especially in the wake of traditional bookstores struggling so much?
Christopher: I imagine so, though obviously the problem with micro-selling is that it’s not a living. I’ve bought myself a couple sandwiches with the proceeds from Vouched when I’ve not had time to eat between my day job and needing to get a table set up, but other than that, Vouched isn’t much more than sustainable. Most of the proceeds go to flyers for Vouched Presents readings, or since I can’t really pay my readers, I try to buy them a round or 2 of drinks if we hang out somewhere after the reading. But of course, this guerrilla bookstore method isn’t the only way to micro-sell. More authors/publishers/publicists should consider working the local boutique angle, working on consignment with small, local shops. Think of how Starbucks sells CDs from the little racks in front of their registers. There’s no reason your local record store, craft store, or hell, even a bakery, couldn’t have a similar rack at their register filled with books from local writers.
Laura: On HTML Giant, Roxane Gay, when writing about Vouched, said “as booksellers struggle with how to stay alive, I think part of the conversation should center around how we can make people feel connected to books.” How do you think we can help people feel connected to books?
Christopher: I think the first thing is to stop waiting for people to come to us. The best part about Vouched is I’m not sitting at a counter in an immobile bookstore waiting for people to come to me. I go to them. Sometimes I feel like people’s disconnect with books is because they’re tired of always being the one who calls. Let’s face it. Our marketing is rubbish. When a publicist is looking to push a new title, what are their first thoughts, their pinnacle review placements? Publishers Weekly. NYT Book Review. We market to ourselves, and complain we’re a dying breed, that only writers read, etc. We need to stop pretending like we know who reads books, and what kinds of books they read, start actually going out and talking with people on the streets, asking them what they want to read, and putting it in their hands.
Secondly, we need to stop teaching kids that people quit writing books after the 1930s. The most recent author I ever read in high school was Faulkner. I’m not bashing Faulkner. I love reading Faulkner. But I didn’t love reading Faulkner in high school. If instead my teacher had dropped a copy of When All Our Days Are Numbered by Sasha Fletcher or How to Predict the Weather by Aaron Burch on my desk, I would have thought words were the coolest things ever. I would’ve been amazed that the dudes who wrote those books were actually still alive today, that I could find them on facebook and tell them how much I loved their books. I recognize that is a bit contradictory to what I said first paragraph, to stop pretending we know who reads and what they read, but I guess what I’m saying is the best way to get people stoked on books is to get them books that speak the same language as them. As great as Faulkner is, he speaks pretty differently than today’s teenagers—let alone assigning Shakespeare, who quite literally speaks a different language.
Laura: I love the idea of Vouched Presents reminding people “that literature can shake its ass.” I’ve seen a lot of “death-to-the-reading” stuff lately, like this Observer article. How would you respond to the idea that author readings are on the way out?
Christopher: The examples of awful readings in that article make me shudder, and I sympathize. I’ve been to those readings, too. And yes, I would agree that those readings on their way out. Without trying to offend anyone, I’ll say that anyone who believes the reading is dead has a very narrow view of what a reading can be. Honestly, my Vouched Presents readings aren’t all too different than a traditional reading, except that I actually coach the readers to realize what works at the page doesn’t always work at the podium. I even coach the audience that it’s okay to laugh and treat the readers like rock stars. I love it when I’m at a reading, and someone familiar with the author shouts out a story they’d love the author to read. Plus, there’s beer. I encourage beer.
Some of the more dynamic readings that prove the “readings are on their way out” mentality wrong are the Literary Death Match series, Quickies in Chicago (readers are timed, 5 minutes, no longer; if they go over they’re tackled by roller derby girls or something), the PANK Invasion series, Vermin on the Mount in San Diego, etc. etc. People just need to realize, if a model isn’t working, you have 2 choices: change it or become irrelevant.
Laura: What’s been one of your most exciting moments or experiences with Vouched?
Christopher: I’d have to say every time someone comes back to the table and says how a book I suggested to them was the perfect book for them, and thank you, thank you so much, what else do you have that you think I’d like? That’s amazing, that’s a rush. Like my friend Dano, she liked books well enough. She read some here and there, okay. But now she’s voracious. I think she might read even more than I do now. She’s bought at least 80% of the books on my table, comes back every month to see what’s new, has subscribed to a couple of the more artistic literary journals, and even plans to submit her photography to them. Seeing someone go from being a sort of cursory reader to a super-stoked devourer of words, wanting to get involved in the literary markets in her own artistic way is pretty amazing.
Laura: What are some other publishers or literary entities you find inspiring?
Christopher: At the top of my list, I’d have to say Dzanc Books. I feel like they are constantly pushing the idea of what a press can do and be for its community. Not only to they put out great books, but they do things like the Dzanc Prize where they award a writer not only on the merit of a manuscript, but on the creativity of their community involvement. Not to mention they seem to innovate constantly (their rEprint series, for example). I was just talking the other day about how I don’t understand why publishers don’t offer a free (or deeply discounted) ebook download with purchase of a physical copy, similar to how record companies do now with vinyl. I said outright that I bet Dzanc would beat the big houses to figuring out a good way to make that happen. Maybe they won’t, but it seems like something up their alley.
While I’ve grown away from the antics at HTMLGiant in the past year or so, I’m still constantly amazed and inspired by their reach, their ability to expose people to the small press community and great literature. I owe my involvement in all this to them, as it was people like Adam Robinson, Roxane Gay, and Mike Young who first believed in what Vouched could be and supported it without hesitation (similarly Blake Butler and Amy McDaniel rallied behind Laura’s launch of VouchedATL). Despite the juvenile reputation the Giant seems to have gotten, I still think they are doing some good and important things there, driving conversation about literature. I mean, the Lit Party they threw at last year’s AWP sold out its venue and raised $1000s for the 826 movement. I don’t think reach like that should be overlooked or dismissed.
Laura: You live in Indianapolis. What’s the lit community like there?
Christopher: It seems pretty disparate, to be honest, but then again, maybe I’m just not getting invited to the parties. I started Vouched in part because I looked around Indy and knew the city had a bunch of great, cool literary people, but there wasn’t any real community bringing us together. I see my out-of-town lit friends more often than my in-town friends. Occasionally I’ll get lunch with a couple of them, maybe a beer, but mostly, the lit community here only comes out every so often for readings and stuff. I sometimes joke that I started Vouched because I was lonely, which is probably more earnest than I let on.
Laura: What do you wish existed in publishing that hasn’t been invented yet?
Christopher: Does a teleporter count? Is that considered “in publishing”? Because when I think of what I would love most to have, it would be a teleporter. It could be my business teleporter. I would use it to teleport me and my Vouched table anywhere I wanted to sell books. On a whim, I could just teleport myself and my table to Brooklyn. Or Ann Arbor. Or Chicago. Or Atlanta. Or less ethnocentrically, Barcelona, Tokyo, Bangladesh, Delphi, Baghdad, Cairo. Can you imagine Jim Ruland calling me up, asking to table at his next Vermin reading, and just being able to go do that? Plus, I miss my friends, the ones I get to see maybe once a year at AWP. I’ve met so many incredible people in the literary community the past couple years, but we are all so far away. I could most use a teleporter.
This is Laura’s second post as a Guest Blogger.