Justice, Love, Death & Literature
An Interview with Alexander (Sandy) Taylor, Publisher, Curbstone Press
Posted Summer, 2006
By Jessica Powers
NewPages: I’d like to hear a little bit about your history as a publisher. How and why did you and your wife (Judith Doyle) get started publishing books?
Sandy Taylor: Curbstone started with the publication of James Scully’s poems Santiago Poems, published in 1975. That was the book that really got us off the starting blocks. We had been considering starting a press for some time. I had done magazines, Patterns, way back in the 50s, and Wormwood Review in the 60s. I wanted to do something that was a little bit more permanent. This book exposed the human rights violations in Pinochet’s Chile. In 1975, that was political and hard-edged. Because of the content and small size of the book, we felt that it might not have much of a chance in commercial publishing. In this country, we don’t admit our mistakes until 25 or 30 years later, so we knew the book would raise some hackles because it went counter to the official American foreign policy. So we felt it was an important book to publish and it was what we wanted to do with literature. We wanted to present literature that promoted human rights and civil liberties and promoted cultural understanding, so we said, “If we’re going to do it, let’s do it now.”
Strangely enough, we’ve almost come full-circle. We just did a series of short stories by a Chilean author who lives in Denmark, Rubén Palma, and we published Jim’s [James Scully] classic study of poetry, Line Break. In 2007, we’ll publish his new collection of poetry, called Donatello’s Version. So we started with Chile and Scully and we’ve come full circle. We also published another book about Chile in the seventies that Jim Scully smuggled back into the country, De Repente/All of a Sudden, by Teresa Perez.
NP: But why did you get started at all?
Taylor: It was a way to contribute to the awareness of poetry. I think we began with poetry because that was the tough road. With the magazines, we tried to pair up new poets with established poets to present them in a context that was warm. We’d publish new poets with e.e. cummings, for example. We published a lot of people who later became famous, such as Bukowski.
But Judy and I were both involved in human rights organizations and solidarity movements and anti-racist movements. Much of the works we published actually grew out of our contacts with the people in these movements. For example, I met Claribel Alegría on a bus in Managua because I was down there in support of the Sandinista regime and reading poetry to the police, army, and coffee workers. Incidentally, she just won the Neustadt Prize, called the American Nobel Prize. I’m very happy for her, not only because of the honor, but also because for once she’ll receive a lot of money, too. (The prize is given at the University of Oklahoma with the support of World Literature Today.) Curbstone made many other connections through our political and cultural work. So our history is a social history. (Photo below of Judy Doyle and Sandy Taylor, and high-tech printing press circa 1980s.)
Judy Doyle and Sandy Taylor
NP: The question is which came first, the love of human rights or books?
Taylor: Who remembers for sure? I’m not sure I ever separated the two. The hunger for justice is every bit a part of our experience as love or death. We’ve always believed literature has an effect on people’s lives. You can read the statistics of the Holocaust and the numbers mean nothing, but you read Anne Frank and it’s not abstract any more; it has a human dimension. It’s very hard to hate someone you understand. As Galeano said, it’s foolish to think literature will change the world, but it would be just as foolish to think it doesn’t have an impact. You put your little oar in the water and if everybody puts their oar in the water, the boat moves forward. So our mission has always been centered on human rights, but our goal has also been centered on doing the best we can for debut writers, and that’s also a hard road. But in some sense, if you’re right, you don’t know that for a hundred years, right? If you’re right, you’re building up a wonderful backlist of books. There are two kinds of audiences, a horizontal and a vertical—an immediate audience and an audience over time—a distinction made by John Ciardi in the Saturday Review years ago. You can cater to the popular taste, put a lot of murder and incest and sex in a book, and it’s kind of like those tabloids that used to sell on stands, sensational stuff, and the sale of a book like that shoots up like a star shell, and then it disappears; ten years later you never hear of this book again. But it seems to me the good books, even if it's a new writer, lift off like a cargo plane, it’s got a lot of weight to it, but over time, it outsells the sensational book because people keep buying and reading it. I don’t have any objections to people enjoying literature for total relaxation, but I compared it once to drinking water. It’s refreshing, reading the detective story, but it’s not nourishing to the soul, and if that’s your sole diet, you’ll die intellectually and spiritually.
The hunger for justice is every bit a part of our experience as love or death. We’ve always believed literature has an effect on people’s lives.
NP: Was there ever a time when you almost threw in the towel?
Taylor: The answer is no. I used to joke that if I ever stopped doing this, I could go to Mexico and drink tequila on the beach.
NP: Speaking of that, do you think [American] publishers can live in another country and publish from there?
Taylor: No, I don’t think so, not for most of us. The expense of getting your books to market would be prohibitive on the scale in which we operate. It might be beneficial for writers. You can never know your own country until you’ve lived elsewhere. On the other hand, writers who live in exile for too long may begin to feel that they don’t know their own country anymore. Rubén Palma said he didn’t think he could write about Chile anymore. He would have to go back to get it right. It’s like the Fulbright student who showed up in Denmark speaking old Norse and nobody understood him. He had picked up a book and started learning it, but it was a dead language. In some ways, language is always shifting. A lot of writers have to live and work in universities to stay alive, and that’s dangerous, too—writers can get cut off. I told Jack Agüeros one time that we should get him a position at a university and he said, “No way. Where would I get my stories?”
NP: How did you get fluent in Danish?
Taylor: It’s very odd. During the Sputnik crisis, the government was putting all sorts of money into education and paying for high school teachers to go get re-energized. I was given a summer fellowship to Yale, and a historian, William Goetzmann, encouraged me to apply for the Fulbright. I did and I chose Denmark because I admired the way they saved the Jewish population during the Holocaust. It’s a very humane culture. I ended up there for a year and I just kept going back. It was really accidental how I got there. Yet it led to publishing quite a few Danish authors. When I arrived in Denmark, I began to read Danish little by little with a dictionary in hand. The last three months I was there, I attended evening school and with the help of a teacher began to translate from a contemporary poetry anthology. I discovered Benny Andersen in this way and began corresponding with him on my return to the US in 1966. We sent drafts back and forth, and then I visited him several times during the following years to discuss the poems, which eventually led to the publication of Selected Poems by Benny Anderson by Princeton University Press. Benny is one of the most original writers in Denmark. His use of humor is phenomenal.
NP: What kept you going [in publishing]?
Taylor: Maybe cynical optimism. I don’t really know. I think about the Robert Frost poem where he says, “My object in life is to unite my avocation and my vocation as my two eyes make one in sight.” A lot of people go through life wall-eyed. They really don’t like what they’re doing in their jobs, at work, and they do something they like on the side or as a hobby. And the fact that you can work at something you love is, of course, attractive to anyone. The other thing that kept us going were the writers themselves. We felt privileged to have met such wonderful people and to work with them, to help present not only new American writers, but established writers in other countries who were not yet known in the United States. This was a way of sharing your favorites with other people. There are some wonderful writers around the world but because of the expense of translation, they never get heard, especially from small countries like Denmark or Bulgaria. We’re putting out a new book of poems this month, Ashes of Light by Lyubomir Levchev. He’s Bulgarian and runs a press over there called Orpheus Press.
Sandy Taylor, 2006
What was it Thomas Harding said? “I’ve always been happy because I never expected very much.” People going into small press publishing have to expect that it’s going to be a long haul, it’s going to be five years before you can even begin to break even. But if you’re aware of that and keep doing it, then it’s very possible. Distribution is the big problem with most small presses. We’re very lucky. Consortium is a wonderful distributor. Before that, we went from bookstore to bookstore ourselves, and that never works because you have to sell the books on consignment and you’ll frequently never get paid.
Independent and non-profit presses starting up now have the advantage of calling on the experience of others who have been around a while. Pain is a great teacher. But fortunately, now, enough publishers have gone through it that you can tap into their experience to avoid their initial mistakes. In the small press world, people act very cooperatively. They share information; they share a lot of things. The bottom line isn’t money so you don’t need to feel competitive. That’s why we always have a section in Curbstone Ink called “Recommended from Other Presses.” We enjoy sharing the news about the remarkable richness of literature coming from the independent presses.
NP: While we’re on the subject of distributors, what advice do you have?
Taylor: Get one as soon as possible. I should say this frankly: There are a lot of places that call themselves distributors, but they’re really wholesalers. A distributor will have a sales force and will be presenting your book personally to booksellers. Another advantage is you will see your back orders and can make better judgments on print runs. It may take some time to get a distributor because you can’t go to a distributor saying, “This is what I want to do.” You have to show them what you’ve done the last two or three years. Consortium is one of the few distributors that focuses on literary titles so they’ve contributed enormously to the field of literature. That kind of focus, of course, makes the sales representatives’ job easier—they go into the stores that are really interested in serious literary works. It’s important not only having a distributor but also having one that knows how to sell your particular list. The sales force at Consortium read our books and know them well and can really sell them. I feel very fortunate to be with this group.
If I were to talk to somebody about starting a press, I would say, “Admit what you don’t know, go and talk to people.” A small press needs to develop a good board of directors. Traditionally, non-profits develop a board to raise money, but we went to prospective members and said, “We want your knowledge.” So we had a librarian, a marketing expert, direct mail people, a bookseller, number crunchers, sales people. You can’t be a general expert. You need the mentoring and tutoring that experts have. For example, Paul von Drasek is one the board right now—he’s Sales Manager at Harcourt. The people on our board understand our mission and have provided us with a fund of knowledge and mentoring and advice that has been incredibly important.
When we started out, we went to different people to ask for advice. Susan Bergholz, who is now a very famous agent, was just so generous with her time. She’s the one that brought many Latino authors into real prominence, Sandra Cisneros, for example. She took us under her wing and told us, “You have to go to ABA,” and we didn't even know what the American Booksellers Association was at that time. Lew Rosenbaum took us aside and went over our materials with us and generously gave up time to help us. He said right away, “You’ve got to do better covers.” So we just started spending more time on the design and now people have told us, “You can almost tell a Curbstone book by its cover.” We spend a lot of time and money on covers. So we had some really generous advice from people.
If you have the stamina and stubbornness to keep going and learn from other people and have a good distributor, then you can get small press books out there nationally. You have to earn it. Remember Biff in Death of a Salesman? He talks about working on a ranch and getting up in the morning and thinking about how he loves what he’s doing and then thinking, “Oh, God, I’m not making any money.” I’m not sure I got the quote exactly right, but Miller had his finger on a problem that afflicts many Americans. The culture has such an obscene devotion to money. But really, why should we care, as long as we eat every day and do something we like and feel it is important? Doing that, you’ll live a better life than a nervous millionaire.
NP: You mentioned the ABA (American Booksellers’ Association) conference [now known as BEA]. What would you say are the most important conferences for publishers, or at least for Curbstone?
Taylor: Some of the most important conferences for Curbstone are the Guadalajara International Book Fair, the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), the Two-Year College Conference, the American Literary Translators Association, the Borders Book Festival, and the National Association of Chicano and Chicana Studies. We can’t afford to attend all the conferences we would like to, so we rotate our attendance at conferences from year to year. We recently displayed at the Associated Writing Programs conference, and that seems like a valuable conference for us. Of course, what conferences you are likely to attend depends upon your list as well as your funding. Since we have a focus on Latino and Latin American literature, the Borders Book Festival and LASA are good fits for us. The Guadalajara Book Fair is a good place to scout for new work from Latin America, and the U.S. coordinator, David Unger, has been amazingly successful in helping U.S. publishers network with their Latin American counterparts. He also has developed an effective program for bringing U.S. librarians and translators to Guadalajara. Since we do a lot of working class literature, the Two-Year College Conference is very productive because their membership is focused on teaching and their students are largely working class. Quite frankly, we found the Modern Language Association Conference boring and depressing and stopped attending. So I'm sure every press would have different favorite conferences.
NP: What’s the worst thing about being a publisher?
Taylor: The worst thing is to feel that you can’t do as well by your writers as you would like to. The work is infinite. But all in all, I’d say it’s a pretty good life.
NP: If there was one piece of advice you could give, just one, to people starting out in the publishing business, what would it be?
Taylor: This is a big question. I can answer for the non-profit but not the for-profit. You should have a really good, focused mission statement, understand what you’re trying to do, and then develop a good list of writers, and pay a lot of attention to marketing, including having a good distributor. But the distributor can only get the books onto the shelves of the bookstore—you have to get your books off the shelves and into the hands of customers through promotion. You have to develop a relationship with reviewers, keep up with what’s happening technically. In our case, we do a lot of conferences. We cast a wide net by attending these conferences and through mailings, and then we spearfish. Each day I try to do one thing that I know will sell a book. That might be, for example, taking part in discussion groups via email. I always read the H-net, the history and sociology professor net. If I see somebody who’s thinking about doing, for example, a course in violence in South America, I will immediately get in touch with him and suggest a couple of books. So publishing is very time-intensive, and you don’t always reach all the bases.
NP: Do you ever stop working?
Taylor: Oh, yeah, sure. But the other thing you have to tell people going into any business is that it’s going to be a long long day for a long, long time. Have reasonable expectations. If you don’t, you’ll set yourself up for failure. If we’re bringing out a book by a new poet, we know we can’t sell 10,000 copies, so we support that book through revenue from other books (and grants and donations). We might only sell 400 of that book the first year, but if we keep with it, the book can eventually become well known. Martín Espada was an emerging young writer when we published his Rebellion is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands—we also published it in a bilingual edition to make it useful to Hispanic students in high schools and colleges. Then we just kept it in print. That book now has over 8,000 copies in print, partly because Martin is a one-man marketing machine, doing numerous readings each year. Sales were slow in the beginning, but it’s still out there and he’s still pushing it and we’re still pushing it after 15 years. That’s why some of the writers who could easily publish with larger publishers choose to publish with small independent presses. Their fear is that if the book doesn’t do well right away in the large commercial house, the publishing company will just remainder or shred it. There are writers who can’t believe what we do, that we keep things in print for so long. We also pay very close attention to the academic market. That’s where you can keep your back list alive.
Last year, 28% of our sales were in the academic market. That is the one market that is really open for expansion. The last time I counted the numbers, there were 450 colleges that had adopted our books. Now the problem is that the courses that use our books rarely run every semester and they’re usually upper-level courses with smaller enrollments, but Yale, Harvard, you name it, somebody there has used one of our books at one time or other. Our staff does frequent mailings of special catalogs, targeted to particular fields, such as Vietnam era literature, Latino titles, poetry, etc. Many course adoptions also come about because of authors’ presentations at campuses.
NP: How do you find places for writers like Martín Espada to give readings?
Taylor: Trying to find good reading sites for authors is difficult—especially since Curbstone publishes so many debut books. We look for bookstores that have a strong literary tradition and the ability to promote their events, such as Black Oak, Chapters Literary Bookstore, City Lights, Cody's, Elliott Bay, and the UConn Co-op. Colleges and universities and their cultural centers play an important role for author tours since their teachers and staff are more on the cutting edge, not simply looking for superstars. Some universities that have been superbly supportive of emerging writers are Eastern Connecticut State University, The University of Connecticut, Mitchell College, San Jose State University, and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Once authors such as Luis J. Rodriguez and Martín Espada move more into the main stream, they get booking agents, and we inevitably see a very positive impact on sales.
Curbstone, or any non-profit, can serve as a stepladder to the major markets. Having an author picked up by a larger publisher makes us feel that we’ve accomplished something, that we’ve helped get our mission into the mainstream.
NP: You operate as a non-profit press. Do you recommend that route for independent publishers?
Taylor: Absolutely, if you’re publishing work that needs subsidies. I would be fired if I were trying to run a profit-making organization. Judy doesn’t like me to say it, but I sometimes comment that the goal of a non-profit publisher is to lose money intelligently. You’re not expecting fine works of poetry or first novels to return money, but you’re trying to preserve these books for the culture. Some will make it, some won’t, no one can predict entirely, but we look for the book that we think has important lasting value. From our perspective, we can do one of two things, maybe both things. If this book is the kind of literature that is valuable but won’t make the best-seller list, then Curbstone can serve as the author’s home, because his or her work may always need to be subsidized. On the other hand, Curbstone, or any non-profit, can serve as a stepladder to the major markets. Having an author picked up by a larger publisher makes us feel that we’ve accomplished something, that we’ve helped get our mission into the mainstream. I was at a publishers’ conference one time and one editor was saying, “I published this person’s first work and then he left me!” And I said, “The days of indentured servitude are over. I would love to be the one who helped a writer find a home at Random House. We’ve provided a service. It helps us. And it helps sell the books we have by that author.” Most small press publishers understand that. We don’t own the writer. We have a relationship that’s mutually satisfactory.
NP: In this year’s Oscar Awards, Larry McMurtry reminded his Hollywood audience to support writers and booksellers and said it was critical that we keep the “culture of the book” alive and strong. What do you think the future holds for the book?
Taylor: Larry McMurtry is one of those successful authors who have given back to the community. He has a great bookstore. He’s a gem, and he’s right. You define a culture by what’s left over after the junk of the civilization has been swept away. You hope that the people you’re publishing will last and that 200 years from now, people will still be reading the writers you published. God bless him for saying that. He’s just as concerned as most of us, even though personally he’s made it.
There are all kinds of factors involved in keeping the “culture of the book” alive, and you wonder why some of these major reviewers miss all the important books. Part of it is, of course, that they have to review certain books because of the advertising dollars spent by major publishers. That’s the reality of it. Book review sections are being told, “You’re no longer just here for the prestige, you’ve got to make money on your book section.” In the old days, book sections were a prestige item and weren’t expected to turn a profit. As soon as newspapers became sucked up into conglomerations, and the same happened in publishing, the expectations of profit from the entertainment field are being applied, so those book review sections are getting smaller and smaller. I don’t know what will happen to the Philadelphia Inquirer because Knight-Ridder is going to dump those [newspapers] that aren’t profitable. They’re going to sell off the Philadelphia Inquirer—who’s going to buy it? What’s going to happen to it? That has social implications as well because the news becomes homogenized. Even in local places, you’re going to know less and less about your own communities. One of the functions papers served was keeping a spotlight on what was going on. Connecticut has at least two mayors and a governor in jail because we have good investigative papers. And it’s not over yet. If nobody’s watching the store, if you’re getting all your news off the wire, then the book pages are going to go downhill very quickly. But even more important, socially, is that the culture is based on having access to information. In spite of all this, we still have major papers that pay attention to independent publishers, such as the Hartford Courant, the El Paso Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post.
On Sundays, I surf around the web and read the reviews, LA Times, New York Times, you name it. And many of them have exciting review sections. But a reviewer gets about 500 books a week. It seems to me a curious coincidence that they all review the same books. That’s the power of marketing. It’s the same with the chains. A buyer goes into the store and you have these books up front. Does the buyer know that the publishers have to pay for that placement? So instead of having the kind of integrity of the old-time bookseller who sold a book because he liked it, the book is featured because the publisher paid $4000 for that month. I tell people to go to NewPages. That’s the only review source where some of the smaller presses get a fair shake. What you’re doing is very important. We have the satisfaction that we may not have won the first round, but we won the match when some of our early writers we published were largely ignored by reviewers but went on to win major prizes.
NP: Where are your favorite publications for book reviews?
Taylor: Some of our favorite places for reviews are American Book Review, The Bloomsbury Review, Rain Taxi, Speakeasy, and the Virginia Quarterly Review. Among newspapers, I think the most interesting are The Hartford Courant, The Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post, as their coverage of mainstream titles is very good but they are also adventuresome and give good coverage to important literary titles from independent presses. And poetry would be in even sadder shape without these three papers.
NP: You’ve told me in the past that “relationships” are the key to survival in your business. Can you recount for me some of the relationships that have made this business worthwhile?
Taylor: There are a number of different relationships that are extremely important. One is with the authors. We make sure, to the extent of our ability, to keep those authors in print. We try to get them readings. We try to arrange paid readings. They can’t go running around the country at today’s prices. They can’t afford it. And we can’t afford it. So we do guerrilla marketing. We try to find them readings at colleges that will provide them with enough money to cover expenses. It doesn’t pay a lot, $500 here, $200 there, so they can actually break even or make money. But with debut authors, it’s pretty tough.
We’re also developing ongoing relationships with a number of universities. The University of Connecticut is very important to us, for example. The Puerto Rican Latin American Cultural Center there, as well as the English Department and several institutes, has been very important to us. They’re able to give these authors a little bit of money to come. Five-hundred dollars is nothing to sneeze at. We want to reach younger people, so this university connection is important, as well as our partnerships with public high schools. We’re now developing work for primary schools, contracting for more books, like Luis J. Rodriguez’s America is Her Name, so we can help develop a future generation of avid readers. We give books to the high school students in Windham through a grant from United Way. Every student in that program gets a free book and reads it before the author comes in. The author signs books, reads, and holds writing workshops. This, as one teacher said, has just been “magical.” These kids go out of the room hugging their books. The other facet to that is that many of those writers are bilingual. Spanish may be the dominant language in some of these schools. When you have discussions in Spanish, it makes the Hispanic students shine. The honors Spanish class suddenly feels behind. It levels the playing field a lot.
The high school programs promote literacy beyond the walls of the classroom. I asked one young woman, “Have you finished Marnie Mueller’s Green Fires?” And she said, “Well, I will, as soon as I get it back from my mother.” Students also shared books with siblings and friends. The head of the English Department at Windham High School told me that the books we donated were the first books some of these families had ever owned. We also try to develop classroom libraries. Many of these kids aren’t used to going to libraries but if there are books in the classroom...
Yes, these programs don’t provide income for the press, but the donation of books is supported by funding from United Way and the contributions of individuals. You ask about why we continue and this program is one of the reasons. It’s exciting to me. I wish a lot more publishers would do school programs. Teachers, students, and authors love it. Authors love having that kind of audience, sharing ideas with the kids. It’s just amazing to me. One of the kids said to me, “I’m going to be a writer, too.” It’s a way of providing role models for these kids. One of the most stunning things for me was when Luis [J. Rodriguez, author of the gang memoir Always Running] came to give a talk a few years ago. We went into the cafeteria to sit with the kids, and one kid came over and said, “You know, Mr. Rodriguez, I just wanted to let you know that I was going to join a gang this weekend, but I’ve decided not to after hearing you talk.” We wish that would happen 100% of the time, but if you keep one kid from going down a destructive path, it’s a victory.
Curbstone is also committed to community involvement. There was this empty abandoned lot across the street from Curbstone and the town was going to sell it. I have a friend Juan Perez, who’s kind of an unofficial cultural worker here, and he said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could make it into a park and name it the Julia de Burgos park?” So I said, “That would be great, why don’t you twist some arms at the Town Hall?” So he did and the city donated the land, and we did name it the Julia de Burgos park. This park was put together on a small grant of under $5,000, but it was a community project. Local business people gave shrubs and flowers, people bought trees and park benches. The whole town was involved in many different ways. So you don’t need a whole lot of money to get things done.
Every summer now we have a poetry series in the park. It’s the one place where there’s a real mixture of ethnic groups and classes. Attendance isn’t huge, 40 or 50 people, but the kids are out there dancing, and there’s just a great feeling of community. Some people from New York City came one time and said they wished they lived close enough to come all the time. They said they felt a great sense of warmth and sharing, that they feel really comfortable there, and enjoyed the way people mingled and talked after the reading. It’s another little victory. I think it’s really important for presses to be involved in their communities.
For more information about Curbstone’s books, visit www.curbstone.org.