“What keeps me inspired are the authors themselves.” Beth Spencer (Bear Star Press)
Beth Spencer is the founder and editor of Bear Star Press, which she started in 1996. Bear Star is “committed to publishing the best writing it can attract from the Mountain and Pacific time zones, as well as Alaska and Hawaii.” The press is a proud part of the “poetry renaissance” flourishing on the West Coast. Late Night Library has featured two Bear Star authors in the past year, Josh Booton on Late Night Debut, and Melissa Mylchreest in our September 12th Rookie Report.
In this week’s Late Night Interview, Hannah Vanbiber, Late Night Library’s New York City Editorial Assistant, has a lively chat with Beth about her unconventional path to publishing, her fiery opinions on the future of independent publishing, and some of her favorite moments as a writer and reader.
HANNAH VANBIBER: You founded Bear Star press in 1996. What got you started?
BETH SPENCER: Call it a mixture of desire and delusion—the story of my life, really. There had been a round of layoffs at the college where I taught comp and the occasional lit course, and I found myself out of work. What to do? Why not found a poetry press? Pure madness, right? I actually thought there might be a little money in it—insert laugh track here!—and the work seemed as though it would be more interesting than, say, growing herbs, another harebrained idea I briefly entertained. I love to make things, had as an undergrad published a chapbook of friends’ work for one of my classes, and was also beginning to play around with some of the desktop publishing programs available then. I knew I could distinguish dreck from quality material, and CMOS was my friend. Voilà: Bear Star was born.
HV: What a leap of faith! You must have had quite a love for the literary world to take a stab at your own press. What drew you to publishing?
BS: Well, I should mention that I grew up in a house full of books, my dad was a writer (plays and political satire), and my mom is still one of the biggest readers I know, though she has had to shift to audio-books now that her sight is mostly gone. My parents encouraged my reading and writing from an early age, and I did well in English classes, but I didn’t particularly like college, so I quit after a couple of years, bummed around, and read whatever I felt like. (I was never a complete hippy. I almost always had some sort of job—maid, waitress, bookstore clerk, poker dealer, zookeeper, clinic worker, building inspector, you name it.) In my early 30s I finally finished college and got my MA. By the time I was laid off from my adjunct position my husband and I were living far enough from town that I cast about for something I could do at home.
HV: God, I wish we had time to discuss your life as a poker dealer. But for now, tell me how the press got going after you decided publishing would be your next adventure.
BS: Early on, a marvelous group of women I know held a fundraiser for the press that really gave it a boost. I begged two friends who are excellent poets to help me judge an annual contest. Also, my mom chipped in the prize money for Bear Star’s annual Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize for a number of years. Did I make enough to pay myself? No, but I found I liked the work enough to do it for nothing. (You may be wondering how I could afford to do that. I taught part-time in the editing/publishing program of the college that had laid me off, wrote part-time for the college alum mag, did some freelance editing and graphic design, and my husband kicked in on conference fees since he had a good-paying job.) Every cent the press generated went, and still goes, back into the press.
HV: Has the press changed since you first started? How has it grown?
BS: The press rolled out a chapbook for starters, but I wanted to publish full-length collections, too, so the second year I did that, and then for a while there was enough money coming in to allow for the publication of two or three books per year. In 2006, Bear Star published a collection of stories and followed up with others in 2009 and 2012. I would like to do at least one more—by a woman next time—before I quit the business.
HV: What are some of the challenges and rewards of being a small publisher today? What keeps you inspired as an independent publisher?
BS: The biggest challenge for a literary press like Bear Star, as I see it, is trying to sell books in a market dominated by Amazon.
HV: The Beast.
BS: People are finally beginning to realize what a bully it is, not just to publishers (which is why the Justice Department was completely backasswards in its lawsuit) but to its own workers as well. Jim Hightower has one of the best critiques of the company I’ve read [see link at bottom of interview].
However, [Amazon founder and CEO] Jeff Bezos has cleverly built an army of defenders by encouraging them to self-publish, whether or not they have any talent. Whenever anyone criticizes the company its army immediately brands them elitist gatekeepers and greedy bastards (publishers), useless middlemen (agents), or hopelessly out-of-touch snoots (editors). To them I say this: I understand how frustrating it is to break into publishing, but no one ever expects a surgeon to start operating without first learning how to use a scalpel. (It is true that a few of those self-published books have taken off and made their authors gobs of money, and good for them. I think I read, though, that only around 2% of them get anywhere close to rich, not that we’re all in it for the money.)
HV: I think my sister is the only other person I know who waxes so eloquent on the evils of Amazon. Obviously there’s a question some authors and readers always want to know on this subject…
BS: Do I sell Bear Star’s books on Amazon? I wish I didn’t have to, but unless the literary community acts together to pull their wares from the site my authors lose since the public still isn’t educated widely—yet!—enough about alternatives. I have talked to some other publishers and also to the head of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses about the idea of banding together to take our business elsewhere, but the will is not there at this point. And once again Amazon has figured out a way to protect itself, this time by doling out grants to literary organizations and presses, in essence shutting them up. Maybe not all the way up, but still … If Amazon really cared about literature it would offer terms similar to those publishers have enjoyed with brick and mortar stores. This will probably never happen. (I have a fantasy in which Bezos visits one of the company warehouses that employs drones and is accidentally put out of commission when one of them drops an OED on his head.)
Meanwhile, I wish more people realized there are alternatives to buying there (actual stores, y’all, plus IndieBound, Powells.com, Small Press Distribution, and, in many cases, directly from the publisher). I would like to note here that Amazon rakes off 55% of the retail price and I have to pay freight on top of that, so it’s really a lousy deal for the press.
HV: A lot of doom and gloom is circulating in the publishing industry these days – clickbait stories about the end of writing as we know it, etc. How do you keep your head up in all this?
BS: What keeps me inspired are the authors themselves. I love their work! It’s immensely gratifying to take a manuscript and work with the author to fashion it into a book I can send out into the world. I also like being part of a community of editors and publishers, a vibrant and quirky group if ever there was one.
HV: So, speaking of those authors! What are you looking for in a poetry submission? Fiction?
BS: Ah, yes, the old question that’s close to impossible to answer. Of course I want the writing to be good. That is, I want it to be smart, for it to move me on some level, to pull me into its constructed world so that I am walking around in it, breathing it in. I like to be seduced by strangeness or wit, to feel when I have laid aside a manuscript that I have been changed at the cellular level. This goes for fiction and poetry both. I do try to meet a poem or story on its own terms and am rather loathe to try to impose my own vision upon it, but one of the perks of being my own boss is that I only publish work I like. I am not sure I would fare well in a regular publishing house.
HV: OK, last question. You have a completely free afternoon. It’s cold and rainy outside. You have a couch, a warm fire, and a cup of tea – do you drink tea?? Coffee?? Anyways, what’s your go-to reading?
BS: I love this question. You’ve described my life, at least in winter where I live, in the foothills at 3000’. Sometimes there’s even snow. I start my day with very black coffee, but in the afternoon I move to green tea (or a current favorite, white peony), and there’s often a little saucer of chocolate-covered almonds or espresso beans to go with. If I’m not reading manuscripts or some journal, there’s a pile of books waiting (some are on my iPad). I tend to read several at a time. Right now I’m reading manuscripts, also Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (novel), Precarious by Allan Peterson (I thought his last book of poems, Fragile Acts, was brilliant), Loitering (essays) by Charles D’Ambrosio, and some food-oriented books: Eating on the Wild Side by Jo Robinson and Jam Today Too by Tod Davies. And I am still haunted by a story in last week’s New Yorker: “The Empties” by Jess Row. I hope he makes it part of a novel.
Bear Star Press
Late Night Debut with Bear Star author Josh Booton
Rookie Report with Bear Star author Melissa Mylchreest
Amazon’s treatment of its own workers
Jim Hightower’s critique of Amazon’s predatory practices
Alternatives to Amazon for online book orders: IndieBound, Powells.com, Small Press Distribution
Armed with a B.A. in English, Hannah Vanbiber has been working in publishing for three years. Favorite books include Too Late the Phalarope, The Secret Garden, and East of Eden.